Friday, January 30, 2004

There's an interesting article on Dave Douglas by Billy Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu in the new issue of the New Republic. The online version requires a subscription, but some kind soul posted it to the Jazzcorner Speakeasy's Speak Out section under the title "David Hadju on Dave Douglas." Here's an excerpt:

Douglas himself prefers not to call his music jazz. "I hesitate to use the word jazz now," Douglas explains, "because it's so fraught with tension. I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that a lot of people feel that some of what I do is not jazz, and if I can grow into something that's beyond a jazz musician, I would be perfectly proud of that. However, when I hear people use the word jazz in a way that I disagree with, I get this really angry and proprietary feeling of wanting to protect the word, so on some level it means something to me. When I see that someone is trying to limit what jazz can be and shut certain people out of the house, I feel that they're cutting an avenue of exploration and ingenuity, and I feel that it's bad for the genre, because the genre dies if it can't change. There's no artistic need to put a door on genres and styles, absolutely none."

I picked up Douglas' new disc Strange Liberation a few days ago, it's excellent, and I hope to post a review of it soon.

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My friend Brian P. leads an excellent modern jazz band in upstate New York. Use the link at the left to check out his full web page or this link to download free mp3's.

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Thursday, January 29, 2004

Albert Ayler’s final recordings showed him making a fascinating turn from the frenetic free-jazz that had marked his career up to that point to a renewed interest in the rhythm and blues music with which he began his career. In 1967, Ayler signed with the Impulse! label which had begun to sign many luminaries of the 1960’s avant-garde. His first record for that label contained some of the best music he ever made – live concert recordings from the Village Vanguard featuring the intense and amazing “marching band from hell” improvisations of “The Truth is Marching In” and the elegiac and beautiful “For John Coltrane.” The most recent re-issue of this material is a two-disc set entitled The Village Concerts.

His first studio record for Impulse was the equally impressive and intense Love Cry, released in 1967. Hooking up with Call Cobbs, Alan Silva, his brother Donald and others, Ayler revisits his classic compositions “Ghosts” and “Bells” and also introduces new compositions, some of which feature Cobbs on harpsichord rather than piano.

Things really begin to change with Ayler’s next studio recording, New Grass. This record (still not re-issued on compact disc) features Ayler singing and playing in a very rock and r&b influenced context. New Grass begins with “Message From Albert” as he tries to explain this radical shift in direction. The music of the record itself is an uncomfortable mix of gospel, r&b and free jazz. Ayler sings songs of spiritual enlightenment and universal brotherhood in a very high-pitched voice. These are themes that he had explored throughout his musical career to this point, and it’s a matter of debate whether he was truly “selling out” in order to look for a larger audience or if he had decided that this was the way he needed to present his message.

Much like Miles Davis’ radical change to electrical music during this period, Ayler’s change was equally abrupt. But just as Davis’ 20 minute jams from Bitches Brew had little chance of being played on the radio, Ayler’s gospel r&b wasn’t going to make a dent in anything other then free-form college radio so it’s hard to believe a selling out strategy. Ayler’s earliest roots were in gospel and r&b and he had become involved in different ecstatic religious movements in his search for meaning and peace in the universe so this may have been another path he was set on exploring.

To be continued…

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I'm being plagued by computer gremlins so posts may be a little sporadic over the next few days... stay tuned!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

There's a new concert available for streaming at the BBC's Radio 3 web site:

Rabih Abou Khalil

Concert recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Sunday 16th November 2003, during the Radio 3 London Jazz Festival 2003.

Band Line Up:
Rabih Abou Khalil - oud
Gabriela Mirabassi - clarinet
Luciano Biondini - accordion
Michel Godard - tuba
Jarrod Cagwin - drums

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Do You Recognize Yourself Here?

I’m sure that some of you have seen that famous little poster called “The Six Phases of a Project?” In case this escaped your attention until now, these are: (1) enthusiasm; (2) disillusionment; (3) panic; (4) search for the guilty; (5) punishment of the innocent; (6) praise and honors for the non-participants... he names the (7) seventh in the article.

Ah... the life of a music collector. This is for classical music, but oh so true for collectors of any genre.

