Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Billy Bang - Valve No. 10 (Soul Note, 1988)

I was very excited when the Black Saint/Soul Note catalog became available on eMusic, many of the highly recommended albums in the The Penguin Guide to Jazz are from those wonderful Italian labels. This album features Bang on violin, Frank Lowe on tenor saxophone, Sirone on bass and Dennis Charles on drums. The songs here are infused with the spirit of John Coltrane both explicitly with the lengthy version of Coltrane's own "Lonnie's Lament", and implicitly with the original composition "September 23rd" which features a lengthy spoken word track paying tribute to the master. The remaining instrumental tracks are very well played pithy performances - this was Bang's working band at this period and they were all very familiar with each other and played very well together. The sound of the group is alluring - Bang's swooping and sweeping violin combined with the gritty and bluesy cound of Lowe's tenor, and the elastic and ever shifting bass and drums duo of Sirone and Charles make it easy to understand why this album came so highly recommended.
Valve No. 10 -

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Danny Caron - How Sweet It Is (Self Released, 2008)

I have been getting dismayed at the lack of subtlety in a lot of blues guitar playing lately. Seemingly every guitarist wants to crank his instrument to ear-splitting levels and leave no note unplayed. So when Downbeat gave a short review to this disc, and remarked on Danny Caron's taste and restraint it caught my interest. Caron was guitarist and bandleader for the master of tasteful restraint, blues and R&B singer Charles Brown, and this disc carries on on that vein with a classy mix of ballads and blues. The disc opens in an exciting fashion with the uptempo instrumental "Zydeco Boogaloo" which mixes Louisiana gumbo funk with swinging R&B to good effect. The majority of the tracks here are instrumentals, mixing in jazz like the standard "Body & Soul" and the Brother Jack McDuff's organ grinder "Rock Candy." Vocalist Barbara Morrison sits in to sing a couple of simmering mid-tempo blues "The Promised Land" and "I Need Your Love So Bad" and an older track by Caron's former employer Charles Brown is featured on the late night blues of "Need Your Love So Bad." This was a solid disc of thoughtful and restrained jazzy blues. Fueled by the wonderfully swirling Hammond B3 organ of Jim Pugh, this is a classy tasteful disc.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Jonas Kullhammar - Salut (Moserobie, 2004)

Kullhammar is a prodigy in his native Sweden, as a saxophonist, composer and label owner. I discovered his music through some concerts that were recorded from European radio and then posted on the Internet. I thought it was quite good and vowed to buy some of his albums. This album was his debut, recorded live at the venerable Glenn Miller Cafe in Stockholm, and shows that his band is well versed in the free-bop, ballads and blues that make up today's modern jazz. He is accompanied by Torbjorn Gulz on piano, Torbjorn Zetterberg on bass and Jonas Helgersson on drums. "En Sang Om Karlek" opens this live album with a strong and energetic free bop performance. Solid saxophone and then a long piano solo followed by a bass and drums interlude. "Karleksvals" is a restrained medium tempo performance with mellower saxophone and mild piano. "Frippes Blues" was the highlight for me, a boiling blues that simmers through eight minutes of furious but never oppressive improvisation. Starting off with a snappy theme, the music moves into a simmering quasi-free improvised section. Abrasive saxophone is buoyed by the strong rhythm trio, and is followed by a fast fleet piano solo. Kullhammar is in complete control of his instrument and the band is with him every step of the way, breathing as one.
Salut -

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee - Blues Masters, Vol. 5 (Storyville, 1992)

I had been curious about the music of Sonny and Brownie, but unsure where to start investigating it. Seeing this was awarded a crown in the The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings, it seemed as good a place as any. The songs they cover are long time standards but they make them sound fresh. "Rock Island Line" and "Midnight Special" have echoes of Leadbelly. There are echoes of folk music and gospel throughout, and the two principals work so well together that it's hard to believe they were hating each others guts at this stage according to the Guide. Trading verses and vocals back and forth and making their guitar and harmonica mesh perfectly, you can tell that they had been playing together for a long time. The retelling of the "John Henry" myth is particularly excellent the the instruments approximate the woosh and clang of the hammer and the lyrics about that famous steel drivin' man are sung in a strong and stout manner. This was a fun disc to listen to and made a very good introduction to this famous duo. I think any fan of acoustic blues or folk music would find it enjoyable.
Blues Masters, Vol. 5 -

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Sun Ra - Horizon (Art Yard, 2008)

