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February 25, 2017

Music Review: Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway


Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway Cover.jpgThe incomparable Rhiannon Giddens' second solo album, Freedom's Highway on Nonesuch Records is being released on February 24 2016. Not only is this album timely for its release during Black History Month, it's also a reminder of the struggle required to overcome oppression no matter what shape it comes in.

What Giddens has done on this collection of twelve songs, ten originals and two covers, is assemble a cultural/social/political history of African Americans in the United States. From slavery through the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day she recounts, through song and music, events and personal stories which have shaped this history. However, these aren't just political songs, they are also an amazing collection demonstrating the diversity of music that has sprung from this culture over the years.

There aren't too many artists out there who can set themselves a task as complicated as this and not only achieve it, but do so in a manner where the artistic expression is equal to the content of the material. Musically the album ranges from the soul/rap of the fifth song, "Better Get It Right The First Time" to the country sounds of "The Angel's Laid Him Aways", the disc's second track. Combined with the New Orleans sound of "The Love We Almost Had", the gospel "Birmingham Sunday", and the near bluegrass rattle of "Following The North Star", the album covers almost the entire spectrum of American music.

Of course while the music is wonderful, the centrepiece of any Giddens album will always remain her voice. Her range, control, and expression are befitting someone who went from schooling in opera to playing in the old time African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has the uncanny ability of being able to bring the listener into the heart of a song. Through her empathy and compassion we feel the myriad range of emotions she's expressing.

This can make for some heartbreaking experiences. The opening track, "At The Purchaser's Option", is both a lament and a statement of defiance told from the view of a young female slave. Based on a old advertisement offering a young slave for sale and her nine month baby, available at the purchaser's option, the song brings the dehumanizing reality of slavery home with a vengeance. "I have a babe but shall I keep him/Twill come the day when I'll be weepin'/But how can I love him any less/This little babe upon my breast/You can take my body/You can take my bones/You can take my blood/But not my soul"

While all the songs on the album are wonderful, and no matter how many times you listen to it you're more than likely to hear something new and breathtaking each time, the two covers, "Birmingham Sunday" and the title track "Freedom's Highway" stand out. The former is about the terrorist attack on an African American church in 1964 that left four children dead during the height of the civil rights movement while the latter is a Staple Singers song from the same era about the need for perseverance in the march for freedom.

Giddens performs this song as a duet with Bhi Bhiman, whose parents were born in Sri Lanka: "America's strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, f00, or 40 years ago, and we can't leave anyone behind" (Rhiannon Giddens). Maybe not a message some people want to hear, but a timely one all the same.

Freedom Highway is one of those amazing rarities, a politically charged and artistically refined album. The music is spectacular, the lyrics are beautiful and inspiring, and the singing is as glorious as you'll hear anywhere. Giddens proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with - musically and otherwise.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway)

September 27, 2016

Music Review: Moor Mother -Fetish Bones


Cover Fetish Bones Moor Mother copy sm.jpgWith the release of Fetish Bones, her first recording for Don Giovanni Records, Moor Mother, the music stage name for multidisciplinary artist Camae Ayewa, has announced herself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Not only do her songs push the envelope musically, lyrically she takes no prisoners. If Beyonce upset you with her tribute to Malcolm X at the Super Bowl, this album will give you nightmares.

Harsh, at times atonal and discordant, musically her songs reflects the anger and pain expressed by the lyrics; lyrics which deal with the African American experience in North America in the past and the present. The disc's opening song, "Creation Myth", let's you know what you're in for as it traces African American history from the so called emancipation of 1866 to the recent events in Ferguson Missouri. "The first time you heard the whisper of death/ the death that has always been lingering here with you since the day you were born/Heard it telling you, you must be both dead and alive/One has to be dead when a man wants to beat us/When they want to rape us/Dead when the police kill me/Alive when the police kill you".

This is harsh and brutal stuff. Stuff most of us don't want to know about or want to hear. The things we so blithely ignore when we skirt the inner city neighbourhoods with their cracked sidewalks and run down housing. The poverty and desperation we, who don't live it, can pretend doesn't exist. It's all here - 13 songs filled with things no media is ever going to report and no mainstream, so-called urban music video, is ever going to show.
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Moor Mother creates sound collages of spoken word, found recordings, electronics, and instruments which crash against the ear and echo throughout your chest cavity. You'll flinch at some of the sounds, you'll be scared and repulsed by some of what she says, but above all she will make you think and feel in ways most modern music can only dream of doing.

While comparing one musician with another in an attempt to define them is somewhat unfair, for those wishing to have some frame of reference for Moor Mother think of the late great Gil Scott Heron, Laurie Anderson, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago mixed together in one package. However, she is far more than just the sum of those parts. She has her own ineffable artistry which allows her to combine those seemingly disparate elements to create soundscapes which bring her ideas to life emotionally and intellectually.

Moor Mother continues the legacy of the great African American female music artists who have chosen to express the agony of their people through music. Her's is the same anger, sorrow, and disgust expressed by Billie Holiday in "Strange Fruit" and Nina Simone in "Mississippi Goddamn". Fetish Bones is a tough, difficult recording by an incredibly gifted and honest artist. Some people aren't going to like what she has to say and some are going to be offended by the album, but like other great works of art it will force you to have an opinion.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org at Music Review: Moor Mother - Fetish Bones)

September 19, 2016

Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?


American singer and pianist Nina Simone blazed across the sky of popular music for what seems like an incredibly brief period. Her meteoric rise to eminence in the early part of the 1960s was matched by her all too sudden disappearance from public life in 1968. The documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? produced by Netflix and now available on Blu-ray from Universal Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment, not only fills in details of Simone's life before her period in the spotlight, but tells us exactly what happened to her.
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The movie follows Simone from her earliest beginnings playing piano in church and growing up in segregated America. As a child she was taken under the wing of two white women piano teachers who recognized her talent. Like any other child learning piano she had aspirations to become a classical pianist and even attended the Juilliard School of Music. It was her ambition to become the first woman African American classical pianist. However, when that opportunity was denied her through what she believed was racism, she turned to playing in jazz and blues clubs to help support her family.

It was from those inauspicious beginnings her career was born. Her fame was assured with the release of her first record and the public's reception to her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess. There's some wonderful footage of her playing the song taken from an old Playboy TV show. The sight of a young black woman playing for an all white audience of smug wealthy hipsters says more about the state of America in the late 1950s than any political slogans or protests.

For the next five or so years Simone would do everything from play a sell out concert at Carnegie Hall to sing onstage at Civil Rights rallies. Her famous song, "Mississippi Goddam", summed up African American anger at those obstructing their civil rights in the 1960s. As her career took off she also became friends with the African American intellectual and artistic communities. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Langston Hughes were among those she counted among her friends, while her neighbours were the family of the late Malcolm X.

However, while on the surface things looked great, her life was far from easy. Using excepts from her diaries to let Simone tell her own story, the movie shows us a life filled with domestic violence (she was beaten by her husband), loneliness, and repressed violent urges. These written passages reveal a deeply troubled mind.

All of a sudden, in 1968, Simone left America and took herself into self-imposed exile. First to Liberia in Africa, then Switzerland, and eventually France. It was while she was in France in the 1980s her mental illness was finally diagnosed - bi-polar. Her violent mood swings, bouts of depression and even her sometimes extreme behaviour were all rooted in this disease.

Director Liz Garbus has done a masterful job of telling Simone's story. She weaves together archive footage and still photos with contemporary interviews to allow a complete picture of the woman and her times to unfold in front of us. The co-operation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, was obviously key in helping her gain access to things like the diaries and other fascinating archival material.

Of course you can't do a movie about Simone without her music. From start to finish we are regaled with the splendour and majesty of her performances. While some of the quality isn't the greatest - we're talking about footage that dates back almost sixty years in some cases - the black and white footage from the old TV shows is wonderful.

Even better is the CD included in this package, as it contains lovely produced versions of many of the songs which feature in the movie. Some highlights include "Mississippi Goddamn", "Sinnerman", and her covers of "I Put A Spell On You", "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair", and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The latter is particularly poignant in light of the information we found out about Simone in the movie.

The Blu-ray/CD package of What Happened Miss Simone? is a wonderful record of an amazing and unique voice in American popular culture. Simone was more than just a wonderful performer, she was also an articulate and passionate voice in the fight for civil rights. As Dick Gregory says in the movie; "She said things with "Mississippi Goddamn" no one else would have dared say". A great movie about an amazing woman that comes with a bonus CD containing some of her greatest songs.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?/a>)

April 24, 2016

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars


Cover Onward To Mars Fanfare Ciocarlia.jpgFanfare Ciocarlia, Romania's premiere Romany brass band, are set to release their latest album on the Asphalt Tango label. Onward To Mars is due to hit North America April 15 2016. Its not only another example of the band's musical prowess, it also continues to show off their continued evolution musically.

Fanfare first became known to North American audiences through their amazing rendition of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild", included in the soundtrack of the movie Borat. Their exuberant and flamboyant style of play, combined with each member's virtuosity, has garnered them praise everywhere. What is most impressive about the band is how they break any and all stereotypes people might have about brass music.

While they can wail away with the best of them and blow the roof off a concert hall, as this new release proves they also can play with incredible subtlety and finesse. On this album they've decided to continue the exploration of different musical styles they began with their previous release, The Devil's Tale. While that disc was something of a tribute to the jazzier side of Romany music, this one hearkens back more to the music they would play at festivals and weddings for a non Romany audience.

So we hear horas and another traditional Romanian music, but with, as the band's former leader, the late Ioan Ivancea, said "our very special gypsy touch, i.e. more warmth, more colour, and more shine". With seven of the disc's fourteen tracks composed by label mate Koby Israelite specifically to reflect this type of music we hear a new side to the band.

There is still the breathless pace, like watching a horse gallop across a field, and the incredible energy we've come to expect from the band. However, there are also nuances and intricacies to the music we've not heard before. They are also experimenting with some different types of music - the second song on the CD, "Mista Lobaloba", sounds like a collision between there usual sound and a the horn section of a Mariachi band.
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Than there's what I consider the most memorable track - their cover of Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You with guest vocalist Iulian Canaf. Without a single guitar anywhere to be heard they've turned this into a down and dirty blues tune which wouldn't be out of place in any juke joint. It doesn't hurt that Canaf's vocals could sear the paint off the side of a house. This is a show stopper.

If you've never heard Fanfare Ciocarlia you don't know what you've been missing. Hailing from Zece Pra˘ jini (meaning ten fields) a small village in rural Romania their families have lived in since feudal times, they continue to redefine brass band music. They're touring the US for the rest of April, you can find specific dates and locations at Asphalt Tangos' tour page. If they show up in your neighbourhood get yourself to the venue - hearing them on record is one thing - seeing them in person is like travelling to another planet.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review; Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars)

October 21, 2015

Music Review: Made Of Light Tymon Dogg


What do you mean you've never heard of Tymon Dogg? The man's only been playing and creating music for longer then most of you have been alive. Hell, he played with The Clash, for whatever sake you want to insert. (Sandinista, lead vocals and violin on "Lose This Skin") He also played with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in case you've never heard of The Clash. If, by some chance you've not heard this mad man play, now's your chance, as his first solo album in more than twenty years, Made of Light, is being released October 20 2015 on the Thin Man Music label.

One of the first things you have to know about Dogg is while he's one of those folk who seem to be able to play any and every stringed instrument invented, the violin is his weapon of choice. When he plays on the violin he creates a storm of passion in his listeners. He can break your heart or raise your ire to the extent you'll march off to war. His dragging the bow across the strings can create a banshee wail that will cut a path through any opposition or drag a note from its depths that would wring a tear from a rock.
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Than there's his singing voice. It isn't what you'd call dulcet - in fact some might call it a high pitched screech. However, you can't be listening properly if you say that. Yes his voice is much higher than you'd expect (the first time I heard "Lose This Skin" I thought it was a woman singing) but oh is it compelling. It reaches out and grabs you by the throat and forces you to listen to what Dogg is saying. No one is going to claim that Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Woody Guthrie have or had great voices, but that's never stopped anyone from listening to them.

Musically Dogg's influences range far and wide. As you'd expect from his previous associations with Strummer there's plenty of the raw energy associated with punk. However, you can also hear everything from traditional British Isles folk to the most avant garde of jazz in his music. While there's some studio tricks and effects used on the recording, the majority of what you hear on the disc comes from what he is able to accomplish with his voice and instruments.

All of which makes for a perfect underpinning of his lyrics. There's the sarcastic and biting "Conscience Money", track one, which makes fun of those who give a pittance in charity to ease their guilt about their accumulated wealth: "Conscience money, conscience money/I made a million, I'll throw a penny back/I'll give them a crumb from a bursting sack/ When I drink Champagne I offer them the fizz/Conscience money, we all know it is."

The wealthy aren't his only targets though. He also takes aim at society's eating habits in general, specifically they way we produce the meat that we eat with the third song on the album, "Pound of Grain". What's good about this song is the fact he doesn't condemn the eating of meat or act all sanctimonious about being a vegetarian. (no idea if Dogg is or isn't one) Rather, he's simply attacking the waste and cruelty involved with its manufacture. "The hunter doesn't hunt anymore/He gets his meat like a vulture from a corner store/He must feel brave as he goes in for the kill and gets out his credit card and approaches the till."

However, he's not just a satirist, he also writes beautiful and hopeful songs like track seven, "As I Make My Way". As with all the best folk music its deceptively simple both musically and lyrically, which makes its message all the clearer. "When I was a young man my friend said to me/ Remember you're just a part of all humanity/Well I forgot, I strayed, in ego games I played/Now I recall that simple truth as I make my way". Throughout the course of the song Dogg shows how there are plenty of opportunities along the way for all of us to remember this simple lesson of compassion. We just have to listen.
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With Dogg you need to rid yourself of any expectations when it comes to what you're going to hear, because he's going to defy them. He keeps you off balance with both his lyrics and his music as he explores new motifs in both from song to song. What's even better is while he definitely has something to say, he's also a gifted enough musician to blend the music and the message into a seamless package.

Some people may not be overly thrilled with what he has to say or how he says it. But the world needs voices like Dogg's to keep us on our toes and to remind us of how much better we could all be as people. Without preaching or being overbearing, and with a great deal of humour at times, Made of Light does all of those things. If you've never listened to Dogg before, or you just haven't heard him in long time, now's the time - you won't ever forget the experience.

(Photo Credit for picture of Tymon Dogg performing Alison Clarke)

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Made Of Light by Tymon Dogg - (A True Indie))

July 2, 2014

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body


New Orleans holds a grip on most North American's imaginations. Little wonder when you consider the fact the city is a meeting place for so many cultures. French, Spanish and African all come together in an incredible mixture making it an hot bed for the arts and other slightly more esoteric ventures. For New Orleans is also known for its mixture of the sacred and the profane. Voodoo and Catholic beliefs intermingle and share equal billing on the streets and in places of worship and spills over into the music which forms the heartbeat of the city. For you can find everything from down and dirty funk to gospel on its streets, in its bars and even in its churches.

Yet for all the famous musicians the city has produced, it's the brass bands who parade through its streets accompanying everything from funerals to Mardi Gras celebrations which have made the strongest impression on people's imaginations. Lost amid the drunken revelry of the latter is the fact the festival marks the final celebration before the beginning of the Catholic period of repentance leading up to Easter, Lent. It may be a huge party for the tourists replete with sex and uninhibited behaviour, but its also shows the depth of the city's religious and Catholic roots. The music of the bands not only reflects this history, it also helps to perpetuate it.
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Listening to the latest release from Rebirth Brass Band on Basin Street Records, Move Your Body, provides a perfect example of the city's dual nature. For they move between the bawdy and the sacred lyrically without any apparent effort or change in their approach to the music. Musically their influences are as diverse as their subject matter, drawing upon jazz, big band, funk, blues and gospel to create their sound.

The album's opening track, "Lord, Lord, Lord, You've Sure Been Good To Me", is a traditional gospel number which has been given a Rebirth makeover. The lyrics, sung by guest vocalist Glen David Andrews, give thanks to God for providing the essentials of life. "Woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/God woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/Put food on my table, sure been good to me/And I know it was the hands of the lord". Musically, the song is a rollicking, funk influenced tune which would bring the dead to their feet. What's amazing is in spite of the secular sound of the tune, you don't doubt the sincerity of the feelings behind the lyrics.

Andrews does a great job of convincing us of the sincerity of his beliefs while at the same time singing a rollicking, funky tune. As for the band, they make us feel like they're marching us straight into salvation with a beat and tempo that can't be resisted. You can have no problems visualizing people dancing through the streets on their way to or from church listening to this tune. Some might not approve of this approach to religion, but to me it's an example of how when influenced by the divine an artist will create something that will move the human spirit even if you don't share their beliefs.
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However, Rebirth are equally at home with the more earthy pleasures of New Orleans. While it's a celebratory song in its own right, "HBNS", is about as far removed from gospel as you can get. "I need hot butt naked sex/I love it when you make me sweat/I need hot butt naked sex/Baby did you get my text". Sung as a duet by Erica Falls and Quinten "Q" Spears the song celebrates the joy of sex in both the female and male voices. Like the city itself this song is all about sensual pleasures and finding joy in them. Unlike some people would have us believe, this song lets us know you can be religious and still enjoy sex.

Musically the disc rocks and rolls through a mixture of instrumentals (including a great cover of the old Loggins and Messina hit "You're Momma Don't Dance") and vocal accompanied songs without almost a pause for breath. While normally this could be rather overwhelming, Rebirth change up the pace enough from song to song to ensure the listener's interest never fades. They effortlessly move from funk to gospel to blues to marching band without missing a beat and carry us right along with them all the way.

Like the city they hail from Rebirth Brass Band are fun, sexy, sleek and have just enough edginess to their sound to hint at the feeling of underlying darkness which is so much a part of New Orleans' make up. Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed many of the buildings and neighbourhoods in the city, but as long as there are bands like this one, its soul will live on. While it's not like being there, Move Your Body brings a little taste of New Orleans into your home and heart.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body)

February 22, 2014

Music Review: Adrian Raso And Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale


When the Ottoman Empire invaded Eastern Europe they brought more than just their armies with them. Even today evidence of their occupation can still be found. Muslim communities in Serbia are only the most obvious reminder of their one time rule as traces of their cultural influence can still also be seen in other, more subtle forms, including musical influences. The invading Turkish armies were accompanied by military brass bands, a type of music previously unknown in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In spite of the general antipathy towards all things Muslim in the region, for some reason this one particular aspect of the culture became part of the region's musical makeup and today the Guca Trumpet Festival in Serbia is one of the biggest brass festivals in the world.

In the north-eastern region of Romania in a small isolated Romany village, Zece Prajini, population around 80, the tradition of the brass band has continued unchecked since the days of the Ottoman Empire even as it died out across the rest of country. From these humble beginnings the village band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, (translated as Lark's Song) has stormed onto stages and movie screens around the world. (They are the brass band playing Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" in the move Borat) They have won countless world music awards for their amazing amalgamation of Romany and brass band music. Their fast and furious approach leaves one breathless and reeling, but they're more than just loud and brassy. They have the innate musical intelligence to be able to adapt their playing to almost any style and genre of music.
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This versatility is on full display on the new release from German label Asphalt Tango, Devil's Tale, a collaboration with Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso. In the past Raso has released albums of music ranging from Gypsy Swing to rockabilly and collaborated with everybody from Sheila E. to Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats, but as far as I know this is the first time he has sat down to record, or play even, with a brass band.

While I was very familiar Fanfare's previous work, I'd never heard anything by Raso before this disc. However, I did have some understanding of the style of music he plays. For while he's apparently an incredibly versatile performer, he appears to lean towards the more sophisticated Latin and Gypsy Swing influenced styles of jazz guitar work. Knowing how intricate and subtle those types of music can be, and also knowing how Fanfare's preferred approach was anything but either of those, I wondered how the heck their two seemingly widely divergent performance styles could meld successfully.

Which just goes to show how much I had underestimated Fanfare Ciocarlia's musical ability and their capability to adapt. All it takes is hearing the first notes of the disc's opening track to realize the band has entered into this partnership whole heartedly. Sure all their familiar energy is present, but now they have channeled it into musical nuance instead of blasting us out of our seats. For not only have they found common ground with Raso, but they have moved further afield musically than I would have thought possible.
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"Urn St.Tavern", the disc's opening track, is a wonderful example of how this union of styles resulted in something completely unexpected. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it, except that it would fit into the sound track of any number of Robert Rodriguez's more macabre movies. There's a slightly eerie overtone to Raso's guitar work which sends shivers up your spine while Fanfare's horns provide an ominous backdrop against which any sort of weird and creepy activity could take place. Who knows what the patrons of "Urn St.Tavern" get up to when dark comes creeping in over the mountains? Nothing any stranger would want to experience on their own, that much is for sure. (Obviously I wasn't the only one who made this connection as can be seen on the amazing video for the song)

As the disc progresses the jaw dropping work of both members of the collaborative team continues. The fourth track, "C'est La Vie" is a wonderful example of French/Romany swing music. Not only do Fanfare play with the relaxed assurance required to make this song bop and move with ease and grace, it's also a chance to hear what makes Raso such a special guitar player. Not only do his fingers fly over the fret board on his leads he manages to impart a kind of emotional joie de vivre into his playing. It's fast, loose and as full of life as the streets of the Left Bank of Paris where some new excitement is always lurking around the next corner.

The solo exchanges between the guitar and clarinet on this song resonate with not only the sounds of Paris, but Eastern Europe as well. You can hear the echoes of both Romany music and its close relative Klezmar come through as the clarinet swings its plaintive sound in cheerful defiance against the oppressive background that gave birth to both types of music. Simply listening to them perform lifts the heart and the spirit, and makes you appreciate how much music can lift you out of the muck and mire of a hard life.
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It's only fitting the final song on the disc is named "Django" in honour of the great Django Reinhardt, basically the inventor of the jazz style now called Gypsy Swing. However, the song's title can have a double meaning as the word Django translates from the Romany as "I awake". While Raso's guitar playing on this song harkens back to Reinhardt's style of jazz, the counterpoint provided by the brass is like a wake up call. While they're playing many of the same motifs Raso plays on his guitar, they put an extra punch into them which makes them leap out of your speakers. While some times jazz guitar can fade into the background if you don't pay careful attention, Fanfare's horns keep you awake and aware all the time. Whether they are providing the bass underpinning to the guitar leads with tubas and baritones, or snapping out leads on trumpets, they make sure our feet are always awake and moving to the music.

At first sight it would appear a brass band from a remote village in North Eastern Romania would have little in common with a guitar player from a small city in South Western Ontario, Canada. However, Adrian Raso from Guelph Ontario and Fanfare Ciocarlia from Zece Prajini have proven with their release, Devil's Tale, music knows no geographic, or any other, types of boundaries. Music is a universal language might sound like a cliche, but in the case of these two musical forces, not only was it literally true as neither spoke the other's tongue, but artistically as well. Each listened and heard what the other had to say and then responded in kind with results that are as spectacular as they are fun. On their own both Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are musicians to be reckoned with, together they are musical synergy of perfect storm proportions. Stand in the whirlwind and be swept off your feet by the result - you'll feel like you're finally awake.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale)

April 9, 2013

Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere


When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you've heard zydeco and klezmer music you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I'd heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.

While the disc has been out in Europe since March, its just being released in North America on Tuesday April 9 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant display of virtuosity as I've ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to South East Asia probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you'll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"), 10 ("Rural Ghost") and 16("Kashmir"), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Alexksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on "Lemi Evke", track 12, and "Kashmir", Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to "Lemi Evke" and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on "Just Cliches", track 15.

While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar to only have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
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On paper that might sound weird but believe me it's bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite's sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although its not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.

While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she's also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, "Why Don't You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?", Mor Karbasi's vocals on "Lemi Evke" take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn't sound like any blues song you've heard before, there's no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi's voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.

It's at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi's voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi's voice rising higher and higher on the scale you all of sudden realize she's no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
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While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, "Johnny Has No Cash No More", a burst of Cash sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to "Peckham Rai", a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.

According to genre classifications world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.

Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it's our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song - but that's a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere on Blogcritics.)

January 16, 2013

Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown's new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I'd heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn't be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agit-prop folk music and dark humour making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.

While there had been mention on her web site about a band, it didn't click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, "The Politician", saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she's much more than just another singer/songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world's injustices.
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Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don't see very often in pop music. Politics aren't limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers McKeown's songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What's done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.

"The nature of the jailer is/to do just what he pleases/but when we hang another man/part of us dies with him/lock up your soul piece by piece/then tell me just what love is", McKeown sings in "The Jailer". When it comes to arguments about capital punishment most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state's right to take a person's life and others play on people's fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what's being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person it's a horrendous crime against love and yet it's not when the state does it? Doesn't anyone else find that confusing?

Even the more overtly political song, "Baghdad to the Bayou", isn't what I'd call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something it expresses the hope generated by the people's revolts that have been occurring around the world. "Street by street we will repeat/ the revolutions of the spring/you can't stop a people/when a people start to sing". Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren't as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, "We want accountability", capture what's been at the heart of each of those movements.
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In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn't mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. "Baghdad to the Bayou" is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what's been accomplished over the past few years.

Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc.In fact there's no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. "The Jailer" is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.

I've chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there's no denying the potency of McKeown's lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased ten-fold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it's like looking at an artist's preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they've nothing of the full impact of the finished product.

There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don't pay much attention to the music. There're far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can't ask for a better combination.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra on Blogcritics.)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005


It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
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While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
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One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2012

Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection


The majority of the CDs I review are either new releases or recordings that reflect the current trends in popular music. These trends had their genesis in the amalgamation of African American music and country music which took place in the 1950s. However, that doesn't mean there was no popular music prior to those days. Every so often the opportunity arises to review music from this earlier period and its hard not to be struck by the contrast between the two eras. The most glaring of these is how the artists of this earlier era are, for the main part, far more musically sophisticated.

This was driven home to me again when listening to a recent release from Legacy Recordings featuring the works of the late great jazz/blues vocalist Sarah Vaughan. While the majority of her recordings were with other labels Vaughan released four LPs on the old Columbia label which have now been packaged as the four CD set Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. What's wonderful about this collection is that it not only shows off the depth of her talent and versatility as a vocalist it gives listeners the opportunity to hear her at both the beginning and near the end of her career.
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The first two discs in the collection, After Hours With Sarah Vaughan and Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi were both originally released in 1955. We then jump forward in time nearly 30 years for her 1982 release Michael Tilson Thomas/Sarah Vaughan: Gershwin Live recorded at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles with Tilson Thomas conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The fourth disc in the set, and the last she released under her own name, Brazilian Romance, was released in 1987 and produced by Sergio Mendes.

Each disc gives us the chance to hear her singing a different type of music. Big band and swing influenced popular tunes, sophisticated jazz, the classical blues of the Gershwin brothers and finally Latin music. Yet no matter what she's singing you can't help but notice her amazing control and range. She's able to float effortlessly from the lowest end of the scale to the highest without effort. Her singing is as much second nature as breathing is to most of us.

I don't know if you've ever heard the term phrasing applied to singing, it's not something you hear often anymore. To be honest its not something I'm sure I can define. The closest I can come to is it refers to a singer's ability to associate the lyrics of a song with the music. However, it means more than just being able to carry a tune. It's how you sing the words and music together. It's the ability to turn your voice into a lead instrument in a band and take one word and extend it over a whole series of notes. However it doesn't just mean the ability to sustain a note, it's continuing to sing the melody but with only one or a few words without them losing meaning or throwing the continuity of the song out of whack.

Listen to Vaughan wrap her voice around a word and you begin to understand what is meant by the term. You also realize why you don't hear the term used very often anymore as very few modern singers have this ability. To be fair the music of today doesn't really lend itself to that style of singing either. However hearing a singer of the quality of Vaughan you begin to regret its passing. I'm sure there are jazz singers around who have the ability, but we don't hear them on a regular basis.

Of course it's this ability which allowed her to be equally comfortable with any style of music she wished to sing. On After Hours we hear her sail through a series of smoothly orchestrated pop tunes. Even the version of Gershwin's "Summertime" on this disc is given the uptempo treatment. This might have been a collection of rather commercial standards, but she gives them a soulfulness that raises them above the level of just another pop song. She might not be as emotionally raw as Billie Holliday, but that doesn't stop her from being able to imbue even the simplest of songs with the heart necessary to make them soar.

On the second disc in the set, Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi, eight of the original twelve songs were with a jazz combo headed by a young Miles Davis. Listen to what she does with songs like Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the way her voice dips and soars throughout. The lyrics and music come together in her voice in a way that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Each note is cherished so each word is clearly enunciated both musically and lyrically. Listening to Vaughan stretch a word over a sequence of notes without sounding artificial or forced is one of the wonders of the word. If you could hear the different notes taffy makes when its pulled I'm sure it would sound something like her singing.
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The highlight of the set for me was the third disc, Gershwin Live. The fact she opens proceedings with a medley of songs from Porgy and Bess doesn't hurt as it contains some of my favourite Gershwin tunes. "Summertime", "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Loves You Porgy" are the three she blends together here. Now this concert was recorded almost three decades after the first two discs, but her voice and delivery are every bit as polished and believable as they were on the earlier records. In fact I much prefer the rendition of "Summertime" included here than on the After Hours.

Instead of worrying so much about making it an uptempo offering that will appeal to popular audiences, they offer a slower, bluesier version. We're not talking Janis Joplin slow, but we're talking slow and drawn out enough to make you feel the heat of the Georgian sun beating down on those picking cotton. You can really hear the similarities between her voice and Billy Holliday's. There's that catch in her voice which sounds like its holding back years of sadness. Instead of showing any effects of aging, Vaughan's voice on this recording seems to have grown in its ability to transmit emotions. While she was always technically gifted, at this point in her career there seems to be a new depth to her sound.

As for the fourth disc in this set, Brazilian Romance, to be honest I've never been a big fan of this type of Latin influenced jazz. Vaughan makes it sound better than most people are able to, but it still sounds like Latin music that's been toned down to make it acceptable for all audiences. Something you'd hear performed by a country club orchestra in the 1950s. It might sound sort of Latin but the heart's taken out of it. However, that doesn't stop it from being well played and sung as Vaughan does her best to give the arrangements life.

For those who aren't familiar with Sarah Vaughan Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a great way to be introduced to this extraordinary vocalist. Not only does each disc contain all songs from the original recordings, both After Hours and In Hi-Fi contain bonus material that's never been included on an album before. These include eight alternate takes on the latter and four tracks previously released as 78rpm singles on the former. The set also comes with a booklet supplying the history of each album and detailed credits for each track.

Sarah Vaughan may not have had the same romantic appeal of Billie Holliday or achieved the fame of other singers, but this package proves she deserves to be remembered as one of the great jazz and blues singers of the 20th century. So put these CDs on your stereo and sit back and let yourself be transported back to the days of night clubs and joints that jumped.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - The Complete Columbia Albums Collection on Blogcritics.)

October 5, 2012

Music Review: Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind


Probably the first thing you'll notice about Ben Folds Five is they're a trio not a quintet. However, before you can puzzle about this too much you'll then notice the band are a very odd configuration of instruments for a pop trio. Instead of the usual guitar, bass and drums you'd expect to find they are drums (Darren Jessee) piano (Ben Folds) and bass (Robert Sledge). While you find plenty of jazz combos along those lines I can't honestly think of any pop trios who don't rely on guitar. So even before you listen to a single note you know you're going to be in for something different.

Now I'm sure none of this is news to a lot of you out there as Ben Folds Five first started recording and producing music in the mid 1990s. However I wasn't really paying attention to pop music in the 1990s and missed out on their first go round. It wasn't until last year Folds even came to my attention. He was part of an experiment with author Neil Gaiman, Damian Kulash, of the group OKGO, and vocalist Amanda Palmer. 8IN8 was an attempt by the four of them to write, record and produce eight songs in eight hours during a live internet broadcast. While it ended up taking them 12 hours to produce six songs, the resulting album, Nighty Night, was really quite good. I was very impressed with what I had heard of Folds on this recording, and made a mental note to check out more of his music in the future.
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Well the future is now as Ben Folds Five has released their first studio recording since they broke up in 2000. Unlike in the past where they were signed to a label The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (TSOTLOTM) is not only self produced they also raised all the money for its production by utilizing the crowd funding site Pledge Music. Pledge Music not only assists artists in raising money for a vast variety of projects from touring to special editions of recordings, a percentage of the money raised is directed to a charity of the artist's choice. For Ben Folds Five that meant raising money and awareness to promote the fields of music education and music therapy.

As for the recording itself it confirmed my initial impression that one should always expect the unexpected from this band. We all have our own prejudices and when I think of pop music where the piano is lead instrument my expectations have been shaped by what I've heard previously. So I thought this would be an album of finely crafted melodic tunes with the occasional ballad thrown in for good measure. So the opening track, "Erase Me", took me completely by surprise. It opens with Folds pounding out chords on the piano accompanied by Sledge playing heavily distorted power chords on bass. The opening bars end suddenly and are replaced by quiet notes picked out on the piano with gentle accompaniment from bass and drums as Folds begins to sing.

While the subject of the song is nothing unusual for pop music, the dissolution of a relationship, Fold's use of an extended metaphor to open the song took me by surprise."What was our home? Paper not stone/a lean to at most/and when you fall you're half away/gravity won like it always does/Did I weigh a ton?" It might start off delicately and introspective, the opening verse takes a sharp turn after Fold's has his protagonist pondering his role in the breakup. All of a sudden it morphs something that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Queen album as we're back to the big power chords from the piano and bass and a pounding drum. This to the accompaniment of Fold's voice starting to increase in power and climb the scale until he crescendos with the final two "erase me's". "Would it be easier to just delete our pages and the plans we made?/Erase me, so you don't have to face me./Put me in the ground and mound the daisies/Ah, the memory, see how it goes when you/erase me, erase me".
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During the course of the song the musical intensity switches a couple of times, matching the feelings being expressed by the lyrics. As we delve deeper into the facts behind the breakup and the relationship the music and the lyrics become angrier and angrier, with only the occasional respite. Within the context of the song the anger makes sense as the person's reacting to being completely obliterated from their ex partner's life. The switch from questioning as to why the relationship ended to anger at feeling discarded and forgotten might seem abrupt. However if you've ever gone through the breakup of a long term relationship the sudden change in emotional intensity makes sense.

Normally I'm not that fond people singing in the higher registers as they often start to become too shrill for my ear. However Fold's vocal control allows him to express heightened emotion like anger, climb the scale and increase his volume without becoming shrill. This disc is a veritable clinic in vocal technique. No matter how raw or emotional he gets, he never sounds forced or affected. Yet at the same time he's probably more emotionally honest than most contemporary male vocalists. Musically the band is equally skilled. The instrumentation in this song, and the rest of the disc, provide the perfect context for what is being said by the lyrics. Of course not all of the songs are as emotionally difficult as "Erase Me". In fact the band shows they know how to have fun as much as anybody with "Do It Anyway".

This is a fast paced tune with wonderful jazz/honky tonk piano about taking chances. "If you're paralyzed by a voice in your head/It's the standing still that should be scaring you instead/go on and do it anyway/do it anyway." While on the surface the subject matter might not seem to be that lighthearted the band manages to prevent the tone from becoming too heavy by doing things like delivering the key line of "Do it anyway" in a flat monotone. Then there's the video they've made to accompany the song. This was the song they chose when they were approached by The Jim Henson Company via the Nerdist Channel to come up with something to use for a video commemorating the 30th anniversary of Fraggle Rock.

As you can see by the video while the message in the song is not one to be taken lightly the band doesn't take itself too seriously. Which is another thing to like about Ben Folds Five. They aren't your typical rock and roll band. Just look at any picture of the three guys in the band and you're more likely to think they work in Silicone Valley than play in a band. Remember it was the Nerdist Channel that approached them for a video. Well, they may look like nerds but they play as hot or hotter than bands who look the image of rock stars. Those of you who liked Ben Folds Five the first time around aren't going to be disappointed by what they hear on TSOTLOTM. Those, like me, who are hearing them for the first time are in for a real treat. Ben Folds Five prove once and for all being cool is a state of mind and has nothing to do with the you way you look. They play some of the coolest music this side of jazz you'll hear from anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind on Blogcritics.)

August 14, 2012

Music Review: Marquis Hill - Sounds of the City


I've always thought jazz and poetry have a lot in common. Poets string together words in an attempt to create an overall image which elicits an emotional response in their readers. Which is more or less what jazz musicians do, except they use music instead of words. Both poets and jazz musicians will also occasionally create a series of works based around a theme or subject matter. Each of the pieces will represent one facet of the overall subject so when taken together as a whole they leave the audience with a complete picture.

On his most recent recording trumpeter Marquis Hill has created a series of pieces representing the African American experience in Chicago Illinois. Sounds of the City, distributed by Delmark Records, isn't just about the city itself, its also about what Chicago represented, and continues to represent. to its African American population. In the days of segregation it was the first major city north of the colour line. When buses reached Illinois they could take down the curtain separating the front from the back of the bus and passengers were free to sit where they wanted. Chicago had been a destination for African Americans leaving the south since the years immediately following the Civil War. There was work to be had in the slaughterhouses and the freight yards which offered hope of a better life than sharecropping in the South.
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If the connection between Chicago and African Americans isn't obvious in the musicHill makes sure we get the message with three spoken word interludes. These short, poetic pieces establish the background for the music and leave us no doubt which city is being referred to in the title of the disc. Chicago has of course been celebrated in poetry, "The city with big shoulders" (Carl Sandburg), literature and song. Its as famous for its slaughter houses, where they make use of everything but the squeal, as it is for its art galleries and music. If you've ever been there you know it comes by its nickname of "The Windy City" honestly as the wind off Lake Michigan is funnelled up its wide avenues by skyscrapers. In short there is plenty about this city to be captured in music.

Unlike other media, music can be enjoyed in its own right and you don't have to look for any hidden meanings to appreciate it for what it is. In the case of this disc that means a collection of expertly played jazz, by some eminently gifted players. Each of the tracks, including the spoken word tracks, save for the bonus cut "Stablemates" by Benny Golson, were written by Hill. While each of the tunes are definitely jazz you won't be able to help noticing how Hill has allowed hints of other musical genres associated with Chicago seep into his compositions. Whether it's the 1970s soul influence in "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not", with Milton Suggs' mellow vocals giving it an extra touch of smoothness, or the almost pop sounds of "Like Lee" with its infectious melody and catchy beat.

However don't be deceived by appearances or first impressions when it comes to Hill's music. "Like Lee" might at first sound light and frothy, but as you listen you'll realize its much more complex then you originally thought. While the melody might initially bounce along buoyed up by Hill's horn playing, the complex interplay between the drums and bass are an indication there is more to this song then first met the ear. With each passing verse and the addition of a new instrument into the mix the song gains in texture and intricacy. While the horn continues to provide a jaunty lilt the addition of piano at about the piece's halfway mark breaks up what has been an established pattern and introduces a hint of discordance. However, over the course of what remains of the song what was initially a jarring element is gradually blended in to its surroundings until it becomes part of the overall environment. Throughout it all the steady underpinning provided by the bass and drums continues unimpeded as if it were a separate entity.
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Following right after "Like Lee" is the second spoken word interlude of the disc. While the first interlude spoke of the role music plays in the life of the people, this short bit speaks directly to African Americans making Chicago their new home."We've come this far by faith/from the fields we found our way to a new home along South Parkway/currently known as the throne of King Drive/and though it might not be perfect/we thank God we've arrived/we survived/and it feels so good to be alive in the city of the Chi". Think of this in relation to the song prior, a people trying to find their feet in an already existing environment. How at first they are an oddity, a new element disturbing the surface, but life continues to go on, and gradually they become part of the overall whole.

Life in Chicago was far from perfect for many years for the migrants from the South and their descendants. While segregation wasn't enforced by law, it was by society. African Americans were restricted to living in specific neighbourhoods, restaurants displayed white only signs and basically they were still second class citizens. However, as "To Be Free", the song following right after this spoken word piece suggests, it was far better then what they had left behind for the hope of freedom to come it offered. Starting off with a blues tinged trumpet stirring thoughts of hardship and hope the song morphs into something wilder and freer. Greg Ward's alto sax shakes off restraints and takes the piece into a new direction, one which doesn't care about rules and thumbs its nose at society and its niceties.

To some the sound of Chicago is the sound of El train rattling by overhead, the stockyards and the floor of the commodities market during trading hours. To others the sound of the city is the music made by its people. From the ragtime and dixieland jazz of the early twentieth century, the blues and swing of the 1920s and 1930s, the excitement of hard be-bop in the post war years and electric blues of the 1950s to the explosion of the avant-garde in the late 1950s, the hopes, fears, worries and joys of Chicago's people have been tied up in the music they've produced. The music's continual rejection of the status-quo, its continual breaking down of barriers and kicking open new doors is a reflection of its community's refusal to stand still and be regulated to the back of the bus.

