Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book review: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

This very interesting book examines how people perceive music. Dr. Sacks looks at how the human brain absorbs music, and he tells interesting tales about the musical abilities of people with perfect pitch and people who "see" musical notes and keys as colors in their own mind. Also fascinating are Sacks' stories of people who have suffered brain injuries and strokes and the effects these have on their ability to perceive music. One of the interesting bits of information is the research finding that upwards for 50 percent infants with a severe visual impairment compensate with extraordinary hearing and musical comprehension, including developing perfect pitch. Sacks' stories come from interviews with patients and with a wide range of musicians, and also with doctors and psychologists working on the cutting edge of neurological research. This book is full of interesting tidbits about music and science and is recommended to anyone interested in the science behind music.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Essential Magic Slim and the Teardrops (Blind Pig, 2007)

Guitarist and singer Magic Slim and his band The Teardrops play a brand of old-school Chicago blues that will warm any blues purist's heart. Slim moved up to Chicago from Mississippi with his friend Magic Sam (hard to get a better pedigree than that) and worked his way up through the scene to his current role as distinguished elder. This disc compiles highlights from his last six albums and makes a perfect introduction to his burly, gutsy electric blues. Slim's guitar spits fire on the stomping “Going to Mississippi” and the band keeps the party going with a funky version of the Wilson Pickett popularized “Mustang Sally.” “Black Tornado,” the title track of a previous album is a cool country flavored instrumental which shows the band's range in material. Slim and the band seem most comfortable with high tempo cookers, and those wisely dominate this disc, but there is a lengthy slow blues in “Please Don't Dog Me.” Magic Slim keeps to the time-honored themes of the blues, but he throws in enough twists and turns to keep things to keep the music consistently enjoyable. Couple that with this disc being budget priced make this highly recommended.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

New podcast up! This podcast contains examples of some of the music I have been enjoying over the past month or so. Here's the setlist:

Anat Cohen - Samba De Orfeu/Struttin' With Some Barbecue
William Parker - Gilmore's Hat
Roni Ben-Hur - Recardo Bossa Nova
Bruce Springsteen - Radio Nowhere
Rufus Harley - Bagpipe Blues
Neil Young - Boxcar
Jay Azzolina - Exit Strategy
Radiohead - Bodysnatchers
Joe Morris - Rebus 3
Iron & Wine - White Tooth Man
Lucky Thompson - Choose Your Own
Joe Louis Walker - One Time Around

Click here to get your own player.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Alan Pasqua - The Anti-Social Club (Cryptogramophone, 2007)

Keyboardist Alan Pasqua is joined on this interesting all original program of thinking man's fusion by Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Jeff Ellwood on saxophones, Nels Cline on guitars, Jimmy Haslip on bass, Scott Amendola on drums and Alex Acuna on percussion. There is a big Miles Davis vibe running through the album and the group builds its improvisations on the music that Davis pioneered from 1969-75. The title track opens the album with a lengthy improvisation recalling Davis' In A Silent Way. The musicians sound tentative at first but then really dig in, particularly Ellwood who gets a nice feature. "George Russell" is Pasqua's tribute to the noted jazz composer and theorist which mines a complex funky groove. The leader takes a fine acoustic piano solo before switching back to electric to back a wild flight of guitar fancy from Cline. The middle section of the album is where things really move into overdrive. As can be imagined from the title, "New Rhodes" is a feature for Pasqua's electric piano, which alternately stabs and smears as the occasion calls. "Fast Food" goes deep into electric Miles Davis territory, frog-marched inexorably forward by Amendola's caveman stomp on drums. I've been listing heavily to the Davis On the Corner Sessions boxed set and this track wouldn't sound out of place on that collection. "Wicked Good" channels an updated Bitches Brew groove with subtle percussion and electric piano. "Prayer" with its plaintive trumpet work and "Message to Souls Departed" are shorter ballads that add some textural abstraction to the proceedings. This was a very good album of thoughtful and adventurous music that combines different elements of the jazz spectrum in an intelligent and innovative whole.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Anat Cohen - Noir (Anzic, 2007)

Clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen has burst upon the jazz scene this year, releasing two albums and receiving much press including a lengthy NPR feature. This album finds her sensual reed work backed by a large orchestra, hearkening back to the swing era for their influences, the band mixes the modern with the classic to generally good results. Cohen is front and center and plays very well. Her tenor saxophone is brawny and tough on "Do It" a rollicking track with the orchestra riffing and Cohen leading with a gutsy solo. "Cry Me A River" is a sweet clarinet feature, with an orchestral backdrop. "Samba De Orfeu/Struttin' With Some Barbecue" evolves into a wonderful Dixieland flavored hoedown, as could be expected on one of Louis Armstrong's favorite tunes, and it has great feeling and excitement. At times ponderous string arrangements threaten to pull the ballads into murkiness, but "You Never Told Me" overcomes this with the orchestra parting and allowing some nice billowing tenor saxophone to shine through. She sounds like she has been absorbing a lot of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster and she has developed a powerful yet subtle tone on ballads. This is an impressive debut for Anat Cohen, her tenor saxophone work was dark and powerful and her clarinet work light and airy. That arrangements weren't always to my taste, but regardless anyone interested in the swing legacy of jazz will enjoy the music here.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II (Reprise, 2007)

One of music's great eccentrics, leave it to Neil Young to release a sequel to an album that was never actually released. The original Chrome Dreams LP was scheduled to roll off the assembly line in 1977, but was scrapped just before release. A few of the songs were cannibalized for other projects, and the remainder were re-recorded for release here. It's an interesting LP, hitting all of many of his favorite themes and styles in a typically idiosyncratic manner. There are some sweet country flavored ballads like "Beautiful Bluebird" and "Ever After," which will please fans of albums like Harvest and Prairie Wind, while the very lengthy electric workouts "Ordinary People" and "No Hidden Path" will please those looking for Young to plug in and rock out. The most interesting songs of the album fall in between those two poles. The haunting "Boxcar" is one of Young's most mysterious and beautiful ballads, focusing on the mysteries of railroads and hobo culture. "Dirty Old Man" does a one hundred and eighty degree turn from that, being a great give-em-the-finger song, a snarling rocker in the tradition of "Welfare Mothers" and "Piece of Crap." So there's a lot of variety on this album, with something to please almost anyone. One of the more interesting aspects of the songwriting on the album is the repeated references to spirituality. One might think that this might be Young's reaction to aging, except that most of these songs were written some time ago. The only thing that holds this album back from being a Young classic is the scatter-shot nature of the material. Despite several good songs, the album never coheres as a whole, and the two epics seem just a little too wordy. Just another piece of the fascinating puzzle that is Neil Young.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Roni Ben-Hur - Keepin' It Open (Motema, 2007)

Originally from Israel, Ben-Hur is a jazz guitarist and composer possessing of a solid rounded tone and fleet improvisational skill. In this recording, he is accompanied by Santi Debriano on bass; Lewis Nash on drums; Ronnie Mathews on piano; Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Steve Kroon on percussion. The album mixes straight up post bop with Spanish and Latin influences. The most impressive tunes on this disc were the wonderful version of Thelonious Monk's "Think of One" where the joy the band takes in playing Monk's music is palpable, and there are excellent solos from Ben-Hur, with a fluid, flowing tone and Matthews whose percussive attack adds a distinctly Monkian touch. The Mediterranean influences on "Eshkolit" and "Andaluza" are a nice touch. The former has a quiet flamenco like feel and some very nice Jeremy Pelt trumpet, while the later has a mysterious percussive feel. The fast paced "O Recardo Bossa Nova" ends the record on a fine note, with the playing fast paced and percussive. Ben-Hur's guitar tone is just a little dark and sour, blending in well with bowed bass and squeaky percussion. This is a good album of modern mainstream jazz, fans of musicians like Peter Bernstein and Kurn Rosenwinkel will enjoy this as well.

Keepin' It Open

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Odds 'n' Ends

My friend John e-mailed me saying that he will be filling in on the Friday Rock 'n' Roll Show from 11:00 - 2:00 a.m. on WNMC. He has agreat taste in music, so check him out if you can.

Taran Singh will be hosting his annual 12-hour live broadcast of free jazz & creative music from USA, Canada, Europe, Japan; live music, poetry, dance, noon to midnight Paris time, on October 27.