While touring Europe in 1971, Sun Ra decided to take his band to one of the places that had always inspired him: Egypt. Landing in the country, the band had no contacts and no instruments, but where there is a will, there is a way, and soon the band was playing well received concerts, like this performance recorded live in Cairo. Anchored by Ra on "tiger organ" and mini-moog, this was a strong band featuring the great saxophones of John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, and the vocals of June Tyson. This is a wonderfully inspired performance, evenly split between lengthy free jazz blowouts like "The Shadow World", an awesome near seventeen minute performance of blasting rhythm, and the abstract and daunting abstract improvisations of "Discipline #2" and "Discipline #8." Melody and vocals lead charming performances of Ra classics like "The Satellites Are Spinning," "Enlightenment" and "Space is the Place." The band is in wonderful form throughout and the sound quality is solid, taken from a radio broadcast. The Art Yard label takes its Sun Ra projects seriously, and this is wonderful music presented with great care and it is a treat for Ra fans.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jim Hall and Bill Frisell - Hemispheres (Artists Share, 2008)

Hall and Frisell are two of the most influential guitarists in jazz, and they both possess a unique tone and conception. On this collaborative project, they work in tandem and also is a quartet setting with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron. Hall's traditional approach to the instrument and Frisell's effects laden whimsy work very well together and they create effective music. The original composition "Migration" has trippy effects laden improv, sounding like something from Frisell's wonderful Ghost Town solo album. It is an interesting performance and has a unique feel, but at 15 minutes plus, it carries on a little too long. "Owed to Freddie Green" is a sweet tribute to the legendary guitarist of the Basie band, focusing on the rhythm that was his trademark, and "Family" has a mellow heartland Americana type feel. They cover several standards on this set, notably "Bag's Groove," which is taken as a bluesy exploration of the much loved standard, the two guitarists jamming together with aplomb. Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" takes on a haunted abstract feel, as Frisell leads the way, picking his way through the melody like a survivor through a rubble strewn field. "I'll Remember April" adds bass and drums to a classy performance, while "Chelsea Bridge" and "My Funny Valentine" are mellow and mild with thoughtful performances. This was an interesting collection of music, with the two guitarists in respectful collaboration rather than competition.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

John Escreet - Consequences (Posi-Tone, 2008)

Pianist and composer Escreet takes on some potent challenges with a very talented band. He is accompanied by David Binney on alto saxophone, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Matt Brewer on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. The album opens with a very ambitious and lengthy three part suite featuring some stout and powerful trumpet playing and a very potent and percussive piano interlude in the third movement. This is a powerful arrangement that also allows the musicians in the group enough freedom for them to interpret the composition as they see fit.The highlight of the disc for me was "Wayne's World" which gets appropriately Shorter-esque with an epic saxophone solo of knotty intensity, one of the best solos I have heard from Binney. "Dilema" ratchets down the intensity for a lengthy fender rhodes electric piano feature, and the closing "No Doubt" is a solo piano feature. I was impressed with this disc, for a young and up coming musician, Escreet acquits himself well in heady company and his compositions have a distinctively original and aspiring quality.
Consequences -

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Raoul Bjorkenheim, William Parker & Hamid Drake - dmg @ The Stone, Vol. 2 (DMG/ARC, 2008)

Anyone who follows the Downtown Music Gallery's entertaining newsletters knows that they enjoy progressive rock almost as much as avant garde jazz. So bringing together Finnish guitarist Bjorkenheim with the Heaven sent rhythm section of Parker and Drake seemed to satisfy both of these urges. Bjorkenheim has played rock, jazz and blues in many contexts and sounds thrilled by the freedom of this setting. The music of this disc consists of a lengthy improvised suite called "Lithotine I" which moves through several numbered sections seamlessly with the music shifting dynamically from loud to soft, and the guitarist showing his chops in areas from Hendrixian rock to abstract improvisation. Parker and Drake sound fantastic as usual, locked into each other on a near telepathic level, and responding to all of Bjorkenheim's shifts of tempo and feel. Things get even more interesting on the encore performance, "Lithotone II", where Parker breaks out the Shawm, an obscure European woodwind instrument with a high pitched and piercing tone, and he starts wailing Ornette style over Bjorkenheim's supportive guitar and Drake's drumming. It's a fascinating sound, something like an urgent Middle Eastern flavored dirge. I think that a wide range of music fans would enjoy this disc, not just the usual fans of downtown jazz but anyone who enjoys adventurous and open ended rock 'n' roll. With one of the best bass and drums combos in music behind him, Bjorkenheim makes a fine statement in a very enjoyable disc.
DMG @ The Stone; Vol. 2 -

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Princeton Record Exchange's blog gives another slap to the mainstream jazz press with their latest post: "This is the time of year when we look back, take stock of what was, both the highs and lows, and look forward to what the new year brings. Let’s start with the Top 5 Worst Jazz magazine Cover Stories of the Year, shall we?"