In Sounds of the City Marquis Hill has written a collection of pieces that somehow manages to convey both the literal sounds of the city and the historical connection between music and Chicago's African American community. The three spoken word pieces included on the disc introduce the themes he elaborates on with the music. Each song, whether through style or emotional content, fills in another piece in the overall picture he and his fellow musicians paint for us. It's indicative of the quality of the job they have done in performing this music that I became so wrapped up in appreciating the overall impression the music was making upon me, I forgot about their individual abilities as musicians. While you can't help but notice some of the great solos throughout the disc, don't be surprised if you find yourself remembering what the disc means to you more than any one individual's performance. Like any great poem, it's not the individual words that matter, it's the impact they have on you when combined together that makes them memorable. Hill is a great poet and musician, and will leave you with an indelible memory of Chicago.

(Article first published as Music Review: Marquis Hill - Sounds of the City on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana -Santana's Greatest Hits Live At Montreus 2011


The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock - Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a run down down cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about twenty or thirty people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of home grown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.

It might also be what's responsible for why I can't help but think of his music as dream like and trance inducing. Even in the straightest of atmosphere's the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I've seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I've never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I've missed out on an experience. Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21 2012 they released Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 a two disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly fifty years of his career.

Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people's radars. Occasionally a song like "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways" would make it onto the radio but then he'd seemingly vanish again. It wasn't until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like "Maria Maria" and "Back In Black" became hits and propelled him to accolades he hadn't received earlier.
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Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he's a band leader who doesn't necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist, in this case the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don't even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.

Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own egos to the greater good of the music. Periodically Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn't making these announcements to milk the audience for applause, you could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity as if they weren't used to such public expressions of emotion, he was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
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Maybe it's this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don't know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on Trumpet and Jeff Cressman on Trombone they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed so while there wasn't a note out of place there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.

It's not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They're called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme", to classic rock and roll with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well. Of course they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he's considered one of popular music's great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like its been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise, instead they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant - if it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.

If you're a fan of Santana, or if you've just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I've seen filmed at the Montreux Festival the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like your in the middle of the concert and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features these discs give you Carlo Santana as you've never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for.
(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana - Santana: Greatest Hits - Live At Montreux 2011 on Blogcritics)

April 25, 2012

Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse


With the advent of computers and the accompanying ability to exchange ideas and material over long distances almost instantaneously, popular musicians in North America have had the opportunity to experience a far greater selection of musical influences then prior generations. While the music industry's inherent conservatism has ensured the mainstream hasn't been overly affected, there has been a definite increase in the number of independent musicians looking further afield than their own backyard for inspiration. The best of these groups don't just copy what they hear but find a way to meld their new influences with the music they grew up with to create something unique.

With their latest release, The Funhouse on the United For Opportunity label, Caravan Of Thieves gives listeners a great example of this trend in action. First of all there's the band's complement of players. Instead of the standard mixture of bass, guitars, keyboards and drums Caravan Of Thieves are composed of a core of violin, acoustic bass and acoustic guitar. On this album they've broadened their sound to include, quoting from the notes on their web site, the kitchen sink and then some. Banjos, ukuleles, resonator guitars and various things that can be banged percussively are the main ingredients in the stew of instruments used, but there are also many unrecognizable and unattributable sounds and noises to be heard throughout the disc. Without a hard copy of the CD attributing each and every squeak and squawk it's impossible to identify all of them, but to be honest the mystery does add to the albums cachet.

As you can tell by the title of the disc they've built the disc around the central theme of a travelling carnival complete with Funhouse, fortune tellers, rigged games and mysterious dark corners where unexplainable things happen. While the Funhouse of the title and the carnival atmosphere created by the music can be taken literally, they also exist on another level as well. For the world you are ushered into with the opening track, "The Funhouse Entrance", bears many similarities to what's around us everyday save the perspective has been slightly skewed, as if you're looking at it through one of those funhouse mirrors which distorts reality. However instead of taking reality and twisting it out of shape beyond the point of recognition, they merely change the lens we view events through. The result is a chance to see things from a perspective we don't normally have the opportunity to experience.
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Check out "Monster", their fun and tongue in cheek take on love songs dealing with the way love can effect somebody. "On the slab down in the basement/in the laboratory/there's a new subject under the covers/I recall the days before the transformation/before the amputation of my heart....Love made a monster out of me!" Using the whole Frankenstein story as an analogy to describe an obsessive lover is brilliant. Not only does it poke fun at all the broken hearts to be found in most pop music love songs, it's great to hear anybody singing about so-called romantic love in less than glowing terms and in such a macabre manner. Sort of like receiving a Valentine with black borders accompanied by a dozen dead black roses.

Of course just to let you know the difference between the world of the Funhouse and the real world they leave you with a warning to close out the disc. "The Funhouse Exit" makes sure you're prepared and know where the real monsters lurk. "Don't put your feet on the outside dear/There are monsters and goblins and politicians everywhere/...overcrowded schools with education overseen by ghouls/". The list of dangers lurking around corners in the real world goes on to include "doctor's with hatchets" and "Bankers and other vultures" all out to take pieces out of you when and however they can. A real horror story if I've ever heard one!

Musically Caravan Of Thieves has cast a wide net when it comes to their sources of inspiration. One would think because of the composition of the band they would have taken the easy way out of leaning heavily on Romany influences. While there is no doubt they do owe a debt to the Eastern European branch of that musical tradition, you can't help but notice they owe just as much to the music halls and cabarets of pre WWll Europe. In fact quite a number of their pieces on this recording put me in mind of Kurt Weill and the music he wrote for Bertol Brecht's plays in pre Nazi Germany. Slightly wilder and with perhaps less of a polka influence than Weill's compositions, but the same brash and brassy attitude which challenged audiences and forced them to pay attention to what was being said and done on stage.
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However, they don't deny their own musical heritage either. For underneath a great deal of the wild and wooly playing the music almost constantly swings along to a beat reminiscent of 1920s and 1930s jazz. On this disc you can hear influences from the Dixieland stylings of New Orleans to the dance bands of Harlem from those eras. What's really quite amazing though is while this sounds like an incredible hodgepodge of styles and traditions to cram within one recording, an almost sure recipe for chaos, the result is a delight to listen to. Caravan Of Thieves has managed to blend everything together to make a vibrant and exciting sound with twice the energy and intensity of any rock and roll band.

Musically inventive, lyrics full of sly humour and gentle cynicism and all served up on a platter garnished to reflect the dark mysteries of a travelling carnival make this one of the more entertaining listens I've had in a while. It's not often you find a band whose sense of humour and intelligence are matched by both their musical talents and an ability to put spurs to their listener's imaginations. You not only listen to their lyrics and appreciate their music, but you find yourself visualizing the atmosphere they create. When you put this record on be prepared, you sure won't be in Kansas anymore.

(band photo by Michael Wientrob)
(Article first published as Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse on Blogcritics.)

October 22, 2011

Music Review: Marquis Hill - New Gospel

What is jazz? Unlike other forms of popular music that grew out of the twentieth century, in fact unlike most forms of music period, jazz resists an easy definition. Constantly evolving as each new generation of players built on what prior ones constructed its a house where each room is designed by a different architect. While the individual rooms make use of the same raw materials, shape, form and construction can be so radically different in appearance you could be forgiven for not recognizing them as even serving similar functions. Yet a room, whether it is square, rectangular or circular is still a room, and jazz whether rag time, big band, be-bop, avant-garde or fusion is still jazz.

Sometimes its easy to think that we call a piece of music jazz simply because we can't find any other genre to file it under. While it's true that the line between genres blurs more and more as musicians draw upon increasingly diverse influences for their inspiration, most still retain enough of their distinct character to distinguish one from another. What distinguishs jazz from other genres are the essential roles played by rhythm and improvisation. Sure all music has rhythm, but none make use of as complex and intricate patterns as jazz and few make as much use of improvisation as its musicians. It's these elements that make jazz both one of the most fascinating forms of popular music but also one of the most difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate. Unlike the majority of popular music which requires very little from its listeners, the better the jazz the more an audience has to pay attention.

This was brought home to me once again listening to the new release by trumpeterMarquis Hill, New Gospel, on Delmark Records. On this, his first recording under his own name, Hill shows why he is considered one of the foremost players and composers of a new generation of jazz players. Not only do the eight songs on the disc show him capable of handling everything from the soft bluesy side of jazz to the more free form improvisational sounds of bop, they demonstrate a feel for how the various parts go into making up a whole that are the mark of a talent for composition.
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The opening track of the disc, "Law and Order", immediately grabs your attention with its bass introduction. Establishing the complicated rhythmic pattern for the song, the opening bars draw you in, and then hold you there as they underpin the entire song. With bass having been reduced to nothing more than a sternum bashing metronome in most popular music these days, John Tate's intricate playing on this track, and throughout the disc, are a reminder rhythm doesn't have to be monotonous or loud to be effective. While it makes for an intriguing opening to a disc, it also gives us a taste of how well Hill balances his position as band leader with his role of composer. For throughout the disc he shows himself ever willing to share the lead instrument spotlight in order to serve the needs of the material instead of taking every solo for himself.

As a result not only do you hear some wonderful jazz, you also have the opportunity to hear the unusual for one recording; a variety of instruments showing what they can bring to the music. From Kenneth Oshodi's guitar in "Law and Order", "New Gospel" and "Autumn"; Chris Madsen's tenor and Christopher McBride's alto saxophones; Joshua Moshier's piano to Jeremy Cunningham's work over the drum kit, each of the musicians on this disc show an affinity for the music that is stunning. The title track, "New Gospel" starts with a wonderful interplay between drums, guitar, piano and bass with the saxophone joining in and then springing forward into a solo. The saxophone then passes off to Hill on trumpet who in turn hands off to Oshodi on guitar. After a few bars though both Hill and Madsen fill out the sound of the delicately picked guitar, sustaining what each started with their own solos. Woven together with the rhythm carried by drums, bass and piano the final result is an auditory feast.
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For those who are inclined to dismiss jazz as undisciplined or lacking in focus, Hill's music in general, and "New Gospel" specifically is a perfect rebuttal. Within its just over five minutes the song establishes a base out of which the three solos flow with ease before coming to a satisfying conclusion. Yet within that structure there is a spirit and abandon one doesn't ever hear in any other type of music. It's like five individual voice singing their own interpretations of one idea. Harmony doesn't come from the intermingling of tone, it comes from the players ability to communicate that idea to the listener with their "voice".

Just as Hill is seemingly comfortable composing in any style of jazz he attempts, the same applies to his playing. His trumpet can be soft and seductive as he teases out the notes on bluesy numbers like the title track or the driving force behind harder edged pieces like "A Portrait Of Fola". To be honest I've always been leery of trumpet playing, as I find it often played far too shrill and harsh for my taste. Obviously there are exceptions, but I usually find brass players seem to lack the subtlety of those who play reed instruments. Hill is one of those exceptions as he is able to milk nuances out of his instrument that give it a far wider range than I'm used to hearing. Listening to him play flugelhorn on the tribute to the late great saxophonist Fred Anderson, "Goodbye Fred", you can't help but be impressed with both his control and ability to communicate emotions.

At twenty-four years of age in July 2011 when he released New Gospel, Marquis Hill isn't just another promising jazz musician. In fact this disc shows that not only is already fulfilling whatever promise he might have shown, but exceeding anybody's reasonable expectations of what a person of his should be able to accomplish. A seasoned side man and performer prior to its release, this disc reveals him to be a composer of the first order as well. Jazz is many things to many people, but it is the rare musician who is as obviously comfortable performing and composing in as many facets of it as Hill. It's been a while since there have been a collection of young jazz musicians capable of capturing the public's imagination and ensuring the music garners the attention it deserves. With players like Hill out there, there's the chance we might just be witness to the beginnings of a new jazz renaissance.

(Article first published as Music Review: Marquis Hill - New Gospel on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2011

Music Review: Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie - Various Performers

July 14 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody. While September 27 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event, when you stop and consider the impact this one man from Okemah Oklahoma has had on popular culture, specifically popular music, in North America and the rest of the English speaking world, you'll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31 2012 looking through the body of his work we'd only barely begin to scratch the surface of its significance.

Just to begin with there are the musicians around the world who he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2 and punk rockers like the late Joe Srummer of the Clash all have cited Woody as one of their inspirations. Woody had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl either. He could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn't just write about the poor and oppressed, he wrote about everything. He wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, "This Land Is Your Land", a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.

When he died 1967, after spending nearly his last thirteen years of life hospitalized by the Huntington's Disease which killed him, he left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and note books. Woody's son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a house guest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn't find any scraps of paper to write stuff down on you could wake up in the morning and find your walls covered as his inspiration wasn't something that was going to be denied. It's only been recently that his family has begun the labour of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with the American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue a collection of previously unreleased Woody songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
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Now to kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Woody's birth 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie featuring twelve songs inspired by the writings of Woody Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture. From Woody's contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; those who have picked up Woody's torch to become voices of protest today, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne to a real surprise Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either taken previously unrecorded songs by Woody or, like Jackson Browne, were inspired by entries in Woody's journals.

No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Woody's voice. What's particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Pete Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on "There's A Feeling In The Music", while both Ani DiFranco, "Voice", and Studs Terkel, "I Heard A Man Talking", tackle the subject of lyrics. While Terkel's is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, both DiFranco's and Seeger's songs show an introspective side of Woody revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs Guthrie's work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
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Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

The final song of the recording shows us a side of Woody Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don't associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Jackson Browne's fifteen minute song, "You Know The Night", (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15 2011 and can be heard on line at this web page) based on a thirty page entry in Woody's journals talking about the night he met his second wife Marjorie Mazia, it's not because he never gave the subject any thought. The song is an unabashed confession of love combined with a wonderful compiling of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need one person feels for another, from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility, are dealt with as Woody/Jackson run down what it was about her which attracted him. Yet its far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we've met the person we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our life with.

Woody Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don't have a voice in his music. The anti communist witch hunt of the post WW II era followed by the onset of the disease which killed him not only denied him the opportunity of writing and performing, but also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn't until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was "discovered" by a new generation, and even then it was only as the guy who inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure school kids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.

Woody wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about, the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, share croppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren't popular topics in the post war boom days and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding being drafted and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to his songs, any of his songs, you'll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people's stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another, our hearts.

In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear twelve American singers, musicians and writers from across the generations offer us their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been heard before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there was something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you'd thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012 let's hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe by the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie's centenary, he'll be appreciated for the artist he was and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.

(Article first appeared as Music Review: Various Artists - Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie)

July 30, 2011

Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II

It's easy to see how at first glance it would be hard to find any connection between punk rock and Mariachi music. With the former being all black leather, short cropped hair and three chord angry music and the latter being flamboyant costumes, intricate musical arrangements and romantic themes they appear to be world's apart. In fact the gap appears so wide between the two the idea of bridging it seems almost ridiculous. However, it's not without precedent for American popular musicians to either be influenced by Mariachi or to play Mariachi tunes themselves.

First there were all the Latin tinged pop songs of the early 1960s (ever hear of a song called "La Bamba" or a guy named Richie Valens?) and the show bands from the same era with their Bosa Novas, Rumbas, and other assorted Hispanic influenced dance tunes. Listen carefully to the old Phil Spector wall of sound songs from the 1960s and you'll hear castanets, bongos and other Spanish influenced percussion holding the songs together. For those looking for that influence in bands with a harder edge I'd like to point you in the direction of a guy named Carlos Santana or how about a band called Los Lobos? Then there was the Mink DeVille Band of the 1970s who drew heavily upon the sound of the Lower East Side of New York City for songs like "Spanish Stroll". When he went solo, Willy DeVille, the band's lead singer, went so far as to release a Mariachi version of the old Texas blues number made famous by Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe".

One shouldn't be so surprised at the widespread influence of Spanish music - they were the first European power to establish colonies in the Americas after all. Remember, the lands which people are now so concerned about keeping Mexicans out of were territories stolen from the Spanish through conquest. Texas, New Mexico, California and others were all Spanish until they were invaded and conquered by America. African American blues and gospel and British folk music get so much of the credit for developing rock and roll, we tend to forget the third major influence on popular music in North America. So if any group of American musicians, be they punks or rappers, decide they want to sing Mariachi music, it's really not that much of a stretch. All that matters is how well they do it, and their intentions in performing it.
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All that being said, when I first heard about Mariachi El Bronx, punk band The Bronx's excursion into Latin music, I had my doubts about the whole idea. Mariachi music isn't the easiest music to play and requires band members to play instruments most musicians in Canada and the US aren't overly familiar with. While the basic six string guitar has proven a popular import from Spain (no, neither it or the banjo are American as the banjo came over with African slaves and the guitar with soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars at the end of the 19th century) others essential to the Mariachi sound aren't as well known. The huge oversized base guitar known as guitarron, the round backed vihuelas, five stringed guitars, and even folk harps with twenty-eight to forty strings.
However, after listening to their second recording in this incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx II, which will be released on the White Drugs label August 2 2011, I'm not only convinced of the sincerity of the band's effort, but was blown away by their ability to carry it off. Expanding their line up to include Vincent Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and the Beastie Boys' Alfredo Ortiz means they have sufficient musicians to meet the demands of the music's more complex arrangements and a Latino presence to ensure they keep faith with the music, and keep faith they do. What's so wonderful about this record becomes obvious right from the first song "48 Roses", their complete and utter sincerity when it comes to performing the music.This isn't some camp joke at the expense of the music, these guys are genuine in their attempts to not only play the music but to capture its heart and spirit as well.

Now I don't know enough about the technicalities of Mariachi music to critique the band on how well they are playing all the subtle nuances those more familiar with the genre would be aware of. However what I can tell you is they do a magnificent job of sounding like they know what they're doing musically. From the rhythms of the guitars and guitarron to the melodies played on trumpet and accordion, they have mastered the elements that make the music so instantly recognizable. The only thing the least bit disconcerting is how un-Hispanic the lead vocalist sounds in comparison to how Spanish the music sounds. Yet what's slightly jarring in the beginning ends up being reassuring. The fact that they are singing naturally, without affectation of any kind, is further proof of the band's sincerity.
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Whether the song is about a guy who is in trouble because he has four girlfriends, the opening "48 Roses", about hope in the face of hardship, "The Great Provider" (which has the wonderful line "faith isn't magic it's just keeping my foot in the door") or the guy pleading with the girl to give him a chance even if her family don't think he's good enough for her, "Norteno Lights", the music and lyrics work together beautifully. The feel and tempo of the music not only create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for what each song is about, it works with the lyrics to help tell the song's story. Instead of the swelling strings we're used to hearing in order to clue us in that the singer is in the grips of some really strong emotion, here they do everything from providing joyful counterpoint to a moment of happiness or work together with other instruments to create any number of emotional settings.

Unlike most pop songs which will tack on strings almost as an afterthought, Mariachi music is very carefully orchestrated and arranged. It's a sign of just how good a job Mariachi El Bronx have done that each of the tracks on their latest release are beautiful examples of the above. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it's like listening to a chamber music ensemble where one of the instruments is also a vocalist. Perhaps because there's less emphasis on horns and brass instruments than there is in jazz or show bands it reminds me more of classical music than anything else. But I also think its the way everything works together to create a whole in a way that I've only heard in classical music before. All of which means these guys have done a remarkable job in making the jump from playing punk rock to playing Mariachi music.

Mariachi El Bronx II is not just an album that's remarkably good for a group of punks, its a remarkably good album period. The music ranges from being infectious enough to drag you to your feet to start dancing to introspective enough to have you listening to a song's lyrics and nodding in recognition. On the band's web site they talk about how living in California you hear Mariachi music being played all the time which is definitely not the case up here in Canada. Thankfully the boys in Mariachi El Bronx have taken their fascination with the music and let it inspire them to start performing it, giving those of us not lucky enough to live near where Mariachi music is played the opportunity to hear it anyway. This is a great album of great music by a great band - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II on Blogcritics)

Music Review: Keb Mo - The Reflection

The biggest casualty of the 1970s and disco was after all the Saturday Night Fever had died down finding a good R&B or soul track became next to impossible. In the 1960s and early 1970s Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and others took the passion of blues and gospel music, smoothed over some of their rougher edges, emphasized rhythm slightly more then the blues and sang about subjects not covered in church. While R&B never had the street smarts nor the overt sexuality of funk a la James Brown or Issac Hayes, it wasn't the easy listening shit you hear passing itself off as soul or R&B on so called contemporary adult stations today.

After listening to Areatha Franklin hitting her stride in something like "Respect" the idea of even mentioning non-entities like Hall and Oates in the same sentence as her is as close to sacrilege as you can get in the secular world. In fact only Pat Boone covering Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti stands out as a bigger abomination. So, when I first started listening to the forthcoming release from Keb Mo, The Reflection on the Yolabelle/Ryko label August 2 2011, it took me a couple of songs to even recognize the style of music he was playing. It's been so long since I've heard R&B played and sung like it should be that I spent the first two songs trying to figure out what they reminded me of before the pieces fell into place. From the elegant, almost jazz like, phrases coming from the guitar, the gently compelling rhythms to their smooth, but not too smooth, production values, "The Whole Enchilada" and "Inside Outside" epitomize all that is great about the genre.
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Of course it takes more than two tracks to make a CD, and there are a total of twelve on The Reflection. On each of them Keb Mo gives an object lesson in just what it means to sing and play R&B. What's even more impressive is that in this era of so many singing other people's material, he had a hand in writing ten of the twelve songs he's performing. On top of that, not only does he handle or share lead vocals on every track, he's does double, if not quadruple duty, on the majority of the tracks as he handles lead guitar duties on tracks one through eleven, and plays drums and electric piano on occasion as well. All of which would be enough to distinguish his efforts from those of others with pretences of being R&B singers, but that's just the beginning. For it's not just what he does, it's how he does it that makes him so special.

The hardest thing for a performer to do is to take a song you don't like and not only manage to have you enjoying what they do with it, but are able to make its transformation so complete you don't even realize what they've done. I've never been a particularly big fan of The Eagles and their sentimental version of country/rock music that swamped the air waves in the 70s, and in particular I always despised the song "One Of These Nights". There was a time when it was a damn staple on FM stations and I swore that if I never heard it again it would be too soon. So I don't know what kind of magic Keb Mo wove, but he was about three quarters of the way through his cover of it before I even clued into why I thought the lyrics sounded familiar. Calling it a cover does him a disservice as he's completely reinterpreted the song, turning it into something with infinitely more heart and soul than I could have thought possible. Instead of the facile, oh yeah baby sentiments of the original, he's managed to infuse the lyrics with a sense of yearning and hope that turns the chorus into a kind of prayer.

I doubt Keb Mo had any trouble convincing any of those he worked with on this disc to collaborate with him. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if he has to beat people off with a stick when he puts out the word he's working on a new recording. Listening to him sing and play is an object lesson in how this music is supposed to be, and the chance to be part of that would be impossible for anybody who truly loves music not to be part of. So it's no wonder that Vince Gill not only sings and plays his trademark mandolin on this disc, he co-wrote "My Baby's Tellin' Lies", the song he's featured on, with Keb Mo. Gill isn't the only guest on the album, as India Arie joins him on vocal duties for a wonderful version of the old standard "Crush On You" and while she doesn't sing, Melissa Manchester shares writing credits with Keb on the genuinely soulful "Walk Through Fire".
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One of the distinguishing marks of the great soul and R&B singers was the apparent effortlessness of their delivery. Keb Mo is no exception. There's none of the histrionics you've come to expect from so many of the singers you hear today. However, neither does he have one of those bland, characterless voices with all the spice of processed cheese products either. When you listen to him sing you don't only hear his lyrics, you feel the emotion behind them. For while his delivery might be as smooth as velvet, there's a distinct edge of sandpaper to his voice that gives everything he sings a ring of truth you can't help but feel echo inside of you. While there are moments on the disc where the production values might have overwhelmed a lessor singer, that roughness of tone ensures he's able to cut through anything that might detract from the integrity of his music.

There are still a few performers out there who understand what it means to sing R&B, but far too much of what you hear being passed off as the genre have forgotten that the initials stand for Rhythm and Blues. Well some might remember what the the first initial means, the blues part, the part which gave the music its power in the first place, of the equation might as well not exist anymore. It's only when you hear someone like Keb Mo performing that you realize how much of the heart has been cut out of the music by most people. With a foot planted firmly in each camp, and the ability to open his heart and soul to a listener through his voice, he has created some of the finest R&B you'll have heard in ages.

While The Reflection won't be for sale until August 2 2011 if you pre-order it now through i-Tunes they'll include three bonus tracks for you. Take advantage of the deal, 'cause once you hear his music you'll agree, the mo' Keb Mo you can get, the better.

Article first published as Music Review: Keb' Mo' - The Reflection on Blogcritics.)

April 10, 2011

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans

Looking at the images that came out of New Orleans in the weeks and months following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina combined with reading about government policy of deliberate neglect when it came to rebuilding the city, I have to admit to feeling pessimistic about the city's chances for recovery. What was especially worrisome was reading about the losses suffered by the city's musical community. Not only were many of the bars they relied on for their livings destroyed, but their homes and musical instruments were washed away as well. Further compounding the loss was the destruction of local recording studios and their precious stores of master tapes representing the musical legacy of so many gifted talents.

Concentrated efforts by musicians and organizations dedicated to the welfare of musicians to raise funds for everything from replacing lost sound systems for clubs whose insurance didn't cover so called acts of God to helping struggling musicians pay the rent and put food on their tables was a sign that some recognized how important New Orleans is to the musical soul of America. Yet would these band-aids be enough? Could the people come back from both the destruction of their homes and the antipathy their government was displaying towards them? Hearing elected officials call the destruction of your home "an opportunity" to revitalize an area is bad enough. But then to watch as they proceeded to tear down public housing that wasn't even damaged by the hurricane in order to make way for expensive convention centres and condominiums would be enough to destroy anyone's spirit.

However, two conversations I had with musicians who had both lived in New Orleans during their careers went a long way to reassuring me that no matter how bleak things might look, the people and the music would be back. Grayson Capps came home from being on tour to find his home gone after Katrina and was forced to relocate after living there since his University days while the late Willy DeVille had lived and recorded in New Orleans for most of the 1990s. When I talked to both of them about the city's chances for recovery, while naturally saddened by what had happened, they were both positive the spirit of the city could weather even this. In his song "And The Band Played On", on his final album Pistola, DeVille calls out as the music fades "New Orleans will rise again" so firm was he in his belief in the city's resilience.
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Any last doubts that may have lingered in my mind after talking to them have now been completely dispelled after listening to the new release from the New Orleans tradition, Rebirth Brass Band. The aptly titled Rebirth Of New Orleans, being released on April 12 2011 by Basin Street Records, gives proof to the truth that the band still plays on. And this ain't no band playing while the Titanic sinks around them either, this is a band playing in celebration of life lived being lived to its fullest as only those who have come close to losing it all seem to be able to do.

The first time I saw the Rebirth Brass Band play was on a DVD (From The Big Apple To The Big Easy) of a benefit concert given to raise money, and awareness of the plight facing them, for the musicians of New Orleans. Musicians from all over the world converged to honour the debt they felt to the music of the city. The event in New York City opened with the Rebirth marching in through the audience playing a funeral dirge that segued into a celebratory stomp when they reached the stage. Most of them had been made homeless, and as fellow performer Aaron Neville's baseball cap so eloquently put it, "evacuees", by the Hurricane and had lost most of their belongings. So instead of what they might normally wear in concert they were dressed in whatever street clothes they were able to scrounge and white T-shirts with individual messages of hope, and in some cases anger, printed on them. (Although none quite matched the message on Cyril Neville's shirt: "Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans)

Even then, at a concert only a few months removed from the hurricane, it was impossible not to be impressed by the power of their music and the strength of spirit it revealed in the individual musicians. Now here we are five years later and these guys are not only going strong, they're blowing the doors off the world to let us know that New Orleans is alive and well and just as wild and unpredictable as ever. The disc kicks off with bang as the opening track, "Exactly Like You" opens with a snare drum solo letting you know Rebirth Brass Band are revving their engines. When the horns kick in, in full flight, you can see them in your mind's eye marching down Bourbon Street pulling bystanders from the sidewalks to dance in their wake as they parade by.
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These guys are a street party celebrating New Orleans waiting to happen in every song. Saucy and reverential by turn their lyrics range from the fairly blatantly sexual on "I Like It Like That", introspective on "The Dilemma" to the just plain fun of "Why Your Feet Hurt" where they question why somebody's feet should hurt if they haven't got any moves. Musically they move effortless from Dixieland, jazz laced funk, hip hop, to their own version of a horn driven afro-Cuban sound. Sometimes their music sounds like its seeped out of an old soundtrack from a movie like Shaft, with the horns lashing out the urgent clarion call of a big city. At other times they pull back from their all out assault and let each instrument speak its piece. Yet unlike other bands where sometimes solos seem to have nothing to do with each other, here it sounds like they are having a conversation with each other about the song's content.

When dealing with a brass band it would be easy to lose certain instruments in the mix, but that's not the case with Rebirth. For not only can you hear each individual horn distinctly when they are playing en masse, even the percussion comes through loud and clear. Not only does that help contribute to the fullness of their sound it helps prevent the multiple horns from becoming too overwhelming. Horns and nothing but horns can occasionally be harsh on the ears, so to have the earthier sound of congas and other percussion permeating the sound makes sure this isn't the case with this disc.

You hear a lot about how some band's are better in concert than they are in a recording because of the energy they create when on stage with their performance. Somehow or other a fair number of bands just don't seem capable of recreating it in the studio. Well, you don't need to worry about Rebirth Brass Band's recordings lacking anything when it comes to energy or exuberance. Heck, you should worry about whether or not your stereo system or music player will be able to contain the energy they are producing, I don't know if I've worried about whether or not the CD I was listening to could actually manage to contain the band's sound before, but so potent and alive are Rebirth Brass Band, you can't believe they can stay trapped forever in that small disc and sooner or latter you're going to end up with them hanging out in your living room.

If you can't get to New Orleans in the near future and you have any doubts about whether or not the spirit of the place is still alive and well in spite of what's happened down there over the past six years, one playing of Rebirth Of New Orleans and you'll doubt no longer. Neither acts of God, oil companies or idiot government officials can stamp out the spirit of this city that easily and we all should eternally grateful for that fact. The world is becoming more and more homogenized as it is, and we need as many unique places as we can get. The Rebirth Brass Band is one of the reasons why New Orleans is what it is, and this disc lets you bring that into your home.
(Article first published as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans on Blogcritics.)

March 24, 2011

Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down

Musical styles come in and out of fashion as often, if not more frequently, than clothing styles. However, unlike trends in clothing or other transitory fads, many of the musical genres which become flavours of the month had their small pool of adherents who both played it before it became popular and continue to play it long after its popularity has waned. Ironically it's not even those who have been playing and keeping the genre alive who are usually the ones who enjoy the benefits of their style's fifteen minutes in the spotlight as they aren't usually the types a record company feels comfortable with as star material.

Once the brief flurry of interest in the genre has died down most go back to being played and appreciated by those who had all along, while everybody else has moved on to the next "new" discovery. Sometimes the only record to mark a genre's passing is if a commercially viable form of the music is created which allows for the creation of a new top one hundred chart in its name. Aside from that, for most of the world it's as if the music ceased to exist as miraculously as it appeared. Thankfully, that's not usually the case, it's just that the music is out of the public eye again, but it's still being played and recorded if you know who to look for.

Ever since the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was released about a decade ago there have been periodic revivals of interest in what's called everything from roots music to Americana. Now most of the songs used in the soundtrack were familiar to people already, but what made them so fresh was they were performed in the style they would have been during the time the movie took place. Instead of the overblown production that's been associated with country music for the last thirty or forty years, the songs were stripped down to their basics and sounded amazing. Somehow or other though, that point got lost, and it's become harder and harder to hear the music played as it was originally.
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Thankfully, for those who want to hear this music played as it should be, there remain select groups of musicians scattered around the country dedicated to keeping the legacy of this music alive. One of the finest examples of this are Eden & John's East River String Band. Eden and John are Eden Brower (ukulele, kazoo and vocals) and John Heneghan (guitar and vocals), and on their latest disc, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, the band is rounded out by Robert Crumb (mandolin), Pat Conte (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar). (For those wondering, Robert Crumb is indeed the illustrator of underground comics from the 1970s. Not only does he play with the band on occasion, he has created all their album artwork).

On this disc the band has focused on traditional songs and adapted and arranged them to suit their needs. One of the first things you'll notice when looking at the album credits is the lack of any mention as to who has written the material. These songs have obtained the status of being so ingrained into the social and artistic fabric of American culture who wrote them no longer matters; they are a part of the country's cultural heritage in the same way songs like "John Barley Corn" are part of the heritage of the British Isles. In fact two of the titles on the disc are most likely ones that a high percentage of Americans will hear at least once in their lives and whose names will be recognized by nearly as many: "Oh Suzanna" and "Swanee River".

Both songs were written by the first great composer of American popular music, Stephen Foster, in 1848 and 1851 respectively. A product of their times, their original lyrics aren't what anybody would call racially sensitive as they were written in faux slave dialect, and in the case of "Swanee", have the narrator yearning for life on the plantation and by implication life as a slave. Both songs gained their initial popularity through being performed in "Minstral Shows", white performers appearing in black face singing and playing Dixieland jazz style music. While this may sound offensive to us, the songs were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and in no way diminishes their quality musically.
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While these two songs are well known, others of the fourteen included on the disc have a slightly more obscure provenance. Take "On The Banks Of The Kaney", it was originally recorded in 1929 by Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, a Choctaw Indian string band from Oklahoma. From what little I was able to find out about this group they wrote and recorded songs for Choctaw audiences and were discovered playing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Just like the fact there were African American string, or country/bluegrass type bands, back in the 1920s and 1930s has almost been forgotten, probably very few people are aware there were Native American bands as well. That alone would make contemporary recordings of this song and the others on the disc worthwhile, but these are more than just dusty pieces of history of interest only to musicologists.

For, as performed by Eden and John and friends they sound as fresh and alive as if they were written today. The combination of their enthusiasm, energy, skill and the sense that all of them are having the time of their lives playing the songs on the disc make it far more enjoyable to listen to than the majority of contemporary music. There's something irrepressible about Eden's vocals which makes her sound like she's tapped into the secret of knowing how to have the best time in the world. She and the rest of the band might take their playing seriously and are as good a group of instrumentalists as you'll find anywhere, but they don't take themselves seriously and always remember to have fun with what they're doing. Maybe it's the fact that a kazoo features predominately in the mix on quite a number of tunes (I've always had a soft sport for a well played kazoo), but listening to this disc was the most fun I've had listening to music in a long while.

With all the the talk of Americana and roots music, the irony is how much of the real roots of American popular music is still being ignored today. Or even worse, far too many people forget that it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed. They forget that it was performed at county fairs under tents so people could try and forget about the troubles of the world for a little while. Sure its important culturally as it integrated African and European music in ways that had never happened before, but it was also the dance and good time music of the day.

The music on Be Kind To A Man When He's Down comes from another age - spanning the years from just before the American Civil War to just before WWII - but it can bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step far more readily than most of what passes for popular music today. In these days of war, famine, pollution and other horrors it's hard to remember there was a less cynical time when music could make you feel glad to alive. This album is not only a collection of timeless treasures, it's a reminder that popular music can be fun. Be Kind To Be A Man When He's Down is available in both CD and 180 gram yellow vinyl. If you have a turntable buy the LP as that way you can not only enjoy a full sized piece of Robert Crumb's art, but I have a feeling this is the type of music that will be best appreciated listened to on a turntable.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down on Blogcritics.)

February 13, 2011

Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree

I can still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lotte Lenya singing. It was the original cast recording of the first English production of the Kurt Weill, Bertol Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. While the rest of the cast sang their material with the glossy voices you expect in American musical theatre, Lenya's voice was as coarse as rough sand paper and a wonderful relief from the parade of characterless voices which had proceeded it. Brecht and Weill's biting piece of social commentary had been turned into a pretty piece of musical theatre with Lenya's performance being the only tie to its roots in the political theatre of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

Brecht hadn't been interested in creating pieces of escapist entertainment, and strove to rid performances of the sentimental attachment the audiences made to the characters in a play. His theory of "alienation" was to constantly remind the audience they were watching actors on stage performing in a play so their intellect wouldn't be clouded by forming any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted performers with real and gritty singing voices; people who weren't your typical matinee idols playing the romantic hero to the young ingenue. While there was far more to his alienation technique than his preference in actors, its something to keep in mind when listening to Gypsy In A Tree, the new CD from Sanda Weigl (she is referred to by her first name only) on the Brooklyn NY Barbes Records label.
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For while Sanda was born in Romania her family moved to East Berlin in the early 1960s. As a child she had loved to watch the gypsy street musicians in her home of Bucharest, and quickly learned to sing the songs she heard them performing and had even been a child star on Romanian State television. In Berlin, her aunt, Helene Weigel, who was not only Brecht's widow but had taken over the running of his company The Berliner Ensemble, Sanda under her wing and introduced her to Brecht and Weill's style of musical theatre. From there she graduated to being the member of a rock band and also winning the Dresden International Song Festival when she was 17 with her rendition of a traditional Roma (Gypsy) tune "Recruit". In 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform movement, she joined an underground student group to protest the invasion and East Germany's oppressive rule and was subsequently arrested, sentenced to three years of hard labour and then exiled as an enemy of the state to West Berlin.

In West Berlin Sanda returned to the theatre and her first love, the music of the Roma she had heard as a child. She began performing again with a band made up of musicians from the Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and William S Burroughs (book) musical The Black Rider which was originally staged in Germany. Encouraged by Black Rider's director, Robert Wilson, she and her husband emigrated to New York City to allow her to further her singing career. Since her arrival in New York City she has continued to perform and released her first disc in 2002, Gypsy Killer, and now, nine years latter, she has finally released her follow up. Ten of the eleven tracks on Gypsy In A Tree are traditional Roma songs which Sanda has adapted and arranged with the help of pianist Anthony Coleman and her current band, avant-garde jazz musicians Shoko Nagai (accordion, piano and Farfisa organ) Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion).

While Sanda sings in Romanian (the booklet accompanying the CD provides copies of each song's lyrics in Romanian, English and German) the music builds off the traditional melodies to reflect the many cultures and countries both Sanda and the Roma have been influenced by and travelled through. So while the opening song on the disc, "Intr-o Ai La Poarta Mea" (One Day In Front Of My Fence) sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the stages of Brecht and Weill's 1920s Germany, the very next song, "Un Tigan Avea O Casa" (A Gypsy Had A House) shows definite signs of modern jazz influences.

However, no matter what musical style has been incorporated, Sanda's vocals are so mesmerizing they are the listeners primary focus. She has a range that would be the envy of any musical theatre performer and an expressiveness that conveys meaning even though we might not understand the words she's singing. Reading the English translations of the songs alone doesn't convey the depth of feeling behind the lyrics, and Sanda is able to imbue each of the songs with what is necessary to convey the layers beneath the surface.
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Take the song "Jandarmul" (Gendarme - Romanian Gypsy word for a member of the cavalry) where a horseman refuses to give a young Roma girl a lift as she trudges along barefoot in a muddy road. On the page it sounds like she merely wishes him misfortune when she asks, "Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/ That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more". Somehow, Sanda is able to express through the soldier's attitude towards the young girl the disdain the majority of Romanian society has for the Roma, and the fatalism this has bred in response. It's as if the young girl is saying, fine if the world is going to make it so hard to walk and not offer any assistance, it might as well do away with roads altogether. Yet there's also an air of defiance, as she also seems to be saying, no matter what the world does to us we will continue on our journeys.

In some ways the songs on this disc are the blues songs of the Roma. For a great many of them reflect the pain of the Roma along the lines of "Adu Calu' Sa Ma Duc" (Bring My Horse It's Time To Go) which features an exchange of farewells between lovers who are being forced to part because of circumstances. "Bring my horse it's time to go/ I must leave this place/Where luck wants no part of me/If luck were with me/I wouldn't be punished thus/Torn away from you/My heart is always weeping". Much like blues musicians sing about misfortunes and bad times in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a people's bad experiences, Sanda does the same with her material. While those lyrics are potentially maudlin, listening to the sound of her voice as she sings them, you experience something similar to what you feel when listening to a great blues singer sing about her man doing her wrong. It's not just about this one incident, nor is it about feeling sorry for yourself, these songs are a way of making sure you don't brood about the bad things in life by proclaiming them to the sky and not letting them rule you.