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From Billboard:



In 1951, Miles Davis was blowing full-steam bebop with an incredible band when he settled into Birdland on three separate occasions for exhilarating performances that were broadcast live on Symphony Sid's radio show. A fan recorded them off the air and subsequently released two of the three sets as bootlegs that have since circled the world several times over. More than a half-century later, "Birdland 1951" -- a 10-track disc that features all three sets -- is officially issued for the first time. In these sets, recorded after his "cool" interlude with Gil Evans, Davis lets his bop flag fly high. He's fast, fired up and ignites a flame that sets his bandmates ablaze. Sonny Rollins soars on tenor saxophone, J.J. Johnson romps on trombone and drummer Art Blakey socks and thumps. The sound quality is lacking, especially during Rollins' solo on the second version of "Half Nelson," but it is forgiven, given the exciting performances.

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Another thread from the Speakeasy that I've been following with some degree of interest is one in which the posters discuss musicians who they felt used to be innovative, but are now no longer living up to their potential. This has got to be awfully tough to figure out sine we often have no idea what the goals of a particular musician are. Arthur's Blythe is one of my favorite jazz musicians, I love the pungent tone he gets on the alto saxophone. Lenox Avenue Breakdown is one of the highpoints of his career (*the* highpoint according to the Penguin Guide) but are we really to say that Blythe is no longer an innovator because he now enjoys playing standards backed by a piano trio on occasion? Music is a tough business and I think that compromises have to be made to secure performance and recording opportunities so it may seem that certain musicians aren't at the cutting edge of the music scene as they may have been in their youth, but when you look at the bigger picture, you see that there are more dimensions to the question.

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There was a link to this interesting paper on a discussion of a possible new Albert Ayler boxed set on Jazzcorner's Speakeasy:

Spiritual Unity and the Resurrection of Albert Ayler - Summer/Fall 2003. Essay concerning the construction of the myth and legacy of Albert Ayler. Written as part of an independent study project by Matthew Sumera with guidance from Professor Michael Molasky, University of Minnesota.

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Saturday, January 24, 2004

Late period Coltrane

I remember when I was first getting interested in jazz I found a record (or tape, the memory is a little hazy) of John Coltrane's called Transition. Cool, I thought, this is the guy who did My Favorite Things and played on those Miles Davis records I'd been taking out of the library.

Well, needless to say, I wasn't prepared for the intensity of the music and was really confused about what was going on. This wasn't the lyrical music of MFT or the cool feeling of Kind of Blue but the sound of someone who was seemingly in pain.

A few years later, when I knew more about the music and Coltrane's development I was able to understand the music better and come to enjoy most of it. The pain that I heard in that first record was real; it was the pain of the spiritual search that Coltrane was going through: reading different religious texts as well as books on physics and astronomy in an attempt to understand the universe in which he was living. Also the all to real pain of being in a racist society and the ongoing civil rights movement played a large part in his musical development as did the more tangible advances of free jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

Now I thinkt that Transition is one of the easier late period records to come to grips with... it truly is a transition between the classic quartet and the new band that he would put together with Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali. Other favorites from this period for me are The John Coltrane Quartet Plays and Meditations. The live records are still tough for me... I love Pharoah Sanders' playing on his own records, especially the drone based music of his 60's and 70's Impulse! Recordings, but his recordings with Coltrane are so harsh and unforgiving musically that it makes the music hard to warm up to.

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Friday, January 23, 2004

Frank Morey – The Delmark Sessions (Delmark, 2002)

I gave this one a spin for the first time in a while and was pleasantly surprised how much I still liked it. Morey is a bluesy singer-songwriter with a heavy Tom Waits vibe. It’s interesting that he turned up on Delmark to record, since that label is usually pretty purist in their blues and jazz offerings.

The Waits comparison is really hard to completely forget – Morey’s voice has the same whiskey ruined quality and the stones and bones percussion recalls some of Waits more recent work as do lyrical references like the whiskey’s been talkin’ not me… in the tune “Dry Up.” But Morey cannot be dismissed as a copycat, his music embraces the blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Lead Belly (apparently the Ledbetter estate prefers the two-word spelling) was well as the rough romantic streak and risk-taking of Waits.

If you’re a Waits fan or if you have a hankering for some unusual blues-rock with quirky lyrics, this is well worth your while. It does start to drag a little bit in spots, since the disc clocks in at nearly a full seventy-five minutes. It leaves you wondering a if Moery thought that this might be his one shot and he wanted to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. But the strong outweighs the weak and this is worth a listen.