This has been an ongoing theme with their posts, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I am sympathetic with the poster's point that mainstream jazz magazines like JazzTimes, Downbeat and Jazziz are running an awful lot of puff pieces and thinly veiled PR stories. I've let my subscriptions to these lapse and just flip through the new issues when I happen to be at a bookstore. In my opinion, these magazines are doing themselves no artistic favors by running these stories, but it has got to be god-awful hard to run a print magazine in these times of Internet saturation and economic peril. I guess by running these types of stories, they have a chance to get some much needed ad revenue and have a chance at staying afloat. But the main problem that I see with the post on the PRE blog, is that the writer offers no alternative. He raises a valid and thoughtful point, but what suggestions does he have for the improvement of these magazines, and why does he continue to subscribe to them? Perhaps print magazines are like a relic of the past, and the three main mainstream jazz magazines are like the big three automakers - without a bailout of some sort they will not survive. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing... I do know that the "magazine" I await most eagerly is Point of Departure, so maybe niche-based Internet zines and blogs are the way to go?

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pi-Recordings has posted part one of an extensive interview with pianist and composer Vijay Iyer: "So it’s really about the individuals involved - what they have to offer, what their comfort zones are, what their strengths are, and what they are going to teach me, and how I can build around them to empower them to set forth all of that. It’s also about orchestration - exploring the full range of the sound of a given ensemble. Those are related, really, because the individuals are represented in the music by the sounds they make."

Big Road Blues has posted the second half of their lengthy review of the life and music of bluesman Sylvester Weaver: "It’s clear from this that Weaver was in charge of bringing talent to the OKeh studio in St. Louis for the session on April 29th and 30th. The jug band mentioned in the cable is Whistler and His Jug Band which had recorded for Gennet in 1924. The others taking part in the session were Helen Humes and the Kentucky Jubilee Four."

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best of 2008, Part Two: New Releases

2008 was an excellent year for music and the new releases that came out were an embarrassment of riches. The discs listed here only begin to hint at all of the wonderful music that came out this year.

Honorable Mention:
Ben Allison - Little Things Rule the World
Tony Malaby - Tamarindo
Elmore James Jr. - Daddy Gave Me the Blues
The Black Keys - Attack and Release
R.E.M. - Accelerate
Bill Frisell - History, Mystery
Nick Cave - Dig! Lazaurs! Dig!
Elvis Costello - Momofuku
David Murray and Mal Waldron - Silence
Vijay Iyer - Tragicomic
Dr. John - City That Care Forgot
Atomic/School Days - Distil
Magic Slim - Midnight Blues
Atomic - Retrograde
McCoy Tyner - Guitars
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith - Born In Arkansas
Doug MacLeod - The Utrecht Sessions
Mostly Other People Do the Killing - This is Our Moosic

10. Steven Bernstein - Diaspora Suite: The latest chapter of this ongoing series explores territory opened up by the likes of Miles Davis's 1970's improvisational funk bands and John Zorn's Electric Masada.

9. William Parker - Petit Oiseau: A wonderful working band creating thoughtful and exciting music.

8. Donny McCaslin - Recommended Tools: A muscular and deeply rhythmic saxophone trio that recalls Sonny Rollins' great pianoless trio recordings.

7. Joe Louis Walker - Witness to the Blues: Combining old school gutbucket blues with Walker's own roots in gospel and soul, he creates music that is both traditional and unique.

6. Orchestra Baobab - Made in Dakar: A longstanding band from Senegal that combines local music styles with Caribbean music as well as R&B, they create a hypnotic blend of musical styles.

5. Vandermark 5 - Beat Reader:
Continues their tradition of frenetic improvisation interspersed with slower more abstract songs, all dedicated to fellow musicians and artists.

4. James Carter - Present Tense: With gimmicks and concepts wisely cast aside, this album successfully presents James Carter as an all around musician, proficient not just a number of different reed instruments, but comfortable in all tempos and situations.