In the early part of the 20th century when Romanians would hire Roma musicians to play for family events like weddings and other celebrations, they were forced to keep out of sight of the guests to the extreme of having to sit in trees if they were performing outside. Gypsy In A Tree takes its title from that reprehensible practice, but while the songs on the disc might have lyrics which talk about the hardships the Roma have faced, and continue to face this day, Sanda's performance make them more than just laments. With an obvious empathy for the material and the people who created it, Sanda is able to convey the strength of spirit of a people who have not only survived this treatment for centuries, but have managed to create a strong and vibrant culture along the way.

While it may seem like an odd combination, a Romanian vocalist accompanied by three Japanese musicians, performing traditional Roma material, their approach has been the perfect combination of respect and experimentation to bring the songs to life. Of course the combination of great songs, great musicians and a spectacular vocalist is usually a winner, and that's the case here.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree on Blogcritics.)

February 6, 2011

Music Review: Susan McKeown -Singing In The Dark

You'd think we'd have matured enough by now we could talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Instead the stigma attached to even the most basic of emotional difficulties is so great most people are still loath to even admit they're seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. All you have to do is watch people squirm and try to change the subject when you bring up the fact that you've been seeing somebody to help you deal with emotional problems to understand what I'm talking about. The only thing worse than dealing with the rest of the world's reactions to your circumstances are the way the majority of the medical profession - especially those who treat them specifically - deal with mental illnesses.

They see their job as doing their damnedest to take your square pegged self and make you fit into the nice little round holes society wants us all slotting into. The problem is that far too much of the time its been trying to fit into those little round holes that have caused you all the problems in the first place. The usual answer offered by the profession is to medicate the crap out of you so you don't notice the shit that caused you to slip off the rails. So if you've been having the perfectly normal reaction to the tensions of living in our world today of having anxiety attacks they'll pump you full of pills to deaden your emotions and turn you back into a mindless sheep content with career, house in the suburbs and the ability to swallow what you hear and see in the media as the gospel truth.

While for some that might be the answer to their troubles, others might find that a cost their not willing to pay for easing their minds. It's probably no coincidence that throughout history artists, specifically poets, have been troubled by what we would call mood disorders. What has been commonly referred to as the "artistic temperament" may actually have been an indication of something deeper: depression, manic/depression, anxiety or some other form of emotional imbalance. During their lifetimes a great many poets lived lives of intense suffering and poverty as they were shunned by "normal" society and it was only in their art they were able to find solace. The insights into human nature and emotions which have been the hallmarks of some of the world's great poetry, ensuring their places in history, are in most cases a result of the writer suffering from some sort of trouble of the mind.
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When singer/songwriter Susan McKeown began researching her family tree she was startled to discover the high incidence of disturbances among the creative members of her ancestry. Fascinated by this correlation she set out to discover more, and soon realized her family wasn't an anomaly. In an effort to try and reduce some of the stigma attached to people dealing with these issues McKeown has created an album adapting the work of poets who wrote about those feelings. The result, Singing In The Dark, is a beautiful and haunting collection of work capturing both the emotional highs and lows experienced by the creative spirit.

McKeown has gathered together the work of poets throughout history whose work either reflects their own struggles with emotional imbalances or has something to do with the subject. Trawling through the ages she has reached back into our earliest works, "Mad Sweeny", whose origins lie in the 5th century and travelled through to modern times and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". Along the way she pays her respect to writers on both sides of the Atlantic including Lord Byron, "We'll Go No More A Roving" and John Rowland, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" from England; Nula Ni Dhomhnaill, "The Crack In The Stairs" and James Clarence Mangan, "The Nameless One" from Ireland; Theodore Roethke, "In A Dark Time" and Anne Sexton "A Woman Like That (Her Kind)" from America and Spaniard Violeta Parra, "Gracias A La Vida" (Thanks To Life) amongst them.

As you can tell from their titles these songs, poems, go places most of aren't used to, or interested in, going when listening to music. However, there's a reason these works have survived and are around today for McKeown to have adapted, and that's because no matter how depressing you might think the topic at hand is, there is something uplifting or compelling about each of the works. Part of that is McKeown's abilities as a performer and her incredible command of her voice which allows her to sing one song, "The Crazy Woman" by Gwendolyn Brooks, in an aching tenor and another, Cohen's aforementioned "Anthem" in a rich alto.

The material isn't hurt by the fact she has surrounded herself with what is obviously an amazingly gifted group of musicians and technicians who have helped her bring her vision to reality. I mention the latter because as I was listening to this disc I couldn't help but notice how cleanly the songs have been mixed so each instrument sounds like its been nestled in a cocoon keeping their integrity intact while still being obviously only one small piece of a much larger picture. With the variety of instruments being used it would have been easy for the sound to have turned to mud, instead it is crystal clear.
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Musically she also has some surprises in store for listeners. Upon reading the disc is composed of songs adopted from poems dealing with mental illness, one could almost be forgiven for assuming the material is going to be full of sweeping electronics, melodic strings, and other typical means of creating atmosphere. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the amount of fuzz being used on the electric guitar on the Roethke piece opening the disc and the rocking lead guitar searing through the adaptation of Sexton's piece that follows. While in the opening track the fuzz serves as a contrast to McKeown's voice, on "A Woman Like That", she develops the roughness of voice to match the guitar. I like the irony of her dealing with a topic that's been subject to so much misconception by shattering a great many of the preconceived notions most people would have had about how this type of material would be presented. Just because its poetry doesn't mean its going to be pretty or precious. Of course if you think about it, with such gritty subject matter it makes sense for the music to be equally real.

However, no matter how interesting and well played the music on the recording is, its still the words which lay at its core. Here's where McKeown shows her amazing capacity for understanding the various aspects of emotional conditions. The material reflects not only a variety of experiences but the diversity of emotions felt by those who deal with them their whole lives. Again expectations are probably going to be dashed as in spite of what anyone might think, people suffering from emotional disturbances, even sever ones, are still quite rational and aren't necessarily depressed or manic all of the time. In fact one of the more prevalent emotions you can hear being expressed on this disc is hope. Whether its in the firmness of the convictions expressed by the woman in the "The Crazy Woman", "I'll not sing a May song/A May song should be gay/I'll wait until November/And sing a song of grey", or the knowledge that even when the darkness seems complete light still has a chance as Cohen's "Anthem" makes sure to point out, "Ring the bells that still can sing/Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in/That's how the light gets in".

There's no denying though, there are some pretty torturous paths being followed by the minds of some of the poets she has drawn upon. However when you read about their life stories, or the history surrounding a specific piece, as described in the CD's liner notes, you will see how a great many of these writers were pushed into darkness by their circumstances. Too often we tend to look at someone's behaviour and judge them without searching beyond to see what might have caused it. The number of abused women who are punished for being overtly violent, put into anger control programs, or worse, for lashing out at those who have been torturing them is only one indication of how deeply we are failing those dealing with emotional disorders.

Easing their burdens shouldn't be so difficult, and Susan McKeown's is another voice being raised on their behalf in an attempt to demystify these types of "illnesses". Not only does Singing In The Dark offer moral support, a portion of the proceeds from its sale are being donated the following groups helping people: National Alliance on Metal Illness (NAMI), Fountain House, BringChange2Mind and The Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG). This is an album of spectacular singing, great musicand intelligent lyrics in support of a good cause - what more could you want?

(Article first published as Music Review: Susan McKeown - Singing In The Dark on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music

The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn't help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don't often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.

What most people don't realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument, surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
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All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we're dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora playing Malian Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance, a twenty-six string traditional harp like African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire, the gap between the two men and their instruments isn't actually that large.

Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you'd think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko's training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.

Even if you don't know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track "Chamber Music", to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello's rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument's melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
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Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It's fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding "Oscarine" where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you'd hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it's most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.

While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track "Regret". The song is a tribute to Sissoko's late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho's vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer's voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.

Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds

(Article first published as Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music )

December 1, 2010

Music Review: Various Performers -Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s

After more than five years of reviewing what feels like thousands of different music CDs a great many of the titles I've covered have vanished into the haze of my memory. It's one of the reasons I don't review nearly as many titles as I once did, there's only so many different ways I have of saying basically the same thing over and over again for music that's all beginning to sound suspiciously similar. For someone to stand out enough for me to remember not only their name, but exactly what they've done, means there was something remarkably distinctive about them. In some cases that might mean they were such an absolute horror show that you can't help but recall them with a shudder.

But as in the case of the Eden & John's East River String Band's disc, Some Cold Rainy Day, there are recordings where a love of the material being performed combines with the skill and passion necessary to bring it to life results in the creation of something truly special. On the above album Eden and John went deep into the past of American popular music for their material and play the tunes on instruments - vintage archtop guitar and resonator ukulele - from the era. However, these are not just lovingly presented museum pieces, Eden and John throw so much of themselves into the pieces they take on new life and are just as relevant as anything written today.

It turns out that John Heneghan, the John from the group's name, is not only a fan and performer of music from the 1920s and 30s, he's also an avid collector of recordings from the era. Blues, jazz, country and Hawaiian are only a few of the genres that are apparently represented in his vast collection of old 78 rpm discs. It was this resource that Heneghan drew upon when compiling the latest release for the Dust To Digital label. Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s And 1930s is a three disc collection of over sixty tunes that cut across race, genre, geographical boundaries and gender. While the historical significance of this release is obvious, its a brilliant snap-shot of the variety of popular music created during those two decades, listeners are also going to be surprised and delighted by the material for its own sake. In fact you'll probably even experience quite a sense of regret that this music has been forgotten over the years, as a great deal of it is every bit as good, if not better, than most of what's being written today around the same themes.
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I think what might surprise people the most is how graphic some of the material is. If Tipper Gore had problems with the "Mature Content" of rap songs, I wonder what she'd make of songs with titles like "Let Me Play With It" or lyrics like those of the song "Pussy" where the singer talks about stroking his woman's pussy. The sexual innuendo isn't exactly subtle and the double entendres fly fast and thick in quite a few songs, but especially on the second disc of the set, subtitled "Lust". Oh and if you think only the male singers are raunchy, well you really have led a sheltered life haven't you. Don't worry, Mississippi Matilda will set you straight as she sings to you what's it like to be a "Hard Working Woman". There's also songs that won't offend the more delicate sensibilities out there as well like "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me", the original version by Eddie Peabody not Tiny Tim. It's still done on ukulele, and still annoying, but make sure you listen closely to the lyrics, you won't regret it.

While there are a few other familiar names that pop up in the credits and titles; Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt are probably the three most widely recognized names; the reality is that even they aren't what you'd call household names anymore. While some of the material and the people performing them have very rightly been swallowed up by the mists of time, the majority are tunes well worth listening to, and if there were any justice in the world, would still be listened to on a regular basis today.

As previously mentioned the second disc in the set contains material that revolves around the theme of "Lust". Each of the other two discs are similarly organized with the first focusing on "Love" and the third on "Contempt". While you might be tempted to skip over the first disc in order to sample what "Lust" and "Contempt" have to offer (Love songs are a dime a dozen these days, but how many good contempt songs have you heard recently?) don't let yourself be prejudiced by thoughts of contemporary songs. Where else are you going to hear bands like Banjo Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band or Little Kimbrough and Winston Holmes and songs with titles like "That's What The Bachelor's Made Out Of " (Taylor's Kentucky Boys) and "Insane Crazy Blues"? (Charlie Burse with Memphis Jug Band) Believe me when I tell you they don't write love songs like these anymore, and while not all of them are going to appeal to everyone, the great thing about this collection is if you don't like a tune - skip ahead to the next because its going to be something completely different from what's come before.
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Of course some of the best titles are to be found on the "Contempt" disc; "You Gonna Look Like A Monkey When You Get Old", "Wimmin-Aaah!", and "Its A Shame To Whip Your Wife On Sunday". The latter very pleasantly reminds listeners that there's no need to whip your wife, or do any manner of things on Sundays, as there plenty more days of the week for you to take care of those tasks without violating the Sabbath. While there is great material throughout the collection, there seems to have been something about "Contempt" that inspired people that little bit extra. Not only are there more songs on this side than either of the other two, there's no denying that on the whole they're a good deal more interesting. It's been said that love and hate are the opposite faces of the same coin, but in the case of popular music from the 1920 and 30s it seems like people might have spent a little more on despising then they did on adoring.

A lot of trouble has been taken with creating an appropriate package for the music on these three discs and you can't help but appreciate both the artwork and the photographs used as covers, labels for the CDs and in the accompanying booklet. The booklet and the disc's gatefolds are adorned with period photographs reflecting the title's themes and each disc comes complete with a label done in the Art Deco style of the period.

Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is a veritable cross section of American popular music. What's truly wonderful about it is that no matter what genre the song, it predates the era of slick presentation and commercial concerns whose end result was to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. This is a trip back to the days when not all popular songs sounded alike or adhered to some industry dictated formula for success. The material on these discs are the real roots of American popular music, but much of it has been forgotten or ignored over the years. While unfortunately a great deal of what was recorded in the time period represented by this collection has been lost, the samples offered by it give us some indication of just how rich and vibrant our popular music culture once was. If nothing else, maybe this collection will inspire people who hear it to seek out more of the same and others to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of popular music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s on Blogcritics.)

November 14, 2010

Music Review: Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes

I had to have an MRI done a few weeks ago, and after hearing various horror stories about the process I was relieved to find the reality far less traumatic then any myths had led me to believe. Somehow or other I had come to the impression that you were shut up in a coffin shaped box for something like forty-five minutes and bombarded with sonic waves that left you feeling like you had intimate relations with a jack hammer. Thankfully the coffin turned out to be merely a larger version of a CT Scan machine - sort of like a deep donut instead of a skinny one - which you were slid into until the area of your body requiring examination was completely inside.

As far as the so-called aural assault that was supposedly part of the experience, it too was nowhere near what I had been led to believe. In my case it involved a series of three scans about four minutes in length and of differing frequency and intensity. While the first two waves of sound were seemingly formless noise, I couldn't help noticing the third wave bore striking similarities to some of what is referred to as industrial music. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't show up in some DJ's mix on a dance floor periodically. All of which naturally led me down paths I really don't like going, mainly when is something music and when is it noise? Could these sound patterns being used to offer up an image of my inner workings be considered music, and if it wasn't, why was something similar in sound considered music and not noise?

I'm sure most of us have had the experience of being told by somebody of an older generation that what we're listening to isn't music, but only so much noise. That highly subjective opinion hasn't been based on anything other than that person's individual taste and I'm sure has been said down the ages about everything from swing to thrash metal by those who have had their delicate sensibilities offended by something being played at a decibel level higher than they prefer. However, if looked at objectively, a string quartet playing Mozart and two guitars, bass and drums playing an Anthrax tune have more in common than either of their respective listeners would admit. While they may not sound much alike each are playing a piece of music that follows the recognizable patter of rhythm and tune combing to form a song.

It's when we start looking at some contemporary compositions or avant-garde jazz the argument that this isn't music its noise might be considered to have some legs to stand on. Most of these pieces have no real discernible rhythm and just try to find any sort of tune to hum along to! It's not going to happen. So why should we consider them music? One word, intent. Unlike the MRI or any piece of machinery which produces noise, a mind has gone through the process of deciding what and why specific sounds are to be used or has created the framework for the sounds to exist in. While there may be some elements of randomness in a piece's generation, the sound is not being produced incidentally but deliberately. A machine does not decide to make a particular noise, it does so as an ancillary result of carrying out its function or, as in the case of a MRI, as part of its function.
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Much as the way we appreciate abstract art utilizing different standards than we would employ for figurative works, avant-garde jazz and other forms of contemporary composition require their listeners to open their minds to new possibilities. A perfect example of this is the latest project from composer and coronet player Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra. Stars Have Shapes, recently released on Delmark Records, combines musicians, found sounds and electronics in the creation of the four pieces found on the CD.

In his liner notes Mazurek offers us a setting, or a context, within which we might place these works. At night we can see the beauty of stars reflected back to us in the dark water of a lake, an image which conjures up expectations of quiet and deep stillness. But that's not all we see or hear at night. It only appears calm because of the contrast to the usual bustle of human activity that surrounds us during the day. However, the night has its own sound - what Mazurek describes as, "In the down time, when the world is asleep there is a roar. In the night, in the moments, as our eyes adjust, we can see the shapes and shadows dart and dash."

"Ascension Ghost Impression #2", the twenty minute piece opening the disc, recreates the experience described above perfectly. The sound of the solitary whistler opening the piece immediately captures the sensation of a single person alone in a vast emptiness. While there might be something inherently cheerful about the sound of a whistle, it also rings soft and small, which only serves to emphasize the initial impression of nothingness. Gradually the lone whistler is joined by other instruments, first a piano, then flute, saxophone and others begin playing individual motifs. Each additional sound represents a steadily increasing awareness of the activity in the night around us.
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At first each of the instruments is playing something we would recognize as a tune, and we hear them as distinct sounds in their own right. Yet, almost without us being aware of it happening, they begin to meld and compete against each other and blend into a background of what is an ever increasingly loud wall of sound made up of everything from the sound of bicycles to rain in the Brazilian Amazon. As the sound crescendos, as our awareness of what is truly happening during the night increases, it comes close to being overwhelming; a sensory overload. Then just as it threatens to become too much, at about the half-way point of the piece, the wall of sound relents as if we have become accustomed to the night around us.

Yet it doesn't fade away completely, for the night never retreats, and while we might become used to it, we will never feel really safe during the dark hours. When the sound swells again the pervasive feelings of threat we feel when we're alone in the stillness and the dark becomes all the clearer because of the momentary relief brought about by the pause. As we listen to the second half of the piece two things come clear. First just how alien this environment is to us and secondly how we have become so used to the unnatural sights and sounds of our civilization, the quiet and stillness of the organic has become strange and frightening.

Sound and music don't have to come in neat little packages like songs or concertos to tell a story. However, unless there is some sort of intent behind what a composer is doing, an intent he or she is able to make clear to their listeners, than there is little to separate what they do from the random noise generated by machinery. While Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra's latest project, Stars Have Shapes might initially sound like noise, there is a method behind the madness. Of course it doesn't hurt that Mazurek has drawn upon some of the best players in the Chicago avant-garde scene to help him with this project including; Nicole Mitchell flutes and voice, Jason Adasiewicz vibraphone and Josh Abrams bass to name only a handful. Not only are these players uniquely gifted as solo performers, with this recording they prove how talented they are when working as part of an ensemble.

While it's not the easiest thing in the world to sit and listen to the Exploding Star Orchestra, or any avant-garde jazz for that matter, neither is it the easiest thing in the world to have to confront our own inner demons and fears. Jazz has always been about an emotional reaction through music to a subject matter, and this piece shows how that process has taken the next steps in its evolution. Its disturbing, unsettling and isn't something you're going to want to put on your player as background music or as a means of relaxing. However there is no denying either its power or its ability to touch us, two of the most important things any work of art should be judged by. You may not enjoy or like Stars Have Shapes very much, but I bet you can't help but be impressed by it.

(Article first published as Music Review: Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2010

Concert Review: Septeto Nacional Live In Kingston Ontario November 3/10

In the first week of November the temperature starts dipping below freezing in Kingston Ontario, so it was some relief to have a warm Caribbean breeze blow in from Cuba November 3/10 and plunk itself down on stage at the city's Grand Theatre. Septeto Nacional has been bringing son habanero (the sound of Havana) to the rest of the world in various incarnations since 1927 and it was the fourth generation of players who blew into town and succeeded in helping to stave off winter a little longer. Infectious, enthusiastic and skilled the seven piece band (and two friends) seduced the evening's crowd with the sultry rhythms of their Afro/Cuban music.

On tour in support of its newly released CD, Sin Rumba no hay Son!, the band is criss-crossing North America. While the CD is a joy to listen to, it's only be seeing and hearing Septeto in performance that you can truly experience their finer qualities. Under the leadership of vocalist Euenio Rodriguez Rodriguez, "Raspa", the seven piece band weaves a musical spell that works its way under an audience's skin without them noticing. Just before intermission they showed how successful they had been by pulling the entire audience out of their seats to have them swaying to their music and dancing in the aisles.

The backbone of the band is their rhythm section consisting of Francisco David Oropesa Fernandes "El Matador" on bongos, Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva on guitar and Raul Acea Rivera on Bass. For those of us used to a band requiring at least a drummer playing a full kit and maybe an additional percussionist in order to lay down a steady beat, it might seem that one man playing bongos would be insufficient to create anything solid enough to carry a song let alone a band. However, "El Matador" not only was strong enough to get toes tapping, he worked in fills and frills that would make many a jazz drummer green with envy with only his two hands and one set of bongos. With Rivera and Oliva laying down the current feeding the tempo, Fernandes skipped and hopped like a water bug over top giving the music that extra edge which allows it to mysteriously find its way into an audience's feet.

Enrique Collazo Collazo on tres (a Cuban guitar) and Agustin Someillan Garcia on trumpet rode the stream laid down by their rhythm section like experienced sailors running before a steady wind. Collazo's subtle yet intricate fingering was a constant presence as he picked out melodies on his instrument. However, unlike rock and roll lead guitar players who seem to be always demanding that we pay attention to them with their flamboyant moves and attitude, Collazo played in service to the song at hand and nothing else. While he was always felt, the only time you were really aware of him was during his specific solos.
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A trumpet stands out at the best of times, so you'd think as the sole brass instrument amongst Septepto's players it would stick out like a soar thumb. However, in the case of Garcia, unless you specifically listened for him, he integrated himself so well into the band's sound, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was even a trumpet playing. That's not to say he was buried in the mix, or anything like that. Rather his playing was so perfectly pitched to the rest of the band's sound it was like he was singing another harmony to the two lead's vocals.

While Crispin Diaz Hernandez left the bulk of the lead vocals to his senior, "Raspa", when his turn came he showed a skill set that equalled the maestro's. It was he who was responsible for pulling the audience to their feet at the end of the first intermission through the simple expedient of a big smile and gesturing with his hand that everybody should rise. (As none of the band spoke much English, most of the on stage patter was lost on the mainly Anglo audience although judging by the laughter rising from the pockets of Latinos present it must have been funny). However, he wasn't just good at communicating with the audience, he had a wonderfully expressive and evocative voice, and you couldn't help but be swept up by the enthusiasm generated by his performance.

Yet, in spite of the skill shown by the rest of the band, whenever the dapper figure of Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez "Raspa" stepped up to take the spotlight, we were all instantly in the palm of his hand. Playing a bit of a fool with his between the song patter, slipping in and out of rapid fire gibberish and Spanish and pulling faces as if he just stepped off some vaudeville stage of the twenties, the moment he opened his mouth to sing you were transported. You wouldn't think such a small body could contain such a large voice. Soaring over the rest of the band he effortlessly carried the audience with him on every one of his flights of fancy. Not understanding his lyrics didn't seem as important as being carried away by the delight of listening to him sing.

Septeto Nacional are coming to the end of their fall North American tour, but will be back again in the spring. (You can find details of their tour on their page at the World Village Music web site) to hit any of the places they might have missed this time round. Judging by their performance in Kingston Ontario last night (Wednesday November 3rd/10) this isn't a band you want to miss hearing and seeing perform if the opportunity presents itself. My only complaint was there wasn't a program telling us who the guests were joining them on stage, which prevents me from giving credit to the guest vocalist and the Em C who are travelling with them.

There aren't too many bands who can get an audience ranging in age from tots to seniors up and dancing en masse, but these guys can and will. So bring along a pair of dancing shoes and practice smiling because you're going to be doing plenty of both.

(Article first published as Concert Review: Septeto Nacional, Kingston, Ontario - November 3, 2010 on Blogcritics.)

September 17, 2010

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen- Songs From The Road

It's not often that items are released within a couple of weeks of each other about the same artist where one was originally recorded some forty years before the other. It's especially rare to have two DVDs about the same person with that time difference surfacing one right after the other. The number of performers who have endured from the 1970s to now are few enough as it is, but for there to be anything new under the sun from the past not yet released that is actually worth viewing is as remarkable as the longevity required for them still to be performing today.

Leonard Cohen has actually been around a lot longer then since the early 1970s, but the DVD scheduled for release on August 31/10, Bird On A Wire, was of the never before seen film made of his 1972 European tour. (As of now the DVD has still not been released due to "concerns" on the part of Cohen's current label - you won't even find it listed yet at either the distributor's web site or at Amazon.com) Now two weeks later, September 14/10, Columbia Record's Legacy Recordings has released Songs From The Road a collection of twelve songs taken from Cohen's 2008/2009 world tour. Available as a CD/DVD package and Blu-ray, the songs are taken from eleven of the many venues Cohen performed at during his two years on the road, with two from his November 2008 concert at London's O2 Arena.

While twelve songs might not seem like much of a representation of a career that has spanned nearly five decades, that's not the point of this release. Instead it was an attempt to capture some of what the recording's producer, Ed Sanders, calls the tour's special moments. As we see in the special feature documentary included on the DVD, "Backstage Sketch", it was Cohen's habit at the end of each show to go directly from the stage to a waiting vehicle which would whisk him back to his hotel. Accompanied by only his tour manager and Sanders he would usually not even mention the show just performed. However, over the course of the tour there were nights when something special would have happened on stage which would compel Cohen to talk about the show. Each of these songs represent, either in Cohen's or Sander's estimation, one of those moments on the tour.
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Ironically, just like its predecessor from 1972, Songs From The Road opens with Cohen's Tel Aviv concert. In September of 2009 Cohen played to some 50,000 people at the Ramat Gan Stadium. While that might seem like a strange environment for a performer whose material is as intimate as Cohen's, you can't help but be amazed at his ability to connect to an audience no matter what its size. As he and the band work their way through a beautiful rendition of "Lover, Lover, Lover", the camera pans out over the stadium where the entire audience appear to be holding green light sticks which are swaying in time to the music like some eerily glowing field of grass. Even more than actually seeing the audience react to the song, one can't help but be impressed by the connection it demonstrates exists between Cohen and his audience or the implied power it represents. Yet, the appreciation he shows for their applause when the song ends is so genuine, it's his humility that leaves the strongest impression.

It doesn't seem to matter where he's performing, or the size of the crowd, each of the songs on this DVD manage to capture the sense of communion existing between Cohen and his audience. This is not your typical rock and roll tour with its crowd of worshippers, instead there appears to be a genuine feeling of reciprocity between the performer and his audience. After each song the applause is deafening and Cohen responds by standing before them humbly, either doffing his hat in recognition of their response or saying a genuine "Thank you friends", constantly surprised at the strength of their reaction.

No collection as small as this one will satisfy every fan of Cohen's, but what I liked about it is the mix of classics and lessor known pieces. "Bird On The Wire" and "Chelsea Hotel" are followed on the disc by "Heart With No Companion", "That Don't Make It Junk" and "Waiting For The Miracle", three songs that you won't often find on any greatest hits collection. "Heart", with its decidedly country feel and slightly tongue in cheek presentation, watch for the three back up vocalists doing some line dancing in the instrumental break, was an example of the rather surprising lightness of spirit that pervaded Cohen's performances. This was, after all, the guy who became famous for cutting a rather brooding and romantic figure. However, even though his material has lost none of its emotional intensity, there was prevailing sense of optimism to the proceedings.
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Perhaps the explanation lies not in what was being performed, but in the fact that both audience and performers were taking such joy in being present. This was something that went beyond the audience merely appreciating Cohen and the band's renditions of the songs, and is hard to define. Unlike other concerts where there is a clear demarcation of roles for both performer and audience, the line at these concerts seemed to blur somewhat. It was like the connection between the two was so strong each song became an experience to share, not something one sat back and passively observed.

One of the best examples of this is the recording of Cohen's performance of "Hallelujah" recorded at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Normally multiple stages are in operation at once, but festival organizers arranged it so Cohen's performance was the only one scheduled and he performed for the entire festival crowd. With a crowd that size standing in front of a stage you'd expect to notice people being distracted or looking around. Not on this night at this moment. Every face seemed riveted on the slightly stooped grey suited figure holding the microphone; hanging on his every word and awaiting their cue to start singing along with the chorus. As producer Sanders says in his notes, if he had to pick a moment as a highlight from the tour it would be hearing the tens of thousands of voices raised in a chorus of one word at the end of the song - Hallelujah.

Naturally the sound and visual quality of this CD/DVD package are excellent with the on stage visuals being exceptionally well done providing both wonderful close ups during solos and excellent full band coverage when required as well. However don't look to the special features for any startling revelations or insights into the artistry of Leonard Cohen. While the short documentary, "Backstage Sketch", introduces us to all the other people on the tour; band members, roadies, tour manager and even the tour accountant, Cohen himself only appears incidentally.

While Tony Palmer's film, Bird On A Wire from 1972 provided viewers with extensive back and off stage footage of Cohen and his band, the tour itself was plagued by horrible sound problems. As a result the footage from on stage was limited and not of the quality we're now used to. It was more than adequate considering the conditions and the time, but compared to what you can see and hear on Songs From The Road you truly comprehend the advantages our new technology has given us over films made in the past. While Bird On A Wire might have given us a better understanding of Cohen the man, Songs From The Road allows you a deeper appreciation of Cohen the performer and the amazing bond he has with his audiences.

(Article first published as Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Songs From the Road on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: Septeto Nacional -Sin Rumba no hay Son!

While there's nothing wrong with looking forward and looking for the means to improve things, doing so without paying attention to one's history can result in the creation of a cultural vacuum. Far too often in North America we're far more concerned with celebrating the next "Big Thing" and then discarding it once something else catches our eye to replace it in our affections. Instead of using what came before as a foundation for building something solid, far too often we end up with confections, that while looking good, are the artistic equivalent of candy floss. Lacking any real substance they usually blow away the first moment our attention is distracted by the next shiny pretty thing to come along.

Initially popular music in North America was close to its roots, building on the solid foundation of both its African American and European roots. Even before rock and roll and the successful marriage of country and blues, composers like Ira and George Gershwin drew upon jazz and blues influences when composing some of their most famous pieces. Porgy And Bess should have been a defining moment in the development of a uniquely American culture in the way it combined the classical form of opera with the music of the new world. Unfortunately, commercial necessity forced the brothers to divert their creative energies into musical theatre and eventually film. While songs like "Summertime" might live on through their occasional revival, Porgy and Bess isn't usually seen performed outside of opera houses, and the Gershwins are remembered more instead for the insipid music they wrote for Hollywood musicals.
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Popular music in North America has been like a series of coups and counter coups as in almost every new generation a type of rebellion occurs against what came before; rock and roll in the 1950s, psychedelic/acid rock of the 1960s, punk in the 1970s, rap in the 1980s and grunge in the 1990s, only to see each one co-opted and watered down by an industry geared towards treating development as a trend to be milked for every dollar possible. Having lived with this reality most of my adult life it always comes as a nice surprise to discover parts of the world where things are different. Not only do musicians and audiences recognize the importance of their cultural history, they see nothing wrong in playing and listening to the music their father's and their father's before them played. One doesn't even need to look too far from our own shores for an example either, for Cuba's Septeto Nacional has existed since 1927 and are onto its fourth generation of players. One of the original son bands who first combined the African and Latino sounds of Cuba, the latest incarnation's new recording, Sin Rumba no hay Son! (Without Rumba there is no Son), is being released September 14/10 on the World Village Music label.

Son music has its roots in the rural communities of Cuba, primarily former black slaves, and was brought to urban centres like Havana by migrants seeking work. It was in Havana that Ignacio Pineiro founded Septeto Nacional (the band takes its name from its seven piece line up; Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez "Raspa" vocals, Francisco David Oropesa Fernades "El Matador" bongos, Enrique Collazo Collazo tres, Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva guitar/vocals, Agustin Someillian Garcia trumpet/vocals, Raul Acea Rivera bass and Crispin Diaz Hernandez maracas/vocals) and proceeded to augment son with the rumba and other Havanan musical influences. In order to increase the music's appeal to urban inhabitants he also took the step of adding trumpet to the ensemble as the lead instrument. The resulting hybrid, son habanero (which translates as son of the people of Havana or Havanan son) was the forerunner of basically every popular Latin sound that has made the rounds of North America from mambo to rumba. (Hence this new disc's title)

After each of the fourteen track's titles on this disc the style of the song is listed in brackets showing that while this generation hasn't lost touch with its roots in son, its also not letting itself be stuck in the past. Rumbas, boleros, congas and guarachas are built on top of the son base resulting in a compelling mix of melody and rhythm. Each component, from vocals to percussion, while having a distinctive voice of their own, play an integral part in the creation of the overall sound. For, while the trumpet might be the lead instrument, it also accents the rhythm being created by the guitar and percussion to help give the music an extra edge.
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Unfortunately the intricacies of Latin music are lost on me, I couldn't tell a samba from a rumba if my life depended on it, so I'm not in a position to critique Septeto Nacional at that level. However, even someone as ignorant as me can't help but recognize the individual talents at work in this band, and the incredible job they do of combining them to make each of their songs absolute gems. Rodriguez has one of those voices that coaxes and caresses every last nuance out of each syllable he sings to the point where it becomes irrelevant whether you speak Spanish or not. Yet, if the rest of the band weren't so carefully attuned to what he was doing, pitching their contributions to compliment and augment his performances, he would be lost in the shuffle.

One of the first lessons in music appreciation I ever received was that the sign of a good string section was not being able to tell if it was one instrument playing or a dozen. In the case of Septeto Nacional you can obviously tell there are seven different instruments, but they play with such harmony the result is as if they were speaking with one voice. This maybe a band that's nearly a hundred years old, playing music that's been passed down from generation to generation, but it sounds fresher and more alive than most music you'll hear today.

Last year this incarnation of Septeto toured North America for the first time since 1933, and they are returning again this fall and again in spring 2011 for a second go round. As well as engagements in major centres like Miami (September 02/10), Los Angeles (September 07 - 09/10) and New York City (April 16th 2011), remarkably they are ever going to be making an appearance in my little backwater, Kingston Ontario, on November 03/10 (Check the World Village Music web site for the complete schedule). All I can say is I hope they leave room for people to dance at each of the venues. Listening to them on disc it's almost impossible to sit still - in person I don't see how anybody will be able to stay in their seats. If the opportunity presents itself for you to see Septeto Nacional during their tour this time - take it. Anybody who ever doubted there wasn't anything we could learn from history or who thought the past belonged in the past will quickly learn otherwise listening to these men play. Listen, learn, but most of all, enjoy yourself, because that's what this music is all about.

(Article first published as Music Review: Septeto Nacional - Sin Rumba no hay Son on Blogcritics.)

September 2, 2010

DVD Review: Bob Brozman - Par Avion

The first time I heard Bob Brozman was a few years back and at the time I was amazed at his abilities as a blues guitarist and vocalist. Aside from John Hammond Jr. I'd not heard another contemporary musician performing solo acoustic blues and be able to hold my attention for not only the length of a CD, but a ninety minute concert on DVD as well. So I was really surprised when talking to the publicist who had supplied me with those discs that he wasn't considered to be primarily a blues performer. Here was a guy who sounded like he was burning a hole in the neck of his resonator guitar his slide was moving so slickly, and yet blues was only considered something he did on the side. How could that be possible?

Well it turns out that Brozman is one of the few people around who justly deserves to be described as a world music performer. Unlike the majority of people who happen to be given that label only because they were born in a non English speaking country, Brozman actually plays music from all over the world. If it can be played on a stringed instrument, seemingly any kind of stringed instrument, there's a damn good chance he's played it at some point in his career. From the islands of Hawaii, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, the Okinawa Islands, Papua New Guinea, India, France, to the blues of his native America Brozman has travelled the world for thirty years seeking out new music and new musicians to play with.

While there have been individual recordings made of most of these musical collaborations, for the first time music lovers have an opportunity to view clips of Brozman and those he's worked with in action. A new DVD, Par Avion, for sale only through his web site, is a montage of video clips, still photos and of course music, dating back to his early days as a street musician in the early 1970's. While age and dubious equipment means the quality of some of the clips aren't the highest, it doesn't prevent the DVD from being a incredibly fascinating document.
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The movie opens with a couple of stills showing Brozman from his street musician days when he was making his living by travelling around America busking for a living. From there we move to 1978 for some faded black and white footage from Boulder Creek California for two tunes, "Ukulele Spaghetti" and "Shake It And Break It". Even at this age we see Brozman is already a virtuoso on his beloved resonators as he rocks the house on both a ukulele and guitar version of the old metal instruments. Combined with a clip from a local San Francisco news show in 1984, on which he's seen playing "River Blues", these pieces of video give viewers an indication of just how good a player Brozman is. With a voice like Leon Redbone and a dexterity on the fret-board like no one else, it's obvious he could have easily been a huge success playing only the blues.

However, this is the man who once said in an interview, "If you're bored it usually means your boring", and he sure wasn't about to let himself be either. The next few clips are from 1986 in Kailua Kona Hawaii and feature Brozman playing Hawaiian pedal steel. This is a style of music that even then had long since gone out of fashion, and in an interview done at the time he admitted that when he played those types of events he was usually the youngest person performing as nobody else his age or younger seemed interested in the genre anymore. It turns out he learned how to play it listening to old 78 rpm records of Tau and Rose Moe, Hawaiian musical stars of the 1920s. Somehow or other Tau heard of Brozman and in 1988 invited him to their home in Oahu. The result was a recording of Hawaiian pedal steel and lap blues unlike any that had been released in decades.

While the video clips from the recording session are faded black and white and over exposed in places, the sound quality is still crisp and clean. However the best moments are footage of Tau and Brozman sitting together jamming on their lap slide guitars against the backdrop of the Pacific ocean and lush green of the Moe house grounds. This section of the film ends with a beautiful shot of the two men walking along the beach together with Tau telling Brozman how much they appreciate a young guy like him from the mainland helping keep their music alive.

We then continue to hop skip and jump around the world and through the years with Brozman to watch him play swing music for ballroom dancers in Vancouver British Columbia in 1992, give a brief introduction to resonator guitars for a Japanese Television documentary in '94, and then down to Santa Cruz California to play some intricate jazz/blues with Martin Simpson of England. The hectic pace continues onto Okinawa, Reuion Island, Papua New Guinea, peppered with occasional stops at music festivals in Quebec City in Canada where he's seen performing with his friends from around the world including Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Rene Lacaille and Granmoun Lene from Reunion, and Debashish and Subhashis Bhattacharya from India.
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From what I've described I'm sure Par Avion sounds a rather disjointed affair, jumping all over the place as it does. However, when putting the clips together editor Daniel Shane Thomas has taken the time to build in transitions which provide some on screen text background as to where we are going and who we are about to see perform. Of course the other connective devise is the movie's subject matter, Bob Brozman. You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm, and obvious love, for the music he's playing and this, more than anything else, that serves as the through line for the movie. Brozman is not your typical musical tourist, taking what he likes best of other people's music and incorporating into his own. Rather he's there to learn how to play the music of whatever region he's visiting, and then record it with the local musicians. Therefore, with each new place visited we learn a little more about the fascinating common language human beings from every part of the world share - music.

Bob Brozman lives for and loves music and he's chosen to share some of what he has loved most over the last thirty years with us through the DVD Par Avion. If you've never heard or seen him play before, you've missed out on a truly extraordinary individual and musician and should take this chance to get to know him. The disc is only available through his web site, but it's well worth your while to make that little extra effort to pick up a copy. You'll be introduced to a whole new world of music.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Par Avion on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Music Review: The Fishtank Ensemble - Woman In Sin

After reviewing or critiquing god knows how much music over the last five years I've discovered a pattern I tend to fall into. Although there are a few performers who I've followed for years and will continue to do so because of their ability to keep their work fresh by continually discovering new ways of presenting their ideas, too often a person or group will be initially exciting only to end up being disappointing by sticking to the same formulae repeatedly. While I can understand the if ain't broke don't fix it mentality to a certain extent, in my opinion when it comes to the creative process that only leads to stagnation and boredom. There are more times than I'd like to count over that I've been really excited by the first couple of discs a performer or group have put out to only become frustrated and bored with them by the third disc when they continue to do the same thing over and over again.

As a result I've been reviewing a lot less music of late. It just seems harder and harder to find somebody or some band interesting enough to even give a listen to let alone review. Maybe part of the problem is the number of press releases finding their way into my inbox on a daily basis using the same group of adjectives to describe whatever genre of music they happen to be promoting. Everybody, from blues to death metal, seem to be fresh and exciting, or at the very least invigoratings. So many bands are being described as alternative these days I'm falling back on Ellen Page's line in her roller derby movie Whip It and asking "Alternative to what?" How can you be alternative when you sound like a thousand other bands out there?
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Thankfully I tend to exaggeration, if the scene were as bad as I describe it sometimes I think I'd blow my brains out. There are still bands and musicians out there who provide genuine alternatives to the mind sapping pabulum that passes for popular music on the radio these days. One who I've just been fortunate enough to stumble across are a four piece outfit who go by the really odd name of The Fishtank Ensemble. They've just put out their third release - on their own label - called Woman In Sin, and I can guarantee you'll be hard pressed to find a more eclectic collection of songs gathered onto one CD anywhere. The lead singer, Ursula Knudson, used to sing opera; violinist, Fabrice Martinez is from Paris and studied with Gypsy violinists across Europe; guitarist Doug Smolens used to hang out with Billy Idol and Slash before becoming hooked on flamenco and running off to Spain to learn from masters in the caves around Granada; while Djordje Stijepovic started playing bass with local Romany bands in Serbia when he was thirteen until moving to the US where he joined a band with Lemmy from Motorhead and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats.