Book review: Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica (33 1/3) by Kevin Courrier
The 33 1/3 series takes great rock and roll albums and discusses them is depth. This entry concerns Captain Beefheart's avant-garde rock classic. Courrier puts the album in its historical context and discusses the genesis of the music, the recording sessions and the critical response to the released album. It's very interesting to read about Beefheart, an untrained musical polymath interact with his highly trained band and producer Frank Zappa. He drew on blues and R&B along with avant-garde jazz masters like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler to make a unique and original music. Beefheart was also a painter and a sculptor and this artistic viewpoint influenced his musical development. He was a bit of a tyrant in dealing with musicians and the recording sessions were always on the verge of breaking down, but somehow everything came together almost magically into one of the most unusual and fascinating albums of the rock and roll era.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Miles Davis – The Complete On the Corner Sessions (Sony, 2007)

This six disc boxed set tracks the 1973-75 studio recordings of Miles Davis, some of the deepest and darkest funk ever made. The music found here is much more diverse than the detractors give it credit for, drawing on rhythm and blues, avant-garde classical and world music, wrapping them all up into a cohesive and unique whole. Built around the rock solid bass grooves of Michael Henderson, the band also used a variety of percussionists to achieve its deep pocket. Despite often being unwell and exhausted during this period, Davis plays very well on these sessions. His trumpet is nimble and strong and his use of the wah pedal is subtle and interesting. His organ playing is fascinating, light years away from the traditional bluesy jazz organ, Davis often used the instrument to set up drones that added a haunting air to the music wherever it was used.
Highlights are many, particularly the tribute to Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly” where Davis uses the aforementioned organ drone to ground the music in unearthly calm and guitar and flute appear and disappear in the mist. “Red China Blues” shows that the band hadn't forgotten its roots and is the earthiest performance here, right down to incorporating an amplified harmonica. The center piece of this set are the tracks that were used to make up the original On the Corner LP. “Black Satin” and “Rated X” bring together a funky streetwise groove with added percussion and east Indian elements to create a nearly hypnotic mix. Miles trumpet often sounds dry and pinched on these tracks, fitting in well where his spacey, haunted acoustic tone of the past would not.
While listening to this and the other Miles Davis boxed sets from his electric period, Teo Macero begins to emerge as an unsung hero behind the scenes. While there was certainly a method to Davis' madness in keeping the reels rolling all the time, it fell to Macero to make the final edits and get the album out the door. When On the Corner was released it was perhaps the most reviled album of Davis' career, with critics decrying “sellout!” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. By listening to this set, it is clear that the music Miles Davis created during this period was dense, complex and way ahead of its time. Despite the high hopes it was ultimately doomed to never find a mainstream audience. Its only now that we can listen to it with fresh ears and hear the wonder of the sound this band was creating.

Complete On the Corner Sessions

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Stacey Kent – Breakfast on the Morning Tram (Blue Note, 2007)

Jazz singer Stacey Kent’s Blue Note debut is a highly polished effort where she is accompanied by Graham Harvey on piano and Fender Rhodes, John Parricelli on guitars, Dave Chamberlain on bass, Matt Skelton on drums and percussion and Jim Tomlinson on reeds. The music, sung in both French and English is gentle and unchallenging, focusing on the lyrics without improvisatory interpretation. The album is a mix of standards, new songs written especially for this project and pop tunes. I must admit that I am not a real big fan of very mannered jazz singers, especially those who do not embrace the blues, but I tried to give this one an honest listen. But I just didn’t care for it, for me Kent’s singing comes off as a little too cutesy and sweet, and the musicians, while obviously quite talented, are never given a chance to stretch out and blow. I’m sure this will go over well for whatever passes for jazz radio nowadays, and will be well embraced by fans of Norah Jones and Diana Krall, but it’s not something I will return too. No disrespect intended for Ms. Kent and her band, but it’s just too doggone saccharine for my tastes.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rock 'n' Roll Recap

Radiohead - In Rainbows (Radiohead, 2007) With all of the hype about the band self publishing their new album on a sliding pay scale, it's easy to forget that there's actually some music involved, and pretty good music at that. The edgy, paranoid techno-rock of their last couple of albums is continued here, with some flourishes of lush strings and acoustic guitars to break up the proceedings. My favorite track on the album is "Bodysnatchers" probably because it is the track that comes closest to straight ahead guitar driven rock and roll. The moody and acoustic Faust Arp takes an unusually skeletal structure and is quite successful. But the whole album is consistently good and really needs to be heard as one suite of music rather than as a group of individual tracks.

Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog (Sub Pop, 2007) Iron and Wine is the brainchild of one man, Sam Beam, who has gone from performing spooky and ethereal folk songs, to performing spooky and ethereal pop songs fleshed out with multi-tracked vocals and electric instruments. The songs are full of mystery and longing and Beam's voice is still as evocative as ever. All of the songs are good and consistently interesting, but the song "White Tooth Man" really stands out for me as an interesting departure from some of Beam's earlier music with the use of very insistent drumming and propulsive guitar. "House By the Sea" is fascinating as well for the introduction of some African rhythms which gives him a wider sound palette to work with. This is a very interesting and unusual album, I can't wait to hear what Beam's next move is.