3. Fieldwork - Door: A cooperative band made up of a rotating cast of some of the best players in modern experimental jazz, this is heady stuff from talented musicians, and the music is very exciting to listen to.

2. Rudresh Mahanthappa - Kinsmen: Compiling music from across multiple cultures and melding them in the all encompassing crucible that is modern jazz, Mahanthappa and his comrades have created thoughtful and memorable music that is very well executed.

1. Anthony Braxton, Milford Graves & William Parker - Beyond Quantum: Not as cerebral as the usual "composed" Braxton project, this one is strictly a blowing session and there is extraordinary collective improvisation present.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best of 2008, part one - Historical and Reissues

Another year of great music has come and gone, and with each passing year it gets harder and harder to narrow down the best of a given year. With jazz and blues having such a rich and deep history that is continually being reinvented and reissued by record labels, especially European labels not bound by strict copyright, it is difficult to even scratch the surface, but here are the ten (plus one) albums that made a deep impression on me in 2008.

Honorable Mention. Anthony Braxton - The Complete Arista Recordings: I haven't had enough time to absorb this massive seven disc set, but what I have listened to has been very interesting. Drawing on free-bop, classical and modern composition, the music is all over the map from solos to large orchestra. As always Mosaic includes a wonderful booklet and top-notch remastering.

10. Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool: Funny and intelligent pub rock coming out in the height of punk and disco pretty much guaranteed that it would be ignored, but upon re-release it's a wonder of wit and snide humor.

9. The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium: Blasting out their punk anthems before a massive stadium audience while opening for The Who, the band's populism comes shining through.

8. Bill Frisell - Rambler: Given a budget re-issue as part of ECM's Touchstones series, this is the most distinctive of the guitarist's early albums. Adding trumpet and tuba to the lineup gives the music a distinctive and enigmatic feel.

7. R.E.M - Murmur (Deluxe Edition): Mumbled lyrics, strummed guitars and powerful percussion gave this album a mysterious context, and here it is remastered beautifully with an extra disc of live recordings from the period.

6. Sun Ra - Some Blues, But Not The Kind That's Blue: The Ra archive is nearly bottomless and this rare small group LP from the 70's gets a fine reissue from Atavistic with good remastering and liner notes.

5. Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath - Eclipse at Dawn: An archival live release from this great progressive big band of South African expats and British jazzers. A potent mix of township jive, free jazz and Ellingtonian big band music.

4. Sonny Rollins - Road Shows, Vol. 1: First in what will hopefully be a long running series of live highlights from the great saxophonist. His solos have a supernova like brilliance.

3. John Zorn, et. al. - News for Lulu: Who says free jazzers can't play bop? Zorn leads a respectful and creative tribute to Sonny Clark, Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley.

2. Lester Young - The Lester Young/Count Basie Sessions 1936-1940: This material had been scattered on a number of LP and CD releases, but Mosaic does everyone proud by putting it all in order with stellar remastering and historical notes.

1. Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: It's a little intimidating to think that Dylan's outtakes and unreleased music is better than most people's masters. Bookended by some scalding live blues, this set charts his resurgence in the 1990's with great music and liner notes.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Doug MacLeod - The Utrecht Sessions (Black & Tan, 2008)

Guitarist and vocalist MacLeod had to travel far and wide in order to cut this deep, meditative and thoughtful album of acoustic blues. Touching on delta, folk blues and gospel, his music and lyrics are deeply understated and gain a quiet power from it. "Sheep of a Different Color" is a very interesting "blues and the news" song about how politicians have abandoned the common people in America, from Katrina to California, with the stinging lyrics sung over a deep dark and ominous groove. "This Old River" and "I Respectfully Decline" are deeply personal blues looking into death, mortality and family. "Where You'll Find Me" is also a poignant and emotional song, MacLeod really bears his heart on his sleeve on these songs, which are deeply emotional and very effective. "The Demon's Moan" is a very good performance as well, with his deeply affected voice matched by his wailing and keening guitar. The mystery of this song is also matched by the opener "Horse With No Rider." MacLeod treats his listener with respect and the music here is genuine and it's true meaning is revealed with repeated listenings. With the blues scene studded with Stevie Ray wannabes, with their amps cranked up to eleven, it's great and refreshing to hear a bluesman take the time to tell well thought stories over an intricate acoustic groove.
The Utrecht Sessions -

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

There was a very nice post on the Princeton Record Exchange's blog about a concert by the trumpeter Ron Horton, honoring the music of Andrew Hill: "The musicians at Friday’s concert were something of an all-star group on the current scene: Ron Horton, trumpet/flugelhorn, Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, Ben Allison, double-bass, Frank Kimbrough, piano, and, Tim Horner, drums. Tony Malaby on sax was originally scheduled to perform, but the audience was told that he had a “medicial emergency” and could not appear."