Okay, so these folk have been around a bit and bring some pretty strange influences to the table with them, but how does it all blend together and are they any good? Where to start? I've listened to the disc three times now and each time I've come away even more amazed then I was the previous time. I could tell you about Knudson's incredible range as a vocalist - how she can soar right up the scale and sing scat up there that will put your heart in your throat and then turn around and growl her way through a rendition of "Fever" that will leave you so hot and bothered a cold shower won't help. I could also tell you how Stijepovic's bass accompaniment on that song will make you think he's channelling Charlie Mingus and how he can also play slap bass in a way that you've never heard before, and might not ever again, when he leads the group through a Balkan dance number called "Djordje's Rachenitza".

Than there are the two lead instruments, well at least in most bands you would consider the guitar and violin the leads, but here they are content to be equal members of the band. Either Smolens or Martinez could easily dominate any ensemble they played with they are such virtuosos, and on the pieces where they step forward you can't help but let your jaw drop at their playing. However what impressed me the most about the two of them was their versatility. There are many violinists and guitarists who can play one, maybe two, and even sometimes three different styles of music well, but these two seem able to handle anything you can think of. Torch songs, flamenco, gypsy tear the floor up dance music, jazz standards, and the rest of their repertoire are all played with an ease that's not only deceptive but mind boggling when you realize their complexity. In fact they're both almost too good for their own good. They are so effortless in their playing you can almost miss noticing their excellence.
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Most of the time when you hear a band being described as world music it usually means they play something that's not recognized as being pop music within our limited definition of that term. The Fishtank Ensemble actually do play world music as they are inspired by not only their different nationalities but an international variety of musical interests. While one song might sound like it comes from a demented cabaret populated by characters from a Kurt Weil opera another is redolent with the raw, naked passion of loss you'll only hear in the truest and scariest flamenco, and a third has echoes of a rain swept street in late night Paris. From small mountain villages in the Balkans to the urban sharpness of a hot jazz spot, The Fishtank Ensemble will take you on a musical odyssey that will leave your head spinning and hour heart soaring.

I listened to my first pop record back in 1965 when a baby sitter played me her daughter's 45 of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". In the interim forty-five years I've heard more music than I can possibly remember because the majority of it has been forgettable. Every so often though a musician or band has come along that won't let me forget them because of what they do and how they do it. For me its always been those bands who don't adhere to any set pattern and are always pushing themselves off into new directions who leave the greatest impression. With their third release The Fishtank Ensemble have shown that they are not only gifted musicians but also unafraid to take risks. That has the potential to be a memorable combination - we can only hope they're able to maintain what they've started.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Fishtank Ensemble - Woman In Sin on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2010

Music Review: Ana Moura - Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House)

Searching the Internet for information about the Portuguese folk music known as Fado realizes few conclusive answers as to its origins. Although most sources seem to agree that it first gained widespread popularity in the 1800's, they are universally vague as to where, how and when it first developed. Like North American blues music originally offered African Americans the means to help relieve the pain of their day to day existence, fado, played on the street corners and in the brothels of working class districts in Lisbon and other metropolitan centres, provided the poor and working class of Portugal with similar relief.

Whether or not, as some claim, it came as a dance from Africa that the poor adapted or from homesick sailors at sea as others insist, by the twentieth century it was the most popular form of music in Portugal. One need look no further than the three days of official mourning declared by the country's Prime Minister in 1999 upon the death of Amalia Rodrigues, who had been the genre's biggest star since the 1940's, to understand the depth of its popularity.

Traditionally fado is performed by a trio comprised of a singer and two instrumentalists playing Portuguese Guitar, a type of twelve string, and a classical guitar. There are two distinct types of fado; that of the poor in Lisbon and that which had its beginnings in the university town of Coimbra among the students and professors. The latter is less concerned with the pain of everyday life and more poetical in nature as its themes focus on love and friendship. However no matter where it, or what type, is being played the essential element of saudade is shared. Roughly translated in to English as a longing, or nostalgia, for unrealized dreams, it is expressed by lyrics that speak of a yearning that can't be satisfied or fulfilled. It's this highly fatalistic world view that gives the music its shape and the sense of longing audiences look to hear and see in performers.
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At one time the performances by women were highly stylized affairs.They would stand slightly in front of the two guitar players with their head covered by a shawl and barely move for the length of their show. It was only through facial expressions and hand gestures that they were able to communicate any additional information their vocals and the song's lyrics were unable to express. While times have changed and there has been some slackening of expectations among audiences with regards to how fado is presented, the demand that the performer still be able deliver on the promise of saudade hasn't relaxed in the least. Just as we still expect a blues performer to "feel" what he or she are singing, a knowledgeable fado audience won't accept anything less than the genuine article.

Now in spite of my one quarter Portuguese heritage I can't make any claims to being a fado aficionado. However, I am quite capable of listening to a voice and recognizing genuine passion when I hear it, no matter what language it is singing in. From the opening bars of Ana Moura's Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To A Fado House), released in April on the World Village Music label, I knew at once she was the genuine article. Maybe hers isn't the type of voice to sing blues as we know it, but there can be no mistaking feeling and passion when they are so obviously present. The seventeen songs on the disc are in a variety of musical styles and show quite a number of different influences that she brings to the music, but no matter the tempo or the style her voice is without fail believable at all times.

Moura exhibits not only wonderful range as a singer, but control as well. There is no strain to be heard when she holds a note or as she goes up and down the scale. Unlike so many popular singers who attempt to make what they are doing sound difficult in order to impress us, there is a glorious ease in the way she moves through a song. Even better, as far a I'm concerned, she's not one of the school who think the louder and more piercingly I sing the more emotional I'm being. While it may result in you receiving a million dollars a gig in Las Vegas, try it in a Fado House and you'd be booed off stage. (During the reign of the dictator Salazar in Portugal Fado performers were forced off the streets and brothels and confined to "Fado Houses" and in these "Houses" tradition still holds sway)
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Aside from the variety of musical styles on the disc distinguishing her from more traditional fado performers, Moura also changes things up somewhat by increasing the number of her accompanying musicians and utilizing a wider assortment of instruments than is usual. While the sound is still guitar dominated the inclusion of bass and acoustic bass on some of the tracks not only gives the music added texture, but gives some of them a jazz feel. While there's an obvious appeal to the starkness of the original sound as she performs it, by adding the bass to the mix Moura, and her arranger/producer/composer Jorge Fernando, have found a way to compliment it without changing the overall intent of the music.

In fact, everything Moura and Fernando have done on the disc that might be considered a modernization, or change from tradition, has been implemented in such a way that when compared to the more traditional songs they sound like natural progressions. Instead of forcing a sound in order to make it more appealing to a new generation, they have been very careful to build on the existing base so it's still respectful of the original.

Of course that task is made easier by Moura herself. Listening to her you never doubt her sincerity, even if you've no idea what she's singing about, and you can't help but feel the passion she is expressing. You don't have to speak or understand Portuguese to feel the longing that underlies each song or appreciate the haunting beauty of the material. No matter what or how she is singing it sounds like she is keeping the spirit of fado alive in the song. What's most impressive as far as I'm concerned is how closely the feelings she generates while singing match up to the meanings of the translated lyrics for each song. I can't count how many times I've listened to a song in a language I don't understand and completely misconstrued its meaning based on the singer's presentation. With Moura you can count on the fact that what you're feeling when she sings is exactly the feelings generated reading the lyrics.

You may not speak any Portuguese or know the first thing about fado music, but that shouldn't stop you from appreciating Ana Moura's recording Leva-Me Aos Fados.This is a wonderful recording of beautiful and haunting music that won't fail to touch your heart. If you've forgotten what true passion feels like, this will serve as a timely reminder.

(Article first published as "Music Review: Ana Moura Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House) at Blogcritics.org)

April 1, 2010

Music Review: Jim Guttmann - Bessarabian Breakdown

One of the things I resent most about recent trends in popular music, and the technology that drives it, has been the use of bass as a weapon instead of an instrument. Every time one of those cars drives by with the bass cranked so high that you can hear its doors rattling in the frame (a friend who worked in an auto body shop told me they would get three cars a week on average needing doors re hung or with frames out of alignment due to the damage caused by their sound systems) I can't help think what a horrible legacy for the instrument of Charles Mingus. Subtlety and delicate phrasing have been replaced with ear shattering assaults that passes for keeping time. How is that music?

Thankfully there are still those out there who serve as reminders that the bass is an instrument to be reckoned with and are able to create music that won't leave you bleeding from the ears. All one needs do is listen to the new disc released by bassist Jim Guttmann, Bessarabian Breakdown to be reminded of what the instrument is capable of. Using the klezmer music of Eastern European Jews as his basis, (Besserabia, now part of Moldova, lies between Russia, Romania, the Ukraine and the Black Sea and before WWll had a Jewish population of over 200, 000) Guttmann and those accompanying him on the disc, have come up with some rather surprising results.

Certainly one will hear the clarinet and violin so often associated with klezmer music, but not only have they added some new twists and flavours to those arrangements, they have created some successful mixed marriages with Latin and contemporary jazz. I have to admit when I read about klezmar/Cuban, or Latin, in the press material accompanying this disc, I thought it was a typo or somebody had dropped a couple sentences from another press release into the one for this album. Even after assuring myself that it was indeed referring to the disc I had in front of me, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of Latin klexmer music. However, listening is believing, and once you've heard "Descarga Gitano" and "Cuando El Rey Nimrod", like me you'll no longer have any doubts as to what's possible.
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While the first is a wonderfully orchestrated piece complete with horn section, saxophone, guitars, Latin percussion, and Coro ensuring it has that full sound we've come to expect from the style of music, somehow it also retains something of the plaintive air characteristic of Klezmer music. "Cuando" on the other hand is a simple trio featuring Guttmann's bass accompanied by drums and guitar alone. For those who have forgotten what a bass sounds like, how a stand up bass, or acoustic bass, can be the lead instrument in an ensemble simply because of the player's ability and not because of the amount of noise the instrument is making, this song will be a treat.

While Guttmann had stepped forward earlier on the disc in their rendition of Johnny Mercer's "And The Angels Sing", sort of a delicate popular number along the lines of some by Cole Porter or Nat King Cole, I think that "Cuando" allows him to show off his versatility as a player and musician to greater advantage. Here the phrasing is far less sentimental, with more depth of feeling contained in the notes than in the earlier piece, and Guttmann's playing is able to capture all the nuances needed for us to appreciate its complexity. If you thought somehow that this was a fluke, wait for his solo turn, the final cut of the disc, "Firn Di Mekhutonim Aheym"

Aside from the Mercer tune the other ten tracks on the disc are arrangements of traditional songs. While its interesting to hear old tunes being given new arrangements in order to see what if anything more can be expressed with them, I still found some of the older, more traditional versions of the songs touched me the deepest. "Sadegurer Chusidl" (Take Off That Shmatte) with its mixture of violin and accordion, supported by guitar, bass, and percussion, captures the simplicity of the original music, while also bringing to life the layers and textures that existed in the music to begin with. There is grief buried in this music best revealed by the intimate setting created by the smaller ensemble. While it's easy to sentimentalize the fiddle with thoughts of Hollywood movies, listening to Mimi Robson play on this tune and others, one can not fail to appreciate how she captures both the joy and sadness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

That's not to say pieces like the disc's opening "Philadelphia Sher" or the title track "Bessarabian Breakdown" aren't wonderfully exuberant pieces that are a joy to listen to or are lacking in emotional depth. It's just when there are more instruments playing and the sound whirls around you like dancers, the excitement generated by the performance outshines any one emotion that might be generated by the music. In that case it's easy to become caught up in the "fun" of the music and perhaps miss out on any of the deeper or subtle meanings being conveyed.

The musicians assembled for this disc reads like a who's who of the world of klezmer, and it shows through in every piece as they take the music in directions you wouldn't have thought possible from hearing more conventional bands. However, no matter what shape a song takes, it manages to capture something of the spirit of the music, even the Mercer tune is given an Eastern European feel that belies its origins, and transports the listener across time and space to another era. The world that gave rise to klezmer music might no longer exist, but discs like this one not only preserves the memory of the music, it keeps it alive by injecting new life into it.

January 21, 2010

Music Review: Jerry Leake - Cubist

The Cubist movement in painting, spearheaded primarily by Pablo Picasso in the early years of the twentieth century, attempted to represent all possible views of a person or object on a two dimensional surface. The resulting chaos of shapes and colour resulted in images that seemed to bear no resemblance to reality, yet have managed to strike a chord in viewers so that they have become some of the most famous works in modern art. Picasso's Guernico, his cubist representation of the German bombing of the Spanish city of Gurenico during that country's Civil War in the 1930's, is as now readily identifiable as many of the works of Leonardo De Vinci and other traditional painters from previous eras.

However, this does not prevent hearing the word cubist bringing images of disjointed faces, with noses in places you'd normally expect to find ears, to mind. So when I first read the title of percussionist Jerry Leake's new CD, Cubist, released through his own Rhombus Publishing imprint, I couldn't help thinking that listeners would be in for a bit of a dissonant ride. For if one were to try and literally express cubism with music, wouldn't you have to try and show all the sides of the music at once? What kind of noise would that result in? Would you have to play songs backwards and forwards at the same time in order to hear everything?

Thankfully Leake and those who have accompanied him on this new CD haven't taken it quite that literally. Instead what they have done is reached out to the world's various traditions of music to explore what each has to offer and combine them on one recording. The title of the disc refers not to the structure of each song as much as it does to its content as it presents the many faces and sides of music from around the world. Everything from classical Indian to hip hop are performed using traditional as well as modern instruments. Whether its Leake himself on tabla and balafon, or Mister Rourke spinning turntables, it seems like they've attempted to integrate as many conceivable instruments as possible into this project.
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This still sounds like it could be a recipe for chaos, as the idea of following traditional music from Tibet up with a rap song doesn't really sound very appealing. However, the result, while a little frantic in places, ends up being far more coherent than you'd think. While the nearly eighty minutes of music on the disc are divided up into sixteen tracks, I seemed to always end up listening to the disc as if it were one long composition. That's not to say that the individual tracks are not distinct onto themselves, but they also have enough in common the flow from one to the next is so natural that you barely notice any transition.

Each of the songs has used one culture as its base, and then been built up around that. For instance the opening track of the CD, "Aldebaran", opens with a decidedly Far Eastern sound that continues through out the track. The gongs and bells which serve as its opening fade out to be replaced by violin playing the melody, but the theme they began is continued by the glockenspiel that punctuates the rhythm. Nearing the mid point, the gongs and bells return, and, much like the bridge in a pop song, acts as a break between the opening and concluding halves of the song.

Throughout the disc each track has one predominant theme, but underneath layers upon layers of percussion instruments from various places around the world are being played. Listen, for example to the thirteenth song on the disc, "Chrysalis", and underneath the lead percussion instrument, in this case tabla, and the guitars playing the melody, you can hear a variety of bells, shakers, bells, gongs, and other instruments punctuating the sound. While this could have become an unholy mess resulting in nothing more than noise, through careful engineering and skilful playing it ends up sounding as if the various percussion pieces are working like the voices in a barbershop quartet singing in perfect harmony.
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By placing each instrument at a different point in the stereo spectrum during recording you hear each individual sound clearly. As a result you can almost visualize the instruments laid out in a line and "see" how they are working together in harmony. Even as one replaces the other, a shaker is removed and a gong is sounded, the tabla is a consistent sound in the centre of the line holding them all together. Much like a lead singer provides the melody for others to harmonize to, it provides the beat which every other instrument relates to.

Not every song is so complex, but each of them combine elements in a similar manner as the one described above with the same amount of success. In this way each of the disc's sixteen tracks not only allow the listener to experience the different ways in which rhythm and melody can be expressed, they also contribute to the overall "picture" the CD is creating of music. There's no way that one song could present all "sides" of music in the same way that a cubist painter is able to with his subject matter on canvass. The result would be a horrible cacophony. By creating a series of individual tracks that work together as a whole, Leake overcomes that obstacle and presents as true a vision of cubist music as I think possible.

Cubist is not only an interesting experiment, the music on the disc is well played and intelligent. Combining elements from various traditions and styles is not an easy task, but Leake and those he has chosen to work with on this disc have done an excellent job in finding interesting and exciting ways to do it. Not only have they found a way to ensure each style retains its own distinct qualities, but they have also found a way to ensure they work together in harmony.

December 24, 2009

Music Review: Top Ten Listens Of 2009

Well here we are again at the end of another year and its time again for everybody who critiques and reviews music to stick our necks out and name our favourite listens of the past year. Being as its the last year of a decade some are even being brave enough to try and come up with "of the last ten years" list. I've still not decided on whether or not I'll give one of those a stabs, it was difficult enough as it was choosing ten from this year's crop of releases that the prospect of sifting through ten years of music leaves me chilled.

This is by no means any sort of definitive list of the last year's best music, that would be impossible for any critic to come up with no matter what he or she might claim. First of all there's no way anybody could listen to all the music that's released over the course of a year - I alone must receive two or three press releases a day announcing some new CD, half of which are for bands and musicians I've never even heard of let alone planning on listening to. For all I know I could have missed out some brilliant piece of music without knowing it. Heck I probably don't eve listen to half the music that comes through my door, let alone the press releases that end up in my in box.

So for what it's worth, and in no particular order, here are the ten CDs of goodness knows how many I listened to over the past year, that stood out the most. It's a pretty diverse group of recordings which seemingly have very little in common. However, what they all share is an extra something that made them stand out from the pack in my mind. I've provided links back to their original reviews and what passes for the band's or individual's web site so if what you read is intriguing you can check them out in more detail. However, if you really want to understand why they meant more to me than anything else I listened to over the last three hundred odd days, I'd suggest giving them a listen and reaching your own decisions.

Songs Unrecantable by Ersatzmusika is as hard to describe in a few sentences as the disc's title is obscure. Sultry voiced lyrics roam over top of a mix of European sounding folk and the occasional jarring guitar capturing the mood of unease and uncertainty facing displaced persons everywhere. The majority of the band are Russian born and now make their home in Germany, and while they don't speak directly about that experience, the sense of loss and confusion that imbue so much of their work capture the state of mind of stateless people everywhere. This is folk music from the concrete blocks of apartments where we segregate our immigrants, of the people who have no home to go back to, but who aren't yet at home.

House Of A Thousand Guitars Willie Nile: As comfortable sitting down at the piano to play a ballad as he is searing the paint off the walls with burning guitars, Willie Nile's music marries the street smarts of New York city to a troubadour's sensibility to create intelligent, boisterous, and emotionally charged music. One of the great mysteries of pop music is why he's someone you think you might have heard of, while far lessor talents garner headlines. New York city's best kept secret for nearly thirty years - isn't it about time you heard of him?

Renegades Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings. Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is one of the foremost musicians of her generation. Band leader, innovator, composer, and superlative performer she is constantly pushing her music to the boundaries of what's been done before and beyond. However her willingness to experiment never overreaches her musical abilities so the results are as lyrical as her instrument of choice. Here she is joined by her string ensemble and her flute soars over the textures they create. Any hesitations you may have had about listening to avant-garde jazz can be put aside as Mitchell makes it as approachable as possible without watering it down.

Siwan Jon Balke The music of the Andalusian region of Spain has its earliest roots in the Sufi poetry of the ninth century. For Siwan composer Jon Balke has gathered together some of today's most innovative musicians alongside those steeped in the history of music to create a series of modern interpretations of traditional songs. Using poems and song lyrics dating back to the tenth century representing the three major cultures that thrived in the region, Islam, Sephardic Jew, and Spanish, they bring the music to life using modern instruments while retaining its traditional essence. A timely reminder of just how much Western culture owes the Islamic world when it comes to music.

If I Had A Key To The Dawn Lily Storm Lily Storm has one of those voices which bring new definition to the word haunting. Which makes it perfect for this collection of Eastern European cradle songs that evoke all the mystery and wonder of dark forests and silent mountains. Unlike North American lullabies, with their sickly sweet sentimentality, these songs range from dirges for a dead child to earnest pleas for their survival. Even without understanding the lyrics, they will pierce your heart and remind you there was a time when the birth of a child was not something to be taken for granted.

Saints And Tzadiks Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg. If anyone had told me that you could combine traditional Celtic songs with old Yiddish folk songs successfully before I listened to Saints And Tzadiks I would have thought they were nuts. Yet after hearing this collection of songs sung in English, Gaelic, and Yiddish its hard not to believe they weren't written to be sung together. The interplay between McKeown's alto and Sklamberg's tenor make for some of the most beautiful harmonies you'll ever hear, and their version of "Johnny I Hardly Knew You" will give even the most fanatical war monger pause for thought.

Let It Go State Radio Every once in a while it's good to be reminded that popular music can be a tool for social change without the music's power or artistry being compromised. To do this with sincerity, and yet still create music that's honest and fun is far more difficult to do that you'd think. Not since the heyday of the Clash has a group managed to mix politics and pop music in as seamless a manner as State Radio - Listen to one song and you feel empowered, listen to a whole album and you feel anything is possible. They definitely give you hope for the future.

Estes Mundo Rupa And The April Fishes. Singing in French, Spanish, and English Rupa and The April Fishes take you on a whirlwind tour of musical influences. One moment you're listening to the sounds of a Paris cafe, the next Mexico. Infectious and inspired they not only make it impossible to sit still while listening, but stop for a moment and read the translation of their lyrics and you'll hear stories that will open your eyes to the world in a way you've not heard before.

Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth. New York city is a place of excitement, creativity and dark secrets. Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth have created an album that not only brings all those aspect of life in New York city alive, they do so in a manner that doesn't gloss over the good or the bad. Not only that, it's also some of the best rock and roll music you'll hear this year.

Imidiwan: Companions Tinariwen. From the Northern Sahara desert Tinariwen are the leaders of a rebellion being conducted by electric guitars and pulsing rhythms. The Tuareg nomads of the Sahara have gradually seen their traditional territories eaten away by uranium mining and the encroachment of urban sprawl. While armed rebellion has been somewhat successful, their music has opened the world's eyes to their plight in a way no gun ever could. Compelling and irresistible, their music carries you deep into the heart of the desert and reveals the stark beauty of their lifestyle. They're not asking you to live like them, only to let them live the life they want - and they do it with such passion and love it's hard to argue their right to do so.

November 18, 2009

Music Review: Stace England And The Salt Kings - The Amazing Oscar Micheaux

While its well known how popular music has changed throughout the years, its not often that popular music is used to document the changing of the years or figures in history. Popular music is usually considered far too frivolous a thing to deal with the weighty matters of history. History books are always about the rich and powerful and the decisions they make affecting the type of people who listen to popular music - so what kind of contribution could it make to recounting the important events of the past?

The thing is, when history is only about the wealthy and powerful, it ends up being only told from their point of view. As a result people like Carnegie and Rockefeller become heroes while the union organizers who fought them and their thugs for things we now take for granted, like the forty hour work week and child labour laws, are still depicted as villains. For the longest time it was only through the songs of those eras by people like Joe Hill, framed on a murder charge and shot by Salt Lake Police, that versions of events aside from the ones in the history books existed. Recently there have been moves towards more populist versions of history as people like Howard Zinn try to recount events from different perspectives.

So, not only is there a tradition of popular music giving us a different perspective of history, there's now also more of an interest than ever in finding out more about when on "behind the scenes", so to speak, of the big events in history. Over the last few years Stace England and his band the Salt Kings have put out two albums, Cairo Illinois and Salt Sex Slaves, which have been done just that by recounting events that you won't find a record of in most history text books. With their latest album they've moved into the twentieth century in order to give us not just a glimpse of events but a person. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, available for download now and being released in the new year on Rankoutsider Records, introduces listeners to America's first major African-American film director.
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Between the years of 1919 and 1948, Oscar Micheaux was the only black homesteader in South Dakota, published seven novels, and wrote, produced and directed forty-four movies staring and about African-Americans. His first movie, The Homesteader, was based on his experiences in South Dakota, but if a movie about a black homesteader dealing with racism wasn't bad enough, Within Our Gates his second feature, depicted whites raping black women, attempting to lynch black families, and showed the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and vigilantes. While that may sound like a pretty accurate depiction to us, you have to realize that D. W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation released in 1919, depicted just the opposite; black men trying to ravish delicate white beauties, and the Klan heroically preserving white honour.

It wasn't only whites that Micheaux managed to upset, various black civic groups were unhappy with his rather unpleasant habit of attempting to always show the truth on screen. Some of his movies dealt with the very contentious issue of passing; where fair skinned black people attempted to "pass" as white people and not suffer the same discrimination as the darker complexioned members of their community. In fact God's Stepchildren, his 1933 movie on that subject, was picketed at its premier in Harlem by black community leaders and members of the communist party for being racist. However it was more usual for white communities to be unhappy with his work, whether from their depiction of a drunken and lecherous reverend in Body And Soul (which featured Paul Robeson's film debut), or his continuing to challenge Griffith's stereotypes by having African-Americans standing up to the Klan and running them off.

Each of the twelve tracks on England's release either deals with one of Micheaux's movies or provides us with a glimpse into the world in which these movies were released. While track one, "The Homesteader", taken from the name of both the novel and film based on Micheaux's experiences in South Dakota as the only black homesteader, talks about the struggles of settler to eke out a living, track two takes a somewhat different approach. "Vendome" was the name of the theatre in Chicago where Micheaux's film The Homesteader was shown and it brings to life the excitement African-American people must have felt about seeing themselves depicted accurately on the big screen. "Folks like us up on that silver screen/Two reels in we're going to be celebrating".
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Appropriately enough the final song on the disc is taken from the final movie of Micheaux's career, The Betrayal. While the director had hoped to create one last epic to cement his legacy, the three hour plus movie made in 1948 was universally panned. For the first time he received mainstream press attention, The New York Times, only to see them cut the movie to shreds, and even papers that had been his staunch allies turned on him. The song's lyrics reflect both how the director, by sticking to his guns, burnt a lot of bridges and alienated people during his career, and the results of those actions. "What will do when they have forgotten/All is forsaken and friends you have none/You can't go home over smouldering bridges...

As is usual for England and his band, with help from friends on some tracks, they employ from a multitude of genres to help tell the story. While the music might not be from the era represented by the disc, what they've chosen for each song has the appropriate feel to deliver the emotional message they are trying for. It might not have been the music that Micheaux would have chosen as the soundtrack for his silent movies, but it sure works as an introduction to it.

Once again England has taken an overlooked piece of American history, this time a person, and opened our eyes to what we've been missing. Intelligent and musically as interesting as ever, England and the Salt Kings make another convincing argument that popular music has a role to play in helping us tell our histories. With The Amazing Oscar Micheaux they have not only done the great service of ensuring a remarkable man is not overlooked, but are doing their best to rekindle interest in the work that makes him important. Aside from the CD, the band is also doing multimedia performances featuring clips his films (Micheaux clips accompanied by tracks from the CD are on line as well) and live performances of an original score to the movie Within Our Gates - a performance which won them praise at the Rome International Film Festival in 2009.

In the future, when they go to write the history of our times, we should hope the equivalent of Stace England And The Salt Kings are around to help ensure the complete story is told. Without people like them who knows what or who might be forgotten or overlooked.

November 16, 2009

Music DVD Review: Fred Anderson -Fred Anderson 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live At The Velvet Lounge

There's an old saying, "Seeing is believing", and on occasions there's truth to those old sayings. Now I know quite a number of people who don't find seeing music on video very satisfying, and if it were the days before stereo sound and digital imaging I could understand. In those days not only was the footage not very good, but the sound was vastly inferior to anything you could hear through your home audio equipment. That was especially true for the more complex genres like classical or jazz. If you had the option of either listening to a track through your stereo or watching it on your television the former would win out every time.

Times have changed of course, and with the advent of DVDs, and not only stereo signals coming through televisions but surround sound as well, watching a performance on home video equipment has not only become more rewarding than just listening to it through the stereo, but in some cases even better than being there in person. People can talk all they want about the "experience" of a live concert, but I'm too old and fussy to want to be one of a hundred thousand people in a football stadium barely able to see even the video screens broadcasting the performance I came to watch. If I'm going to watch it on video I might as well have stayed at home where I could be comfortable and the sound would be a lot better.

Of course seeing a band in a small club is another thing all together, and if you have the chance to attend a gig where you know the sound is going to be good than there's still nothing to beats that for the intimacy and immediacy that it provides. However if you can't be there in person, then a well shot DVD comes pretty close to capturing the moment for you. I was reminded of all this because a short while ago I reviewed the CD
CD version of a concert that jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson performed at his club the Velvet Lounge with some old friends to help celebrate his eightieth birthday last May, and now have had the chance to view the DVD of 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash Live At The Velvet Lounge put out by Delmark Records.
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As on the CD he's accompanied on saxophone by the equally redoubtable Kidd Jordan, and they start the set off with a thirty minute plus version of the old Dexter Gordon/Wardell Gray tune written back in 1947, "The Chase". It has long since become the archetypical tenor saxophone "battle piece", where two tenor players compete and complement each other's improvisations. As one of the co-founders of the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago back in the early 1960's Fred Anderson's bread and butter is improvisation. His buddy Jordan is no slouch either having been at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz movement on the West Coast while Anderson was setting up shop in Chicago.

Perhaps somebody more well versed in jazz than myself wouldn't need a video recording to fully appreciate their performances, but for me watching them at work was a revelation. For example, listening to "21st Century Chase Part I" on the CD I had assumed that the two men had been trading solos, that I had been listening to one player at a time. What was being played was so seamlessly perfect it had to be the work of one man hitting the high tremors and harmonizing low notes simultaneously. However watching showed both men playing with Anderson hanging onto every high note that Jordan played and inserting his counterpoints in such perfect order that with your eyes closed it sounded like one man.

While listening to the CD I was well aware that there was a guitarist (Jeff Parker), a bass player (Harrison Bankhead) and a drummer (Chad Taylor, but seeing them in action really brought home the power of their contributions. I don't think I've ever really appreciated the intricacies of avant-garde jazz bass and drum work as much as I do now after watching Bankhead and Taylor at work. They both seemed to be skimming over their instruments without rhyme nor reason, but at the same time what ever it was they were doing was perfect for what else was happening on the stage. Parker, on the other hand, turned out to be the one holding down what most of us would recognize as the melody of whatever tune was being played. He was the calm in the centre of a mini storm of jazz improvisation that ebbed and flowed around him.
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The DVD also comes with an extra track from that night's performance, and it features Bankhead switching over to cello and another old friend, Henry Grimes< picking up the bass. "Gone But Not Forgotten" sounds like it could be for all the ones who have gone before them. It feels like they've tapped into that great fountain of emotion which provides the joy we feel at the memory of the pleasure those who have gone used to bring us and the sorrow over the fact they are aren't here to be sharing the moment any longer. There's something about the extra underpinning of sound, perhaps the depth, that the combination of bass and cello bring to the song, which allows them to capture far more than you would expect from an instrumental of that duality of emotion we all feel for those who are no longer with us and meant so much.

If you appreciated and enjoyed the CD version of 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live At The Velvet Lounge the DVD version will surely enhance that experience. It doesn't hurt matters that Delmark records have become past masters at bringing to life the music of Chicago's clubs and bars on DVD whether its blues or jazz. Using five handheld cameras and great editing they capture everything needed to bring you right on stage with the performers and the excitement of being in the intimate surroundings of the club. With Dolby 5.1 surround sound and 16:9 wide-screen format complementing their expertise in shooting and cutting the material, watching the result on your home screen will make a believer in the power of jazz and the abilities of Fred Anderson and his friends out of anybody. You might not be able to get to Chicago for these concerts, but these DVDs come as close as possible to bringing them to you.

November 5, 2009

Music Review: David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters (Featuring Taj Mahal) - The Devil Tried To Kill Me

If there is one genre of popular music that has managed to to both refrain from being co-opted by commercial and corporate interests yet still remain culturally significant, it would have to be jazz. Of course there have been moments when one performer or another has captured the public's imagination and the industry has tried to cash in by attempting to replicate that person's success with imitators, never meeting with anything but limited success.

One of the true glories of jazz is that it remains the purview of the individual, and you can no more recreate or imitate one person's music, to any degree of success, than could a dancer duplicate what another does exactly. Oh they might be able to follow the same steps, hold their arms in exactly the same manner, but they won't imbue it with the same spirit. The same spirit that made it so attractive to the audience in the first place. Like dance, the personality of the individual performing in jazz is what helps establish the connection between the performer and the audience. No matter how hard they try, record companies still haven't figured out how to mass produce individuals so they can cash in on his or her creativity.

Like so much of our popular music, jazz developed out of the music brought over to North America from Africa by those who were dragged into slavery. In the latter part of the 20th century, specifically the 1960's, jazz started to become an avenue through which many African American musicians began to explore their African heritage. Whether through improvisation around rhythms or collaborations with musicians with more direct ties to the continent, a real sense of who they are and where they came from has started to appear in the music of many of todays African American jazz players.
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Such is the case with the latest collaboration between David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters, The Devil Tried To Kill Me, on Justin Time Records. This is the third recording American Murray has made with this group of musicians from Guadeloupe. The tiny island nation is unique in that former slaves who inhabited the island rebelled and achieved independence 100 years before slavery was abolished in the United States. Although their state hood only lasted a decade, they were integrated into France after ten years, their history is unique among African Americans in the Western hemisphere. As Christian Laviso, guitar player on the disc puts it, "The Americans lost their drums...that is what they seek here, the rhythms and melodies of our ancestors"

Murray, (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Laviso, are joined by; Jaribu Shahid (bass), Renzel Merrit (drums), Klod Kiavue (Ka Drums), Francois Landrezeau (Ka Drums), Rasul Siddik (Trumpet), Herve Samb (guitar), and special guest vocalists Taj Mahal and Sista Kee. While the music on the disc has elements that will be familiar to anyone with jazz, there's also the distinct flavour of the Caribbean to it that gives it a texture I've not heard before. It's hard to describe as it doesn't come across as any particular sound or rhythm, but more like a sense of overall movement that is different from almost anything else I've come across in either jazz or music from the islands either.

All the tracks on the disc are original tunes with music by Murray, and lyrics for "Africa", and "The Devil Tried To Kill Me" by poet Ishmael Reed and "Southern Skis" by Grace Rutledge and Kito Gamble. There are two versions of both "Africa" and "Southern Skies" included on the disc, with the second ones being shorter versions edited for radio play. "Southern Skies" and "Africa" stand out in particular on the disc for their provocative lyrics. "Africa", which features Taj Mahal's growl, looks at the continent from the point of view of a person describing how they would provide care for it if they were a hospice worker and Africa were a patient in an infirmary. Aside from ensuring she has enough food and proper medical care, the hospice worker would also ensure that Africa's bed pan was emptied, her sheets would be changed regularly and her body washed carefully to make sure there was no chance of bed sores.
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It's hard to figure whether Reed who wrote "Africa" sees the continent as being that sick, is commenting on the neglect and lack of care shown her by the rest of the world, or is describing the depth of his love for her - or even a little bit of all the above. "Southern Skies" on the other hand is more direct in its statement as it is a lament for the ill treatment of African American women at the hands of men. Sista Kee and Taj Mahal share the vocals on this song, with both of them delivering the solid message that things have to change: "Southern sky is cryin cause she/Still payin dues".

As leader of the band you'd expect David Murray to be front and centre on most of the material, and while he delivers some great solos with his tenor saxophone, there's a wonderful point on the opening track "Kiama Fro Obama", where he takes flight, his priority is obviously the integration of the two different styles of music. Even the solo on track one is built up to gradually over the course of the tune until it finally rises up almost of its own volition - as if the saxophone was some mysterious tropical bird bursting out of its lush jungle background. The other occasion I noticed Murray's playing in particular was on track six ""Canto Oneguine", taken from an opera about the Russian author Pushkin - who was of Cameroonian descent - which Murray wrote the music for.

Bass clarinet is not the most common of instruments, so for a second I was slightly puzzled as to what could be making one of the most soulful sounds I've heard from a woodwind before. Like a rich baritone voice, its sound was like a balm to the ears as it literally caresses them with its playing. Even when Murray gradually climbed the scale there was an elegance to the sound I've never associated with a clarinet. Usually there is something very aggressive and strident about the instrument that pushes it into the forefront whether its meant to be there or not. In this case, however, it blended itself in with the other instruments as a compliment to the overall sound of the piece.

The Devil Tried To Kill Me is an example of how fiercely independent jazz is, and the benefits that we listeners derive from the fact that the music industry hasn't figured out how to control it yet. The combination of different styles of music contained within the eight tracks of the disc is not something you're liable to find on recordings of any type aside from jazz. The playing, and singing, from all involved is exemplary, with Murray's saxophone and bass clarinet leading from within instead of dragging everyone behind him. American and Caribbean music come together on this disc to create a sound as distinct as their individual parts, as unified as their common ancestry, and a genuine pleasure to listen to.

October 8, 2009

Music Review: Zora Young - The French Connection

The human voice has the potential to be one of the most expressive musical instruments around. Yet you couldn't tell that by listening to the majority of women on the pop charts these days. Sometimes it seems like they're equally divided between those sounding like squeaky dolls and those who equate volume with emotion. It certainly makes you wonder what's going through the minds of those behind the scenes in the pop music industry that would inspire them to keep foisting one or the other on us year after year.

It's especially galling putting up with either of this type when you know there are singers like Zora Young out there who sings circles around anybody you hear on radio today. Nominally a blues singer, one only need listen to Young's newest release, The French Connection, on to hear not only how good she is, but how her talent extends far beyond the one genre. The fourteen tracks on Young's latest recording range from a cover of a Dylan tune to her renditions of classic blues songs and everything in between.

As for the disc's title, it was recorded entirely in France with Zora being accompanied by a band made up of the creme de la creme of French blues musicians. African American musicians have been migrating to Europe and France since the 1920's when they formed the jazz bands that played in clubs throughout Paris. For blues musicians in the 1950's and 1960's not only did Europe mean an appreciative audience, it also meant the opportunity to be in a non-segregated society and allowed them to be free from a great deal of the racism they faced back home. Some of them were so enamoured of the change that they took up permanent residence in the countries which treated them the best, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
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So when Young first started touring France in 1981 she found an audience who was not only appreciative of her talents, but who were far more knowledgeable about her music than the average North American crowd. As a result she's toured France twenty times, and, unlike in North America where she;s a virtual unknown, she's widely known and treated with the respect she deserves. Therefore, while it might seem odd to us that a blues singer from Chicago would chose to record a CD in France with French musicians, for Zora Young it makes perfect sense.

For The French Connection her regular pianist, Bobby Dirninger, put together three different bands to play behind Young; one for the five live tracks included on the disc, an acoustic band, and a second electric band for studio work. The result is three separate sounds to showcase Young's vocals and the variety of styles that she sings in. However, while all three bands are equally skilled and provide the appropriate environments for her signing, I don't think it would matter who accompanied Zora Young and you'd still be blown away by her singing.

It's not just a matter of her having a strong enough voice to handle belting out electric blues on par with anybody else out there, as there are any number of vocalists with power to burn. No, what really distinguishes her from the pack is what she can do when she turns down the voltage. There are two songs on this disc which show off this aspect of her voice, her cover of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and her rendition of the traditional gospel tune, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee". From the moment she begins singing "Tonight" her voice captured my attention and I couldn't ignore it if I tried. The strength of emotion you could hear in her voice as she bares her heart to the person the song is addressed to sends shivers down your spine it's so potent. She actually recorded the song as a duet with Dirninger, and while he can't match her for intensity, having him as focal point for her words makes them all the more poignant.