Rating: 7.5

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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Someone started a thread about the different jazz magazines available on the message boards for All About Jazz. My pithy and intelligent (joke) comments were:

I think you have to take them with a grain of salt... there certainly are a lot of fluff pieces in the major jazz magazines, but JT does have columns from Gary Giddins and Nat Hentoff which are usually quite interesting.

Cadence is the only periodical that I subscribe to, I'll flip through the new Downbeat at the library (usually it doesn't take that long) and then flip through JT and Jazziz over a cup of coffee in one of the bookstores.

With the profusion of Internet sites devoted to music, I think it's difficult for the glossy magazines to cover all of their expenses. This is one of the things that lead to press releases being turned into features and the lack of edgy commentary in some of these magazines - they don't dare bite the hand that feeds them.

Send comments to: Tim

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Be jazz blog has the following scoop: "After an excellent Dave Holland concert, BBC's Jazz on 3 is now hosting a School Days concert, a group consisting of Chicagoans Ken Vandermark (reeds) and Jeb Bishop (trombone), the Swede Kjell Nordeson (vibes) and Norwegians Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums).

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I came across this on the AP newswire a few days ago... sounds really good, hopefully I'll have a chance to pick it up soon.

The Holmes Brothers, "Simple Truths" (Alligator)

The Holmes Brothers' righteous mix of gospel, blues and soul is as raw and sweet as can be on "Simple Truths." The music kicks, the singing is a classic mix of gravel and honey, and the material is outstanding.

Besides several original songs, "Simple Truths" contains a diverse group of covers, from songs by Collective Soul to Hank Williams, Bob Marley to Gillian Welch. It's a rare band that can take "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Concrete Jungle" and make each its own.

The band reaches its apex here on a gorgeous, shimmering version of "If I Needed You" by the late Townes Van Zandt. And that's much of the magic of The Holmes Brothers — the ability to get at the core of any song from any genre and yet render it original.

The Holmes Brothers are an undiscovered American treasure, a band that has produced jaw-dropping music for more than two decades yet remained on the edge of obscurity.

- Eric Fidler, AP Writer

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Monday, January 19, 2004

Sonny Boy Williamson I - Blue Bird Blues (RCA, 2003)

This is a disc of Sonny Boy Williamson #1, John Lee Williamson who recorded for Bluebird in the thirties and forties, part of RCA's series When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock and Roll. The original Sonny Boy was a harmonica player, singer, bandleader and composer of some of the most resilient blues standards of all time. He was an influence on nearly all of the blues musicians who came after him, whether directly by giving harp lessons to Billy Boy Arnold or indirectly through his songwriting which was covered by John Lee Hooker and scores of others. This is a very well done reissue. Normally I'm a little skeptical about reissues of material that's been around the block an number of times but this one really is worthy, they've done it well with solid song selection, notes and really superb remastering - it sounds like Sonny Boy and the guys are right in your living room!

This music presents Williamson in small acoustic band settings ranging from one guitar to a larger band that forshadowed the electric blues that Muddy Waters and other southern immigrants were bringing north. It's another fascinating and sad "what might have been" to think about what his effect would have been on the blues had he not been murdered right when the electric blues was just beginning to get started with the second wave of southern immigration and the emergence of the Aristocrat and Chess labels.

Classics abound... "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Bluebird Blues" and many others, all of which survive as blues standards today. Some of the band arrangements which feature acoustic guitar and the mandolin of Yank Rachell hearken back to the string bands like the Mississippi Sheikhs while at the same time looking forward to the future of the blues with Williamson's complex and sophisticated songwriting and harp playing. Williamson's early death in Chicago in 1947 and assumption of his name by the wiley old goat himself, Rice Miller, would briefly obscure the original Sonny Boy's contribution to the blues and American music in general. But with the re-emergence of his compositions during the rock and roll era he came back into the spotlight. If we keep getting well done re-issues like this, then he'll never be forgotten.

Rating: 10

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Friday, January 16, 2004

From The Blues Blog comes word that Adam Gussow, the harmonica playing half of the blues duo Satan and Adam has won the C. Hugh Holman Award for the best Southern literature published each year. The Society for the Study of Southern Literature awarded Gussow for his book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition.

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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Thanks to David who sent a copy of a book review from the Los Angeles Times for Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald; here are some excerpts:

In “Escaping the Delta,” Wald places Johnson in his
proper context, allowing us to hear him as he would
have been heard in 1936. More bravely, he confronts
the generations of White Blues Boys (most of them
boys, most of them white, including everyone from Eric
Clapton to the street-corner slide guitarist) who
commandeered and reconfigured the blues.

Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” is a much deeper
performance, perhaps his finest. It is also his most
churchy. He begins the recording with two moaned lines
and then sings “You better come on in my kitchen
because it’s going to be raining outdoors.” He employs
a growling tone that immediately, almost shockingly,
mimics the hugely popular gospel singer Blind Willie
Johnson. The preaching tactics could be a light-voiced
attempt to duplicate Son House’s huge sound, but I
think the echo of Blind Willie is deliberate. (Blind
Willie was never a blues singer, and the attempt to
recruit him as such in the recent PBS celebration of
the blues—why call him a blues singer? well, because
the producers think of him that way—was inaccurate and
even, by the standards he upheld, offensive.) Johnny
Shines says that “Come On in My Kitchen” could move
grown men and women to tears, as any passionate,
gospel-rooted performance ought. Wald notes that the
verses are fungible and generic. I notice that the
penultimate verse invokes a woman in trouble,
abandoned by her friends, and that the last verse
summons a vision of universal storm. Johnson recorded
a second take of the song, and though not as intense a
meditation, it ends with a verse about a motherless

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Thoughts on singers...

Jazz Times ran a cover article a few months ago about how singers were saving the jazz industry. Here's an excerpt:

Commercial success is an important feature when it comes to the dominant image we have of singers today, especially given the prominence of Diana Krall, Peter Cincotti and Norah Jones. As a point of friction, it may spend more time brewing behind the scenes than in plain view, but it occasionally bubbles to the surface. Referring to the rift between vocalists and instrumentalists that this perception has caused, Jimmy Scott is matter-of-fact. "The record companies did that," he says. "It's about the money." It's also presumed that singers have greater opportunities than their instrumental counterparts. As Kurt Elling has said on occasion, "I play the right instrument."

I've never really developed a taste for jazz singers. A distant respect yes, but they never seem to excite me in the way that an instrumentalist can. A few years ago, I saw Diana Krall in concert just when she was starting to make it big. She struck me as a very wooden performer, unable to draw energy from either the band, the music or the audience. Songwriting too, seems to be lacking... jazz singers are seemingly forever recycling the show tunes of the past. Yes, there is a place for the so-called "great American Songbook" but also a place for new songs... not the same damn love songs over and over!

The disc with a vocalist that I've enjoyed more than any other over the past few years was William Parker's Raining on the Moon which featured Neena Conquest on very June Tyson like vocals on titles like "James Baldwin to the Rescue" and the very beautiful "Song of Hope." This is what I find interesting, a challenging band and singer performing original compositions that do not pander to sappiness, but instead challenge the listener.

Send comments to: Tim

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Here's a really interesting article from Mother Jones magazine. Who's got the blues? 2003 is the "Year of the Blues." But as a music born of oppression becomes a feel-good soundtrack for white America, just what are we celebrating? by David Hajdu. Hopefully you'll be able to access it here. Here's an excerpt:

It is a question well worth asking these days--Whose music is the blues?--and it leads to others. Is traditional blues still an important part of African-American life, or has the music, like so many black creations, been co-opted by white America and corrupted in the process? How did the blues, a serious form of expression rooted in the hard life of a marginalized people, become a good-time music for moneyed tourists? What's left of the strange and unique power of the blues? Does the music have a future, or is it frozen in an idealized and commodified past?

Send comments to: Tim
Favorite David Murray recordings:

The Hill
Octet Pays Trane
Now is Another Time
The Long Goodbye

I've been a big David Murray fan for a while now, he has a raw, exciting sound that really appeals to me. Yes, he's made about a million records over the course of his career. Most of the records are good, a (very) few are clinkers, and some (above) are classics. What's fascinating for me is that the records mentioned above are in such varied contexts. The Hill is a trio recording, The Long Goodbye is a touching quartet tribute to Don Pullen, Ming and Plays Trane are octet recordings and Now is Another Time is a big band (phew!)

Not many modern jazz musicians have had the opportunity to record in such different contexts and Murray has made the most of them. Recently he's been involved in world music jazz projects like the Caribbean jazz of Creole and Yonn-De and the excellent big band project with Cuban Musicians Now is Another Time. He seems to have found a home with the Canadian Justin Time label, so here's hoping for more great music in the future.