Bruce Springsteen - Magic (Columbia, 2007) After listening to a lot of independently produced music of all genres it's quite a shock to hear the heavily produced and anthemic old-school sound of Bruce Springsteen. Part of Springsteen's genius has always been the shotgun marriage of the Jersey Shore bar bands to the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. That sound comes out loud and clear on the lead-off track "Radio Nowhere" with blasting overdubbed guitars and ominous vocal drone decrying the death of radio (thanks a lot, Clearchannel) and the compartmentalization of American culture in general. "Terry's Song" is a heartfelt tribute to a lost friend. "Livin' in the Future" amps up the bar band sound, recalling "Glory Days" in it's upbeat message. "Gypsy Biker" and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" reprise familiar Springsteen exploration of the American myths of "the road" and adolescence. So, while there's nothing really new here, his formula is so rock solid and genuine, that it adds up to another fine album.

The Shepherd's Dog

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jeremy Pelt – Shock Value: Live at Smoke (Maxjazz, 2007)

This is a document of a live performance by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt's electric band Wired in New York City earlier this year. Wired consists of Frank LoCrasto on keyboards, Gavin Fallow on electric bass; Al Street: electric guitar, and Dana Hawkins on drums. I think that the most successful tracks occur when Pelt plays a strong unmodified trumpet over a lush bed of Fender Rhodes keyboards, electric bass and guitar.The electro-acoustic sound achieved on the ballad "Beyond" and the slow building "Scorpio" display Pelt's trumpet chops and the nimble strength of the band without allowing anyone to overwhelm the music. His electronically processed tone just isn't as appealing as his acoustic tone, it hampers the expression of his trumpet and just seems gimmicky at times. This is what holds back the opening "Circular" and the lengthy "Blues." The music isn't bad, but this disc documents a band that is looking for an identity and a plan of action for the use of electronics in live improvisation.

Shock Value is available at

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Joe Morris - Rebus (Clean Feed, 2007)

I can't help but wondering if this album isn't named after Ian Rankin's fictional detective - one of my favorite mystery series (probably wishful thinking on my part). While the music doesn't echo the streets of Edinburgh, it does reflect some of the edginess and violence of noir crime drama. Morris returns to guitar, his original instrument, while multi-instrumentalist Ken Vandermark plays only tenor saxophone, arguably his strongest horn, and Luther Gray holds down the drum chair. This album is made up of six freely improvised untitled performances, which are simply numbered one through six. The first four evolve at a furious pace, with Morris sparking off shards of fragmented guitar, and Vandermark responds with squalls of saxophone, while Gray shimmers. "Rebus 5" grows more abstract with Vandermark blowing long smears across a choppy beat from Morris and Gray, before all three take flight in an intense collective improvisation. "Rebus 6" finishes things up with a lengthy improvisation that features long passages of Morris and Gray interacting well. Morris' guitar has always had a percussive element, so it is fun to hear him interact directly with a drummer. Fans of freewheeling, unfettered improvisation will find a lot to enjoy in this exciting and challenging music.

Purchase Rebus through amazon mp3 store.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Azine has a lengthy interview with percussionist Susie Ibarra:

"Right now I’m in the middle of finishing a commission , a drum concerto for American Composers Orchestra, which I’ll play in and world premiere at Zankel Carnegie Hall in October 2007. I have invited visual artist and painter, Japanese American , Makoto Fujimura to do the visual film for the piece. It is an homage to the indigenous people of the Philippines and Japan, and a bridge of cultures."

Francis Davis reviews the recent Sonny Rollins Trio concert for the Village Voice:

"Just the prospect of hearing Rollins once more forgoing a chording instrument, as he did on Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite way back when, would have been enough, but this was history in the remaking. Needless to say, the show sold out weeks in advance."