In some ways "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" is as much a declaration of love for another as the Dylan tune is, and Young is able to convey that love with every word she sings. The Sufi poets and songwriters of the middle ages used to write love songs to the divine in much the same manner as they would write ones expressing mortal love. Love was love as far as they were concerned and whether you were talking about your love for a woman or your love for the creator it didn't really matter. Young has captured that sense in her rendition of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" as the impression you are left with after she's finished singing is how genuine her love for her God really is. She's not trying to impress us with how religious she is or anything like that, she's singing to express the love she feels in her heart for her creator, and its beautiful.
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There was one song on this disc that I must confess I was dreading having to hear, the old Mac Davis, Elvis Presly chestnut "In The Ghetto". Maybe it was the thought of a guy who epitomized conspicuous consumption like Elvis did that made him singing about the life of inner city black people in the US nauseating, maybe it was the maudlin lyrics, or perhaps a combination of the two, but I've always hated that song. Zora Young hasn't re-written the lyrics, so it's still a little much, but she is at least able to bring genuine understanding and compassion into play when she sings it. It's a reflection of just how talented she is that she's able to make this piece of dreck almost bearable, and if you just listen to the sound of her voice and ignore the lyrics, its even better.

Other highlights of this disc are her wonderful renditions of the Muddy Waters tune "Honey Bee" and a great version of the old classic "Mystery Train". What impressed me the most about both those tunes is how she makes them her own and doesn't try to simply imitate the originals, and not just because she's a woman singing songs that were originally composed for men to sing, but because she does that with ever song she sings, and makes them all her own.

Zora Young is a great vocalist who reminds you of just how pathetic the majority of today's female pop vocalists really are. This is a woman who's voice can fill an auditorium, but at the same time she can whisper so soulfully that you'll stop everything you're doing in order to listen to her. Now that's what I call singing the blues.

October 6, 2009

Music Review: Fred Anderson - 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash At The Velvet Lounge

Jazz musicians must really love what they do. How else can you explain spending a lifetime playing music and rarely receiving the recognition your talent deserves. Occasionally, for one reason or another, a jazz musician's name will somehow manage to come to the attention of more than just those who are aficionados of the genre, but unfortunately it's not usually until after their dead. Which means that some of the most innovative and brilliant musicians of our generation are working in relative obscurity and creating music that the majority of us will never hear. Unfortunately we're the ones who are the real losers, because we miss out on some truly awe inspiring music.

Now it's true that the strain of jazz known as avant-garde can be a little inaccessible at times to some people, but that's primarily because they have very little exposure to it. Like any art form to properly appreciate it one needs to have an understanding of what's going on, and the only way that can be achieved is by listening to it. Out of what at first might sound like so much noise, patterns and motifs begin to appear and are then replayed with parts removed, added or changed in some manner, that gives new emphasis to the music. Much like abstract art there is no specific object for the listener to hang on to, rather they have to find their won way into the music via some less concrete path like emotions.

The other thing that listeners have to be aware of is how much of what they are listening to is being created in front of them and that pieces will change each time they are played and depending on who is playing them. You have to surrender any conceptions you might have held about "songs", and start thinking of a tune as a collection of notes to be used as inspiration, not an end in itself. So while you might hear something akin to what you think of as a melody at some point, those notes will be folded, bent, mutilated, and spindled in any manner of ways over the course of a performance.
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Formed in 1965 the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM) of Chicago has been the breeding ground for some of the most innovative and creative voices in modern African American music and most specifically jazz. Tenor saxophone player Fred Anderson was one of the founding members of the AACM and has been a key figure in the reinterpretation of classic be-bop standards from the forties in the new style. So it's only fitting that for his eightieth birthday bash at the club he has operated for years, the Velvet Lounge, one set was devoted to re-workings of Dextor Gordon and Wardell Gray's "The Chase" from 1947. It's only appropriate that Delmark Records, one of the first labels to record members of the AACM, were there for that gig in March 2009 and have now released it as the CD, 21st. Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live At The Velvet Lounge. On that night Anderson was joined by his long time collaborator and fellow tenor saxophone player Kidd Jordan, plus a backing band made up of Jeff Parker on guitar, Harrison Bankhead on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums.

"The Chase" was written for two saxophones, one of many pieces from the early days of jazz that deliberately included two tenor saxophone parts so as to encourage "competition" between players. On 21st Century Chase Anderson and Jordan have taken two cracks at the tune, with "21st Century Chase Pt. l" checking in at thirty-five minutes long and "21st Century Chase Pt. ll" coming in at a much brisker fourteen minutes. I think what amazed me the most about listening to "Part l" is not once was I aware of its length. I have to admit to being a bit daunted at the prospect of listening to a jazz piece over a half-hour in length. However once you become immersed in the music time becomes irrelevant.

Anderson and Jordan don't make any concessions to their listeners either. There's no gentle easing into the track with the playing of a melody that will lay the foundation for improvising. Instead the song begins with the saxophone issuing a challenge to the listeners that they are in for anything but an easy ride. Yet, there's something compelling about its near dissonance that grabs you attention and pulls you into the song. From the initial opening the piece then continues on as the two saxophone players chase each other up one side of the music and down the other, While I guess someone more familiar with the playing styles of each man would be able to discern who is playing when, their playing was so seamlessly intertwined it was nearly impossible for me to tell when one man left off and the other began.
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While "Chase Parts l & ll" featured the two saxophones predominately, the final cut on the CD, "Ode To Alvin Fielder" allows the rest of the band to shine as well. In fact guitar player Jeff Parker, is front and centre for a good deal of the cut and shows that jazz guitar can be every bit as inventive and exciting as a horn any day of the week. Not content to be merely fast and play plenty of notes, he's also able to take the themes he is expressing and bend them into various shapes and sizes. He manipulates the music in such a way that you can almost see taking form in front of you.

Avant-garde, improvised, or new jazz, whatever you want to call it, is an acquired taste. It requires patience and a willingness to listen and learn on the part of the audience. Those who are willing to make the effort to appreciate this music will find themselves entering into a world where music comes to life in a way they've never experienced before. As one of the founders of the AACM Fred Anderson has been in forefront of this musical exploration for more then forty years. Listening to his latest recording, 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash At The Velvet Lounge, is an opportunity to hear him apply his years of experience and expertise as an improviser and creative force and revel in the results. This is music at its freest and most abandoned, and while it may not be the most accessible genre in the world, its definitely one of the most exciting, and this chance to hear it played by one of the masters shouldn't be missed.

October 3, 2009

Interview: Rahul Ram Of Indian Ocean

Earlier this month I reviewed a DVD by the band Indian Ocean who make their home in New Delhi, India. Watching Live In Delhi I was struck by not only how gifted the four members of the band were musically, but by the fact that although the music sounded familiar there was something distinctly different about it as well that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It wasn't just the fact that those songs with lyrics weren't sung in English, or the drummer stepped out from behind his kit at one point to play percussion instrument called a gabgubi, or the fact that the percussionist sat cross legged behind his tabla and other instruments. It was like eating a really delicious dish made up of recognizable ingredients but what made it interesting were spices you couldn't identify; there was something more to it than what met the eye, or in this case, the ear.

Over the course of an almost hour and a half long conversation that I had on Wednesday September 30th/09 with Rahul Ram, bass player for the band, we talked about everything from the history of the band, the type of music each of them had been playing before they were in Indian Ocean, how they go about writing their songs, and what types of music has influenced them. As we talked it became clear that there was no simple answer to the question, what makes Indian Ocean sound like they do, but rather it's a combination of all those elements above. Maybe there are certain ingredients that have a stronger influence on the sound than others, but you'll have to listen to their music and decide that for yourself. For now, read what Rahul has to say about himself and the rest of the band; Amit Killam (drums, gabgubi, recorder, vocals) Susmit Sen (guitar) and Asheem Chakravarty (percussion,tabla, vocals).

Can you tell me a little about the band's history and how you ended up with your current line up?

Well, Susmit and Asheem have actually been playing together since they were in collage in 1984, but they didn't form the band until 1990. I think they went through something like three bass players that first year until I joined them in 1991. I had known Susmit when we were both in junior school. He hadn't been interested in music then at all, so when I ran into him in 1991 and he told me he had a band I was really surprised. They had made a demo in 1990 - I think Susmit had sold one of his guitars to pay for it - but nothing much came from it.
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Where did the name Indian Ocean come from?

It was actually Susmit's dad who came up with the name. It was before I had joined and they were sitting around one day talking about names for the band and his dad was sitting at the table eating, and he said, why not call yourselves Indian Ocean?. They all liked it and the name stuck.

Now Amit didn't join you until 1994 right?

Yes that's right, our drummer had left the band, and we saw Amit playing in a rock band and we really liked him and so asked him to join. He was still in college at the time so he's quite a bit younger then the rest of us. I think he was twenty-one then, and I was thirty, thirty-one when he joined.

When did you put out your first recording?

It was actually before Amit joined us, in 1993. We got a recording contract with HMV and put out a cassette - this was in the days before CDs had come to India. Typical for a first album we called it Indian Ocean because we couldn't think of anything else to call it. HMV did absolutely nothing to promote it, and in the end we went to them and begged them for twenty copies which we took around to the various media in Delhi asking them to listen to it and review it for us. Nothing much really came of it - I think we did one concert before Amit joined us in 94.

How about since then - you've released four more CDs and the DVD now haven't you?

Yes, that's right. In 1997 we released Dessert Rain, in 2000 Kandisa, Jhini in 2003, and Black Friday in 2005. The DVD, Live In Delhi, came out in 2008.

Black Friday is the soundtrack from a movie isn't it?

That's right. Black Friday was about the bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993, and although both the movie and the CD were finished in 2004/5 they couldn't be released until 2007 because they both named people who were involved in the bombings who had not yet gone to trial. So the movie and the soundtrack couldn't be released because they were afraid it would influence the public's opinion such that it wouldn't be possible for the accused to get a fair trial. Funnily enough the movie was based on a book, but the defence didn't seem to care about whether that was published or not. I guess they didn't figure as many people read as go to movies in India. (laughs)

(Anyone interested in a more in depth history of the band check out the story so far link at their web site)

Can you tell me a little about each of your backgrounds musically - what type of music were you each playing before you joined Indian Ocean?

Well I was playing bass in a rock and roll band since I was in junior school. I guess I started back in the late seventies and just kept playing ever since. Asheem has the least Western background of all of us as his mother was a folk singer so he grew up surrounded by that type of music. He decided he wanted to play tabla and he taught himself. He learned by watching and listening to all the music that was being played around him in his house.

We're all from Northern India so we grew up with that style of music around us all the time. Its different from the Southern classical tradition because it has far more room for improvisation in it, so I'm sure that's effected all of us and the way we play. Of course Bollywood music is the other big influence on all of us, as its everywhere and you can't help but absorb it. Amit, is the one who knows the most Bollywood music of all of us though, and he'll come up with these truly awful songs and start singing them to us - it's horrible. He'll say -"hey listen to this" and start singing some really bad song he picked up somewhere.

He's a great drummer though, from the first time we saw him play we knew we wanted him to play with us. A friend of mine says what's so great about Amit is he automatically makes whoever he plays with better. There's just something about him and how he plays that pushes you to be better and he plays so well that you can't help but sound good. He's from Kashmir originally and his family moved here (Delhi) when things started to get really bad there in the 1980's. (The province of Kashmir has long been disputed territory between Pakistan and India and in the 1980's there were constant skirmishes between the two sides including terrorist attacks) He originally wanted to be a guitar player, but eventually decided on drums. You mentioned the gabgubi that he plays in your review of the DVD (The gabgubi is a percussion instrument with either one or two plucked strings. To play it you tuck it under your arm and pluck the string(s) with the opposite hand while taping the skin with the other) Well there's a version whose name ends up translating into English as "armpit child" because of the way you have to hold it.

Like I said earlier Susmit didn't even start playing guitar until he was in collage. Like most people his family listened to music, but there were no musicians in his family, so for him to decide to do this was very different. It was his father who got him his first guitar, and he got him a Martin. Susmit is very interested in Hindustan classical music and trying to play it on guitar so has worked a lot on evolving the means to play that type of music.

You've already mentioned some of the types of music that have influenced the band, but have there been any bands, musicians or styles of music that have been a big influence on you personally. When I first heard you I immediately thought of Weather Report

Oh yeah I love them. I remember the first time I heard Heavy Weather it was great. Aside from them musicians like Al Di Meola, Jaco Pastorius, and Victor Wooten are all guys I listen to and really like. We all have different influences, but one that we all have in common, because like I said earlier you can't live in India without hearing it, is Bollywood. It's playing everywhere, on the buses, in taxis, on the radio, in stores. I don't think as a musician you can help being influenced by Bollywood whether you want to or not.

Is there a particular part of India where the band is most popular, or do you have audiences all over India?

Our audience is pretty much spread through out India. It was between 1995 and 2001 that we started getting known throughout India, but it wasn't until 2005 that we became really popular. We had thought that we could make it without having to do any work with Bollywood, but it wasn't until a video of one of the songs from the Black Friday soundtrack was released in 2005 that we really broke through. What they did when they couldn't release the whole film was make up a video out of some clips from the movie and of us performing to a shortened version of the song "Bandeh". MTV and places like that make you do that to your music if you want to get it played. Much like radio over here in North America you can't have a song eight minutes long, so they cut it down to make it fit. It went on to be a hit and as result we started to get more gigs.

Initially we had only been playing in the major metropolitan areas where there were populations of ten million people or more, but when that song became a hit and everybody began to hear it we began to get requests to play everywhere and were offered more money as well. The good thing was that people would come to hear the Bollywood hit, but then really like the rest of our music too. However without that one song we wouldn't be anywhere near as popular today as we are now. Film music is still the key to success in India because it's heard by everyone everywhere. We currently have a couple of film projects in hand, and are in fact sitting on an album release called Bhoomi - which translates as "Earth" into English - until they release the movie. It's been ready since 2007 so we're starting to get a little impatient.
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How do you come up with your new material - does one of you come up with an idea and present it to the group and you build around that, do you each write songs and teach them to the others, or do you have some other way of doing things?

All of our songs are created through jam sessions basically. We'll get together and sit around in a circle facing each other and improvise around an idea. However we work in a different way then most North American jazz musicians whose improvisations are chord based in that ours are scale based.

I'm not a musician so you'll have to explain the difference between them for me

It's simple really, with scale based improvisations it means you can only use the notes contained within a certain scale, which means you don't play any harmonies. Listen to someone like Coletrane playing "A Few Of My Favourite Things", and even when he's playing the familiar tune (he hums a few bars of "Favourite Things" from The Sound Of Music) he's also playing chords that harmonize with the tune but which are from a different scale. The way we work is a traditional style of arrangement taken from Indian classical music where musicians can play anything they want as long as they only make use of the notes in a particular scale.

What about lyrics - I know not all of your songs have them, but some do

We don't write any of our own lyrics. Some of them are from traditional folk tunes and are sung in their original language, while the other lyrics have been written by either Sanjev Sharma or Biyush Mishra. Biyush wrote the lyrics for the songs in the Black Friday soundtrack, while Sanjey has written the rest of our original songs. All of our original songs, whether by Sharma or Mishra, are in Hindi.

How does that work with Sanjey when it comes to writing the lyrics - do you send him tapes or something?

Well he lives in Mumbai, so we could send him the tracks by MP3 if he wanted but he likes to watch us play the music he's going to write for because he says he wants to look at our faces while we're playing so he gets some idea as to what we're thinking of and what we're feeling while playing the music. So I'll let him know when we have some music ready that we would like to have lyrics for and he says while I'll be in Delhi in a few months and I can come by then.

Why don't any of you write your own lyrics?

Well, truly, none of are really that good. (laughs)

What's been the reaction to your music like in other countries - do people expect you to be an Indian band with sitars and tabla?

The reaction has been great everywhere we play. The first time we played in America was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002 that was organized by Yo Yo Ma. He had a band that came on right after us, (The Silk Road Ensemble). He really liked what we were doing. He said we had taken Indian music where he'd like to take traditional Chinese music and expressed an interest in working with us. Idiots that we were we never followed up on that.

Everywhere we've gone we've found people to be open to and appreciative of the music we play. In Russia we were really surprised at how much older Russian ladies were enjoying the music, they were bouncing up and down and having a great time.

What is it about touring and playing live concerts that you like so much - you've played something like 600 shows in twenty different countries haven't you?

Well first of all we get to see places we never would have seen otherwise. For instance New Zealand, it was beautiful and inexpensive. We stayed on there for a while after our last show and travelled around. However, I just love concerts the most no matter where they are because I feel really alive when playing in front of an audience. With our songs being improvised to begin with, when we play live we can change things. I mean nothing is written down so there's no way anybody can give you a hard time for changing the way you do something. That way you can play the same song 600 times and never play it the same way twice. Of course with improvisation there has to be a fine balance and you can't get self-indulgent otherwise you mess up the song.

You're just finishing up your seventh tour of the US is that right

Yes, our first time was in 2002, but after that we didn't come back until 2005. After 9/11 the American government imposed some really ridiculous restrictions on bands coming over from our part of the world. Before they would give you a visa they would want to know things like the seating plans of every place you were going to play in six months in advance, and they would want the tax returns for the previous five years of anyone who was going to book you. It would also cost $3,000 to apply for the temporary work visa and there was no guarantee you would be given the visa just because you applied and even if you had all the paper work filled out. So promoters had to be willing to book you to perform even though there was no guarantee that you would even be allowed into the country. Now who is going to book you under those conditions. Of course we found out later that not many of these restrictions are enforced, they're only there to discourage those who aren't serious about applying. We've now hired people over in America to take care of this for us so it's much easier now.

Is it any easier to get into Canada

Oh yes, all you need is a letter from the venue booking you saying that you are playing there and you can get your visa in three days.

Right now you can only buy your music in North America on line, are there any plans for getting formal distribution in place in the future

Yes we are working on that now, we've been meeting with various companies over here, to see about working something out. We're going to meet with somebody from Cumbancha in Boston, but it's going slowly.

What's next for Indian Ocean

Well like I said we are waiting to release our new CD, and we have lots of other music we want to finish off and we would like to do some more recording. Pretty much more of the same.

It was then that Rahul realized it was 12:30 pm and he was in danger of missing a train if we didn't say good bye. So I quickly thanked him very much and wished him well. I hope that you've been able to get a better impression of the type of music Indian Ocean play from reading this interview. However you really can't appreciate their sound without giving it a listen. All of their CDs are available for download through I-Tunes of course, but if you're like me and prefer hard copies of material you can buy all their CDs and their DVD at the Indian Oceanon line store based out of Canada. Make sure if you order the DVD to request the right format as it comes in both PAL and NTSC and in order to play over here it has to be NTSC. The prices are listed in rupees but it's a Canadian based site so don't worry about that. Of course they still have a couple more dates left to play in the US so you can always catch them live in Philadelphia on October 3rd at Harrison Auditorium at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in Boston on October 4th at the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub at 472 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, in New York City at BB Kings Blues Club 237 West 42nd St, on October 9th, or the final stop on their American tour before heading out, the University of Cincinnati at the Kresge Auditorium on October 10th.

After watching their DVD and talking to Rahul, I'd say it would be well worth your while to check them out live if you have the opportunity to do so. If not make the little extra effort involved to pick up one of their CDs, you won't be disappointed.

I'd just like to thank Rahul Ram for taking time out of his day to talk with me about the band and their music. Someday I can hope they might even come to Kingston Ontario - stranger things have happened.

September 29, 2009

Music Review: Trio Ifriqiya - Petite Planete

I don't know when my fascination with Moorish Spain began but it has been ongoing for a while now. At a time when the rest of Europe was clouded over by superstition and disease it was a bastion of civilization and relative tolerance. For although ruled by Muslims, Christians and Jews were both allowed relative freedom of religion. Both did have to pay an additional tax for the privilege of being allowed to practice their own religion and the more fanatical members of the Islamic community spoke out against them, however compared to the way Muslims and Jews were treated in Christian communities, it was a bastion of tolerance.

In our history books we talk of the period known as the renaissance as if it were a miracle that sprang up out of the earth. When in actual fact it was the influence of Moorish Spain that provided both the knowledge and the impetus for the great re-birth of art and learning. That influence continues through to this day primarily through the music of Andalusia. When the Christian armies marched on Spain, with the Inquisition in tail, Muslims, Jews, and Gypsies (Roma) were faced with the choice of fleeing, conversion, or burning at the stake. While the Jews and Gypsies seem to have mainly chosen more tolerant European destinations, the Muslim population took ship across the Mediterranean to Algeria in North Africa. Its there that they have kept alive the words and music of the songs that were created in Andalusia.

While there are some who continue to perform and create music much as it was made more then five hundred years ago, there are others who draw upon the traditional sounds and combine it with modern influences. Trio Ifriquiya, Didier Freboeuf (piano), Faycal El Mezouar (vocals, violin, ud (oud), and percussion), and Emile Biayenba (percussion) use the music of Andalusia as the core for the eleven pieces on their latest release, World Village Music label, and broaden its scope by incorporating traditional and contemporary jazz, and each performer's musical influences.
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Of the eleven tracks on Petite Planete five are from the traditional Arab/Andalusian repertoire, according to the liner notes specifically from the Granada region of Spain, while the balance are one original composition by Mezouar and five by Biayenba. Mezouar is the impetus behind the trio, as he was deeply steeped in the traditions of Andalusia during his schooling where he not only learned the instruments he plays, but the Sufi poems that were the music's original inspiration. Freboeuf brings a modern jazz sensibility to the group with his piano, while Biayenba, founder of the drum group Les Tambours De Brazza from the Congo in central Africa, opens the door rhythmically to the rest of Africa and the world.

Yet no matter if they are playing one of Bizyenba's or Mezouar's originals, or if the jazz piano of Freboeuf is taking the lead, Andalusia is never far from the surface. Whether it's the interjection of the ud, the sound of Mezouar's vocals, a trill in the melody evoking the older music, or something about the quality of sound generated by a hand drum, there's always something that will pull us back to that centre again. What I found most intriguing about the more modern compositions was that instead the songs building upon a foundation of the Andalusian music, they start from the contemporary and build to old. It's almost as if they were showing us how, no matter where you start, or with what, you will always come back to this point of origin.

While both Frebouef and Bizyenba play key roles in the music, Mezouar is the heart around which this trio beats. As the one with the direct connection to the source of their inspiration if he falters, or strikes anything resembling a false note, the whole ensemble will fail. However one only has to listen to him sing a few notes to have any doubts about his sincerity or his skill dispelled. His voice brings to life songs whose lyrics could have been penned centuries ago and makes them sound as alive and inspiring as if he wrote them himself. Listening to him you can visualize in your mind's eye the open courtyards and minarets of Moorish Spain with their whitewashed walls and the elaborate mosaic pattern of their tiled floors.
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Yet this is not just some journey into the past but rather an exploration of the past and the present meeting in harmony and the music of one culture working with others while maintaining its distinctive flavour. With each man bringing his own particular influences into the mix the music becomes a meeting place for styles and traditions. As a result, while we never lose track of the Andalusian core, we are almost always aware of a much wider world existing outside of that particular time and place. At times the sum of the three parts; jazz piano, the rhythms of central Africa, and centuries old Arabic music, becomes a whole that is unique to the moment it was recorded. Even more intriguing is the fact that although you can hear the distinct parts, simultaneously you hear them blending into one.

The music of Andalusia influenced the musicians of Medieval Europe both in style and content. Minstrels and troubadours alike, with their songs about love and devotion accompanied by a lute or harp, wouldn't have taken the form they did if it hadn't been for the music of the Ottoman Empire. Now, more then a thousand years later, that same music is still providing a blueprint for musicians. Trio Ifriqiya have drawn upon the same source material that so many others down through history have and not only brought new life to an ancient tradition but have created new sounds of their own. Petite Planete is a perfect example of how looking to the past is sometimes the best way to find something new.

September 15, 2009

Music DVD Review: Indian Ocean - Indian Ocean Live In Delhi

One of the great pleasures of being a critic, and one of the things that keeps me from becoming jaded, is when you find a musician or a group you've never heard before who are performing music unlike anything you've ever experienced. While sometimes this means they are doing something that's truly original, other times it just means the approach they have taken to what others have done before is as fresh and invigorating as if it were brand new. However, no matter what the case is, hearing them is usually enough to remind me there are still musicians our there willing to experiment and, more importantly as far as I'm concerned, playing music for the sake of playing music, not to become rich and famous.

In recent years, as the music from various cultures from around the world becomes more available, there have been more attempts at fusing the music of North America with the other cultures' music. While it's obvious how many African musicians are able to find a common thread for their music with what's currently popular in North America, the same can not be said about those from India. Yet, while there is no denying there are differences between West and East when it comes to ideas about rhythm and the structure of a piece of music, much of the East is East and West is West and never the train shall meet idea that has been perpetuated about music arose out of the differences between Classical Indian and European music.

Once you break away from the rigid confines of 18th and 19th century Europe when it comes to music, you all of a sudden see that there's plenty of common ground to be found. Now I don't know as much about classical Indian music as I'd like, but I do know that much like jazz improvisation around a theme is a key element. So although I remember being surprised when I first found out about the popularity of jazz in India, the more I understood about classical music in that country, the more I saw the connection. Therefore, when I first heard the New Delhi based band Indian Ocean's DVD, Indian Ocean Live In Delhi, I was not overly surprised by their sound's marked jazz influence.
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Indian Ocean has been together in its current line up since 1994, and have built up an enormous following in India. While they have played in North America before, the tour they are currently embarking on is their most ambitious to date as they are criss-crossing the United States over the next month giving people from Albuquerque to Ohio a chance to hear their unique fusion of jazz and Indian music. However, those of you planning on attending one of their concerts and anticipating seeing sitars and other instruments you associate with India, will be in for something of a disappointment.

For while percussionist Asheem Chakravarty plays tabla and drummer Amit Kilam plays the two stringed percussion instrument from West Bengal known as the gabgubi, whose sound can be modulated by pulling the stings with one hand while simultaneously tapping out the rhythm with the other, the remainder of the instruments employed will seem very familiar. Kilam sits behind a very conventional drum kit and the rhythm section is completed by Rahul Ram on Bass, and Susmit Sen on guitar rounds out the group.One way they do differ from a great many modern jazz bands is the role vocals play in their music. Now all four of them have been known to pitch in on the vocals, but the majority of the vocals are split between Chakravarty and Ram with Sen and Kilam providing mainly harmonies and background vocals as required. Chakravarty's voice in particular is extraordinarily captivating as he soars in and out among the other instruments in ether a free form flow similar to scat or singing lyrics

While the band does introduce the songs partially in English, the lyrics are most definitely not in English, and the DVD I have was produced for an Indian audience so there was no explanation about the songs provided, let alone any liner notes. (If you buy a DVD make sure that you specify the right format as the version I have was PAL and I could only play it on the DVD writer in my computer as even my DVD Rom wouldn't play it - you want NTSC in North America, Japan, and a few other countries in the world, while most of Asia will want SECAM, and Europe and the rest of the world will want PAL) However I didn't find my enjoyment of the music in any way diminished by not understanding the lyrics. Chakravarty's voice in particular is so expressive that it's almost an instrument in of itself.
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I think the first thing you'll be aware of watching and listening to Indian Ocean is how full and rich their sound is. You might be wondering how a four piece band made up of two percussionists, a bass player and a guitarist could create music elaborate enough to be considered jazz, but that's only because you're used to how limited most pop musicians are when it comes to what they can do with their instruments. Each member of this band, it seems, is contributing to both the melody and the rhythm of each song. As a result a song builds and acquires a texture as it is played and another layer of either melody or rhythm are added. It's amazing how quickly you forget there are only four musicians playing.

Aside from stepping out from behind his drum kit to play the aforementioned gabgubi, Kilam also picks up a recorder at one point and produces a sound so hauntingly beautiful that you look at the instrument in astonishment. I had a hard time reconciling it with the cheap plastic things we used to play in grade school and try to play such complex songs like "Old Grey Mare" and fail miserably. Perhaps that's what so amazing about Indian Ocean overall, the way they take conventional instruments like guitar, drums, and bass and create such incredible music. Certainly the inclusion of tabla and Chakravarty's vocals adds an element that we're not used to, but that's not enough to explain how good they are or why their music is so entrancing.

Technically speaking the concert was filmed beautifully as the cameras didn't jump around all over the place from band member to band member or shot to shot, but lingered long enough at each point of focus for us to appreciate what was happening on the screen. The sound was crystal clear and perfectly balanced and the DVD offered you the choice of either Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound or regular stereo, so no matter what your set-up you'll be able to enjoy the music.

Indian Ocean: Live In Delhi is a great introduction to an amazing band playing some of the best, and most heartfelt, contemporary jazz that I've heard in a long time. If you have the opportunity to catch them in concert during their current tour of North America do so. However if you're not able to attend, get a hold of this DVD and it will serve as some compensation. Indian Ocean are one of those bands that remind us why we loved music in the first place and listening to them will leave you feeling as refreshed and revived as you would after a summer storm.

August 8, 2009

Music Review: John Patitucci Trio - Remembrance

Timing, as they say, is everything. So it seems appropriate that a day or so after someone died whose passion for life and his art was one of the glorious inspirations of my life, I'm reviewing a CD of music inspired by all the word remembrance can mean. In his liner notes to his new release Remebrance on the Concord Music Group label, John Patitucci talks about how not only was he attempting to pay tribute to those who have passed, but also remembering those who are still around and continue to inspire him with their playing on a daily basis. However, the disc is not just about remembering people - its about remembering to be in the present and enjoy the moments we are blessed with and not allowing ourselves to become caught up in the past or preoccupied with the future.

Patitucci doesn't draw a line connecting the former and the latter parts of the above, but the way I see it is that the work of those who have truly inspired us will have the power to ensure that we stay in the present. For their music, painting, or writing wouldn't inspire us if it wasn't able to attract out complete attention and keep us in the moment. Now these are all fine and noble sentiments, but how do you translate them into music? The first option is to create pieces in tribute to the folk you're going to miss and try to recreate some of what they had done that inspired you (the same can be done for those still living), while the other option is to create pieces of music that are powerful incentives to keep people focused on the here and now.

For this effort he's joined by other members of his trio, Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone) and Brian Blade (drums) on ten of the eleven tracks on the disc, while his wife adds some beautiful cello work to "Scenes From An Opera" and Rogerio Boccato fills some gaps with percussion on four tracks. For the final track of the disc, the title track, Patitucci plays against himself, bass against a piccolo bass. Oh - had I failed to mention that Patitucci was a bass player until now? Well he is, and while Jaco Pastorous was magnificent, there's something about the quality of Patitucci's playing that makes me feel like he is the superior musician. I didn't say bass player, I said musician which is an important distinction.
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Don't get me wrong I love Pastorous' playing just as much as anybody's but he died young, before he had a chance to fully develop as a musician. What he could have accomplished if he had the time is another thing altogether. However, listening to Patitucci's playing and his compositions on this disc, he wrote all eleven tracks, you can't help but be impressed by his range of expression, the breadth of his artistic awareness, and his imagination. For while "Monk/Trane" is obviously a tribute to John & Alice Coletrane and Thelonious Monk as the title suggests, he doesn't just try and write something that will imitate those three great players, the song also manages to express something of what the music meant to him personally as well.

The same goes for any of the obvious tribute songs, "Blues For Freddie" and "Sonny Side" (for Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Rollins respectively I assume) as each of them contains elements of the named person's style while telling something of what their music meant to Patitucci. How did he manage to do that you might be asking, create a song that talks about how music made him feel? Well first of all instead of any of these songs having anything at all to do with a dirge or eulogy of some sort or another, they all are full of life and elaborate creations that are too involved to be depressing. Secondly they live up to his last objective in creating this disc - they absorb your attention so completely that you are held in the moment by the music.

Well, you might say, what's so hard about that? Well let me ask you something in return. When you're listening to music how often do you find your mind wandering and you start thinking about things other than the song you're supposedly paying attention to? Now there is the occasional song where the composer has gone out of his way to trigger certain reactions in their listener which will bring various thoughts to mind, but that's not the same as you're brain wandering all over the place. Anyway, when a songwriter's intent is for you to feel something in particular, it's not so you wallow in it at the expense of what you're doing in the moment, it's in order to ensure that you feel or experience things as intensely as possible at the moment of impact.
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The title song, "Remembrance", on this disc is a great example of this in action. Patitucci has dedicated this song to Michael Brecker, not somebody whose music I'm familiar with so I wouldn't be able to tell you if it sounded like something he created or not, and while there is something decidedly poignant about the song, it's not designed to make you wallow in those emotions. While I was listening to the track I couldn't help but think of the person I knew who had just passed away, and while there was definitely hurt involved in that reaction as it brought my sadness to the surface, it was also positive. For as I listened to the song I wasn't thinking about how awful it was that he had died, I was thinking about all the wonderful things he had brought into my life. It helped me to celebrate his memory instead of only thinking about the grief that his loss caused.

There are many ways we can remember those who have influenced and inspired us. We can choose to mourn the loss and wallow in that, or we can count our blessings for having had the chance to have them in our lives and rejoice in the gifts they left us. Of course that same options apply to how we live our lives; either relishing every moment we are given for the opportunity that it presents us, or worrying ourselves sick over what might lie ahead and what came before. John Patitucci has created in his new disc Remembrance, eleven songs which manage to help us remember those lessons. Through heartfelt creations and loving performances he and his fellow musicians have created an album that is wonderful to listen to as well as being good for the soul. A gift which all of us can appreciate.

July 31, 2009

Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - Bouquet

For all that I'm liable to complain about the system of labelling musical performers by genres I find that I end up doing the same thing in my own way. It's only natural I guess to categorize music in some fashion, how else are you going to differentiate one piece of music from another? However, that's still a personal choice based on my own likes and dislikes and an understanding of the type of music I like to listen to when I'm in a certain frame of mind, not something that I'm going to use in order to answer the question, what kind of music do they play?

While it's true there are some musicians you can say play blues or rock fairly easily, there are other bands who just aren't going to fit into anybody's neat little categories no matter what you do. In fact, I'm discovering the music I'm enjoying most these days is that by performers who can't be pinned down as belonging to any single category. In some cases the number of genres they fall into is so great that they'd have more back slashes in any attempt to label them than the average web-site has in its address: they play a punk/jazz/folk/acoustic/blues/country/gypsy/swing sort of thing with some classical influences. By the time you get finished reciting a list like that it becomes meaningless and you might just as well have said they play music.

One of the most recent examples of this I've come across are the band Caravan Of Thieves. After having listened to their latest release, Bouquet, I could no more give you a one word answer to "what kind of music do they play" than I could explain higher physics equations. Even telling you that the four core musicians play, guitar (Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni), violin (Ben Dean), double bass (Brian Anderson), and are occasionally joined by Bruce Martin on accordion, isn't going to help, as a line up like that could indicate anything from a country group to a folk ensemble from the streets of Paris.
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So what can I tell you about their music if I can't tell you what it is? I can tell you that lyrically they are sly and witty and musically they are full of life and vigour. I can also tell you that the signing of the Sangiovannis is perfect for the music as they harmonize beautifully without trying anything overly fancy, and have voices equal to the task of expressing the ideas, emotions, and humour in their songs. They are sufficiently skilled at playing their instruments to play fast enough to make your head spin and be equally effective playing something more pensive. Their music hops, skips, jumps, and swings through the twelve songs on the disc without once missing a beat or striking a discordant moment.

One of the interesting things about Bouquet is how they've divided the disc up into three acts, and an intermission; an instrumental piece appearing to be called "Zu Zio Petals". (I say appears because the text is so stylized that I couldn't tell you whether the first letters of the first two words were a Z,Q,J, or even something else - I don't know why bands insist on using type that is almost indecipherable when reproduced at the size required for CD liner notes) The impression this creates, when coupled with some of the other song titles, especially considering the name of the band, is that they are a group of less than reputable carnival hustlers.

While the opening track's title "Ghostwriter" might not at first glance appear related, when you realize the lyrics are referring to someone who is dead, not just someone hired to write something for you, they complement the overall theme with its suggestion of mediums and communicating with "other side". However its songs like "Freaks" with its peon to the different in the world, and "Box Of Charms", which when opened has cures for everything and whatever ails you. Although not without risk of side effects - spontaneous combustion, decapitation, loss of limb, or turning you into a flesh eating zombie.
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However, you do begin to wonder whether its not a medicine show or carney after all, after you listen to "Angels In Cages". The show that they describe in this song sounds suspiciously too much like the state of the world for it to be just some low rent carnival. "Its a lovely show with fire and explosions./We are sure you will all be charmed to death." Not what you'd call the most enticing of blandishments. I personally would think twice about stepping right up to see a show where the clowns are in charge of the heavy guns no matter how much I'm reassured that it's all in fun.

There's something about listening to Caravan Of Thieves' new CD Bouquet that put me in mind more of what I'd expect to hear from a European group than one from North America. While there are plenty of groups from this part of the world following the same configuration of instruments as Caravan, few of them ever play anything aside form zydeco or other music which has roots here. It was only because of the fact that they sounded like a musical tour of Europe, rather than being from one specific point on the continent that distinguished them from European groups or ensembles who tend to only play the music of their homes. For not only can you hear sounds from the streets of Paris, there's also music that could only have come from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, plus a liberal sprinkling of swing spicing up certain songs.

Bouquet could have been recorded in New York City or Bucharest, but what really matters is the fact that the music is a pleasure to listen to and the lyrics are witty and intelligent. While there aren't many people who can play more than one style of music, the number who bounce around between quite a few on the same disc and yet maintain a continuity of music is very rare indeed. When it comes to this Caravan Of Thieves the only thing you have to worry about them stealing is your heart, as their music sweeps you across the dance floor and then bounces you around quite a bit.

July 24, 2009

Music Review: Selaelo Selota - Lapeng Laka

Anyone who has listened to any amount of music from Africa will quickly notice the different flavours it acquires dependant on the region it's from. Once you have become familiar with the characteristics of a region's music, it becomes easy to identify where a performer hails from simply by listening to them play. Although that has to be qualified with the proviso that the person plays music that has at least been influenced by the music from that region. If they've succumbed to becoming a part of the great melting pot that is popular culture that's a different story, but for the most part, no matter what genre they're ostensibly supposed to be playing, you can usually pick up some clues as to which part of the continent they come from.

While a great deal of the music we're hearing these days is coming from the North West of Africa and the Sub Saharan region, the region which has been most consistent over the years in producing music that has reached beyond its borders has been Southern Africa, and specifically South Africa. Even during the days when the country was an international pariah due to minority rule and apartheid, the music of South Africa was making itself heard. Either through the efforts of ex-patriots like Hugh Masekela or foreigners like Paul Simon recording with local performers, we became familiar with many of the different traditions that colour South African music.

Ironically it seems like since the end of minority rule the amount of new music coming out of South Africa has slowed to a trickle. In the past few years, judging by the items I've been offered for review by most of the "world music" labels, all anybody seems to be interested in is what's happening up north. However that doesn't mean there isn't anything happening musically in South Africa, or that there isn't musical territory in that country yet to be discovered. A fact that's brought home by Lapeng Laka, the latest release from jazz guitarist Selaelo Selota now available on the Sony label.
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This isn't the first recording that Selota has made that bears the influences of his home province of Limpopo or to be sung in the language of the sePedi people who live there. However for nearly the past decade he has been dedicating himself to establishing his reputation as a jazz player through study and performance. That Lapeng Laka is a return to the roots of his music is made clear through its meaning in the sePedi language -"in my house". However, like many other musicians who have begun to explore other genres of music, he's not simply content to play old tribal melodies on traditional instruments. Instead he's reached back to incorporate the traditional folk-tales of the region and its music into what he's been doing for the last number of years.

While it's all very well and good to play traditional tribal music on traditional instruments, by not allowing a culture to grow and expand it becomes stagnant. However it takes a delicate touch to manage something like this without completely ruining the original music. There have been some horrible examples of people merely sampling traditional music and welding it onto electobeat technology and making a mockery of what was once beautiful and sacred. However with a musician of the calibre and creativity of Selota, it's clear from the moment you listen to the first song on the disc that's not something you have to worry about in this case.

It's only fitting that the disc opens with the title song, "Lapeng Laka", as it opens the door to the "house" of music that Selota has built for us to listen to. His guitar is the foundation for the rest of the house, and it has all the smoothness and elegance that one has come to expect from the great jazz players. At the same time he's incorporated what are obviously rhythmic elements of the traditional music into his playing as it traces patterns you don't normally hear from jazz players. As the focal point of the music the guitar could come to dominate what we're listening to, instead it serves as the core around which everything else coalesces to form each song.
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Surprisingly Selota also supplies the vocals on this disc, it's not often a jazz guitarist can sing as well as play, and his voice is more than up to the task of blending the vocal lines in with the rest of the music. With the lyrics in sePedi we obviously can't hope to understand what he's singing about specifically, but the music and the tone of his voice do manage to convey a general sense of hopefulness to all the music. According to the notes at Selota's web site a great many of the songs are derived from the folk tales of his home province, but without being able to understand the lyrics the specifics of each of those will be lost on listeners.