Send comments to: Tim

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

There's a really interesting article in the Globe & Mail
Is Blue Note striking off key? By signing acts such as Norah Jones, Van Morrison and Al Green, critics are worried the prestigious jazz label has turned its back on its tradition...

Send comments to: Tim

Monday, January 12, 2004

There's some wonderful live Dave Holland available from the BBC's Jazz on 3 web site. Click on "listen again to the latest show." Here' the playlist:

9th January 2004

Dave Holland quintet
Recorded at the Barbican, 8th July 2003
Dave Holland, double bass
Billy Kilson, drums
Chris Potter, saxophones
Robin Eubanks, trombone
Steve Nelson, vibraphone and marimba

TITLE Last minute man
COMPOSER Dave Holland

TITLE Herbacious
COMPOSER Dave Holland

TITLE Make Believe
COMPOSER Dave Holland

TITLE Global Citizen
COMPOSER Robin Eubanks

Dave Holland solo
Recorded at Baltica jazzfest, Salzau, Germany, 5th July 2003
Dave Holland, double bass

TITLE 3 Step dance
COMPOSER Glenn Moore

TITLE Goodbye Porkpie Hat
COMPOSER Charles Mingus

Landmark recording introduced by presenter, Jez Nelson

ARTIST Charles Mingus
TITLE C jam blues
COMPOSER Duke Ellington
ALBUM TITLE Mingus at Carnegie Hall
LABEL Atlantic Records / Rhino

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Friday, January 09, 2004

The current Village Voice is running an article reviewing the two most recent Ken Vandermark CDs, and it got me to thinking about Vandermark and his voluminous output. I'vee enjoyed the majority of the music that I've heard from him, which isn't everything by a long shot. He's recorded in a multitude of contexts, the most well known of them being the Vandermark 5, which is a solid ensemble putting out music that skirts the borders between composed music and free jazz. The last two V5 discs, Free Jazz Classics and Airports for Light were honorable mentions for me in the best of 2002 and 2003 respectively.

My favorite Vandermark group is the Spaceways Inc. group with Hamid Drake on drums and bassist Nate McBride. This group came together in the late 90's originally playing the music or George Clinton and Sun Ra. Their first disc, Thirteen Cosmic Standards consisted of the compositions of these two musical giants, while the most recent one, Version Soul (top ten 2002) put the Ra and Clinton vision to work on original tunes to great effect.

I've only heard a little bit of some of the other bands he's in. School Days finds Vandermark and a group of contemporary Scandinavian musicians along with long time cohort Jeb Bishop on trombone. The vibes of Kjell Nordeson add some interesting texture to the music. Territory Band is an octet group which allows for more textured improvisation. This group has allowed Vandermark to continue is interesting in writing compositions dedicated to and influenced by visual artists.

All in all, this adds up to a fascinating musician who is able to look to the future and the past in equal measure. One can only hope that he continues to document his work in the future as extensively as he has in the past

Send comments to: Tim

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Bill Frisell – Have a Little Faith (Nonesuch, 1992)

Bill Frisell is an iconoclast and someone who has a penchant for experimenting. Not necessarily on the wild edge of music, although he has certainly done that with John Zorn and others. Frisell’s experimenting comes through investigating different types of music, from the roots and country that were present in recent albums like Nashville and Good Dog, Happy Man or world music of The Intercontientals (#1 album, 2003).

This was the record that first gained him recognition as musician who was willing to step outside of established norms and mix genres. What’s so fascinating about the music on this album is that it crosses over genre lines so easily, and diverse ones too – Aaron Copeland to Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Madonna are all represented on this wide ranging slice of Americana.

None of the tunes are played as parody either, all can be taken as face value as a broad investigation of the depth and width of American composition as seen through the eyes of a modern improvising musician. The melody of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is played in a keening country-like fashion which foreshadows some of Frisell’s more roots-oriented work. Muddy Waters’ “Can’t be Satisfied” is played as a good time rave up, with Don Byron taking Little Walter’s harmonica part on clarinet. Maybe the biggest surprise is Madonna’s “Live to Tell” which could be expected to come off as a joke, but is actually played straight ahead, right from the melody.

Rating: 10 (all time favorite)

Send comments to: Tim

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Gary Giddins has a column in the February 2004 issue of Jazz Times about some of the great re-issues that have come out during the past few months. He singles out Jaki Byard’s Last from Lennie’s as well as Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships and Stan Getz’s Bossa’s and Ballads: The Lost Sessions. I did a quick check on to see what the prices were for these discs – the Byard and Hill list at the full $17.98 price and the Getz is sold at $18.98.