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Jay Azzolina – Local Dialect (Garagista, 2007)

Guitarist and composer Azzolina brought together some improvising musician friends for his new album of contemporary jazz. His plan for this LP was to move away from a set theme for the recording, and to record as the spirit moved him. Among the musicians joining him on this recording are John Patitucci on bass, Larry Goldings on organ, and Greg Hutchinson on drums. “Friends of Friends” begins the recording with a medium-up tempo featuring clean sounding guitar and very up-front drumming. “Between Thoughts” opens with snapping drums and moves into a fast paced complex improvisation with a more sour tone on the guitar. Larry Goldings accompanies lightly and then steps up the volume during his solo. “Angel’s Dance” is a delicate song of acoustic guitar and vocalese. “Acceptance” swing one hundred and eighty degrees the other way, with Azzolina’s guitar soloing over a drum machine. This is the only real out-and-out misfire of the disc. He sounds oddly detached from the phony beat, and the tune ends abruptly too, as if Azzolina or the producers realized it hasn’t happening and cut it short. It probably should have been left off the record. The disc wraps up with a couple of nice performances featuring organ and guitar. “Mind Your Mind” opens a swaying organ groove that is solid hard-bop organ jazz, with Goldings taking a more Larry Young like approach than a “grits ‘n’ gravy” sound like Jimmy Smith or Brother Jack McDuff. “Exit Strategy” finishes things up with a medium-up tempo (his most comfortable) with the organ rounded to accompany solos, and an active drums solo with guitar chording underneath. This was a moderately successful album of contemporary jazz. I thought the tracks with Larry Goldings playing organ were the most interesting, the band achieved something akin to the feel of the Grant Green – Larry Young albums of the mid 1960’s. It would be great to hear this expanded upon over a full album.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

William Parker – Corn Meal Dance (AUM Fidelity, 2007)

Of the many bands bassist William Parker leads, his Raining on the Moon group featuring vocalist Leena Conquest may be his most accessible. She has a pleasant and strong voice much like June Tyson, the vocalist of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Parker's lyrics are often based in real life issues and have a lot more relevance than the usual love and loss pablum found in most jazz lyrics. Rounding out the group are Rob Brown on alto saxophone, Lewis Barnes on trumpet and Hamid Drake on drums. This core groups has been together in many combinations over the years and know each other very well. Shaking things up a little bit is the addition of Eri Yamamoto on piano. “Doctor Yesterday” opens the disc with an expansive feeling allowing both the band and the singer to stretch out and interpret both the music and the lyrics. “Tutsi Orphans” is a serious and sad song about the Rawandan genocide where Conquest sings with deep regret and compassion. “Land Song” also speaks volumes about race and inequality, referencing slavery and the 3/5th's compromise of American History. I assume that the wonderful disc ending “Gilmore's Hat” is a reference to the tenor saxophone great John Gilmore. Rob Brown gets a lot of space hear to make a fine statement on alto, bobbing and weaving between the vocal verses. Don't assume that because of the heavy subject matter covered here that this album is preachy or cloying, nothing could be further from the truth. Parker's poetic lyrics are space and thoughtful and cause you to pause and deeply consider their meaning. This is a very good album from William Parker, whose recent music has been an embarrassment of riches. Accessible, thoughtful and profound, this album deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

Corn Meal Dance is available at

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Otis Rush - Right Place, Wrong Time (Bullfrog, 1976)

Strange but true and emblematic of the up and down nature of bluesman Otis Rush's career, this album was recorded for Capitol Records in 1971, who inexplicably declined to release it. The project sat abandoned for five years, before coming out on the small Bullfrog label and then making its way to its current home on Hightone. Regardless, it's a sterling LP of Chicago style blues with the leader's striking guitar and impassioned vocals front and center, bracketed by a punchy horn section. Rush is going all out on these performances, absolutely tearing into his original "Three Times a Fool" and smoldering through versions of "Let's Have a Natural Ball" and "Tore Up." Slower tempoed material has always made for the most emotional Rush performances, and this album is no different. Who would have expected him to cover the pop song "Rainy Night in Georgia", let along turn it into a smoky soul masterpiece. "Your Turn To Cry" wrenches out as much emotion as did his classic Cobra Records releases of the 1950's. This is one of the great blues albums of the 1970's and one of the highlights of Otis Rush's long career.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Joe Louis Walker - The Gift (Hightone, 1988)