However, that doesn't mean that you won't take away an appreciation for the music and the culture of the Limpopo province. For Selota has worked very hard to ensure that musically the disc is as strongly flavoured as possible by traditional sePedi music while at the same time making it accessible to those who won't be familiar with its sounds or the language the songs are being sung in. It's hard to describe what the music sounds like, but there's a gentle flow to it that evoked images of rolling grasslands and horizon lines that stretch off far into the distance. The little I do know about the geography of South Africa is that there are such vistas to be found in the country and its easy to picture Limpopo as one such area.

Selaelo Selota has done the remarkable job of finding just the right balance between the traditional and the new to bring the music of his native province in South Africa to life. What makes this recording special is that he has managed to do this without seeming to sacrifice any of the music's unique regional qualities while making it accessible to a wider audience. It's been a while since we've heard a new voice from South Africa, but as this recording tells us there's still plenty that's new left to be heard from that country. With people like Selota leading the way there's reason to hope that this is just first of many new recordings that we'll hear from South Africa in the near future.

July 15, 2009

Music Review: Oran Ekin - Kelenia

These days the borders between musical worlds and genres are blurring at an ever increasing rate. When a musician who was born a Jew in Israel and now lives in America who grew up playing the music of African Americans makes a recording with Malian musicians that combines his native and learned traditions with their music, well perhaps we are finally hearing world music. Up until now when we've called something world music we've really meant its from outside the boundaries defined by our language and cultural tradition.

It's become so ridiculous that a Native American recording in his own country, where his ancestors have lived for hundreds if not thousands of years, has his music classified as world. On the other hand a group who records material derived from traditional anglo/Irish folk tunes is called Americana. It's even funnier when you consider that the latter are using instruments that originated in Africa (the banjo) and Spain (guitar) while the former's instruments originated in North America. What kind of world are we talking about when we say world music? A world where we work together to create something of harmony and beauty? Or a world divided into those who are like us, and those who are different and not quite as important?

Oran Etkin was born in Israel and fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong when he was nine years old and has been playing jazz ever since. However at the age of nineteen he also started playing with Joe Camara, a percussionist from Mali. While it was Camara who broadened Etkin's musical horizons by inviting him to Mali to live and play with him, it was Balla Koyate, a balafon (xylophone) player from Mali, and Makane Kouyate, percussion and vocals, he joined forces with in 2003 to begin the process that has resulted in the production of his new release, Kelenia on the Motema label.
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The title of the disc, Kelenia, is a word in the Bambara language meaning the love felt by those who are different from each other. This is highly appropriate when you consider the backgrounds of the original trio, and those who have joined them on this recording. Of course the music is an expression of the sentiments expressed in the disc's title as well as the different backgrounds come through in the music. For not only do we hear the obvious African and American influences, but in Etkin's clarinet playing one can also hear the echo of Klezmer and faint traces of Eastern Europe wafting through as well.

What's most impressive about the music on the disc is how well the musicians have managed to blend their diverse talents to create music that not only reflects their individual musical backgrounds but something new as well that's a result of that intermingling. The music of Mali was not written with saxophone or clarinet in mind, but not once on any of the disc's eleven tracks do either of those instruments sound out of place when being accompanied by the balafon, or when they provide accompaniment to Makane Kouyate's vocals. The same applies when Balla Koyate joins Etkin for a rendition of Duke Ellignton's "It Doesn't Mean A Thing", as his balafon, although lending the song a more exotic flavour than we might be accustomed to, sounds right at home.

There have been recordings made of North America musicians playing with those from countries like Mali before. Yet they have not been like this, because most of those have attempted to graft the blues or jazz onto a tradition, that while sharing some similarities, still has its own distinct flavour. In the past that flavour has usually been close to washed away, resulting in people exclaiming about how much "they sound like us". Of course any similarities that exist do so because our music descends from theirs, or, in other words because we sound like them. However, the real problem is the fact that the styles never seem to meet on equal terms.

On Kelenia Oran Etkin and his band mate aren't trying to graft anything. Instead they have synthesized their individual musical and cultural identities to create something that not only allows them to express a unified sound, but also preserves their individuality. The last thing I would think anyone would want to hear would be a sound that eliminates our differences in order to create something homogenous and without character. Somehow these musicians manage to both celebrate their differences and ways for them to work in concert. As you listen you'll be able to pick out traits that sound familiar to your ear which serve as a bridge into this new musical landscape that has been created.

What is so amazing about this recording is that its a disc where nobody is trying to imitate somebody else's way of playing music but that all involved have figured out how their music can work as part of the other's style. The result is something extraordinary and wonderful to listen to. For not only is the sound harmonious, but so are the feelings generated by the intent behind the making of the disc. For as the title means the love of people who are different from each other, so the music celebrates how people can love each other because of their differences, not in spite of them.

When you listen to this disc you will have to rid yourself of any preconceived notions that you may have of how certain types of music should sound. However, you'll soon realize that if more people were willing to make the kind of effort these musicians have made, it would be more than a new world of sound you'd be experiencing, it would be a far more harmonious world.

June 28, 2009

A Thank You To Willy DeVille

It was on May 17th that I received the e-mail that broke my heart. Willy DeVille's wife Nina wrote to let me know that Willy had been diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic cancer. At the time she had asked me to keep it to myself, but as she's since gone public with the information at Willy's web site I'm free to talk about it. We knew Willy was sick earlier in the year, but at the time the doctors thought it was Hepatitis C, and it was only when they were testing him prior to beginning treatment they discovered the cancer. It doesn't look like there's much they can do for him aside from ensuring his comfort. Nina assures me that they have hospice people in making sure he's not feeling too much pain and that he's being well looked after.

I came to know Willy outside of his music first back in 2006 when I him for the site just after the release of his first DVD Live In The Lowlands and his first studio recording in a number of years, Crow Jane Alley. It was an amazing experience as we talked for well over two hours about art, music, and life. If there was ever a performer who had every right to be bitter it is Willy, as his music career has been marked by record company stupidity and indifference. Capital, his first label, didn't know what to do with his music - in fact they shelved Le Chat Blue, an album Rolling Stone called the fifth best of 1980, and music historian Glenn A Baker has called the tenth best rock album of all time, until sales of the French import version became so high they were embarrassed into releasing it.

Yet in spite of a career where stuff like that was the norm, and a personal life marked by hardship and sadness (his second wife committed suicide and overcoming addictions) he still retained his passion and love for music and life. I had a great time with Willy, but I figured that was the end of that, and I would treasure the memories of that conversation for the rest of my life. However, in December of 2007 I received an e-mail from the German edition of Rolling Stone asking me if I was interested in updating the original interview for publication in their February 2008 edition. They were planning a special feature on Willy prior to a mini tour of Europe he was doing that spring to publicize his 2008 release Pistola. Instead of merely updating the interview I took the opportunity to get in touch with Willy again and do a whole newinterview which I then combined with the first, and wrote a couple of side bar articles, all of which ended up in the magazine. When combined with photos the special "Willy DeVille" section ended up being around fifteen pages long.
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So Willy was responsible for my first paying writing gig, and it was a big one. He and Nina were really happy with what I had written, and we've been keeping in touch since then. In fact Nina was able to direct some more work my way by recommending me for the job of writing the liner notes for a new DVD of Willy's, Live At Montreux in '94. Coincidentally, it was only shortly there after that I was offered the contract to write the book I have coming out this fall. I wrote Nina and told her that she and Willy were my good luck charms as the DVD liner notes had led to bigger and better things.

It was shortly after that we were writing a press announcement about Willy having to cancel his touring and recording plans for 2009 because of having to be treated for Hepatitis C. Unfortunately all that's changed for the worse now, and when Nina contacted me in May it was to ask if I would write something for after he went, and I still plan on doing that. However, I wanted to do something for him while he was still alive that would let him know what he's meant to people all over the world and how much his music has impacted on those who've listened and appreciated what he offered.

Willy released sixteen albums either under his own name or under the Mink DeVille banner; there have also been fourteen compilation albums of his material released by various labels around the world; four DVDs of concerts that he performed; and at least three live albums that I know of, including the great recording Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio Live In Berlin which featured some of the most soulful music you'll ever hear. His music has been used in three movies including Princess Bride (for which he garnered an Academy Award nomination for the song "Storybook Love"), Cruising, and Death Proof; and he's appeared on tribute albums for people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders.
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According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio, for a performer to be considered for induction it must have been at least twenty-five years since they released their first recording and they must have made a significant contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll. Well as far as I can see Willy meets all those criteria as his first recording was released in 1977 and he's been producing some of the best, and most soulful, rock and roll ever since. His album of New Orleans music, Victory Mixture, alone should qualify him for the job it did in bringing the music of that city to a whole new audience in North America and Europe.

Yet for some reason, while his contemporaries from CBGBs the Ramones have been inducted, Willy DeVille has not. In an attempt to redress this inequity, and in an effort to create a lasting memorial to his great talent, I've started a petition asking that Willy be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. If you're interested in supporting this effort please sign the petition and ensure that this great singer and songwriter is not forgotten after he's gone.

While this hardly seems adequate when compared to how much enjoyment Willy has provided people over the years with his music it's at least a tangible way to show our appreciation. It's a start anyway, and perhaps, like many other artists before him, his reputation will continue to grow after he's no longer with us and more and more people will come to know what I've known for years, just how special he is. It's only a pity that it will mean him being taken away from us for him to receive the appreciation he deserves. In a perfect world he'd still be with us and be able to show up for his own induction ceremony.

I know that I would trade all the signatures in the world for the chance to see him perform live, or even to hear his voice coming down through my telephone wire a year from now, but barring a miracle neither of those events are going to be happening. My heart is a lot heavier these days knowing Willy is not going to be with us for much longer, and while this effort won't keep him around any longer, it's a start in saying thanks. I'm not ready to say good bye yet so thanks will have to due for now.

June 23, 2009

Music Review: Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, Jon Hassell, and Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche - Siwan

The common perception most of us have of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century is one personified by the title the period is designated as; The Dark Ages. Its depicted in our histories as being marked by the spread of the Black Plague, ignorance, and superstition. It wasn't until the miracle of the Renaissance, which literally means re-birth, that Europeans began to drag themselves out of the mud and filth and started to create beautiful art and rediscover the teachings of the ancients. Reading most standard histories of the time you could get the impression this awakening was somehow spontaneous; one morning people just woke up and looked at the world differently.

The reality is that the knowledge was never really lost and not all of Europe had descended to the same depths of ignorance, only Christian Europe. Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492, and during those dark ages all the so-called lost knowledge and arts were alive and kicking. Everything from the concept of zero in mathematics, philosophical concepts of the self which would have seen you burnt at the stake in Christian Europe, to the arts and music, thrived in the city states of Cordoba and others through out the region. Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the knowledge which fuelled the so called Renaissance trickled into Italy, France, and other countries.

How much of this beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition purged the region of heretics and non-believers by forcing Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn, will never be known. However much of the great poetry and ideas on music were preserved and passed on. The music was probably the easiest to spread as wandering minstrels and troubadours would have carried tunes and lyrics across borders and passed their ideas on. It's this music, and the poetry that sometimes supplied the lyrics for it, that forms the basis for a collection of music being released on ECM Records under the guidance of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke on June 30th in North America.
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Siwan, the title of the disc, is the word for balance in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic hybrid language spoken in medieval Andalusia, is a collection of eleven tracks, nine of which feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, "Thulathiyat" was written by the Suffi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj who lived between 857 -922 AD while Lope de Vega's "A la dina dana" demonstrates how the influences of the era lived on after the re-conquest as he lived from 1562 - 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose. The booklet accompanying the CD not only gives a history of each song and the poet who wrote it, but their lyrics in the language they are sung in, either Spanish or Arabic, and an English translation.

Jon Balke has an extensive background in both jazz and world music with credits including compositions for theatre, dance, and chamber orchestras. The three other main musicians, vocalist Amina Alaoui, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche each have experience and talent relevant to the work at hand. Alaoui and M'Kachiche are Moroccan and Algerian respectively and both have extensive backgrounds in the history and playing of the music of Al Andalus. Jon Hassell's musical experiences have seen him studying from Europe to India and he has created what he calls "fourth world" music - music without borders that combines classical,pop, secular, and sacred elements from all over the world. With these four serving as the nexus, and the rest of the musicians drawn from traditions and cultures ranging from traditional Persian to early European music like baroque and renaissance, everybody involved has had their musical experiences influenced by what was born on the Iberian peninsula.

As for the music itself, I'm struggling to find the words to describe it. If you're familiar with any of music from North Africa, Spain, Persia (modern Iran), or renaissance Europe, than you're bound to recognize elements in each song no matter what language they are sung in. In fact there are times while listening to various songs that you'll swear you've heard it before as patterns that you've heard in another context will tug at your memory. However, all of the compositions have been created for this recording. What Balke and his fellow musicians have done is compose music which reflects the depth and breadth of the influence Muslim Spain has on us to this day. It shows, no matter what anybody would have us believe, that Islam is one of the cornerstones of Western culture, as the philosophy and thought that went into the creation of the music from that region continues to strike chords of recognition with us today.
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One of the great wonders of Siwan aside from the beauty of the music, is the singing of Amina Alaoui. While all the musicians are wonderful, it's around her voice that the nine tracks with lyrics live or die. The more I hear female vocalists from traditions other than North American pop or European opera, the more I realize why I've always felt there has been something lacking in our music. There's nothing forced or controlled about Alaoui's voice like what were used to. While I've always been able to admire the technical prowess of an opera voice, its lack of human warmth has always left me cold. Alaoui's voice is every bit as technically proficient as any I've heard sing opera, but she has the humanity they lack. Rich like velvet her voice also retains the rawness of human emotion that allows us to identify with her song even though we may not speak or understand the language she's singing in.

Carl Jung talked about the idea of race memory wherein we remember things that date back thousands of years through a type of collective unconscious. While some of that has been formed by specific associations like religion and language, some of it we share in common with all humans. In some ways the music on Siwan is like that as you recognize it without actually knowing any of the songs on the disc. However, what's important is the music on this disc is beautifully sung and wonderfully played. It doesn't matter what you know or don't know about history, or even if you give a damn about who influenced who. Listening to this disc is an experience that transcends any of those concerns, proving once again that regardless of what anyone thinks or does, great art exists in a world of its own.

June 18, 2009

Music Review: Miles Davis Sketches Of Spain Legacy Edition

I remember how surprised I was when I first listened to the Miles Davis version of the Gershwin Opera Porgy and Bess. I don't know what I had been expecting, but I don't think it had been such a straight orchestral performance of the music. The Miles I had known at the time was the Miles of the late sixties and seventies - the music that had been the inspiration for groups like Weather Report. So this was a Miles Davis I had never heard before. However it's the type of music that brought him his initial renown, so when the opportunity arose to travel back to that time again via the newly released Legacy Recordings of Sketches Of Spain I jumped at it.

The Legacy edition of Sketches Of Spain is a two disc affair, with disc one containing the sides that were originally released back in 1960 plus "Song Of Our Country" that was recorded during those sessions but not released until 1980. Disc two contains out takes from the recording sessions plus the only live performance ever given of "Concierto de Aranjuez" (Adagio) by Miles and orchestra, and "Teo" a piece from the album Someday My Prince Will Come which Davis wrote in honour of Sketches' producer Teo Macero. Included on disc one is a PDF file which includes photos from the recording sessions, production notes taken during the sessions by Macero, and newspaper articles written about the album. While all the music has been released at one time or another previously, this represents the first time it has been gathered together in one collection.

For those wishing to read a thorough dissecting of the music on both discs, and an in depth analysis of the recording sessions, the extensive liner notes written by Gunther Schuller, composer, performer, and educator, are sure to please. A former French horn player, Schuller played on both Birth Of The Cool and the aforementioned Porgy and Bess, and he's also a jazz historian. While I'm not usually a fan of the deconstruction of a recording session after the fact type of notes, Schuller's are an exception. They offer both a professional and personal perspective that make them far more comprehensive than what you'd usually find in a package of this type.
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As the title suggests the music on Sketches Of Spain was highly influenced by Spanish compositions. In fact "Concierto de Aanjuez" (Adagio) was written by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo and the second track, "Will O' The Wisp", is an excerpt from Manuel de Falla's ballet El Amor Brujo (Love By Sorcery). As the first and second tracks of the recording respectively they set the mood for the rest of album and obviously influenced composer and arranger Gil Evans' own compositions which made up the last three (four if you include "Song Of The Country") tracks on the album.

Now that was the other big surprise for me concerning this album, Davis hadn't written any of the music for it. After years of hearing of this album I had been under the impression that it was a Miles Davis record in the sense that he had written the music as well as performed on it. In reality this is as much Gil Evans' recording as it is Davis', for anything he didn't write he arranged. True he created the arrangements with Davis in mind, transposing the guitar leads of Rodrigo's composition for Davis' trumpet, but it was his creative spark responsible for this album's existence. Yet even on this anniversary edition of the recording Evans is only given secondary billing on the cover as arranger and conductor - with no mention of his role as composer.

Of course there's good reason for Davis to receive top billing on this album as it is his horn playing that people are shelling out the money to hear. On Sketches he plays both trumpet and flugel horn and in either case his playing is some of the sweetest trumpet sounds you'll hear. Trumpets, as befits their status as brass instruments, normally have a brassy sound that I find particularly grating at times. Davis has the ability to smooth out his sound so that instead of the almost piercing quality that so many players seem apt to produce, all sharp edges and somewhat harsh, his playing is smooth, round and easier on the ears, while at the same time able to convey a great deal of emotion.
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It's a style of playing that's ideally suited to the music being played on this disc with its overtones of sadness and the overall muted tone of the music. Even at those times when his playing increases in volume or emotional intensity it does so with a subtlety and grace that allows the listener ample time to adjust to, and appreciate, the new levels. Davis seems to have a relationship with the music that goes beyond that of someone merely playing notes. It's as if each note has its own existence independent of the rest, and he cradles that life in his hands for just the right amount of time to allow it to fulfil its purpose in a piece of music.

This isn't the wild experimental music of a John Coletrane, the be-bop of Charlie Parker, or even the fusion music that Davis came to be identified with later in life. The type of orchestral jazz music that predominates on Sketches Of Spain degenerated in later years into the bland offerings of Las Vegas. However, as we see here, when in the hands of artistic geniuses like Davis and Evans this style of music rivals both the finest creations of classical composers and contemporary jazz. It's no coincidence that of the three albums these two men did together two of them included pieces originally created for full orchestras., Porgy and Bess and this one Sketches Of Spain.

If you only ever have heard the music of Miles Davis from the later stages of his career, than this recording will come as somewhat of a surprise to you. However, you can also hear all those aspects of his playing that made him such a pleasure to listen to at any stage of his life. The bringing together of all the various bits and pieces associated with the recording sessions that produced Sketches Of Spain in one collection is long overdue, and is indeed part of Miles Davis' legacy. This is a must have for anyone who considers themselves either a jazz or Miles Davis fan.

June 16, 2009

Music Review: Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings - Renegades

Some musicians are content with playing the same type of music over and over again. Once they discover a sound that works for them or something that sells they stick with it. While they might mix it up slightly every so often so they don't get board, they'll usually stay within the perimeters they have defined for themselves. Once in a while though you'll get a musician who is never content with just doing one thing and has other projects operating on the side while keeping their main one going. While a lot of people who front their own band also play with others, not many play in other people's bands and lead two completely different bands as well.

Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is probably best known for her work with her jazz band Black Earth Ensemble. However they're the only band she's been leading over the last few years. Now, for the first time, she and the Black Earth Strings can be heard on CD. Renegades, their first disc, was released in May on Delmark Records and it shows why Mitchell is considered one of today's foremost jazz musicians.

With all sixteen tracks on the disc being composed and arranged by Mitchell we get a good idea of not only her creativity but her versatility as both a performer and a composer. On Renegades you'll hear everything from the discordance of free-form avant-garde to the echoes of 19th century spirituals as Mitchell explores the meaning of the CD's title. In some ways their music is a bit of a renegade itself, for when was the last time you heard of a jazz quintet made up of flute, violin, cello, bass, and drums/percussion? Mitchell is something of a renegades on her own anyway, for how many women do you know leading jazz ensembles today who play something other than piano or merely sing?
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Right from the opening track, "Crossroads", you know you're in for something different from what you're used to, as the song opens with the faint echoes of a bell like instrument over which the violin and cello start chopping out a staccato beat. They are joined by a drum being played in counter point and the sound builds with Mitchell's flute swirling in on top. Just when we are beginning to become comfortable with the swirling of the flute, it falls away, as do the rest of the instruments until we're left with only the drum speaking its insistent rhythm. However, it's not the drum that ends up ending the song - as the music builds once more to a crescendo of flute and strings to end with a bang and not a fade to black.

I'm sure the majority of us think of the flute as a lovely melodic instrument and associate stringed instruments like the violin and cello with symphonic elegance. Well you're going to be in for a big surprise from these renegades as they take these instruments to places you've not heard them taken before. Renee Baker on violin and viola, Tomeka Reid cello, Josh Abrams bass, and Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion take their lead from Mitchell's flute in pushing the envelop of what their instruments are capable of. They never quite go over the edge into discordance, but on occasion they skirt so closely that you can hear they are only a step away from falling from music into noise.

However it's that ability to keep away from the edge, not falling over the precipice into complete disharmony, that makes them so exciting to listen to. The title track of the disc, "Renegades" is a perfect example of this as almost every bar skirts with leaving behind what we would call music and descending into chaos. Yet no matter how disjointed it may sound in places, a sense of melody and tune can always be discerned. Its an incredible explosion of sound and fury expressing their willingness to break free of all boundaries and take chances that very few others who have played their instruments have ever taken.

In contrast to the wildness of "Renegades", are songs like the ninth track on the disc, "Wade", inspired by the old spiritual, "Wade In The Water". In the liner notes Mitchell talks of how that old song was instructions for run away slaves to make sure they waded deep in water so they could escape the hounds sent out to track them down. There's a story in the music of this song; the story of people trying to make their way to freedom. Listening we can hear their exhaustion and stress; you can almost see them creeping slowly through the night as they keep their eyes and ears open for any signs of their hunters. Somehow the five instruments in Black Earth Strings manage to bring to life the whole experience of what it was like to be on the run; the fear of recapture and the hope for freedom
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Aside from the quality of their musicianship, what also amazed me about the performances on this disc was the diversity of sound that these five musicians were able to create. I wasn't really quite sure what to expect from a quintet made up of these instruments, but I didn't think they would have been able to create the variety of sounds and atmospheres that are on this disc. I've always thought of violins, cellos, and flutes as being rather singular sounding; not capable of creating a great deal of diversity. So I was constantly being surprised at what I heard from song to song in terms of the sounds and textures generated by their playing.

I've heard any number of modern and classical string quartets and ensembles. From the modern sounds of the Kronos Quartet playing Jimi Hendrix to traditional groups playing a typical repertoire of Beethoven and Bach. However I can honestly say I've never heard anything quite like Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings before. A fusion of classical, jazz, contemporary composition, avant-garde jazz, and traditional rhythms bound together by a spirit of adventure and a willingness to take chances make them one of the more exciting and interesting combos of musicians that you're liable to hear in any genre. If you're willing to be taken places by music you've never gone before than these people are more than willing to be your guides. It's an experience unlike any you've ever had before and well worth having.

June 2, 2009

Music Reveiw: Iggy Pop - Preliminaires

If there is an industry more conservative and less likely to take chances than popular music I'd be surprised. Now obviously I'm not talking about the independents who operate on the fringes of the business, but the big players for whom this is a multi-million dollar industry. They're about as liable to take a risk as Bush and Chenney are to be invited as guest speakers at an Amnesty International convention. It's why when you turn on your radio or listen to the top forty, you're only going to hear one or two songs played over and over again.

Oh there might be some variations - like the lyrics will change and the face behind the voice will be different - but pretty much everything is just a variation on a few themes. Don't be fooling yourself that the music industry has anything to do with artistic creation, it's all about making money, which means taking no chances and not messing with a formulae that works. Both of which are the antithesis of artistic creation, as taking risks and doing things differently are how an artist breaks new ground. When was the last time you heard an established popular musician or band do something radically different or even change their sound in a minor way?

While it's true there are some who may tinker with their sound, a quick survey of their careers will show it always stays within certain parameters. Only a very few have the courage and the ability to almost completely re-invent themselves and move their music in a completely new direction. Which is exactly what Iggy Pop, has done with his new release on EMI, Preliminaires. For instead of a release filled with his signature smash and destroy rock and roll that earned him the name "grandfather of punk", Preliminaires sounds like it sprung from the cafes and bistros of the Left Bank in Paris.
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Which isn't surprising when you consider the fact that it was inspired by French novelist Michel Houellebecoq's 2005 novel The Possibility Of An Island. Iggy had been approached to write some songs for a documentary about the author's life and his attempt to direct the film of his book. However, what he ended up creating was a score for the novel itself, for, as he says in a press release announcing the disc, "I found the emotions from my reading transforming themselves into music".

You know you're in for something different from what you'd expect from Iggy right from the start as the disc opens with him singing the French standard "Les Feuilles Mortes (Automn Leaves) made famous by Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. While there's something initially disconcerting about hearing Iggy Pop singing in French, once you recover from the shock what's really amazing is how right it sounds. How much his voice suits this style of singing. For unlike what we call ballads in North America where the singer is expected to croon the lyrics in dulcet tones that display little or no real emotion, songs like "Les Feuilles Mortes" were written for voices with character; voices that might be a little rough around the edges but capable of expressing emotion.

However Iggy doesn't just stick to ballads over the course of Preliminaires, as there's the New Orleans jazz sounds of "King Of The Dogs" and even a throwback to a more familiar Iggy with "Nice To Be Dead". However that's the anomaly on this disc and its immediately followed by a cover of "Insensatez" ("How Insensitive") by Calos Jobim - an old bossa nova standard. It's a testimony to Iggy's capabilities as a singer, and the sincerity of his voice, that a tune that originally must have been more than a little saccharine, sounds so genuine when he does it. It's hard not to think of bad lounge singers when you hear a song like this, but no one will ever be able to accuse Iggy Pop of sounding like he's working a piano bar.

Iggy Pop has always had a very distinctive and powerful voice, developed over years of having to make himself heard above the guitars and drums of the hard rock he and the Stooges used to record and perform. Yet there was also always the suggestion of an expressive voice, which would occasionally show itself when the band played slower numbers. On Preliminaires though he's finally able to show off the full extent of his vocal prowess. What impressed me the most was the amount of character in his voice and just how expressive it is.
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Whether it's the tongue in cheek humour of "King Of The Dogs", the longing of "I Want To Go To The Beach", or the sense of desolation he's able to convey on "Spanish Coast", you can't help but feel whatever it is he's trying to convey. On the latter, for instance, not only is the desolation of the scenery made clear, but so is the desolation of the song's protagonist merely by how he modulates the tone of his voice. He uses his ability to sing on the lower end of the scale to good advantage here, but it's not just a matter of singing low and sounding gloomy, as he's genuinely able to express the emptiness that lies at the heart of the song.

It's not often that pop musicians with long and established careers will take the chance of recording an album radically different from almost anything they've done before. While there are songs on Preliminaires that one can identify with Iggy Pop's early career, the majority of the material on this disc is completely unlike anything you've ever heard him do before. However, even better, is the fact that it's some of the best music I've heard from him in ages. It's far more sophisticated than anything I've heard him do before either musically, emotionally, or intellectually. Yet, at the same time he retains the energy and power that he's always been famous for. Only now he's narrowed his focus so that it's all channelled into the emotional content of the music which makes the material all the more captivating. Preliminaires is the work of a mature artist who's not afraid to take chances, and as a result this is one of the most rewarding albums put out in North America this year to date.

May 23, 2009

Concert Review: Leonard Cohen Live In Kingston Ontario

From the moment he ran onto the stage of Kingston's K-Rock Centre to the moment the last echoes of the sound of the band, crew, and him singing from the "Book Of Ruth" faded into applause and bows, Leonard Cohen held our hearts and souls in the palm of his hand last night (May 22nd/09). Normally I wouldn't feel either comfortable or safe surrendering that much of myself to anybody, but not only wasn't there much I could do about it in this instance, I doubt any of us gathered together last night could have been in safer or better hands. As a poet, singer, novelist and song writer, Cohen has always delved into deep emotional waters, but when you see him in concert he not only tells you about those experiences, he becomes your guide through them.

Cohen's first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies was published in 1956 and his first recording,Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967, and since then has released twelve books, fourteen albums, and been in front of audiences almost continually either reading or singing his work. At seventy-five the one time enfant-terrible of Canadian poetry has evolved into a grand master/guru to whom people around the world now turn for their heart's easing and their soul's comfort. For where he was once perceived as dark and brooding, cut from the same cloth as Lord Byron and the Romantics of the nineteenth century, as his locks have greyed people have allowed themselves to see past the image they tried to create for him, and let his words and voice reach them instead.

Which is exactly what happened last night as Cohen performed songs from nearly his entire repertoire of recordings for an audience that clung to each word he said and every note that he and his band sang or played. Eager as a child and humble as a supplicant, Cohen stood before us with hat in hand (literally and figuratively) asking us to join him in celebrating something most of the world would have us deny - our emotions. He coaxed, teased, joked, and cajoled us into breaking down the walls the world builds around our hearts, while simultaneously providing the reassurance required to allow us to do so in public. Unlike those who would manipulate you with their music in order to make you react in a specific way, Cohen offered the audience the opportunity to feel whatever it was we needed in whatever amount we required.
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Having just recently reviewed the DVD Leonard Cohen Live In London, a recording made earlier during this current tour, I was slightly worried that I would have spoiled the experience of seeing Cohen in concert for myself as he would most likely perform the same show here in Kingston as was recorded in London. While it's true that the majority of the material was the same, including the sequence in which they were performed and the patter between songs, the difference between even the best that modern technology has to offer and seeing Cohen perform live is immeasurable.

Aside from the fact that the experience of being amongst a crowd of people sharing the same excitement and pleasure of witnessing the performance can never be re-created, there were nuances of his performance that didn't show up on the DVD. No matter how good your sound system is, it will never be able to match hearing him sing or recite in person. I had no idea just how rich and deep his voice has become until I saw him last night. At times when he descended to the bottom of his register you could swear his voice was rising from the floor through the soles of your feet to make its way up into your body. Now I've been to concerts where the base has been so heavy that it's made your chest hurt from the pressure, but this wasn't the case as it was more like a caress than an assault like on other occasions.

Another difference is the fact that a camera is selective and you only see what it wants you to see, so on a recording you miss what's happening outside of its singular focus. I've no idea if they did this during the Live In London concert, but on this night during the singing of the lines "White girls dancing", his back up singers, The Webb Sisters, performed simultaneous backwards cartwheels, something which definitely didn't show up in the DVD footage. That was just one of many asides or moments that can only be experienced by seeing a live performance.
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However, what it comes down to in the end is the music, and Cohen and his band on stage are even more impressive in person than they are on tape. You'd think that after months on the road performing the same songs over and over again they would reach the stage where the material becomes somewhat stale. Well, if it was the case, you couldn't tell it by the performance I saw last night as they attacked each song with a joy and enthusiasm that brought the audience to their feet time and time again. Songs like "Suzanne", "Bird On A Wire", "Famous Blue Raincoat", "Closing Time", and "Dance Me To The End Of Love", which audience members must have heard many a time before, sounded as fresh as if we were hearing them for the first time again.

Some concerts that you attend you may remember a song or two in particular as highlights, while others are just a blur of excitement and noise. However once in a while you are fortunate enough to be part of an experience. Last night watching Leonard Cohen was one of those occasions. There were moments when the impulse to surrender to the wash of emotions being generated by listening to the music was so great that it was impossible not to just sit back and close my eyes and let myself go. I haven't done drugs in over fifteen years, but nothing I ever took in the hopes of expanding my consciousness ever came close to matching the experience of riding on the waves generated by what was happening on stage last night.

Leonard Cohen is seventy-five now, so who knows how many more times he's going to be motivated to tour again. It's been fifteen years since his last tour, so there might not even be another. Don't miss the opportunity to see and experience him in concert as it will be unlike anything you've ever enjoyed before. Last night, May 22nd/2009, he was in Kingston Ontario changing a few thousands lives for the better, and his tour is continuing across North America and Europe for the rest of the year so you've still plenty of opportunities to see and hear him sing before this tour wraps up. In a world filled with mass produced and sterile products, a Leonard Cohen concert is a very unique and human experience that shouldn't be missed.

May 15, 2009

Music Review: Casey Driessen - Oog

When you're told that someone plays the violin, or even the fiddle, you would be forgiven for thinking a recording of theirs would most likely either be of classical, country, or bluegrass music. Sure there're occasional recordings of jazz music done by violinists and you'll sometimes hear a violin as a featured instrument on a popular music CD, but those are exceptions to the rule. Therefore, when I was sent the newest Casey Driessen CD, Ogg I wasn't expecting anything much different from what I had heard from other musicians.

However, nothing you have heard before can quite prepare you for the experience of Casey Driessen. For although he's playing the same instrument, more or less, that other violinists have played in the past, what he does with it, and the music he records, is altogether unique to him. Listening to Oog the first time was like stepping into a maelstrom; at first the music pushes you one way, and the next moment it's pulling you another, so you don't ever quite get your bearings. He even denies you the comfort of anything like a discernible genre which would help you get your bearings.

However, a quick read of the extended liner notes provided at his web-site goes a long way towards helping you find your bearings. "I wander and wonder with open eyes and ears..." he writes, and then continues to explain how he finds his inspiration in the work of other artists, both visual and musical, the forces of nature, and "that difficult to pinpoint personal inner well where emotions and experience become one." Listening to Oog (the Dutch word for eye by the way) with this in mind at least gives us a context within which we can place the material, while the notes for each song give specifics as to what inspired him to create it.
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"Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets", the third track on the disc, would appear at first glance to be one of the more obvious examples of how Driessen has turned his observations into music. For in the note about the song he tells us how he spent time one afternoon observing a gang of yellowjackets and hummingbirds competing for the nectar contained in a hummingbird feeder. However he cautions us not to expect to hear something literally representing the two creatures, for the majority of the tune had been written prior to him having witnessed the conflict, he merely finished writing the tune while watching them.

Well so much for the liner notes being of any help in deciphering the music, I don't think he could have been any more obscure if he tried. What the heck is he doing calling a song "Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets" if its not about the creatures in question? However, he does say is that it was written in harmony with them, which means the music should at least reflect something about the experience in general. The funny thing is, that when I listened to the track again keeping what he had written about it in mind, I immediately visualized myself sitting outside in a backyard on a brilliantly lit sunny day, the type of day where both hummingbirds and yellowjackets would be out and about.

While there's none of the angry buzzing that one might expect from a conflict between angry insects and other creatures, the atmosphere Driessen creates with the music brought to mind the environment where the situation could exist. If you've ever stretched out in a backyard on a lazy afternoon where trees cast pockets of shade that contrast with bright patches of sun, and bumblebees float from flower to flower getting drunk on pollen, you'll begin to understand what he's talking about when he says the music is in harmony with the activities of the title creatures.

Of course this is only one piece of fourteen on the disc, and only begins to tell the story of Casey Driessen and Oog. He's also an avid experimenter in both form and style as can be seen with what he does on track seven, his rendering of Bill Monroe's bluegrass tune "Ashland Breakdown", and the approach he took for recording the ninth track "Lunar Cages". Instead of being merely satisfied with covering another's tune, Driessen takes "Ashland Breakdown" apart and literally puts it back together backwards. He learned the melody of the tune backwards and after recording it flipped it around and played it back "forwards".
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What he ended up doing was recording both backwards and forwards melodies and rhythms for the song and then playing them back together. It had to be one of the weirdest listening experiences I've ever had, hearing the same bit of music being played backwards and forwards at the same time. It felt like you were standing on a train track listening to the sound of two trains approaching, as you could actually hear the music moving in two directions at once. You can't help but be impressed by the mind that came up with that idea, and like he says, "everybody likes a backwards solo". Although you're not going to hear any hidden messages in this one.

"Lunar Cages" uses an old cajun fiddle technique known as "fiddlesticks" where the instrument is set to an open tuning and a rhythm is tapped out on the strings using small sticks. While his percussionist, Matt Chamberlain, established the initial beat on one fiddle Driessen wrote a melody that would float on top. The song itself was inspired by watching the lunar eclipse of February 2008, while the "Cages" of the title is a nod to John Cage and the pieces he created by rapping on the strings of pianos with a hammer. This time the piece is not only inventive in form, but the quality of the music is equally impressive. The thrum of the violin strings as they are being tapped by Chamberlain creates a beautiful harmonic sound that forms a backdrop for the other instruments to gradually build over while they simulate the slow eclipsing of the moon.

Casey Driessen is not what anyone would call your average fiddle player, and by no stretch of the imagination is Oog your average collection of fiddle tunes. On the other hand, if you come to the disc with an open mind and a willing imagination, I can guarantee you an experience unlike any you've ever had before listening to someone play the violin. While you may not like everything he does, you can't help but admire Driessen's intelligence and the spirit of creativity that drives him to explore his instrument's potential to its fullest. Music would certainly be a lot more interesting in general if there were more musicians as willing to take risks like Driessen.

May 13, 2009

Music DVD Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama - The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans

In North America, the gospel music that originated in the African American churches of the American South provided the foundation for the majority of our popular music today. So it's not too surprising that its popularity has spread far beyond the confines of the church and is appreciated by audiences of all faiths. In fact, these days you're just as liable to hear gospel music performed in a bar on Friday night as church on Sunday morning. Of course there's more to gospel's appeal than the fact that it sounds like some of our popular music. There's also the fact you're not likely to hear any other genre of music played with the amount of passion and the depth of feeling that you're liable to hear at your average gospel concert.

Therefore, you just have to know a concert featuring The Blind Boys Of Alabama and special guests like Dr. John, Susan Tedeschi, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among others, is going to be something a little extra special. How special though, you don't quite realize until you've seen it, and thanks to a new DVD, The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans on Saguaro Road Records, everybody can see just what an amazing concert it was.

The concert took place in the spring of 2008 at the Tipitina club in New Orleans, and the DVD contains all sixteen songs that were played that night, plus a feature on the making of the Blind Boys' CD, Down In New Orleans. That CD represented the first time the group had ever recorded in New Orleans, and it had featured a number of musicians from the city. The concert at the Tipitina was a means of celebrating that release and a chance to play some of the material from the disc live with people involved in the recording and a few of the band's close friends. Now I've heard plenty of gospel music over the years, and seen quite a few concerts both live and taped, but I don't think I've quite seen one as potent as the concert recorded on this DVD.
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When you look over the track listing for this concert you're going to see a lot of familiar song titles; "Amazing Grace", "Down By The Riverside", "People Get Ready", "Free At Last", and others you know equally well. However don't let that lead you into thinking that you can give this a pass because you've heard the tunes before. I can honestly say that if you haven't heard the Blind Boys of Alabama play them, you'll not have heard them sung quite like they are sung here. "Amazing Grace" has to be one of the most well known gospel tunes ever written, and the one even people who don't like gospel can identify almost from the opening notes. Well, all I have to say is, boy are you going to be surprised when you hear the Blind Boys sing that one.

They've changed it into a deep and slow blues number that sounds for all the world like the Animals singing "House Of The Rising Sun". At first I was really taken aback because not only didn't it sound like any version of the song I'd heard sung before, but also because it sounded unusually dark and brooding for a gospel song. However, once I got over the initial shock and began listening to it carefully, I was able to appreciate what an amazing job they done with it. Instead of being a joyful celebration of faith, they had turned it into a song that reflected the mood of struggle the song's lyrics depict. For the first time I was able to understand what it meant to be lost, and just how hard the struggle to be found really could be.

The first guest to join the Blind Boys on stage was blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Now, I've always thought of Tedeschi as a guitarist first and a vocalist second, but after hearing her on this disc I've changed my mind. When she first joined them it was to sing and play guitar on "Free At Last" and "People Get Ready". While she didn't have much opportunity to cut loose on her guitar like she would normally, she did have the opportunity to sing a verse or two on each of these songs, and then again during the grand finale of "I'll Fly Away" that closed the show. Each time she opened her mouth to sing, she absolutely blew me away with her power and the quality of her voice. She has one of those wonderful throaty voices that sound raw with passion without sounding affected. You could tell by her performance that she was just loving every second she got to spend on stage with the Blind Boys and enjoying the opportunity to sing these songs.
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That was a universal among all the guests, and you couldn't help but be carried away by everybody's enthusiasm. While Dr. John, Marva Wright, and Henry Butler were all equally as good as Tedeschi in their own rights, none of them were able to match what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought to the proceedings. "Down By The Riverside" is probably as old a chestnut as you're going to find when it comes to gospel songs, having been played to death by everybody from folk groups to school choirs. So it's quite some feat to make that song sound like you've never heard it before, but that's exactly what the combination of the Blind Boys and Preservation Hall manage to do. They imbue it with so much life and style that every other version I've ever heard before paled in comparison. You felt that if you could only get everybody singing along on "I ain't going study war no more" we'd have peace in our time before you knew it.

