Tuesday, June 28, 2016

JD Allen - Americana - Musings on Jazz and Blues (Savant, 2016)

The trio format is perfect for saxophonist JD Allen, especially when accompanied by longstanding accomplices Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Their songs are concise and controlled, but the improvisations taken by both soloists and the trio as a whole are stretching the format, developing their ideas by deep listening and bold playing which makes for a very determined and compelling group sound. The opener, “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” begins Allen’s examination of the blues with a humid, close feel as his saxophone gracefully moves through the air supported by rolling drums and think bass. Allen’s saxophone develops a deep alluvial sensibility that works well in the open space created by the trio format, and the band as a whole is patient and understated. “Another Man Done Gone” goes even deeper with serious toned bowed bass and skittering percussion that develops a tense atmosphere. Allen’s subtle saxophone cultivates a bruised and haunted tone, and he leads the band into a pained and yearning improvised conclusion. There is an unhurried medium tempo that carries “Cotton” before Allen’s saxophone breaks out to survey the scene. He begins to solo aided by elastic bass and shimmering drums to advance an exploration of the terrain and a complete a fine solo statement. Royston’s drums move very well, he is supporting the band’s music while continuously seeking out new rhythms and accents to add to the music. There is some uneasy sounding saxophone moving through the thicket of percussion on “Sugar Free” and it leads to a fine improvised section. The music is fast and exciting, with furious drumming driving things forward, in tandem with stoically taut bass. August is given a well-deserved solo spot, which he articulates beautifully then leads the band back together for the finale. “Lightnin’” has fast bass and drums with robust saxophone playing moving the music forward dramatically. Royston is excellent, dropping the music into a tight swinging feel before relaxing the beat and opening up new vistas for the musicians to enter. “Lillie Mae Jones” ends the album splendidly with the band crashing in at full throttle with wide-open stimulating saxophone, bass and drums weaving state of the art modern jazz. JD Allen is at his most formidable when playing in this longstanding trio, where the compositions are memorable and the musicianship is at a truly rarified level. This is another golden entry in a string of great albums that Allen has been racking up over the past decade, and modern mainstream jazz fans should not pass on it. Americana - Musings on Jazz and Blues - amazon.com

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Books: The Sun and The Moon and The Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen (Spiegel and Grau, 2016)

The story of The Rolling Stones has been told in innumerable books and films, and while this one may not add anything previously unknown to the tale, it is a well-written one that provides insight not only on the band's history but their place in culture and society as a whole. Cohen juggles a couple of narratives, his own beginning with his opportunities to cover the band up close on their reunion tours in the 1990's but also his personal tale of discovering the band's music through his older brother and becoming obsessed with it. Woven through this is a well-written history of The Rolling Stones, beginning as a group of blues aficionados hoping to play like their Chicago heroes and then moving into their own original music. The band's history is recalled in detail up through the end of "the golden run," what Cohen sees as a series of classic albums released from 1968-1972 culminating with the epochal Exile On Main Street. Throughout this whirlwind tour, several important events are broken out for further scrutiny, starting with the early blues years and their friendship & rivalry with The Beatles, who helped them write their first hit song. The early years under impresario Andrew Oldham are fascinating as they show the group's rise to power, and their recording sessions at Chess Records. With the massive success of the "Satisfaction" single, things changed, Oldham was out and drugs and debauchery were in. Cohen examines the life of the brilliant but troubled Brian Jones, and his fall from grace and eventual death is covered over the course of two chapters. The band's drug intake is scrutinized in terms of Keith Richards' miraculous longevity, but also in coverage of the drug bust at his Redlands estate, which was a turning point in the bands history. Cohen covers the Altamont concert fiasco at length, combining historical research with interviews to try to piece together what happened and why is came to be such an important event in cultural history. With their finances in shambles the Stones decamped to France to avoid the taxman, and record their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street in Nellcote, Richards' rat-warren of a cottage. Sensing the band's best days end here, Cohen writes a brief section about the band since then, with the Jagger - Richards feud nearly ending the group, his belief that Some Girls was their last great record. This book was quite good, reviewing his notes section you can see that Cohen did a tremendous amount of research for the book and that combined with his own interviews and first-person knowledge of the band make this book very interesting. He writes well too, keeping multiple narratives flowing across the chapters and writing in a breezy and engaging tone that make the book recommendable to both the die-hards and the merely curious. The Sun and The Moon and The Rolling Stones - amazon.com