Big Road Blues has a wonderful profile including several mp3's of early bluesman Sylvester Weaver: :The man who introduced the guitar on record was the remarkable guitarist Sylvester Weaver, a man of many talents who cut a significant body of work at the dawn of the blues recording era but remains little remembered today."

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mance Lipscomb - Texas Songster (Arhoolie, 1960)

Much like Lead Belly, Lightnin' Hopkins and the other great song collecting bluesmen before him, Lipscomb remade all of the music heard whether it was blues, folk, country music or anything else until it had his unique stamp on it. Using swift and dexterous guitar playing and strong and gutsy singing he adapted traditional tunes like "Jack o' Diamonds" into songs that reflected his life and times. He seems like an amicable fellow, but the tough times in which he lived are reflected in the lyrics he sings, which aren't short of violence, especially toward the women who do him wrong and then face a shooting or beating in retaliation. Other timeless tunes like "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and "Motherless Children" are spun out effortlessly before a live and appreciative audience, recorded at Lipscomb's own house in Texas. This was a very interesting disc to listen to, not only for the music which is top notch, but to hear how all the different forms of American music are able to be grafted and adapted by a master musician into something special and unique to his time and place. Singing about life, death and love, Lipscomb provides a unique window into the hardscrabble life of a farmer musician in the American south.
Texas Songster -

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Atomic - Feet Music (Jazzland, 2002)

The collaborative group Atomic is one of the standard bearers of the Scandinavian jazz scene, playing fresh as paint modern jazz, scouting out the twilight borderlands between post bop and free jazz. Composed of Magnus Broo on trumpet, Fredrik Ljungkvist on saxophones, Havard Wiik on piano, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, they are the who's who of the Norweigian and Swedish jazz scene. Their debut disc features well thought out ensemble playing at a variety of tempos, especially on the burning free bop of "Den flyktiga Magneten." The piano work of Wiik takes center stage on "Prayer" capably supporting the horns and then making a fine solo statement himself. Strong pianism also underpins "Fifth Cirlce" the dancing keyboard supported by agile drumming. Everything comes together on the disc ending blowout "Krilons Resa" featuring explosive trumpet and saxophone solos. Despite a number of powerful solos throughout the record, what makes this album and group so powerful is the potent group work effort.
Feet Music -

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paul Motian Trio 2000 + Two - Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2 (Winter and Winter, 2008)

Drummer Paul Motian has been on a tear recently, releasing excellent music as a leader, co-leader or sideman on a variety of labels. His Winter and Winter recordings usually focus on his Electric Bebop Band, but this is a special group with EBB veterans and some ringers as well. Joining Motian are Mat Maneri on viola, Greg Osby on alto saxophone, Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, Masabumi Kikuchi on piano and Larry Grenadier on bass. The music is fascinating to listen to because much of the message is implied rather than impressed upon you. The group is truly creating in the moment, and this is best shown by the track "Sunflower" which is strong, bracing jazz where deep, dark chords from the piano and shifting, ever changing percussion make for a deep and challenging performance. "Fiasco" has an edgy cacophonous feel to is with the addition of Osby and Maneri adding additional colors and textures to the music. The band skirts on the edge of anarchy, but it never slips into chaos, remaining turbulent and exciting throughout. This is a very good set of exciting, strong jazz. The dark lush piano playing by Kikuchi was particularly impressive as was the leader's drumming, he rarely slips into a traditional backbeat or solo, but drives the band with a firm hand, directing the music with subtle shifts of rhythm.
Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2 -

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Angelica Sanchez - Life Between (Clean Feed, 2008)