Listening and watching the The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans is to truly understand the strength and glory of gospel music. While the members of the group might see it as their mission to be spreading the "good news" of the gospel, even those who aren't of their faith can't help but feel uplifted and joyful by what they hear and see. Passion and faith of that magnitude cross all boundaries of religion and creed, so it's not a matter of what you believe in, but of sharing in the joy of believing. There can never be enough joy in this world, but with people like The Blind Boys Of Alabama around we're always guaranteed permanent pockets of joy and hope.

May 4, 2009

Music Review: Ameranouche Trio Awake

One of the most amazing things about the guitar is the diversity of sounds and music that it can create. As a generation raised on electric and pop music we've been woefully underexposed to just what this instrument is capable of. Even the most causal listen to those performing in the classical or jazz genres would be enough to open one's eyes to its potential. Anyone looking for an approachable, yet interesting and exciting, introduction to one of the guitar's other worlds, should pick up the latest release by the New England based trio Ameranouche, and experience what they have to offer.

Awake is their second CD and its a sterling example of how a guitar can be exciting without the use of an effects box or feedback. For eleven tracks Richard Sheppard on lead guitar, Ryan Flaherty on rhythm guitar, and Xar Adelberg on stand up bass, pluck, strum, and pick out a mixture of swing, flamenco, and jazz influenced guitar that picks you up right from the first note and doesn't stop moving until the last note one away. Even better is the fact it's obvious they're having fun with what they're doing making it impossible as a listener not to get caught up in their pleasure and excitement.

I have to admit to a rather limited exposure to what's known as Gypsy Jazz, so I'm not in a position to compare Ameranouche's capability of performing that genre with other artists working in a similar vein, or to comment on it within that context. However that doesn't prevent me from being able to appreciate the talent level on display and the fact that they are obviously highly proficient at what they are doing. What I heard when listening to Awake was something that sounded like it had a foot in both the Old and New worlds. The sharp staccato syllables of a flamenco beat blended with the melodic trills of jazz guitar and a grounding bass line are examples of how they draw upon the old to inspire the new in order to create something that sounds familiar, but which still catches you by surprise.
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It's very rare to find a trio in popular music that doesn't have one person as its central focus with the other two musicians serving as support. Heck, that's the case with most bands these days no matter how many members; there's a couple of leads and than the rest of them. That's definitely not the case with the Ameranouche Trio. For although Sheppard plays the leads on each song, there is never the impression that he is the lead. In part this could be due to the fact that they have recorded both guitars at the same volume ensuring the listener can always hear both Flaherty and Sheppard, but I think there's something more involved. For it's not just the guitars you can hear clearly at all times, but you're also aware of the job Adelberg is doing with her bass to tie her two flamboyant band mates together.

Listeners, like me, who aren't used to hearing three distinct parts being played at once might find the music on Awake a little disconcerting at first. A normal tendency is to want to latch on to the most prominent sound we hear and follow it while letting everything else fade into the background. Normally that sort of thing is engineered in the studio by the producer, so the "lead" receives most of a listener's attention. In this case though you have two, if not three, different sounds, of which none are dominate, so you can't just follow one of them. However, once you recover from this initial state of confusion, you'll discover something really astounding - you are listening to all three at once as a single entity; a piece of music instead of a collection of solos.

The opening track of the disc, "Ameranouche Swing" is a great example of this for right from the start you are aware of all three musicians. Sheppard is picking out a complex and fiery series of notes that twist and twirl around the steady chop laid down by Flaherety, while Adelberg's bass isn't so much heard as felt running, pulse like, underneath. What I found most refreshing about the band was their ability to change moods from cut to cut without it effecting their intensity. So even though on the third track, "Awake", Sheppard's playing hasn't lost anything in the way of speed or flair, there's something about what Adelberg and Flaherety are doing with the rhythm that give the song a more relaxed - mellow - feel. It's a fine example of how well they each complement the others in creating something greater than what each individual is playing.

I was taken aback the first time I heard the fourth track, "Into The Free", because the last thing I was expecting on this type of recording was vocals. It's not the only track on the disc with vocals as "Secret Promises", the ninth track, also has singing on it, but as it was the first it remains the one that sticks out in my mind the most. As with everything else about this disc their vocal harmonies are spot on. Each of them have voices, that if not the strongest in the world, are suitably melodic for what they are doing with them. For while they are singing words, it's the additional layers of sound that they create with their voices that really add to the music. Like adding stucco to paint gives a wall additional texture that makes it more interesting to look at and touch, their vocals give their sound extra depth and additional spice that makes it all the more captivating.

Awake by Ameranouche Trio is invigorating and exciting music that is a timely reminder of not only how versatile the guitar is but that jazz music can be a lot of fun. There is a joie de vivre about all the music on this CD that makes it almost impossible to listen to without smiling. Brilliantly and lovingly played music is hard to come by these days no matter what the genre which makes this release all the more special. If you've not heard this trio before you're in for a real treat, and if you have you don't need me to tell you how good they are.

April 9, 2009

Music Review: Jake Shimabukuro Jake Shimabukuro Live

It's been difficult for me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument ever since I saw Tiny Tim squeak his way through "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" in his annoying falsetto. To be perfectly honest up until a few years ago I did my best to avoid anything remotely connected to the instrument because of the association. I first started to overcome my prejudice while listening to the multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Bob Brozman and learnt the instrument was capable of doing much more than I had originally thought.

However, it's only now that I've listened to Jake Shimabukuro's forth coming release, Jake Shimabukuro Live (April 14th/09 on Hitchhike Records), that I've truly come to appreciate the ukulele. After listening to Jake play you can't believe that he's playing something with only four strings. There's plenty of guitar players out there who would be hard pressed to do what's he's capable of doing with four strings with their six strings.

The nearly twenty tracks on Live range from Shimabukuro's interpretation of classical pieces, to his renditions of such pop classics like "Thriller" and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps. What's truly amazing about the show he puts on is he holds your attention as a completely solo act; there's no band, nor orchestra, and nothing on tape backing him up. It's just Jake and his ukulele.
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The ukulele is a four string, two octave instrument, making you think that it must be extremely limited in the the sounds that produces. Not if you're a performer like Shimabukuro as he's able to squeeze sounds out of his instrument that will have you swearing he's playing a regular guitar. There's none of the "plink-plink" sound one would normally expect from a high pitched instrument like it, nor does he use it simply to keep rhythm by strumming a few chords. Instead he's turned it into a lead instrument that rivals the mandolin for its intricacy, and the guitar for its diversity of sound.

Although the first thing you're bound to notice when listening to Jake Shimabukuro is the speed at which he plays, what impressed me the most was that unlike other technically proficient players he also plays with a lot of emotion. Even though it seems like his fingers are flying almost all the time, either up and down the fret board or picking, he doesn't neglect the emotional content of his material either. Certainly his cover of something like "Thriller" is primarily an example of technical prowess. However his performance of "Bach Two Part Invention In D-Minor" makes you forget what instrument he is playing as the beauty of the music is the focus, not his talent or his technique.

Listen carefully to the song that made him famous, his cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and you'll soon find that you're again forgetting about the instrument he's playing and becoming wrapped up in the music instead. While it's a little strange at first to hear the song being played as an instrumental, eventually you begin to hear the lyrics being "sung" in his playing. As the notes are picked to form the tune that is so very familiar, the melody comes to life with such passion and love that you soon forget its not being sung. I've heard many attempts to play instrumental version of pop songs, especially ones by the Beatles, but this is the first time I've heard one that manages to capture the spirit of the original song.
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It's not just classical music and pop songs that he brings his remarkable talents to bear on either, for one of the earlier tracks on the disc is a cover of the Chick Corea tune "Spain". Now I was never much of a fan of Chick Corea's music when played by him, as they ran far more in the direction of pop music than jazz for my taste. Hearing Shimabukuro playing the piece gave it a dimension that it lacked before and I found myself appreciating the song more than I ever did when it was performed by the composer.

Part of that might have been the novelty of hearing the song being played on ukulele, but if that were all there was to it, I would have lost interest after only a short while. While it might have been the instrument that captured my attention in the first place, it was Shimabukuro's ability to breath life into the music that held it for the entire length of the piece. There's something about how he plays, perhaps it has to do with a deftness of touch or the precision with which he plays each note, that allows you to hear and feel each note no matter how fast he's playing, which pulls you into the piece and holds you fast until its completed.

Listening to track fourteen, "Sakura Sakura", a traditional Japanese folk song that's normally played on the thirteen string Japanese instrument know as a Koto, you really appreciate that ability. This is one of the slower songs on the disc and somehow he makes each note ring as if far more strings were involved than just the four at his disposal. Each note is allowed to resonate to maximum effect before he strikes the next one, allowing the listener to feel it completely. There's an intensity to the performance that almost makes it unbearable, so in some ways you're relieved when the song ends because each note is so beautiful that you quickly become overwhelmed by them.

To many people the ukulele is a novelty instrument and not to be taken seriously. However, when you hear Jake Shimabukuro play you're quickly disabused of that notion. In his hands it's comparable to any stringed instrument, whether bowed or plucked, and capable of playing any genre of music. Jake Shimabukuro is an amazing musician who is not only technically skilled, but able to plumb the emotional depths of any piece of music he attempts. This is a magnificent recording by an amazing performer that shouldn't be missed by anybody who genuinely appreciates great music.

April 8, 2009

Music DVD Review: Leonard Cohen Leonard Cohen Live In London

I have to admit the first time I head Leonard Cohen I didn't get it. Of course I was all of thirteen years old at the time and was much more into electric guitars and noise than the quiet introspection Leonard had to offer. Thankfully I matured and learned there was more to life than I had previously thought and his music and poetry started to make much sense to me. Since then I have dipped into his work periodically, and like a warm bath that eases aching muscles its always been a much needed balm to my soul.

So when I heard that Sony Music was releasing a DVD of Cohen's most recent tour I was thrilled, for even though I'll be seeing him in concert next month (May 2009), having a permanent record of the event that I can access whenever I need rejuvenation was just too good an opportunity to pass up. If Leonard Cohen Live In London managed to capture a small percentage of what the man has to offer as a poet and a performer I would have been content. As it is, I don't think I've ever seen a concert movie capture the essence of a performer and their material as completely as this one did with Leonard Cohen.

From the moment Cohen bounded on stage (it's hard to believe he's seventy-five years old) to the closing notes of the finale twenty-five songs later, I've never felt closer to a performer while watching him or her on film as I did during this DVD. With the improvements in technology it's nothing new for cameras to be up on stage with the performers capturing the most intimate details of their performance as was the case with this recording. However, whereas in the past it's always felt as if there was a barrier between me and the performers no matter how close the cameras were able to shoot, this time it felt like Cohen and his band members would turn and address you personally at any moment.
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Of course a great deal of that sensation was created by Cohen himself. Not once did I have the feeling that he was performing with a capital "P", or was anybody but who he is all the time. How often have you seen someone screw up their face or contort their body while performing as an indication that they are in the throws of some emotional turmoil? There's no such histrionics in Cohen's performance. Instead, we are treated to the sight of someone allowing their material to speak for itself. If a song's tempo increased, or his voice rose in volume, it always felt as though there was no other way for it to be presented. It was if he and his band were merely the conduit which allowed the needs of the material to be met, and they were secondary to the performance.

The concert has something for every generation of Cohen fans as it includes songs dating back as far as "Suzanne" from 1967's Songs Of Leonard Cohen through to "In My Secret Life" from 2001's Ten New Songs and stops in every decade in between. While of course there will be some disappointment at favourite songs being left out of the set list ("Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Joan of Arc" are two I missed most), its a remarkably satisfying retrospective of Cohen's career. Even better was the fact that Cohen and his band found ways to bring new life to the old material, like "So Long Marianne" and "Sisters Of Mercy", but without sacrificing anything of what made them special to begin with. As a result this isn't an attempt by an old performer to capture some of his former glory by cashing in on people's nostalgia for his former hits. Instead its like an art exhibit that gives viewers the opportunity to appreciate the body of work that an artist produced during his lifetime. The only difference being this artist is still alive and able to go back and touch up any of his masterpieces that otherwise might not have stood the test of time.

Cohen's work has always seemed more sophisticated than your average folk song and called out for more than just simple guitar accompaniment. On the other hand there has to be a delicate balance struck in order to ensure the music never overwhelms either the lyrics or Cohen's voice. Under the direction of musical director and basest Roscoe Beck the band featuring; Rafael Bernardo Gayol (drums & percussion), Neil Larsen (keyboards), Javier Mas (banduria, laud, archilaud, & twelve string guitar), Bob Metzger (lead guitar & pedal steel), Dino Soldo (wind instruments, harmonica, & keyboard), and background vocalists Sharon Robinson, Charley Webb, and Hattie Webb, couldn't have done a better job. Not only were each of them capable of individual virtuosity when called upon (Javier Mas' playing will make you weep), even when they soloed it never felt like they were putting themselves ahead of the material.
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As for the man himself, he still has more personality and charisma in his little finger than any of the twenty-something pop stars on the charts could ever dream of. Not only did he bound on stage at the opening, but he came running back on for his second encore nearly three hours later. Cohen simply standing centre stage holding his microphone and singing exudes more energy than most others at their most frenetic, while his elegance and style redefine the word dapper.

Cohen's voice, that some call limited, is revealed as the perfect instrument for his material. Eloquent, without being grandiose or flashy, each word and phrase is carefully enunciated so the listener doesn't miss anything. Anyone who might have thought of Cohen's voice as monotone will be quickly disabused of that notion after seeing this performance as he shows an amazing ability to communicate emotions with only the slightest vocal inflection. Perhaps that's where any misconceptions about his voice arose in the past, as he doesn't need to resort to the cheap melodrama that others do in order to express himself.

Needless to say the sound and visuals on the disc are superlative with the camera work in specific being remarkable for the way it's able to create a sense of intimacy in spite of the size of the space where the performance was filmed and the number of people on stage. While there aren't any special features included with disc, they have included the lyrics to every song sung during the show.

Leonard Cohen Live In London is a brilliant concert film featuring one of the most erudite and intelligent performers to ever grace a pop music stage. This is Leonard Cohen at his best, and Leonard Cohen at his best is miles beyond anything that anyone else can even dream of accomplishing.

March 15, 2009

Music Review: Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber Making Love To The Dark Ages

Jazz and improvisation have gone together like bread and butter since the first player stepped out to blow a lead. There is something about the music that just lends itself to allowing musicians the freedom to explore all a piece of music has to offer. However, it's jazz's free form nature which seems to have worked against its integration with orchestral works. Although modern composers have drawn upon many other elements of contemporary music and technologies, orchestral and jazz haven't seemed to be able to find the comfort zone where they can blend easily.

At least that's how Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris saw it, and what prompted him to develop his system of "playing" an ensemble called conduction. Conduction is a serious of gestures, including facial expression, that allow a conductor to generate notation for his performers on the fly based on factors like what the audience is feeling, who is playing in the band that night, the backgrounds of the musicians involved, (musically and otherwise), and of course whatever is needed to fulfill the emotional requirements of the music. There are hand gestures to change the rhythm, have sections repeated, have an instrument play in a higher or lower register, to silence, and to control volume. Needless to say that in order for a band to successfully carry off this type of performance, in which there are no written scores or arrangements, everybody involved has to be completely familiar with the vocabulary of gestures and be skilled enough a player to keep up with what are rapid fire changes.

One such collective of musicians who are emulating Butch Morris are Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, who are set to release Making Love To The Dark Ages, on the Live Wired Music, March 17th/09, a disc comprised of pieces produced using conduction. Handling the conduction duties for Burnt Sugar is Greg Tate, and because this is a studio performance his job is also expanded to included those post production duties of a producer as well. However, he does more than just add a little reverb here, or clean up the pitch there, he takes full advantage of the broad spectrum of electronic music, sampling, and other "non-played" instruments that are now available to bands and musicians to round out the sound.
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This all sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster; a mishmash of sounds that end up being discordant at best and absolute hell at its worst. Yet when you listen to pieces like "Chains And Water, A, B, and C", they sound like they have been as carefully orchestrated as any piece of music with full notation and separate arrangements for each instrument. Each part, from the vocals to the electronic effects, sound and feel as if they were carefully rehearsed for days in advance. In fact before I read any of the accompanying press package that came with the disc, I wouldn't have been able to tell from listening the extent to which improvisation was involved in the creation of any of the pieces.

Now part of that comes from the players all buying into the system and learning the vocabulary of gestures that Tate uses. However it also necessitates having musicians of some skill, ones who are able to do things like change direction on a dime without missing a beat or inverting the rhythmic pattern of a song without it turning chaotic and confusing. For those who are able to rise to this challenge, they are awarded with the gift of freedom like they've probably not experienced before in a large group format. For instead of simply playing their part in the charts, they are able to explore their instrument's potential within the parameters allowed by which ever gesture has been employed by Tate at the time. Since those are everything from repeat that phrase again, to repeat that phrase but this time do it with a Latin beat, it's not what you could call limiting.

Now lest you think this is just unorganized chaos with everybody simply playing what they want, the music is developed along themes. So each track on Making Love To The Dark Ages builds from a consistent motif established prior to it being played. Therefore, the song always starts the same, where it ends up travelling to, on the other hand, is another story. What makes this music so intoxicating to listen to is the surprises that await the listener while accompanying the musicians on their journey.
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The title track, "Making Love To Dark The Ages", is Tate's response to eight years of a Bush administration that in his mind created a world in which selfishness, inequity, and cruelty were commonplace. While at times the song descends into a wild cacophony that reflects the turmoil and ugliness of those behaviours, it also carries within it the sound of resilience, the belief that the world can and will recover from those years. There were two instruments, or sounds, that stood out in particular for me in this piece because of their contrasting influences on the overall tone; an improvised scat vocal line that insisted on being heard in spite of everything else going on around it and the metallic sounds of electronic music which verged on being annoying because of its constant demands to be heard.

On the one hand there was the most human of all musical sounds, the human voice, and on the other, there was its antithesis, the sound of a machine, the voice of all that couldn't care less who was washed away or swept under in the course of events. Between these two polar opposites swirled the confusing sounds of other instruments that began to feel like the state of chaos formed by the pull both forces could exert on people. During the past eight years it has sometimes felt like we were being forced to choose between the inexorable pull of technology and compassion and caring, instead of finding a way for them to work in harmony, and this song managed to bring those feelings to life.

Perhaps this is what's truly most amazing about Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber's CD Making Love To The Dark Ages, the fact they are able to convey complex ideas and emotions through music in such a way the listener is able to relate to it on their own terms. You don't need to understand how they are making their to music to know it is powerful and amazing. However, it does make it all the more amazing when you do. Improvisation in music has come a long way from a horn player standing up an riffing a few bars around the theme of a song, and Burnt Sugar Arkestra Chamber are one of the most accomplished ensembles working in that field today.

March 7, 2009

Music Review: Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble Flat Planet

Anybody familiar with even the most basic history of jazz and blues knows how they both have their origins in African tribal music that came to North America with slaves. When the slaves were Christianized by their masters those sounds formed the basis for the music of their churches, which in turn provided the inspiration for its secular cousins jazz and blues. Of course African American traditional, or folk music, isn't the only one to have inspired other genres. In Louisiana's Cajun music one can hear the sounds of Normandy that were brought south by the deported former settlers of New France, the Acadians, while traditional Hungarian, Romanian, and Roma (gypsy) music inspired the orchestral compositions of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.

So it's only natural for a jazz musician whose origins are in South East Asia to want and go back to the traditional music of where he was born and use it as inspiration for a new series of compositions. Which is exactly what Fareed Haque has done with his latest group, Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble, on the soon to be released CD, Flat Planet, on the Owl Studios label. Drawing specifically upon the folk music of Pakistan and North Western India (which is also the basis for today's Bollywood music as well) Haque's intent was to emulate fellow jazz musicians of African American descent embracing of, what he calls, "the groove of gospel music", by doing the same with "the groove of my own heritage". Punjabi folk music, he claims, is to India what gospel is to America - funky, fun, danceable and spiritual.

In order to achieve his goal Haque has augmented Flat Earth Ensemble's regular line up with some special guests. The band is already a mix of traditions featuring as it does players on the instruments we normally associate with jazz; guitars, saxophone, drums, keyboards, and bass as well as those playing tabla, dhol, and other South East Asian percussion instruments. However the addition of sitar and Hindustani violin allows them to expand their sound even more and explore melody as well as rhythm.
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Anyone familiar with Bollywood musicals, especially modern ones, and movies like Bend It Like Beckham that have brought Indian music to Western audiences, will know that Haque isn't exaggerating with his description of the music as funky and fun. However if you come to this disc expecting to hear something along the lines of what you'd hear in one of those movies you'll be disappointed. Remember he's not trying to recreate either Bollywood, traditional folk, or even the dance hall music that has sprung up out of the fusion of Bhangra (the name given a specific type of folk and dance music from the Punjabi region of India) with hip-hop, reggae, and house music. What he's doing is creating music that draws upon those influences like jazz draws upon gospel.

While some of the tracks have beats and sounds that make them immediately identifiable as South East Asian, much like you can hear identifiable elements of funk in some jazz fusion projects, there are quite a few more where he's taken a couple of quantum leaps away from his source material to create something new. However, in order to ensure that listeners are able to appreciate, as much as possible, what he has created, Haque builds up to those pieces by beginning the disc with songs containing elements of either rhythm or melody that we can identify with. It's like he's showing us the various stages he went through in working with the music in order to develop his final sound.

Whether it's the track that leads off the disc, "Big Bhangra", with its insistent, tabla and kanjira driven beat that evokes the pulsating rhythm that propels dancers across the screen of a Bollywood musical, or "The Chant", incorporating sitar and violin to flavour the melody, the tracks at the beginning of the disc introduce the listener to the various elements that are used in the traditional music. However, even with these tunes he and the band are starting to expand and develop those aspects and give you an indication of the direction he will taking the music in.
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Somehow or other, even at this stage, the music doesn't seem like a fusion of sounds, where one has been welded onto the other. Instead it feels like Haque and his band are taking individual elements - as described above - and seeing how they interact with the band's regular sound in order to develop something new. It's like they are asking themselves what does a sitar do to the melody line of a song and how can we create that feel without actually using its sound? Of course, as these songs are in of themselves great pieces of music, the music is nowhere near as clinical as that sort of description makes it sound. However, as we progress further into the recording and the band is pared back to only its original membership, we begin to feel the Punjabi influence more than actually hear Punjabi sounds in the music.

So by the time we reach the conclusion of the disc, three movements from "The Four Corners Suite"; tracks nine ("North"), ten ("South"), and eleven ("West"), Haque and the rest of The Flat Earth Ensemble have created a sound in which you can hear the debt owed to the folk music without actually hearing any of its distinctive elements. It's like you would never think to hear it that John Coletrane's music is related to African American gospel, as it has evolved so far from that sound.

Flat Planet by Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble is a great disc that's not only filled with interesting and fun music, but gives you an insight into how a musician will develop a new sound. Derived from the traditional music of the Punjabi region of India and the surrounding environs, the sound he ultimately creates is not only appreciative of Haque's cultural background, but beautiful in its own right.

January 31, 2009

Music CD/Book Review: Various Performers Money Will Ruin Everything Second Edition

Almost every week without fail you can read somewhere about how the end of the CD is nigh. Digital downloads of Mp3s are no longer the way of the future, they are now. All those big cumbersome CD players are being replaced by teeny little I-pod clones that can hold hundreds if not thousands more songs than one 700mb CD ever could. At one time the downloading of music from the Internet was the province of hackers and considered an illegal activity. Now every major record company has got in on the act and new releases are routinely available to download from I-Tunes long before they come available in hard copy.

Of course this saves them tons of money, as there's no longer the need to create physical packaging. If an item is being downloaded what purpose is served by spending a small bundle on cover art or liner notes - simply post the stuff to a web page once and be done with it. Well maybe I'm old fashioned, but one of the things that I still miss most about LPs (Long Playing records for those folk under thirty who don't remember what came before CDs) is the great album art. CDs are such dinky little things that what you get is a postage stamp compared to the huge expanse of colour that covered LPs. Yet at least with the CDs you get something you can hold on to while listening to your music - some tangible proof that somebody, somewhere, went to some effort to produce something.

It turns out that I'm not as alone or weird as I thought I was in those thoughts as the independent Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is proving with the release of Money Will Ruin Everything: The Second Edition on February 3/09. Gathered together on two CDs, a poster, and an accompanying book, they are releasing their second package celebrating the various performers signed to their label. The two CDs contain samples from the various groups and individuals they've recorded and the book is chock full of interviews, articles, photos, album art, and other mementoes related to the past five years of their recording history.
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To be honest I'd never heard of the label until I received the press release from their North American distributor, Forced Exposure, and had no idea what kind of music they produced. What attracted me was the fact that this little label had the balls to produce this type of package when nearly everyone else is going in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I had to know more about this label produce that they would go to this much effort to celebrate their performers and who are the people responsible for making it happen.

According to an interview that's published in the book with label owner Rune Kristofferson it sounds like its pretty much a one man show with Rune doing all the work himself. Although it means he's unable to sign or record all the bands he wants to, it's a very deliberate effort on his part to keep the label small and not become another big corporation where money is the bottom line. I think that the sub-title of the collection, But The Music Goes On Forever tells you all you need to know about what motivates Rune and his efforts.

When I requested a copy of Money Will Ruin Everything I didn't know what to expect, but I thought it might be a collection of experimental and electronic music that verged on the edge of dissonance. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that although some of the music fell into that category, there was also a great deal of diversity to be found among the groups and individuals signed to the label. From the ethereal sounds of Susanna And The Magical Orchestra's version of Henry Purcell's "When I Am Laid" to Shining's cover of the old King Crimson cut "21st Century Schizoid Man" there's something here for every ear to listen to and be amazed by.

The overall impression you get from listening to the two disc set is that Rune Grammofon is a label where it's the quality of the music that matters, not the kind of music being played. Considering it's only one person making the decisions behind what gets recorded each year you'd expect some sort of pattern to develop that would give you an indication of his personal preferences when it comes to music. Instead what you get is a wider range of music than anything you'd find on any label with multiple producers and talent scouts.

As for what attracted me to request a copy of this collection in the first place, the packaging, that doesn't disappoint either. The book is an amazing collection of images from the last five years of Rune Grammofon's existence including everything from examples of some of the most interesting cover art you've seen together in one place, images of Oslo Norway where most of the recordings have happened, and photos of most of the folk who appear on the compilation. The articles that have been written for the package reflect how so many different people mourn the passing of cover art, and respect and admire the work that Rune Kristofferson is doing with his little label.

There's also a wonderfully chaotic atmosphere to the layout that captures the free spirit of the label. Absolutely nothing about anything you see, or hear, in Money Will Ruin Everything says "corporate", which to my mind is a good thing when it comes to music, especially popular music.

In this day and age when less is increasingly becoming the adage of all music production companies and album art is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, it's taken a small independent label from Norway, Rune Grammafon, to remind us what a joy it is to have something tangible to go with the music you love. Money Will Ruin Everything The Second Edition proves that not only does music not have to all sound the same, but you can still make the experience of purchasing it a pleasure for more than just one of your senses.

January 29, 2009

Music Review: Lisa Hannigan Sea Sew

It must get awfully tiring being a folk singer from Ireland sometimes. People find out where you're from and they immediately have an expectation as to what type of music you sing. You're going to sing songs about Ireland's pathetic past, or about the bad British, or maybe about the wee people. Heaven forbid you sing anything in English about something as mundane as friendship or life today.

Of course it must even be harder for women than men what with the proliferation of the Celtic Woman franchise. You have a name that sounds even halfway Irish and there going to want you dressed up in some God-awful evening gown singing oh so sweetly, while step dancing and playing the fiddle at the same time. For those of you out there who think along those lines I want to let you in on a little secret; people can be Irish and singers without having to sing about Ireland.

I'm telling you this because I don't want you picking up Lisa Hannigan's forthcoming CD, Sea Sew being released on February 03/09 by ATO Records in North America, thinking that you'll be hearing songs filled with references to the Emerald Island or potato famines. In fact, the closest thing to an Irish instrument on the CD is the violin played by Lucy Wilkins, but no matter how hard you look you won't find anyone playing the pipes or a tin whistle.
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Now some of you might have heard Lisa's name before, and even have heard her sing, as she toured and recorded with Damien Rice for seven years, and has done a few other projects with other people, but this is her first solo recording. While her partnership with Rice didn't end on the best of terms, he fired her minutes before they were to go on stage for a show in Germany, it must have been an overall positive experience, as she doesn't seem to have had any problems handling the switch from back-up vocalist to lead. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but I've heard many a wonderful background vocalist fail miserably when they've been given the opportunity to take centre stage.

You have to be more than just a good singer and songwriter to be able to command the attention of a listening audience. I don't care how powerful a voice you have, or how ethereal you can sound, if you don't have any personality behind it, you just end up being another in a long line of interchangeable voices that the industry churns out year after year. Lisa Hannigan not only can write intelligent lyrics, she sings them in a voice that makes you want to listen to her. When you listen to Lisa sing, you realize that she would be a good person to have a conversation with as she not only has things to say, but the way she says them is interesting.

Now that I think of it, that might be a good way of describing Lisa's songs, conversational. That's not to imply anything negative about the music, because it's not meant to. What I mean is that you really have the feeling that she is communicating with you when she sings, not just singing at you. A lot of singers tend to proclaim how they feel and don't leave you any space to fill in the blanks with your thoughts. They're making so damn sure you know they have "Feelings" with a capital "f" that they blast you so hard with both barrels that you're left too stunned to really understand what the song was about.

That might be fine for a gospel number where all you're trying to do is instil in the listener the need to believe. However, in the case of a song about anything a little more two dimensional there has to be room for ideas to come through as well. On Sea Sew Hannigan has managed to balance ideas and emotions in her material. She displays a wonderful use of imagery that somehow manages to convey her feelings on both an intellectual and emotional level. Listen to the lyrics from the first track of the album "Ocean And A Rock" and you'll see what I mean.

It's a song about absent friends where she talks about wanting "a frame to put you in when you're and ocean and a rock away" and then continues with "I feel you in the pocket of my overcoat, my fingers wrapped around your words and take the shape of games we play". Printed on the page like that I guess they don't seem like much, but the way Hannigan delivers them make you feel not only how much she really misses her friend, but understand it on an intellectual level as well. Who wouldn't want to capture a piece of a friend in a frame that's more substantial than a picture that we could hold on to when they are absent. Or haven't you ever walked around clutching a letter from someone special in your pocket and been able to image them present?
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The music accompanying Hannigan's lyrics is full of surprises, the really nice jazz influences for instance. The combination of instruments; Tom Osander drums, Shane Fitzsimons double bass, Donagh Molloy trumpet, melodica, and glockenspiel, Gavin Glass piano, Vyvienne Long cello, and the previously mentioned Lucy Wilkins on violin allow her and the band to come up with arrangements that not only meet the needs of the material, but allow for some wonderful innovations. There's a depth to the music that you wouldn't normally associate with pop or folk music that is the perfect augmentation to the songs the group performs and the expressive nature of Hannigan's vocals.

While on occasion there is a slight breathy quality to her voice that might become annoying if it were constant, she has such good command of her voice that she never allows that to happen. Like the other instruments being utilized on the disc, Hannigan gears her voice towards the needs of each individual song. Some singer's material ends up being limited because their voice can only do one or two things, but that's not the case here. Not only does Hannigan's voice have a substantial range but it can equally as convincing belting out tunes as whispering lyrics gently.

Lisa Hannigan's Sea Sew is a wonderful collection of beautifully arranged, intelligent songs, sung with grace and style. I know it might disappoint those who expect Irish singers to be a certain way, but the rest of us will cherish the release as an example of a talented signer and songwriter's work. Damien Rice could have perhaps found a nicer way to push her into starting her solo career, but we should be grateful that he did as Lisa Hannigan deserves to be in the spotlight.

January 23, 2009

Music Review: Antony And The Johnsons The Crying Light

Have you ever noticed how different sorts of popular music requires different listening arrangements. Personally I don't find I can get the full experience offered by punk bands like the Clash or The Sex Pistols while listening to them on my headphones. You need a lot of space around that music to really appreciate it. On the other hand there is some music that seems to cry out for the intimacy offered by headphones. It's not that they may or may not be able to fill a concert hall with their sound when performing live, rather you just don't want to miss a single moment of what is being performed and headphones seem the best recourse.

Such was the case with the new Antony And The Johnsons disc, The Crying Light, released by Secretly Canadian on January 20th/09. Prior to listening to their EP Another World, I had only previously seen Antony perform on DVDs in concert with other people, and so although I was aware of his voice, until then I hadn't known the nature of his own work. Any of you who have heard Antony's voice are aware that it can easily be misconstrued as delicate because of his tone and might think I'm talking about that when I refer to the need to use headphones to listen to his music.

What I discovered on Another World, and have now had borne out by The Crying Light, is that there is an intensity to the music of Antony And The Johnsons that I find requires headphones to capture when listening to their music on disc. I don't know if it actually makes the music sound any better (although considering the quality of some of my sound equipment it probably does) but it reassures me that I won't miss any of the moments in each song that go such a long way towards making them individual works of art. When I go to a museum or art gallery I like to be able to focus as closely as possible on the works that I'm looking at. As far as I'm concerned the music of Antony And The Johnsons demands that same respect and headphones are the best way that it can be given.
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It all begins with the voice; Antony's voice is a pure tenor that rings like a bell, soars on the wings of his passion, and is powered by the depth of his soul. If that sounds like extravagant praise then you haven't heard him sing yet. Prior to Antony the only time you'd hear a man singing higher up the scale, with the singular exception of Roy Orbison, was either to squeak like Michael Jackson, shriek like Getty Lee, or sing pabulum like Frankie Vali And The Four Seasons. After years of aural assault from people like the Gibb brothers piercing my ear drums, it was something akin to a miracle to hear a real voice singing in the upper reaches of the scale. Even the so called female divas of pop music with pretences to having serious voices aren't able to put a fraction of the expression into their voices that Antony manages.

While Antony's voice is easily the most distinctive element of their sound, the Johnson's music is further distinguished from the majority of popular music by their willingness to take chances. The use of orchestral instruments like cellos and violins is nothing new of course, but what separates the music of The Crying Light from so many others is that it doesn't sound like pop music using violins and cellos. It's simply a matter of them having selected the instruments that will best convey the meaning of the song regardless of any associations it might have to a particular genre.

Whether it's the simple beauty of "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground" with its string and piano accompaniment, the perfect mix of strings and guitar on "Epilepsy Is Dancing", or the staccato snare drum countering sweet sounding strings and flute on "Kiss My Name", the arrangements on each sound like an organic progression that grew out of needs of the song, rather than the whims of a producer. For not only does the music sound good, it also works on an emotional level to help convey each song's meaning.
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While that's obviously what the music that accompanies any song's lyrics is supposed to do, with this disc it plays an even more important role. For like abstract paintings or free verse poetry you can't always look for a literal meaning in the pieces on The Crying Light. Instead, allow the combination of the music, lyrics, and overall sound create an impression of the emotion or idea that the artist is trying to convey.

Certainly you can take Antony literally when he says he's looking for another world to live in on "Another World". Yet you can also look behind the lyrics and hear a plea for acceptance from someone who is different and desires a world where that doesn't matter. Or, on another level, it could also be a prayer on behalf of the world for us to wake up before we lose her.

The lyrics on this song, and others, may not spell out things out for you, but that doesn't prevent them from conveying ideas or emotions. Each of the songs on The Crying Light are examples of how music can be greater than the sum of its parts as they each end up conveying something beyond the meaning of their lyrics. Much like orchestral music, Antony And The Johnsons utilize the various instruments at their disposal, including Antony's voice, to convey images and emotions through the imagery the sounds evoke.

With The Crying Light Antony And The Johnsons take pop music places that it hasn't gone before. However, that doesn't mean its inaccessible or difficult to listen to, for they have also created some of the most beautiful music that you'll have heard in a long time.

December 3, 2008

Music Review: Avishai Cohen Flood

With contemporary composers utilizing such a wide range of instruments, and drawing upon so many different sources for inspiration, is it still reasonable to differentiate between them and the modern jazz musician? As both genres continue to explore forms of composition and musical styles that extend beyond the boundaries previously associated with them, the space dividing them has narrowed considerably. In fact, judging by some of the music I've heard recently, jazz musicians seem to be the ones doing the most to expand music's potential to express ideas and emotions.

This was brought home to me again listening to the latest release on Anzic Records by trumpeter Avishai Cohen called Flood. Flood is the second recording in what he's titled The Big Rain Trilogy, and while the CD is a description of a flood along the lines of the one experienced by Noah, Cohen describes it as an attempt to tell the story from the point of view of nature, where death is a part of the natural cycle and is actually crucial for nature's survival. As he says, "Nature does not lament the flood nor resist it, but rather accepts it as its own." With the trilogy he is attempting to build a picture of the life that exists before, during and after the flood; nature's strength and beauty, and humanity's search to improve itself in the hopes of preventing another flood.

Flood is divided up into seven sections with each one representing a different stage in the life of the flood from its very beginnings as rain ("First Drops"), to the earth's renewal after the waters have receded ("Cycles: The Sun, The Moon, And The Awakening Earth"). With Cohen's trumpet, only being accompanied by band-mates Yonatan Avishai's piano and Daniel Freedman's percussion it's difficult to see how they could create the range of sound one presumes would be needed to fulfill his objective with the music. However, after listening to the composition for the first time I realized that Cohen was utilizing more than just the sounds of the instruments to achieve his desired objective, there was also the manner in which the sounds were played to be considered, and of course the various rhythms utilized and their inter-relation.
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It's the piano that opens the piece, and Yonatan Avishai's playing captures the sound and feel of rain drops falling to the ground. At first its very relaxing, almost trance inducing, like listening to the sound of a gentle rain on a peaceful summer afternoon, and even as the rain intensifies with the addition of percussion and trumpet, you never are given the impression of being at risk, as the sound continues to wash over you. Gradually though a certain level of discordance creeps into the music with both the piano and the percussion starting to increase in tempo. However, instead of the trumpet becoming more shrill or intensifying in some way to match them, Cohen continues to play with the same smoothness that marked his entrance into the piece.

Nature doesn't panic when it rains, that's a human thing. So, although I found myself initially wanting the trumpet to reflect the anxiety I would feel because of an increase in a rain storm's tempo, Cohen's trumpet reminded me that this wasn't about humans, but about nature. The smoothness of the trumpet, and its repeating the same patterns all the way through the opening piece, establishes that nature accepts the flood and all its consequences without reacting like we would.

Talk about making best use of minimal resources. With only three instruments not only does Cohen manage to create the atmosphere and sound of rain falling so that we know the flood is beginning, he establishes the point of view that we will be seeing everything from for the remainder of the piece. Finally, he also sets the precedent for what each instrument will represent throughout the course of the music; the piano will describe the events as they occur, percussion will accent and colour the events adding to their flavour and giving them depth, and the trumpet will give sound to the voice of the natural world.

As we progress through the various stages of the flood Cohen tries to capture the feel of the world being covered by an endless expanse of water with the two pieces "Heavy Water: Prologue" and "Heavy Water". The former is a short trumpet solo that sets the stage for the piece following it. Slow and extended notes, with just the tiniest amount of reverb added on, create an image of a vista of water stretching as far as the eye can see. We jump into the main body of "Heavy Water" without a break, but with the sudden addition of the piano and percussion increasing the tempo of the piece. It's as if he's reminding us that just because all we can see is water doesn't mean there's no life or that everything is as monochrome as one might believe from seeing a huge body of water.
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Of course flood waters aren't just going to sit there idly doing nothing even if they cover the whole world. Sure there aren't as many beaches as there were before for the tide to come in and out on, but that doesn't mean that its not moving. Perhaps a mountain top or two break the horizon and the water ebbs and flows around their peaks? Or what is the weight of the water doing to whatever lies underneath it? How is the world being reshaped by the flood - what will be born out of this chance of rebirth?

To be honest I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to listen to this disc, and I was surprised by the depth of feeling and vision that Cohen and the other two musicians were able to generate with only the three instruments. Over the course of listening to Flood you gradually get a feel for what they are doing as Cohen does a good job of establishing how the music is presented and its major themes. Interestingly enough I don't normally find either trumpet of piano the easiest of instruments to listen to, but there was something about the way their sound was being used during these pieces, and knowing what it was that they were trying to communicate, that made me almost forget the instruments and focus only on the music.