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Borah Bergman, Peter Brötzmann, Frode Gjerstad - Left (Not Two, 2016)

This album can be seen as a tribute to the great pianist Borah Bergman who passed away in 2012, he was an important presence on the avant jazz scene for many years. The performance was recorded at the Molde International Jazzfestival, July 17, 1996 with Peter Brötzmann on tenor saxophone, clarinet and tarogato and Frode Gjerstad on alto saxophone. Brotzmann comes out with his saxophone sounding raw as an open wound in the beginning of “Left Hand” and is met by Bergman’s free piano playing, as his fingers dance across the length of the piano. The strident saxophones and the insistent piano make for a formidable combination. The saxophonists alternate whinnying and squeals with long tones of sound the and there is deep dark piano response. Everything is wide open and the Bergman pounds the piano mercilessly as the saxophones reach a climatic outcry. There is then a quieter space for piano soloing before then the sounds pick up once again. Bergman’s deep and powerful piano playing and the potential energy of the wind players can make your forget how truly subtle their music can be. Alarming rending sounds from the saxophones are met with a squall of piano notes, as the musicians play with and against one another. They use dynamic range brilliantly, with Bergman worrying at the high end of the keyboard, and Brotzmann and Gjerstad flittering about like moths that have been drown to a flame. “Left Us” has a saxophone rising in the air, caught in an updraft of rising piano notes, the music moves faster in speed as Brotzmann’s torogato cries in the distance like a clarion call. Bergman has a solo section that is fascinating as it sounds like he is working out two completely different ideas at the same time. Blustery saxophone barrels in, howling with an bruised bellow imparting a sense of pained sadness that makes you stop in your tracks, while Bergman is there repeating one oppressive chord, until the crying stops and the moment has passed. The final track, “Left Out,” begins as a lengthy session for only the two reed players, who begin quietly, working music that has a vaguely Middle Eastern air, using silence as part of the equation. Peals of noise punctuate the silence, before the musicians come together weaving around each other like a strand of musical DNA, playing together brilliantly. Bergman comes back in about halfway through this very long free improvisation he is able to move right into the conversation as if he had been there the whole time. He develops a brief unaccompanied section of crashing bass chords and empty space. The horns move in tentatively, then charge through with raw and unmitigated power and the music becomes a very exciting collective improvisation, pausing only for a section for sparkling solo piano gradually framed and then engulfed by the saxophones playing at full throttle. The music on this album was very dynamic; it’s not just a free jazz blowout. There are sections of quieter playing that showed how patient the musicians were, and then area where everything was pushed into the red. It all melded together very well, with three excellent musicians making improvised music in real time and doing a great job of it. Left - amazon.com

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Van Morrison - ...It's Too Late to Stop Now...Volumes II, III, IV (Legacy Recordings, 2016)