Pianist Angelica Sanchez's debut album Mirror Me was the first album I reviewed on this blog over five years ago (!) so I was excited to see that she had a new album out. On this disc she is joined by Tony Malaby on tenor saxophone, Drew Gress on bass, Marc Ducret on guitar, and Tom Rainey on drums. It's interesting to hear Ms. Snachez add electric piano to her repertoire on this album, because the addition of that sound and the guitar work of Drucet give the music some interesting added texture and context. "SF 4" builds slowly, opening gradually to a surprisingly powerful performance led by stinging guitar and powerful drumming. "514" uses the fender rhodes piano to good effect, along with some strong, dark and knotty saxophone and an elastic sounding guitar solo that stretches and compresses the music. The ominous "Black Helicopters" opens slowly with acoustic piano and probing saxophone, before moving into an urgent section with wildly strummed guitar, strong free blowing tenor saxopnone and percussive piano. The group gets a patient, thoughtful and wide open sound throughout this disc. The musicians show admirable restraint, performing music that slowly gives up its secrets over repeated listenings.
Life Between -

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Bonnie Raitt - (self titled) (Warner Bros., 1971)

These days guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt is justly venerated as a survivor and a veteran, someone who pulled herself out of self destructive behavior and went on to mega stardom, and has the Grammy Awards to prove it. But back when her career began she was a blues obsessed coffee house singer under the tutelage of her hero, Mississippi Fred McDowell. Her debut album has a little bit of everything: deep downhome blues in the covers of Sippie Wallace's "Women Be Wise" and "Mighty Tight Woman", radio friendly sensitive singer-songwriter warbling on "I Ain't Blue" and "Thank You", earthy rock 'n' roll on "Danger and Heartbreak Dead Ahead" and Buffalo Springfield's "Bluebird." But it's the deep blues that stick in my mind the most, her singing and slide guitar playing on Tommy Johnson's "Big Road" and Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" are exquisite, and manage a neat trick of being authentic blues without overplaying or forcing the issue. I still hold out hope that one day she will make her "blues" album, playing stinging slide guitar in front of a crack band of veteran delta musicians. But until then we have this album, which proves that blues can be honest and popular without compromise.
Bonnie Raitt -

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Princeton Record Exchange continues to call mainstream jazz journalism to task with a post entitled "Throwdown: Downbeat vs. JT, Dec '08 - Jan. '09":

"Over on the JT side, there is the aforementioned cover story, representative of the worst of current jazz journalism: superficial, insubstantial, commercially-driven. JT follows that with a decent article on Roy Hargrove, although it suffers from JT’s “rah-rah” house style. I don’t think you are likely to find tough, analytical features under the current editorial makeup of the magazine."

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra - We Are MTO (MOWO, 2008)

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein loves to bring different aspects of music together in the bands he leads, whether it is the mix of Jewish music and jazz in the series of albums he has led for Tzadik, or the unclassifiable genre bending of Sex Mob, Bernstein is like a fine chef adding ingredients and looking for a new flavor combination. MTO is a large ensemble that combines the swing history of Kansas City jazz from the 20's and 30's with modern jazz and dashes of R&B and pop music. "We Are MTO" opens the disc with a wheezy melody for the horns and violin, making for an interesting and unique sound. "In A Corner" and especially the inspired "Dickie's Dream" make the most direct connection to the hot jazz of the bygone era with some swinging old school strut. The Beatles "All You Need Is Love" is an interesting choice, but works well with an opening featuring fast violin and bass before the band breaks into the melody in a slow and almost narcotic fashion, slowly building up to a fast paced riffing conclusion. The only real weakness of the disc comes on the two vocal features, "Makes No Difference" and "Viper Song" which just come off as a little too cheeky and self reverential to really be effective. This criticisms aside, this is an effective album that thoughtfully integrates the joyous swing of early jazz with the energy of modern music.
We Are MTO -

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mary Halvorson Trio - Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12, 2008)

Mary Halvorson is an experimental guitarist who came up studying and playing with Anthony Braxton. Her music bridges jazz, rock and experimental music, and on this album she is joined by John Herbett on bass and Ches Smith on drums. The music here has a mysterious feel, never resolving itself quite as you think you should, and therefore remains interesting throughout. Imagine Wayne Shorter playing guitar led free jazz (if you can) and you get the ides. Halvorson has a brittle tone to her instrument, scattering fragmented notes and occasionally delving into abstraction."Momentary Lapse" has some good trio interplay where the conversation amongst the musicians is deep and thoughtful and no one tries to dominate the proceedings. The music gradually becomes more overdriven with wild lines streaming from her guitar in a very exciting manner. This song is very potent and powerful and quite imposing in its strength, before dropping back into the subtle and obscure melody. "Screws Loose" has urgent sounding playing, while "Scant Flame" is stressed, fractured and fast paced with exciting ever shifting textures that keep the music interesting. "Sweeter Than You" builds it's emotional strength based on ominous repetition, before breaking into slashing improvised sections, and "Too Many Ties" has an interesting feel with some slurred and smeared guitar lines. I enjoyed this album, but it did take a few spins to get into it. The music is deep and thoughtful and is a product of a lot of careful consideration by the musicians. There may not be a lot of whistleable melodies to be found here, but the interaction amongst the musicians and the unique feel of the emotional depth of the music are memorable.
Dragon's Head -