Soulful guitarist and singer Joe Louis Walker began his musical career in a gospel band before moving into the blues. His career really began to take off when he signed to Hightone Records in the 1980's. He won a Handy Award, and eventually received a major label contract with Verve Records in the 1990's. On this album, Walker's stinging guitar and soulful vocals are right up front on a fine selection of material. The best tracks on this LP in my opinion are the up-tempo burners. Walker has a distinctive guitar attack and he really drives the cookers. "You Only Get One Time Around" and "747" dig deep and allow Walker to solo and testify. "Mama Didn't Raise No Fools" is a fine dynamic tune that has the group shifting gears and changing up the rhythms. "Shade Tree Mechanic" allows him to add some winking and nudging sexual innuendo to the music. Some of the slower ballad material is hampered a but by using dated 1980's "shiny" production, which robs the music of some of its power, but Walker and the band are usually able to cut through the murk and make a solid statement. Joe Louis Walker has been one of the most consisently successful of all modern bluesmen, and this is another fine example of his craft. The music here is tightly focused and very well played by a finely hone group. Fans of the blues with a thoughtful and soulful bent shouldn't pass this by.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Roland Kirk - Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic, 1969)

This was the last album before Kirk added "Rahsaan" to his name and his first to really integrate popular music into his his sound. Kirk is playing a battery of reeds and flutes (often at the same time) and he his joined on this album by Charles McGhee on trumpet; Dick Griffin on trombone; Ron Burton on piano; Mickey Tucker on organ; Vernon Martin on bass; Sonny Brown, Jimmy Hopps, Charles Crosby alternating on drums; and a choir on some of the studio tracks. Side one was recorded in the studio and the title track begins the record with Kirk testifying about Civil Rights and sexual healing, before moving on to the gospel flavored "Spirits Up Above" featuring a vocal choir. Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amor" has some very lyrical flute work, and then the medley of "Search For the Reason Why" and "I Say A Little Prayer" which focuses on some very dexterous combined reed work. Side two was recorded at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival and the selections include "One Ton" which spotlight Kirk's percussive vocalized flute playing, combining both mouth and nose flute, before moving into a multi-horn flourish to conclude. Kirk's "Tribute to John Coltrane" strings together "Lush Life," "Afro Blue," and "Bessie's Blues" and proves that while that Kirk was proficient with any number of instruments, tenor saxophone may have been his finest. This medley also has a fine piano interlude from Ron Burton as well. The band wraps things up with a rollicking version of the Kirk original "Three for the Festival" led by a rousing and passionate flute solo. this album is a fine example of the multifaceted nature of Roland Kirk's music, and how he was able to improvise well on both popular and jazz material.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Ben Ratliff - John Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (FSG Books, 2007)

Ben Ratliff is the chief jazz critic for the New York Times and his highly anticipated biography of the legendary saxophonist and composer John Coltrane is a sightly uneven mix of musical and social history. Ratliff's stated goal in this book is to not focus as much on standard biography, but to chart the evolution of Coltrane's music. It's a short work, broken into two roughly 100 page segments, the first being a just-the-facts-ma'am recounting of the evolution of his music, and then the second part the story of how the music he created has influenced others. Part one starts with Coltrane performing in a Navy band in the wake of World War II and follows the evolution of his music from sitting in with rhythm and blues bands in Philadelphia to performing in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and finally his big break, joining the Miles Davis Quintet. He touches briefly on the albums Coltrane made for the Prestige label and his apprenticeship with Thelonious Monk. Ratliff discusses Coltrane's Atlantic Records recordings in terms on the musical theories that he was using at the time, that is writing very complex and busy compositions and then contrasts that with the records he made for Impulse records, where the music was much more open and finally embracing of free jazz. Part two of the book looks at the enormous impact that Coltrane's music had on the musicians, critics and fans that followed him. Interviews with contemporaries like the Charles Tolliver and Charles Moore (particularly the quote from an incendiary letter Moore wrote in the wake of a controversial review of Coltrane by the trumpeter Don Ellis) are important in humanizing the story and keeping it from drifting into purely dry analysis. The book ends by charting Coltrane's influence amongst younger jazz players, who are a generation or two removed from direct influence. An interview with the saxophonist Marcus Strickland is particularly revealing, showing how Coltrane's music is viewed in today's jazz environment. Ratliff is pretty successful in fulfilling his stated goal in charting the evolution of Coltrane's sound and the influence it had on those who followed him. He does break away from purely musical discussion at some points to mention Coltrane's drug use and Civil Rights issues. It's not the Coltrane biography to start with, as it requires a familiarity with his music and his basic story. Musicians may get the most out of Ratliff's musical analysis, but even the non-musician listener will find some of the quotes and interviews of interest.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sun Ra - Disco 3000 (Art Yard, 2007)