The original It’s Too Late to Stop Now LP is not only seen as a high water mark in Van Morrison’s discography, but one of the finest live albums ever released. This boxed set represents a three album (and one DVD in the hard-copy) collection of previously unreleased live concert recordings from Van Morrison's 1973 tour with the eleven piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra which included a five piece string and two piece horn section. The first disc in this collection was recorded live at The Troubadour, Los Angeles, May 23, 1973 and comes bolting out of the gate fast with wonderful versions of Morrison classics “Come Running” and “These Dreams of You,” up-tempo songs from his classic Moondance LP. The lush strings and horns allow him to play his innately jazzy “The Way That Young Lovers Do” from the Astral Weeks album, which develops a sense of mystery as does the new song “Snow in San Anselmo” that becomes a mystic travelogue and comes from his enigmatic following studio album, Hard Nose the Highway. He also plays the title song and “Purple Heather” from that LP. The remainder of the concert is excellent, juxtaposing jaunty numbers like Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’” and his own “Brown Eyed Girl” with longer, impressionistic versions of “Listen to the Lion,” “Cyprus Avenue” and “Caravan.” Morrison is the master of dynamics, whipping the crowd into frenzy and then cutting them off. He’s also generous to the band, giving members solo space and introducing them to the crowd. The second disc, from the Santa Monica Civic Center on June 29, 1973 has music that is much more centered and the songs are very crisply delivered beginning with an extra funky version of “I’ve Been Working.” There is a blistering back-to-back section of “Domino” and “Gloria” and the longest song is a surprising version of “Moonshine Whiskey.” This is a funk/R and B centered concert, and the band proves is by digging deep into “Take Your Hand Out Of My Pocket” and finishing with I Believe It To My Soul.” Disc three from The Rainbow, London on July 23 and 24, 1973 balances the two sides of Van Morrison, the rhythm and blues singer and the mystic seeker wonderfully, opening with a beatific “Listen to the Lion” sparked by guitar and framed by sweeping strings, which is deeply moving. The show starts in a deep emotional well, with his cutting vocals slicing through “I Paid the Price” and then the oddball “Bein’ Green.” There is a majestic “Into the Mystic” riding on a wave of strings that are never sappy, but are able to swell with the horns and Morrison’s extraordinary voice to an very powerful effect. The dynamic shifts come into play with the juxtaposition of the gentler material like a softly swinging “Sweet Thing” followed by a gritty version of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” The end of the concert is a riot, starting with a ripe version of the Them R&B chestnut “Here Comes the Night” then Louis Prima’s “Buona Sera” appros of nothing. After that it’s all Morrison, delivering blistering versions of “Domino,” “Caravan,” and “Cyprus Avenue” with the band driving relentlessly, and able to stop on a dime and shift gears at a moments notice. This is a great set of music, capturing one of the finest musicians of the modern era at the height of his powers. This collection is a must-buy for fans of Van Morrison, and if you haven’t heard the original album (Volume I) you should definitely make its acquaintance. ..It's Too Late to Stop Now...Volumes II, III, IV & DVD - amazon.com

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Book: Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff is one of the leading music writers for the New York Times and I originally became familiar with him through his jazz reviews and his two books, one about jazz in general and another on the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. In this book he looks at ways that music can be listened to in the "age of everything." He asks you work with a conceit at the start: "everything" really isn't available to steam at the tap of a key, but so much is that the (unstated) implication is that albums and genres are dead and we will have to find new ways to regiment our listening. I was originally interested in this book because some of the chapter headings and the ways that he posits listening to music is similar to the way I write about music in my blog. I have no musical training, so I write as a purely emotional response to what I am hearing. Ratliff does too, but he also goes quite deep into the nuts and bolts of the music itself, and I think that if you have knowledge of musical theory you will get more out of the book than I did. It also depends on how deep you want to go with the narrative as well. I tried to read the book for enjoyment and just regular reading pleasure, but again you probably need to go long and have one hand on the book and another tracking down the streams of the music that he writes about. There are many references to classical music and they really left me in the dust. Which isn't to say that I got nothing from the book, there were some very interesting parts, his chapter entitled Purple, Green Turquoise talked about how people become de facto investors in music and groups/musicians, although often by buying the very items that streaming looks to erase. He writes about collectors of Grateful Dead tapes and a man who is doing a quantitate analysis of Phish concerts. This leads him down his own personal rabbit hole of John Coltrane's music and then to vast catalogs of Merzbow. He writes well of the "authoritative" voices of Muddy Waters, Mark E. Smith and Nina Simone and juxtaposing the Miles Davis' tracks "Rated X" and "He Loved Him Madly." His look at volume teases Blue Cheer records and The Who Live at Leeds versus the loudness war of today. So yes, there are moments of insight in the book that I found very interesting. In the end though, it was just a little too much, Ratliff's knowledge and analysis on everything from classical music to Senegalese pop just made him sound like the smartest guy in the room, which he undoubtedly is. Do people listen to music in the way he proposes? He doesn't cover that in the book. I stream a lot of music, even ponying up to the premium tier of Spotify, and I still usually listen by album or "starred" playlist of songs I like, but I wouldn't think of linking the songs in the manner that Ratliff suggests. It may just be that he sees connections where I do not... and that would go a long way towards explaining why he is writing for the New York Times and I am writing a blog that is read by a few dozen people! Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty - amazon.com

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