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mostly Other People Do The Killing - This Is Our Moosic (Hot Cup, 2008)

MOPDTK is one of the more fun ensembles in modern jazz. Much like The Bad Plus, they inject a little irreverence into their music while still keeping their performances thoughtful and edgy. The band is composed of Monk Competition winner Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone, Peter Evans on trumpet, Moppa Elliot on bass and Kevin Shea on drums. The music draws heavily on the free-bop tradition of Ornette Coleman, as evidenced by the wild and woolly saxophone playing on "East Orwell" which has a propulsive bass line (the basis for all of their music) and the tart and funky trumpet of "My Delightful Muse" which takes things at a breakneck pace before adding a strong and free saxophone interlude over some hyperactive drumming. This cool and exciting performance is a highlight of the disc. "Biggertown" has a strutting melody and excellent high-wire group interplay. The live version of Billy Joel's "Allentown" is a strange way to end the album, they play a straight pop arrangement and then finally move out into free improv, so it's hard to tell whether it is heartfelt tribute or snarky pastiche. But that is indicative of this band and it's one of the things that makes them so wonderful to listen to. Mixing the extraordinary with the absurd, this group has a fine conception of post-modern jazz.
This Is Our Moosic -

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Big Road Blues has an essay about Blind Boy Fuller and his contemporaries: "Unlike blues artists like Big Bill or Memphis Minnie who recorded extensively over three or four decades, Blind Boy Fuller recorded his substantial body of work over a short, six-year span. Nevertheless, he was one of the most recorded artists of his time and by far the most popular and influential Piedmont blues player of all time. Fuller could play in multiple styles: slide, ragtime, pop, and blues were all enhanced by his National steel guitar."

Destination Out has an MP3 excerpt from a rare John Surman and Stu Martin collaboration: "The throbbing electronic pulse is surprisingly brutal and menacing, very proto-industrial. Martin’s drumming splits the difference between funk and clatter, while Surman’s fleet sax expertly surfs the various sine waves. Clocking in under five minutes, it’s also pretty fetching in its fashion, perhaps the very theme song to the mysterious radio serial these tunes were created to accompany."

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mike Clark - Blueprints of Jazz Vol. 1 (Talking House Records, 2008)

Drummer Mike Clark kicks off an interesting series of records on a new label that is also releasing records from fellow veterans like Billy Harper and Donald Bailey. This disc has a nice engaging swing feel, like older recordings by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers or Horace Silver's groups in the 50's and 60's. Clark is joined by Christian McBride on bass, Patrice Rushen on piano, Christian Scott on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto saxophone and Jed Levy on tenor saxophone. The drumming is crisp and keeps everyone in the pocket, supplying the strong and deep groove that is critical in successful hard bop jazz. "In the House" and "Like That" begin the album with swinging uptempo hard bop songs while "10th Ave. 1957" slows to a bluesy simmer. "Past Lives" has deep and potent saxophone solos with strong and supple drumming. "Thanks Len" is a strutting swinger with a rippling piano solo and elastic bass solo buoyed by riffing horns. "Loft Funk" brings the Silver like gritty funk with a strong trumpet solo and propulsive piano and drums, and grinding tenor solo. "Clark Kent" features Scott with a mild and well controlled trumpet spotlight. "Conchita's Dance" has strong hard bop riffing, a strong tenor saxophone solo taking charge, then a nice full piano interlude. "I Want to Talk About You" is a beautiful ballad with a wonderful Coltrane inspired tenor saxophone melody statement and solo and is a masterful highlight, Levy really makes a strong statement here. This is a very patient and thoughtful album, and shows that modern hard bop and mainstream jazz in general still has plenty of room for innovation and exploration.
Blueprints Of Jazz Vol. 1 -

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

R.E.M. - Murmur Deluxe Edition (IRS, 1983; Universal, 2008)