I really think that one of the things that has led to the downloading crisis that the RIAA is involved in is the overpricing of CDs. The cost of making a CD is pretty low, and then while adding in the additional costs of marketing and whatnot bump it up, but not to the level where $17.99 could be considered fair market value. The squeeze is really on with the re-issues of material that has been down the pike before. OK, say I have a vinyl copy of Jazz at Massey Hall that I picked up when I was a kid, then I bought the CD in college because the vinyl was a little overplayed… and now a really nice new edition of the disc is coming out… do I spend $18.99 again on the disc? A lot of the majors make considerable amounts of money recycling their back catalog again and again… no A&R costs, no pesky “artists” or studio time to deal with, and plenty of gullible consumers to fleece!

The thing is that we all really want to support the artists, particularly jazz artists who record for smaller labels and make ends meet on a shoestring. But sometimes I just feel like quoting Johnny Rotten, “Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Send comments to: Tim

Monday, January 05, 2004

Quick Reviews:

Roy Ayers - Stoned Soul Picnic
Wow, I actually brought some music into work that wasn't universally panned. I always seemed to dismiss Ayers as a smooth jazz musician, but after hearing a cut of this on the radio, I couldn't resist picking up a copy. It's pretty nice - melodic rather than smooth, with a great band including Herbie Hancock and Gary Bartz. Standout tracks include the Laura Nyro penned title track and an 8 minute romp through Jobim's "Wave"

Rating: 7.5

Jaki Byard - Solo Piano
At his best, Jaki Byard had the history of jazz at his fingertips, whether it was playing with Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk or leading his own bands. This solo record was recorded in 1969 after he was part of the house band for the New Orleans Jazz Festival. The experience definitely stayed in has mind and "New Orleans Strut" is a stomping standout track.

Rating: 8.5

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Saturday, January 03, 2004

Couldn't resist heading off to the Princeton Record Exchange on a rainy Saturday morning...

Stanley Turrentine w/ the 3 Sounds - Blue Hour
Jacki Byard - Solo Piano
Ray Ayers - Stoned Soul Picnic

Thelonious Monk - Monk In Paris at the Olympia
Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland

Send comments to: Tim

Friday, January 02, 2004

Soul of a Man (DVD, 2003)

This was one of the films in the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues series. I caught a few of them on pubic television, and now that the library has bought the set, I’m going to watch them all in depth. Soul of a Man was directed by Wim Wenders and narrated by Laurence Fishburne.

This is a bit of an odd duck as far as music documentaries go, mixing reenactments, archival footage and live performance to trace the lives and careers of Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir. The film starts out with a shot of the Voyager spacecraft lifting off and traveling out to visit the planets. Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” was featured on the record Voyager carries representing the music of mankind. So, from outer space Laurence Fishburne in the guise of Blind Willie Johnson narrates the film.

Chris Thomas King plays Blind Willie Johnson in the reenactments as the film portrays the blind blues preacher playing for spare change and singing gospel blues. There is little information on his life and music and he died quite young, so the film quickly moves on to the story of Skip James winning a talent contest and being awarded a recording contract and traveling to the Paramount studios in Wisconsin. Later in the film there is some actual footage of James’ return to the stage after a 30 year absence after he was “rediscovered” by white blues fans in the 60’s and brought back to the Newport folk and blues festival for a triumphant end to his career and life where he and his music finally got the attention they deserved.

The film shifts rather strangely to a load of rediscovered film footage of the great electric bluesman J.B. Lenoir. Lenoir had a very distinctive high voice and wrote some wonderful songs in his brief career. This footage was shot by a Swedish film crew toward the end of Lenoir’s life and is really a sight to see since lot of bluesmen were not filmed at the height of their powers. Some of the color footage is of him dressed up in fantastic suits and playing, while there are also some intimate black and white sections of Lenoir playing solo and duo acoustic blues. I wish that this had been made into a separate film, J.B. Lenoir was an important enough musician to warrant a film biography and this archival footage along with more interviews would have made for an excellent biography, but we should be happy that this was released in any format regardless.

Various rock and roots musicians are called upon throughout the film to interpret the music of these three men. Some are more successful than others, particularly Bonnie Raitt, who has quite and affinity for the blues and sympathy for those who came before her.

Rating: 7.5

Send comments to: Tim