Art Yard Records has been doing some wonderful vinyl re-issues of rare Sun Ra albums, and this two-disc set marks their first foray into compact discs. This is now the complete concert that Sun Ra presented in Milan, Italy in 1978 and originally released as a Saturn LP. Instead of the Arkestra, this is an unusual small band consisting of Ra on a battery of keyboards, John Gilmore on tenor saxophone, Luqman Ali on drums, Michael Ray on trumpet, and June Tyson on vocals. It is very interesting to hear Ra in a small group context, and he's really playing up a storm on organ, mini-moog, and piano. He really dominates the musical proceedings, as opposed to playing and conducting as part of a large ensemble. John Gilmore gets a lot of space to stretch out as well, and he plays very well, and you can really hear his saxophone technique that influenced John Coltrane among others. Michael Ray sounds good as well, using smears and growls to punctuate his playing. The opening medley is entitled "Disco 3000" despite encompassing "Space is the Place" and other Ra themes. This sets the tone for the concert with freewheeling improvisation and spontaneous soloing.There are some really nice acoustic piano features for Ra in this concert as well, rare opportunities to hear him improvising in a piano trio format. The sound quality is quite good for an archival Sun Ra release and the packaging and liner notes are done well. This is another quality production from Art Yard who has set a very high standard and continues to live up to it.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

There has been quite a bit of interest in the news recently about the rock band Radiohead’s decision to make their album available for downloading online for whatever price their fans to wish to pay. There is some precedent for this; a few artists have tried it before with some success. It certainly puts more control in the hands of the musicians and the fans, setting them free from the label-driven marketing schemes which tend to be rigid and inflexible, and the RIAA’s sue ‘em first and ask questions later methodology. Most rock and pop musicians (musicians in general?) seem to make the majority of their income through live performance, or if they are lucky some endorsements or teaching jobs as well. Maybe what Radiohead is doing will set a new paradigm for music distribution away from overpriced compact discs (is it any wonder people use file-sharing systems when CDs are retailed at $18.99?) and toward computer delivered music that can offer many more things – lengthy liner notes (a lamented casualty of the CD era) photos, videos, etc. could all be added to downloads as perks. It will certainly endear anyone who does this to the public as a fan-friendly band.

I wonder if jazz and blues musicians could benefit from this practice as much as their rock counterparts. Considering that jazz and blues musicians often print discs in small batches on small independent labels and then face problems distributing them; allowing the music to be downloaded from the Internet would eliminate some of the challenges they face. According to press reports, patrons allowed to set their own prices for downloads have been paying a comparable amount to the regular download stores, and by cutting out the middleman, more of the money would go to the artist. There’s will certainly be people who will pay nothing, but they could have gotten the album from a file sharing service for free anyway. If an artist gave the record away for a suggested price from their own web site, then they could ask people to register with an e-mail address that could be targeted with an update when then the band was touring. There are fans that still prefer the physical object, be it a compact disc, LP record or what have you. I wonder if there are print-on-demand music publishers like there are in the print publishing field that could allow very small batches of CDs and LPs to be printed when fans asked for them. This is routinely done in the book business and the technology certainly exists to do so with music.

Regardless of the outcome, Radiohead’s experiment is sure to engender a great deal of conversation about the future of recorded music distribution, and that is a good thing. We’ve gone from 78’s to LP’s to CD’s to MP3’s over the course of about 60 years, so it’s clear that technology continues to march on. Some people have touted music rental subscription systems like Rhapsody as the answer, but I think that people like to own things and the issue of digital rights management and the inability of DRM protected music to be played on some digital music players creates even more headaches. An industry standard that would allow for the maximum amount of control in the hands of the artists and consumers would be ideal, but with most of the music industry dominated by a few major players beholden to their stockholders, that is an unlikely outcome at least in the near term.

Send comments to: Tim

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rufus Harley - Courage: The Atlantic Recordings (Rhino Handmade, 2006)