To mark the twenty five years since its release, R.E.M.'s first full length album gets the deluxe remastering and unreleased stuff added treatment, and it works quite well. This album struck a nerve in the burgeoning college and indie rock scene, and word of mouth became a landslide which helped the group start to cross over. The mix of chiming guitars, mumbled lyrics (recorded in the studio bathroom) and incomprehensible lyrics made this album memorable. The remastering job is almost too good, shining light in and taking away some of the mystery that made tracks like "Radio Free Europe" and "Moral Kiosk" so fascinating. But the power of the original album cannot be denied, the band developed an original sound, and used that to enliven an unforgettable set of songs. They would reach these heights again with Document and Automatic for the People, but never with such mystery and imagination. Disc two is a live album recorded in Toronto in 1983, and reprises much of the material from the album. While there is a little more energy in the live setting, the arrangements are not drastically different from the studio versions, and this makes the second disc a pleasant but unessential addition. So, all in all, I think that the original album is a classic and worthy of any rock music fan's collection. Whether you need this deluxe edition is another question, it is probably best left for the big R.E.M. fans who will also enjoy the rarities in the live set like the cover of The Velvet Underground's "There She Goes Again."
Murmur [Deluxe Edition] -

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith - Born In Arkansas (Big Eye, 2008)

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith leaves the drums to his son and confidently stands up as a front man on this fine album of old school Chicago blues. Smith leads a strong and tight band with Bob Stroger on bass, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, Billy Flynn on guitar, Little Frank Krakowski on guitar and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith on drums. The play the blues in the classic Chicago style of Smith's mentor Muddy Waters and his former collaborative project, the Legendary Blues Band. The group riffs on familiar themes of the blues that have been around since time immemorial, but there is always a fresh spin as the band makes the music its own. Smith was originally known as a drummer, but here he shows himself to be a fine singer and harmonica player, particularly on the chromatic harp feature "Dreamin'" where he paints a fine picture of drifting through a dusty and lonely landscape, possibly of his youth in Arkansas. The acoustic and back porch "Overcoat Mama" has a fine relaxed groove as well. But the meat of the disc is the straight up electric blues, played very effectively. "Money Talk" has a tough urban groove and strong guitar with some direct urban philosophy in it's lyrics. "World in an Uproar" keeps the thoughtful lyrics coming over a grinding organ and drums groove. This is timeless music made by a strong band with is led by a confident, veteran musician. The music here is never forced, and the solos have a story to them. This is the sound of substance triumphing over style, from the dirt roads of Arkansas to the city streets of Chicago, this is the blues.
Born in Arkansas -

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book review: Ben Ratliff - The Jazz Ear (Times Books, 2008)

The most recent book by the New York Times jazz reporter Ben Ratliff collects the Listening With columns he files with the paper over the past several years. The premise of the column is that musicians would pick some of the songs that had influenced them over the years and then Ratliff would listen to that music with them and get their reaction to it as a conversation over music, rather than a traditional interview. He ties each interview together with a brief biography of each musician, and a list of the music they listened to. This format and structure brought out some interesting comments and revelations about the music, for instance hearing Joshua Redman's awe in listening to the music of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane is fascinating, particularly when they are discussing "Transition", one of Coltrane's fiercest avant-garde performances. Rollins himself also sticks to his heroes with interesting comments about the music of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The Ornette Coleman section is a trip, with Coleman listening to everything from a famous Cantor to field recordings from Central Asia. Ratliff was wise to interview musicians in this format, it seemed to put them at ease, and allowed them to talk about musicians that they admired. He thoughtfully lets the musicians do most of the talking and keeps things flowing briskly.
The Jazz Ear -

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Markus James - Snakeskin Violin (Firenze, 2008)

Roots musician Markus James collaborated with both American and Malian musicians in the development of this album, which moves through an ambitious mélange of blues, world music and roots rock. The stomping “Are You Ready” and the ominous sounding back porch acoustic “Weather Vane” with its sharp slide guitar and harmonica are highlights with their strong instrumental playing and emotional vocals. “I Won’t Let It” also works well, blending spoken word, proto-rap and call and response to a powerful blues beat with good effect. “Drivin’ By” gets an otherworldly moodiness with keening violin and chanted and sung African vocals in the background. The interesting mix of James gritty singing voice and the beautiful vocalizations of the African musicians helps this album take on a hypnotic, trance like groove. This is an interesting album, many people speak of Africa as the roots of the blues, but few go as far as James in collaborating and reaching out to modern day African musicians.
Snakeskin Violin -

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