Primarily known as one of the few jazz musicians to adopt the bagpipes, Harley was a multi talented musician who also performed on saxophones and flutes as well. This collection re-releases the four albums Harley made for Atlantic in the mid to late 1960's. Disc One combines 1966's Bagpipe Blues and 1967's Scotch and Soul. On these early records, he covers fairly traditional material, from a haunting take on "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" to works more suited to his adopted instrument on "Bagpipe Blues" and "Kerry Dancers." The nature of the bagpipes led Harley to develop a unique droning style that gave a hypnotic near-Eastern feel to his music and also influenced that way he played the saxophone. Disc Two of this collection combines 1967's A Tribute to Courage and 1970's Kings and Queens, finding Harley branching out to embrace psychedelic and pop material. He pays tribute to the musicians and leaders who have influenced him, "About Trane " is one of his finest saxophone features while the bagpipes take center stage on the haunting "Tribute to Courage (JFK)." It is not surprising that Harley should compose a nod to Kennedy, for it was when he saw bagpipers playing during the late president's funeral procession that he hit on the idea of using them as an improvising jazz instrument. The popular material is very interesting to listen to with bagpipes combining and contrasting with swirling organ on songs like "Moon River" and "Eight Miles High." I found this music to be really enjoyable, the combination of well grounded hard bop with the exotic sounds of the bagpipes make the results irresistible. This is a wonderful collection of music, that highlights a true original who braved the scorn of critics to make a unique contribution to music. Rhino has done an excellent job re-mastering these out of print LPs , adding excellent liner notes and well designed packaging. Harley died in August of last year and this fine set will go a long way towards securing his legacy in jazz.

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Greg Tate's essay Black Jazz in the Digital Age has been making the rounds of the jazz blogosphere and is well worth reading if you haven't already done so:

"I've always thought of jazz as first and foremost a liberating and even post-liberated enterprise—a tachyon beamed future-sent Black cultural revolution in sound."

There's an interesting interview with Ornette Coleman at newmusicbox:

"You know, sound is just sound. Although in music tempered velocity makes a note sound like it has so many vibrations, I don't think of sound as being vibration. I think of sound being a way of expressing an emotion, especially coming from another human being, like talking. That's sound, isn't it? I hope so."

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

David Murray - Shakill's II (DIW, 1994)

This is a sequel to tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Murray's successful groove based album Shakill's Warrior. According to the liner notes, this was an entirely different session, not leftover performances from the first album. Joining Murray on this disc are Don Pullen on organ, Bill White on guitar, and J.T. Lewis on drums. Like the original, this record is a throwback to the days in the 50's and 60's when organ and tenor combos were the rage. The music is a sweet mix of uptempo swingers, grinding R&B and laid back ballads. Don Pullen's composition "The Sixth Sense" leads off the disc in fine fashion as an upbeat rave with waves of organ and tenor saxophone riding over a simple drumbeat. "Blues Somewhere" has a sweet blue guitar solo to open followed by Murray slowly ratcheting up the intensity before climaxing his solo in a high pitched squeal. "For Cynthia" is a nice ballad with a samba like feel and Murray soloing at his most restrained. The gloves come off on "Shakill's II" and "Crazy Tales," the centerpieces of the album. Lewis and Pullen lay down a stompin' groove and White adds sparks and accents, while Murray leans back and wails like an R&B sax barwalker. After all of that excitement, a ballad is a wise choice, and "One for the Don" is a soft and supple duo improvisation for tenor saxophone and a very "churchy" sounding organ. "1529 Gunn Street" ends things as they began, with a flag-waving uptempo grinder, ending the proceedings on a happy note. I found this album to be interesting because it is another example of how Murray and Pullen, both nominally associated with the avant-garde, were really multi-faceted musicians with varied interests and influences. Their nod to the great organ and tenor combos of the past was not ironic, they genuinely loved the music.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Lucky Thompson - Lord, Lord am I Ever Gonna Know (Candid 1690, 1997)

Lucky Thompson was a tenor and soprano saxophonist that bridged swing and bop with a fluid, breathy tone reminiscent of Lester Young. This album was recorded in 1960 with Martial Solal on piano, Peter Trunk on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums, but the music was not released until 1997 on the Candid label. The disc begins in an interesting way, with a recording of Thompson speaking on the perception of musicians within society. According to the Penguin Guide this was for a conference on Thompson's music that never came to pass. The music itself is very well done, the band is very comfortable and Thompson switches between tenor and soprano deftly. He is especially impressive on the unaccompanied "Choose Your Own" where he tells a compelling story on his own. Thompson has a particularly beautiful tone on ballads, "Love and Respect" and "Warm Inside" both feature his breathy and supple tone which is soft and patient but never cloying. "Say That To Say This" and "Scratching the Surface" show the group performing well at fast tempos, especially Solal who contributes percussive accompaniment to the proceedings. I enjoyed this album quite a bit, Thompson was a musician that I had read about a few times but had never listened to. Listeners who like strong tenor players that mix swing and bop along the lines of Don Byas and Chu Berry will find this music enjoyable.

Send comments to: Tim