I don't know if you would call Flood a jazz recording or not, I guess it depends on how liberal you are with your definition of jazz, however, no matter what you call it, there's no denying that it is a compelling and powerful piece of music. Close your eyes, lay back, and listen as the flood waters first cover the world and then gradually recede leaving behind a chance for a new beginning.

November 22, 2008

Music CD/DVD Review: Various Musicians Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz & Delmark: 55 Years Of Blueselm

When Bob Koester started selling old jazz and blues recordings that he scrounged in second hand stores out of a box in his collage dormitory back in the early 1950's I doubt he would have believed you if you told him that years later he would not only still be selling records, but would also be the owner of one of the oldest independent record labels in the United States. After all, his love of jazz and blues notwithstanding, his ambition was to become a cinematographer not a record producer. Yet somehow those boxes under the bed turned into Delmark Records, arguably one of the most influential jazz and blues labels in North America. (For a detailed account of Delmark and Koester's history read the interview I conducted with him about a year ago)

Through buying up the back catalogues of defunct jazz and blues labels and lovingly restoring recordings from their master tapes (and in some cases the piano rolls of player pianos) Delmark has created a catalogue of recordings that traces the history of the music as far back as the 1920's and through all their changes in style. However, even in their early years the company was just as concerned with recording the music of current performers as they were with the past and have continually searched out the talented and innovative indiscriminate of style or age. There aren't many labels who can boast issuing current recordings of Dixieland jazz and releases by members of Chicago's avant-garde jazz community at the same time, but with Delmark you never know what treasures they have in store for you.

I've seen and heard everything from a German traditional jazz band featuring a washboard player performing at an Ace Hardware in downtown Chicago (it had originally been a jazz club in the 1920's where people like Louis Armstrong had played), to stuff so experimental I doubt I'll ever understand it, but that left me strangely moved anyway. Delmark's blues catalogue is just as diverse as it includes everything from barrelhouse piano, country blues from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, to live recordings from the stages and floors of Chicago's blues clubs where Buddy Guy still plays and Little Walter once stood.
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Even more remarkable is the role that Delmark, and Koester, have played in ensuring the future of blues recordings. Not only did they help establish the Chicago Blues Festival and continue to record blues artists of all stripes either live or in the studio, they have been the training ground for those who have gone on to found important blues labels like Alligator, Earwig and Rooster Blues. For those of you like me who've not been able to see the inside of a Chicago blues club, Delmark's DVD recordings of gigs around the town have brought the blues alive in a way that no other label has. Entering into a neighbourhood bar like B.L.U.E.S through the lens of one of the cameras recording the performance is the next best thing to actually being there to watch Jimmy Burns and his band sweat their way through a riveting set of high energy, electric blues.

In the past few years of reviewing discs I've been fortunate enough to watch and listen to a great many of Delmark's recordings. However that only represents three years of the fifty-five years of material they have produced so each of the two, two disc sets (one CD and one DVD) made to commemorate the label's fifty-fifth anniversary, Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz and Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues, contain tracks that I've not heard before. As DVD production has only been added to their catalogue in the last few years the CDs are a more accurate representation of the label's history with tracks like Big Joe Williams' "Coffeehouse Blues" dating back to his 1961 release I Got Wild and Speckled Red's " The Right String But The Wrong Yo-Yo" from one of the earliest recordings, The Dirty Dozens of 1956.

On Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz they've included a little something special extra - some of their re-issues. The 1944 album Rainbow Mist featured a band that contained Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach among others, and the track selected, "Bu-De-Dant", has Hawkins taking the lead. Twelve years later Sun Ra released Sun Song, and the track "Brainville" may not follow in exact chronological order from the Hawkins' number, but it comes right after it on this disc and is another recording that Koester and company gave a second life.
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When the Chicago avant-garde first started to hit their stride and groups like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were forming up, it was Delmark who produced their first two discs. Although there aren't any examples of their work on this release, a couple of their descendants, so to speak, show up on the DVD. Both the Ritual Trio; Kahil El'Zabar (kalimba), Ari Brown (tenor sax), Yosef Ben Israel (bass), and guest Billy Bang (electric violin), and Chicago Underground Trio; Rob Mazurek (cornet, computer, moog source), Chad Taylor (drum kit and percussion), and Jason Ajemian (bass and electronics), are taking jazz to, and beyond, frontiers that twenty years ago nobody would have believed possible.

It's only fitting that both of these bands are represented on the DVD half of the release, as they really have to be seen to be believed. Chronicle, the DVD that the Chicago Underground Trio's track "Power" is taken from, was accompanied by visual effects created by filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon that the music inspired. While this is only an excerpt taken from "Power", its enough for you to see the amazing potential for combing abstract video art with the type of experimental music that the Trio is creating. What's even more amazing is that you're watching it on a disc produced by a commercial company, not public television or a state funded art gallery.

Yet, that's what Delmark Records is all about, making sure that all types of jazz and blues are being recorded, not just what's popular at the moment. Dixieland, or traditional jazz, has fallen out of favour among certain circles in the jazz world, but that doesn't stop Bob Koestler from seeking out and recording bands that are still actively playing it. In our interview (see links earlier) Koestler mentioned that one of the things he really appreciated about the people involved in the AACM was that they understood there's a history to jazz and they weren't afraid to use what had been done before as a springboard for what they were doing.

Listening to either Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz or Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues you are given a unique perspective of that history as you hear the various styles and means of expression that each genre has gone through over the last fifty-five plus years; a small slice of the nearly century's worth of music the label represents. Names like Anthony Braxton and Roosevelt Sykes might not have shown up in any of the history books you studied while in school, but they are part of the fabric of our society. It's not often you get to not only see and hear history, but also see and hear it being made - yet that's what Delmark Records does with every disc they release, and these two are no exception.

November 16, 2008

Music Review: Margot Blanche Pages In My Diary

When American jazz came to Europe in the 1920's it inspired a new type of night club performance. Cabaret, was a mixture of live theatre, burlesque, and a musical revue with featured vocalists. If you've ever seen either The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich or Cabaret starring Liza Minelli, you'll have a good idea as to the kind of performances that were seen in those places that presented cabarets. Those who sang in cabarets were encouraged to sing in as suggestive a manner as possible, drawing upon the sensuality inherent in jazz and blues to make it as sensual as possible.

Perhaps because cabaret style performances were driven in part by the desperation of the times, an attempt to cram as much fun as possible into a short period of time before the inevitable war, it did not survive WW2. After the war, with all the competition for the entertainment dollar, and the advent of accessible home entertainment, fewer were willing to take the financial risk involved in mounting such lavish entertainment.The closest thing to it that we have today is the plastic sexuality of the Las Vegas show.

Another reason for the demise of cabaret has been the compartmentalization of popular music which has led to there being fewer and fewer performers with the skill to perform the variety of music it required of a singer. There aren't many vocalists who have the ability to not only sing the styles of music required, but have the ability to put on a show as well. That doesn't mean there aren't any out there, and if her newest self-produced and distributed release, Pages In My Diary, is anything to go by, Margot Blanche not only has the abilities to sing a variety of styles, she appears to have the required panache for the showmanship side of things as well.
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Judging by the images that are included of her in the booklet accompanying the CD she has created a persona for this disc modelled after Varga girls and other classic pin up images from the 1940s. The twelve tracks that are included on the disc, all of which she has at least co-authored, contain elements that are reminiscent of that era, along with more contemporary stylings. She has even gone so far as to include production values on some of the numbers that generate the sound of a song being heard through the thin compressed sound of an old mono, tube radio to help re-create an authentic atmosphere.

If that weren't enough for us to get the idea of what she was trying to accomplish there are even some songs which include samplings of singers like Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. However, least you think she is merely trying to recreate the past her songs also contain elements of hip hop, soul, and R&B and the occasional sample of more contemporary performers like Isaac Hayes and The Meters. While this is beginning to sound like a hideous pastiche of music that will end up a confusing mess, that estimation fails to take into account Margot Blanche's skill as a both a performer and a composer.

She is not only gifted with a voice that has the range to work comfortably at either end of the scale and well beyond a single octave, it's a voice with an exceptional amount of character and the versatility to handle any of the formats she attempts. From the hard edged, street smart voice required for the hip-hop/rap flavour of the title track, "Introduction (Pages Of My Diary)", the teasing sounds of "Material Love", to the genuine soulfulness of "Beautiful Soul", she is able to accommodate all the styles she attempts with ease and naturalness.
margot Blanche.jpg Where many people who attempt multiple styles of music within one recording come across as unconvincing or insincere, Margot Blanche is not only able to carry them all off with equal aplomb, but does so sounding like she was born to sing that particular genre. While in part this is due to her ability as a vocalist, it's also a tribute to her talents as a performer. Instead of merely assuming an attitude that would be appropriate for a song, she goes a lot deeper and creates a character who fits what's being expressed in the material.

Of course that makes a lot of sense once you understand that Pages Of My Diary is not merely a collection of love songs. Think of it as a collection of diary entries, each of which are a reflection of the different approaches one person could take to the thorny and complicated subject of love. It's as if Margot has opened the pages of a diary where she's allowed different personalities to hold forth on what they think about love and what they desire in a relationship. In that light, Pages From My Dairy becomes a one woman show about love with songs serving as the script instead of monologues.

Margot Blanche is a gifted singer, a creative songwriter, and a talented producer, with a flair for theatricality which make the songs on her CD Pages Of My Diary not only interesting to listen to, but turns the disc into a mini piece of musical theatre. The art of cabaret may not be as dead as I thought after all.

November 8, 2008

Music Review: John Burnett Swing Orchestra West Of State/East Of Harlem

The first time I ever really paid attention to or appreciated big band and or swing music was when I appeared in a play set during WW2 in the 1940's. I was playing the role of a soldier and at various points I would pop up on stage for a letter home to be read out loud. The penultimate scene took place at a dance to the sounds of the Glenn Miller Orchestra's classic song "Jukebox Saturday Night" after my character had returned from Europe.

Although throughout the play we had used bits and pieces of swing music to act as transitions between scenes or as background to events, in this scene the music became as much a character on stage as the actors. While "Jukebox Saturday Night" is upbeat and high tempo, making it great to dance to, there's also something about it that gives it an air of desperation - have fun now because who knows when (or if) the hell you'll get another chance.

However, I've never really sat down and listened to any big band or swing recordings. While part of that reluctance is based on a dislike generated by listening to the slick orchestrations of music that oozes out of Las Vegas like so much slime, the real reason is there's only so much time in a day and only so much music I can listen to at once. If it comes down to a choice between Willy DeVille and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the former will win out over the latter ten times out of ten.
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Therefore the likelihood of me having picked up a copy of the John Burnett Swing Orchestra's latest release, West Of State Street/East Of Harlem, on Delmark Records on my own were slim to none. So it's a good thing the folks at Delmark persist in sending me discs that I wouldn't normally buy, otherwise I would have missed out on a really good CD.

At twenty or so pieces the John Burnett Swing Orchestra isn't the biggest of big bands, but that doesn't prevent their sound from being as potent, or even stronger, than some bands I've listened to with over twice their numbers. Even better is the fact that they don't confuse power with volume. Instead of trying to blast an audience out of their seats, they up the emotional intensity of their playing to match the mood of the music. Now of course you can't have a band with something like five trumpets, four trombones, four saxophones, piano, bass, guitar and drums without making a little noise, but that's where the orchestra leader comes in.

The seventeen songs that are on West Of State Street/East Of Harlem are a mixture of the different ways big band music has been performed over the years. From Broadway show tunes ("Hello Dolly"), popular standards ("Begin The Beguine"), and jazz ("Night In Tunisia") the band plays each of them with equal aplomb and enthusiasm. However John Burnett never allows their enthusiasm to overwhelm the song. There's a very tricky balance on display here, as a band leader has to allow his leads opportunities to shine, so he gives them solos, but he can't allow a solo to go on for too long as that will divert the audience's attention away from the band and the song.

In many ways the band is the orchestra leader's (conductor) instrument and he or she plays it just like any other musician would play a trumpet or violin. Yet instead of plucking an individual string to make a note in a song, he selects the section of his orchestra to bring those sounds to life. His focus is on the song, and how to use the various parts of his instrument to make the song sound great. What I noticed most about John Burnett's orchestra was how clear and distinct each instrument was. No matter how many members of the band were playing, I was always able to hear the distinct tones that each instrument was adding to the sound the band generated.

In the past when I've heard other big bands, both contemporary and older recordings, one of the reasons I haven't really enjoyed them that much has was that aside from the lead instruments, it was hard to distinguish individual sounds. Not only wasn't it really that enjoyable to listen to, but it also meant that it was difficult to appreciate the song being played. Burnett and his musicians, on the other hand, have found a way to ensure that this never becomes a problem and you can hear the individual tones that make up their overall sound. It's sort of like hearing each note that comprises a chord on a guitar and the chord as a complete entity at the same time.

For this concert the Orchestra was joined by guest trumpeter Randy Sandke and he delivers some very impressive solos throughout the disc. In fact all the solos on West Of State Street/East Of Harlem impressed me far more than any other solos I've heard played under these circumstances. Burnett appears to have encouraged his people to take more chances than other orchestra leaders, so there was quite a bit more improvisation than you're liable to hear on other swing or big band recordings.

Aside from Burnett and his eighteen regular musicians the other permanent member of the band is vocalist Frieda Lee. Ms.Lee has a wonderfully mellow voice that is also blessed with an abundance of character. Her phrasing on songs is always spot on, so like every other soloist, when she steps forward to sing, she continues being part of the band's overall sound, instead of separating herself. In fact there are occasions where it sounds like some of the instruments are "singing" harmony for her.

If you're like me and have never really found the time, or had the inclination, to listen to big band or swing music, put aside your hesitations and make some time available for the John Burnett Swing Orchestra's latest recording West Of State Street/ East Of Harlem. Not only am I sure it will change your opinion of the genre, but you'll find yourself listening to some great music performed by musicians who really care about what they are doing.

October 31, 2008

Music Review: FreeWorld From The Bluff

My one claim to fame as a kid in the early seventies was that my aunt's boy friend was in the band Lighthouse. As that very rarely impressed anyone my age, most kids were into the Partridge Family or at best The Beatles, the information that he played electric viola in a rock and roll band meant that sort of knowing the late Don Dinovo never really bought me that much status. It wasn't his fault, or Lighthouse's either for that matter, for although the band did enjoy moderate success with hits such as "Sunny Days", they were never that popular among the pre-pubescent crowd.

Aside from their associations with my vain attempts at reflected fame, Lighthouse will always stand out in my memories as being the first rock and roll band I knew who used instruments I had only ever associated with orchestras before. In their hey-day they not only had the standard compliment of guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards they also featured a horn and a string section. In many ways they were probably the first fusion band that I knew of, but even more importantly they broadened my perspective as to what popular music could be, it was through Lighthouse that I discovered my appreciation for funk, R&B, and soul.

Of course the first time I saw footage of James Brown, Sly And The Family Stone, George Clinton, or any of the other great soul and funk performers I was knocked out. The energy, the power, the sex - no wonder they never played that stuff on am radio stations in Toronto The Good (Toronto Ontario was referred to as Toronto The Good for the longest time due to the province of Ontario's absurd liqueur licensing laws which made it almost impossible to be served alcohol on a Sunday. In fact, to this day you can still only buy alcohol in either an officially designated beer store or a wine and spirits store) in the early seventies - the consequences would have been too sever to contemplate. A whole generation of White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS) might have grown with a sense of rhythm, and that just wouldn't have done.
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Since those early funk and soul deprived days I've spent many a fruitless hour listening to music that people were passing off as R&B, soul, or funk and being gravely disappointed with what I heard. Instead of horn sections that exploded or who could blow soft and sultry, there was a mishmash of pathetic strings that was supposed to send my heart soaring and the sound of something occasionally bleating in the back ground that could have been horns. So listening to Freeworld's, a band I've never heard of, new disc, From The Bluff, distributed by Select-O-Hits, wasn't a step I took lightly. Their promotional material promising music that combined funk, R&B, and soul with "the energy of jam band rock and the improvisational sophistication of jazz" strained at my credibility. I've heard way to much middle of the road dreck be referred to as "soulful" for me to have much hope that this disc would be any different from countless previous letdowns.

The last thing that I expected was to be blown out of my seat from the first track on the disc. "Keep Smilin'" opens with a driving electric guitar and expands to include an incredibly exuberant horn section that proceeds to kick out the jams for the rest of the song. I was still reeling from that when "Give It Back" slunk into my headphones. You've heard of "walking bass" I suppose, while this track has a slinking bass line that sets the tone for the whole song as it shimmies and shakes through and around the rest of the instruments for the whole song.

The core group of FreeWorld is only five guys, but somehow they manage to sound a lot bigger than two saxophones, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums should sound. Sure on some of the songs their joined by special guests, but they are only rounding out what is all ready there. It doesn't hurt that on tenor saxophone Dr. Herman Green brings over sixty years of playing experience with him, including time with everybody from John Coletrane and Miles Davis to Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), but it takes more than one man to make a band and each of them (Richard Cushing vocals, bass, and sitar, David Skypeck drums, Brian Overstreet guitar, E.J. Dyce vocals and trumpet, and Captain Phil McGee alto and tenor saxophone) plays with enthusiasm and skill level that you don't normally find outside of jazz bands.
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The other thing about these guys you have to know is that ten of the eleven songs on From The Bluff were written by the band. That isn't something I've come to expect from most R&B and funk bands today. Hell, how often do you turn over any of these recordings being churned out by the hit machine and see the majority of the music written by the person whose album it supposedly is? Never to hardly ever just about covers it.

These guys not only write the majority of their material, they seem to be able to write whatever they want. For as well as the funk and rock stuff mentioned above the song, "Down On The Bluff" is a great gospel style number in praise of the Mississippi River, (featuring a great guest vocal by Harold "Sundance" Thomas and slide guitar by Luther Dickinson of the Black Crowes) The track that follows right after it, "Samurai", features some great jazz style soloing over a long and easy funk beat, and features Art Edmaiston adding some extra depth with his tenor and baritone saxophones.

It's no wonder that these guys, FreeWorld, have shared the stage with everyone from Levon Helm to Dr. John. I don't think I've heard another group of musicians who I could honestly say sound like they'd be equally at home in either The Band, Parliament, or Weather Report. Sometimes people deride those who are multitalented with sneering comments like jack-of-all trades but master of none, well I don't think anyone would even dare to say something like that about FreeWorld. No matter what they set their minds to playing on From The Bluff, it sounds like they were born playing that genre.

Many years ago when I first heard the band Lighthouse I loved the sound of horns playing with the elements you'd normally find in a rock band. Little did I know how rare it was going to be to find a popular music band that would have the same quality of sound as Lighthouse. Obviously FreeWorld don't sound the same as Lighthouse, (although if they added a string section I bet they'd do a fine job on "One Fine Morning") but what they have in common is the ability to incorporate a multitude of styles into their sound and turn it into something that's uniquely their own. Once you hear FreeWorld for the first time you'll not be able to forget them, and I bet you'll be able to recognize them the next time you hear them playing.

October 20, 2008

Music Review: (EP) Antony And The Johnsons Another World

Once in a while a performer comes along who is so riveting, and the impression they make on you so indelible, that you seriously doubt your own senses. Nobody can be so gifted that they take your breath away from the moment they open their mouth and begin to sing. So the next time you see them you go in armed with scepticism, prepared to withstand whatever trickery they used to get past your critical detachment the first time, only to discover the armour hasn't been invented that can defend against so pure an assault upon your heart and soul.

The first time I saw Antony of Antony And The Johnsons perform he was participating in a tribute concert to Leonard Cohen that had been staged at the Sydney Opera House in Australia that was included in the documentary I'm Your Man. In a production crowded with star power like U2, Nick Cave, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony's performance was so transcendent that it left the rest in its shade. Ask me if I can remember which song he sang, and I couldn't tell you, but I can remember every note he sang and being amazed that anybody in popular music had the courage to stand on stage with so much of their heart and soul on display.

Although I was pretty much convinced by that performance that this might actually be a performer who deserved to be called an artist, watching him as part of the ensemble of musicians who participated in the concert version of Lou Reed's Berlin on the recently released DVD, cemented that feeling. Here was the second time he had sung material with an incredible potential for melodrama, and he had not only been able to resist that temptation, but had delivered on the promise he had shown in I'm Your Man of being able to pierce your heart with a single note.
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Still, there have been to many times in the past where I've seen performers sound wonderful as backup singers, or doing a guest spot in someone else's show, only to listen to them perform their own material and be sorely disappointed. So when the opportunity to review the five song Another World EP, on the Secretly Canadian label, that the band has released in advance of their forthcoming full length CD, The Crying Light expected in January, I took it. Not only didn't Antony disappoint when performing his own material, he ended up impressing me more than ever.

For those of you not familiar with Antony, the first thing you need to know about is his voice. He's probably the only popular singer around right now who sings in a pure tenor, meaning he's in the high end of the scale. However, unlike other male singers who sing high he doesn't sound like he's been cross bred with one of Disney's more annoying characters so he's neither shrill nor squeaky. Instead he has a purity of tone that you'd normally only associate with opera or traditional Irish music. Thankfully, although he leans more towards the latter, he's developed his own unique style that allows him to have more expression and a wider range of emotion than I've heard from singers in either of those genres, so he's never monotonous.

Normally power is not a word you'd associate with a man's voice in the upper registers, but Antony is not only able to display delicate nuances of emotion, he can belt out the blues. The third track of Another World, "Shake The Devil", starts off with Antony sing/chanting lyrics over a sustained note gradually building in volume until into breaks down into fuzz and a moment of quiet. This is quickly broken by a sharp, almost staccato, beat snapped out on the snare over which Antony begins to sing out a gospel tinged, blues number. With a saxophone blurting out counterpoint to the lyrics and the drum, the song takes on a strange hypnotic quality that gives one the impression of a ritual in action.

Still, that's not what distinguishes Antony from so many other singers. No, what elevates him a notch above anyone else is his ability to imbue what he sings with emotion that feels like its being drawn directly from his heart. I know there are plenty of singers out there that can be described as singing their hearts out or who even sing from their hearts, but there are few who you can honestly say surrender themselves completely to the song. When you listen to Antony sing you are drawn out of yourself into the world of the song. You don't so much listen to him perform as become absorbed by it to the point that its more like a piece of theatre than music.

Take the title track "Another World" where Antony sings about wanting another world, but lists all the things about this one he's going to miss. Not only does the song remind us of how much we stand to lose if we allow the planet to be destroyed, we experience the sense of lose and longing generated by those circumstances. Yet, underneath, there's another level of meaning that runs through the song as well, a plea for a world where there is room for all of us no matter who we are. Sure there is great beauty in this world of ours, but there is also plenty of ugliness in the form of hatred and bigotry that we could certainly do without.

Musically the songs on Another World obtain a level of sophistication that are far beyond what one would expect from pop music. Normally I consider strings to be the kiss of death in a pop song as they usually only serve to manipulate the listener's emotions and add a layer of melodrama to the proceedings. In this case though they are incorporated into the overall composition instead of being used to merely point out obvious increases in emotional intensity. Like the rest of the instruments being played by the "Jonhsons" they work together with Antony's voice to create an atmosphere appropriate to each song's lyrical content.

It came as no surprise to me that while searching for information on Antony And The Johnsons on the Internet to discover that they had been involved in the production of performance art pieces that have been presented at some of the most respected galleries in North America (The Whitney Museum of American Art) and concert halls across Europe. There is a theatricality about their music that brings it alive for the listener in ways that I've never experienced in popular music before. Yet in spite of that they maintain the type of intimacy that one would expect from a folk musician so one never feels distanced from their performance.

Another World by Antony And The Johnsons is a truly unique recording from a very singular talent. If you've never heard them before than this represents the perfect opportunity to sample what they have to offer. The only drawback is that its only an EP so there are only five songs on the CD. Of course you could always pick up there previous release, I'm A Bird Now, to help tide you over until January when they will be releasing their next full length CD, The Crying Light. However, the five songs on this EP are far more substantial than most other band's complete catalogues, so even if you only buy this disc there's no way you'll feel short-changed.

October 11, 2008

Music Review: Lafayette Gilchrist Soul Progressin'

I've always been very particular when it comes to piano playing, or at least listening to piano players as I couldn't play the thing to save my life. It doesn't matter whether it's a classical, jazz, or pop performance, but it has always taken a very specific type of player for me to able to warm up to the instrument. For some reason there is something about the tone, or the quality of the music, produced by the way its played that will often leave me feeling emotionally cold. It doesn't matter how technically gifted an individual is, it seems to require some sort of extraordinary gift to generate emotional warmth when playing the piano.

Of course it may have to do with how fiendishly difficult an instrument it is to play with any degree of proficiency, and the amount of rigourous training in technique that so many players have to undergo in order to amass the skill set required to do what is needed to even play the damn thing. There is such a focus on learning how that to bring any soul to the proceedings requires more than what some people can accomplish. I think back to the late Glenn Gould, classical piano player, who for the last fifteen years of his life refused to play in public because of his desire to only produce mistake free music. I once saw a documentary on him which showed him in the recording studio adjusting the pitch of individual notes with technology so that they would ring exactly true.

Okay, so Gould was known for his eccentricities, and for being a tad over the top, but it was listening to his playing that encouraged me to keep listening to piano music. You could feel his music, if you'll excuse the pun, strike a chord within. He might have been obsessed with the technical side of playing, but it was only because he cared about the music. It was that caring, his emotional commitment, that you could feel being transmitted every time he sat down at a keyboard and played. Perhaps it's unfair to use genius as a yardstick for measuring other people, but once you find an ideal it becomes impossible to ignore it. I know I'm constantly listening for echoes of that caring every time I listen to a piano player.
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That doesn't mean I expect all piano players to sound like Glenn Gould, but I look for characteristics in their playing that remind me of what captured my imagination about his playing all those year ago. I came across Lafayette Gilchrist, while trolling through the Hyena Records web site and something about him caught my attention to pique my interest sufficiently to ask the label to send me out a copy of his most recent release, Soul Progressin'

Am I ever glad that I did, as this guy's playing, either solo or with accompaniment by the amazing band he plays with is some of the most inspired I've heard in ages. Each of the seven tracks on Soul Progressin' have been composed and arranged by Lafayette, which means he's, at the least, indirectly responsible for every note played by every musician on the recording. Therefore, he not only knows what he wants to accomplish with his own playing, he has considered how each part comes together to form a single unit that will accomplish the objective he had in mind when he composed a piece. Seven other players aside from himself (John Dierker tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Gregory L. Thompkins tenor saxophone, Gabriel Ware alto saxophone, Mike Cerri trumpet, Freddy Dunn trumpet, Anthony "Blue" Jenkins bass, and Nathan Reynolds drums) to think about requires an attention to detail and caring that can't help but a piece's qualities.

My initial impression after listening to the disc for the first time was to be wowed by the diversity of the music on offer. From the first track's, title cut "Soul Progressin'", up beat, near funk groove, the simple elegance of "Uncrowned", a memorial to Andrew Hill, to the strange, almost dissonance, of "Those Frowning Clowns" Gilchrist pushes himself and his band in a number of different directions. Sometimes such mixed bag discs can be hard to handle as they come across as a series of disconnected pieces thrown together without any apparent rhyme or reason. However, that's not the case here, as somehow or other, in spite of the obvious distinctiveness of each song, they flow together as if they were individual parts of one song.

I don't think there is a deliberate attempt at "theme", or anything of that sort, that allows the songs to flow like I described, more it's the overall distinctiveness of Lafayette Gilchrist's character that comes through in each song no matter how different each is from another. I deliberately avoided using the word style above, because, at least to me, that implies something superficial, which is definitely not the case with this music. There's a swagger and self assurance to the tracks on this disc that verges on cocky, but they are rescued from arrogance by the music's obvious sincerity and concern with matters beyond itself.

Take the final track on the disc, "Many Exits No Doors" which Lafayette notes is an expression of trying to escape the frustration at modern life, before adding this tag-line: "Time to re-evaluate, but wait no time. Time's up." If you're feeling at all anxious you might not want to listen to this song until you've had a chance to relax, as it manages to convey the pressure of not having enough time and could induce a panic attack on those susceptible to them its so real. Unlike some pieces which have attempted this that begin slowly and build up gradually, "Many Exits No Door" starts high tempo, and builds to a feverish pitch that is then sustained until it finally collapses under its own weight. Now I don't know about anyone else, but I've had days where I've woken up with my pulse already racing and that don't end until I collapse from nervous exhaustion. I swear this song is the soundtrack to one of those days.

Now as you can imagine Mr. Gilchrist has obviously put a lot of himself into not only the compositions, but the arrangements. If you can, think about bringing that same amount of focus and passion to playing an instrument and you'll have some idea of what his piano sounds like. He has a talent for being able to use the piano as a percussion instrument one moment and the next be playing a beautifully melodic lead. He also has a wonderful economy to his playing, and is able to express with a few notes what it might take others a keyboard's worth to accomplish. This serves him in great stead when others are playing leads and he inserts little accents or counterpoints into the flow which say a great deal without interrupting or distracting from the lead's performance.

Soul Progressin' is one of the best jazz discs I've heard this year, and any other year for that matter. I'm sure there will be plenty our there who disagree with me and that's cool, but I haven't heard music as soulful, eloquent, and passionate as this in a long time. A lot of times jazz seems to be cut off from the world around it, existing in some sort of bubble, but not this music. Lafayette Gilchrist's compositions are definitely of this world, and you hear it in every note he plays.

September 26, 2008

Music Review: Various Performers Sprigs Of Time: 78's From The EMI Archive

It's only been in the last twenty years or so that the world music genre has obtained a significant level of popularity among the general public. What had first been a sort of novelty in the 1980's is now just another one of the genres of music that we take for granted. Weekly, it seems that one label or another is releasing music from one part of the world or another. From the Middle East to the Amazon basin, from music as basic as tribal rhythms to stuff as sophisticated as the intricacies of classical Hindustan compositions, it seems like we've got the whole world at our fingertips.

Although no one says it, the implication is that all of this is happening for the first time and that if it weren't for the intrepidness of certain individuals and labels we wouldn't be able to experience things like music from Nepal or Kenya. While it's true that these new labels are making more and more music from various parts of the world available to us, and in quantities that were perhaps unheard of before now, it would be wrong to think that music from these parts of the world had never made it to record or distributed before.

I'm not talking about music ethnologists who recorded for research purposes only and weren't making their recordings for popular consumption. Major record labels like EMI of England were making recordings of music from around the world as far back as 1903. One only needs to look at the latest collection of music from Honest Jon's Records, Sprigs Of Time: 78s From The EMI Archive, that's being released on October 14th/08 and you'll see recordings that date as far back as 1903 (The Imperial Palace Band of Japan playing a piece called "Seigaiha") and are as recent as Trinidad's The Mighty Sparrow singing "The Queen's Canary" in 1957.
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There's something a little odd about a seemingly haphazard collection of music like this one. Thirty tracks have been culled from the archives of EMI's back catalogue of 78 records in Hayes Middlesex, restored at Abby Road Studios in London, and then dropped onto the CD in no particular order. At first there is something rather disconcerting about hearing voices and instruments that have nothing in common with each other. One moment you're listening to music from Iraq and the next the stages of Britain's music halls from between WW 1 and WW 2, but as the record progresses do you find yourself getting used to it, but it's never quite enjoyable.

One fascinating thing, for me anyway, about this collection was wondering about the provenance of some of the music. Why, for example, was a recording of Vengopal Chari of Madras laughing made in 1906? At first when I listened to it I thought whoever it was was crying, and then when I realized it was somebody laughing it became even more mystifying. First of all it seems such a strange thing to record and secondly there is something disturbingly manic about it. Whoever Vengopal is you wouldn't feel very comfortable being alone with him after listening to this recording - it would be the perfect laugh for the diabolical villain in some cheap horror movie.

While that piece is rather disconcerting, to say the least, the disc also contains examples of some of the more wonderful types of music that are out in the world just two tracks later. There's the wonderful guitar and trumpet duet of the flamenco song "Flor De Petenera" from Spain 1933, followed by the haunting voice of Fairuz of Beirut recorded in 1956 singing "Ya Honaina". Of course before you can get too carried away by the sublime moments offered by these two tracks, you go back in time to New York in 1926 to listen to Cliff Edwards performing " I Ain't Got Nobody" a sort of Dixieland jazz number played on banjo and song in the near falsetto that singers used to affect during the twenties.

I don't know if these moments are intentional or just the result of happenstance, but over and over again the recording brings you up cold with moments of the near ridiculous after items of some beauty. While I can't be sure of the motivations of the people responsible for compiling and arranging the material on the disc, it does appear like they don't want you to ever be in a particular mood for very long. Perhaps it's because they want you to appreciate the diversity of what was recorded and available on the old 78's they have taken the music from, but it seems just as likely to be sheer perversity on their part and a desire to keep us, the listener, on our toes.
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However you want to look at it, and in the end it doesn't really matter, this collection of music is as esoteric and eccentric as the human race. Many of the tracks have the rawness of field recordings about them while others were made with the finest technology available at the time. Some of the songs are performed by people who are forgotten by history and there are those, like Mighty Sparrow, one of the first popular Calypso singers who brought the music of the Islands to the world, who have made significant contributions.

In the end this disc serves as a good reminder that long before there were labels specializing in world music, there were recordings being made of music from all over the world. Unfortunately I only received a promotional copy of Sprigs Of Time which came with almost no information about the songs or the performers involved. Hopefully when its released to the public in October it will be accompanied by information that will explain a little of each track's history, as it would be nice to have some frame of reference for them. Otherwise it remains an interesting, but confusing, melange of sounds and music that has been arranged with apparently little rhyme or reason. While it has moments of enjoyment and fascination, it does get a little tedious by the end just listening to song piled on top of song in such a jarring fashion.

September 22, 2008

Music Review: Jon Regen Let It Go

Pop music is probably the best example of a living embodiment of the expression what have you done for me lately. While a hit single may be able to secure you a recording contract, the proviso is that you are going to produce at least one, if not more, money makers for those signing the cheques. That's not only the prevailing business attitude it also reflects how little weight is given to someone's previous musical experience. In spite of the fact that someone from a classical background will have developed a style and an approach to music that reflects her training, as will a person from a jazz background, nothing is usually done to take advantage of that and the person will be pretty much coerced into playing what's demanded to send a release up the charts.

Which is as good an explanation as you should require to understand why there is usually so much more creativity among independent performers than what you'll find among those assaulting the pop charts. One only needs look at the work performed and written by Jon Regen on his newest release, Let It Go, to see that difference in action. A graduate of the Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers University, Regen is one of only 2,000 piano players worldwide to hold the title of Steinway artist granted by the historic piano making company in recognition of keyboard virtuosity. Up until 2001 he was touring with bassist Kyle Eastwood only leaving his band to join up with Jimmy Scott for the next three years.

Even then he was showing promise as a solo performer and band leader as he released his first CD, Jon Regan Trio - Live At The Blue Note in 2000, and followed that up with his 2001 release Tel Aviv. While the first two albums stuck to instrumental jazz his third release, a seven song EP called Almost Home in 2004, marked his first foray into singing and song writing and Let It Go is his first full length effort. Right from the opening chords rippling from the keys of his piano on the title track, "Let It Go", which opens the disc, you know you're about to experience something quite a bit different from what you'd expect from a piano playing pop singer.
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Even without knowing anything about Jon's music, he wrote and asked if I would be willing to review the disc, my expectations were heightened based on the people who have elected to appear as guest performers with him. Andy Summers, of Police fame, and Jimmy Vivano, who plays with Willie Nile among others, are guest guitar players while Martha Wainwright supplies harmonies on the fourth track, "I Come Undone". They join bassist and producer Brad Albetta (Martha's husband/bass player/producer and another Willie Nile player) and drummer Bill Dobrow who form the other two parts of Jon's trio for this recording.

There's a fine line between writing emotionally honest songs dealing with personal issues of love, loss and other introspective ideas and melodramatic self-indulgent naval gazing. Nine times out of ten when you read promotional material praising someone's ability to sing from the heart you end up listening swelling strings, cliched piano trills, and weepy vocals (male or female it doesn't matter) that are long on vibrato but short on substance. Thankfully Jon Regen doesn't seem capable of writing a cliche even if he wanted to.

From his piano playing to his lyrics he charts his own course. Even if some of the songs on the disc aren't to my personal taste, it's obvious that Jon has not once chosen a safe or easy route by opting to fall back on typical pop music patterns. Musically his songs reflect his jazz and composition background in the way he uses subtle shift in rhythms and melody to indicate to change the mood of a song or to emphasize a particular point. There aren't any crashing of bass keys or laborious climbing of scales pointing out moments of emotional tension like neon arrows to insult our intelligence. Instead of telling us how we should feel at any given moment, his music and lyrics tell their story in such a way that we can react as we choose to what we're listening to.

A key element in his music, as is the case for any singer songwriter, is his voice. While he occasionally falls into the trap of equating straining with emotion, overall his voice has an honest roughness to it that makes the stories he's relating all the more credible. For the most part he's willing to simply allow himself to be a conduit for the lyrics without attempting to colour them with affectations. It's almost as if he's been able to distance himself from the knowledge that he wrote the songs, preventing himself from forcing any expectations that he might have as their writer upon the listener.

"I Come Undone" is a great example of this as it deals with his feelings concerning the death of a friend. "I'm not so good at this - It's hit or miss a lot these days" he sings at one point during the song. Anybody who has ever lost somebody close to them can understand exactly what that means within the context of trying to get used to somebody's absence. "Don't you know - It isn't so - That time will heal a broken heart - I tried, they lied, I'm torn apart". Simple words sung without pretence or melodrama with minimal accompaniment so that the voice is what we are most aware of express more about the reality of a situation than any musical thunderstorm or undying protestations of sadness and love could ever hope to convey.

Through out Let It Go Jon Regen shows this same ability over and over again. Special guests like Andy Summers have their work integrated seamlessly so they become part of the whole that Jon is attempting to impart to his audience. This album is an example of what the majority of people miss out on because of the music industry's insistence on sticking to the same formula year in and year out. This is a well crafted and finely executed album of songs that blend elements of pop and jazz music. The real pity is that if more people heard music like this they wouldn't settle for what currently rides the top of the charts.

September 19, 2008

Music DVD Review: Long John Baldry It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University

In the late 1950's and early 1960's young English musicians were putting together bands to play music that most of them had no experience with outside of records they had picked up in the shops. There just weren't that many opportunities to see bluesmen from Mississippi and Chicago performing live in London and Lincolnshire in those days. Now a days they're all household names, but back then Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, John Lennon, and the rest were unknowns playing anywhere they could get gigs.

Aside from their love of blues and American music one other thing that most of those young men had in common was the patronage of the man Rod Stewart refers to as the "first white guy singing the blues (in England)", Long John Baldry. Baldry wasn't really much older then the others, but he had experience. He had toured with Ramblin' Jack Elliot and sung with Muddy Waters, and was working professionally when the Beatles were still only playing sets during intermissions at The Caravan in Liverpool. It was Baldry who gave most of today's old veterans their first gigs by hiring them to play in his band; Ginger Baker, Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, Elton John, Ron Wood, Charlie Watt, Keith Richards, and Rod Stewart all played with Baldry early in their careers. He was so important and respected by all of them that when The Beatles did their first international television special in 1964 they insisted that Baldry be included on the bill singing Muddy Water's tune "I've Got My Mojo Working".

Baldry never became famous, it doesn't appear he wanted fame that much, and according to Rod Stewart he was content to play bars and sing the blues where and when he felt like it. Not that he didn't have his share of troubles, as he battled with alcoholism for long a while, but unlike others he won that war and came out the other side. He was also an incredibly brave man, as long before it was popular, or even safe, he went public with his homosexuality, and was probably the first openly gay music personality of any repute. I remember hearing him being interviewed somewhere around that time, the mid-eighties, and he sounded like a man at peace with himself. He had left England in the early 1970's and moved to Canada where he began a third career as a folk and blues artist signed to the Stoney Plain label who he was with until his death in 2005. His last release was Remembering Leadbelly in 2001, a tribute to his first inspiration, Huddie Leadbetter.
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Long John Baldry was distinguished by two features on stage; his towering presence - he was six feet seven inches tall (where did you think he got his name from?) and his deep, mellifluous voice that was made to sing the blues. Stony Plain has kept quite a few of his releases in stock, including some reissues of work from the late sixties and early seventies if you're interested in checking him out. Even better though is the opportunity being offered by MVD Video on September 26th when they will be releasing the DVD It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University. Recorded in 1987 it features Baldry playing a small club on campus backed by a five piece band and supported by vocalist Kathi McDonald.

While this represents a rare opportunity to see Baldry perform it's not what I'd call an ideal situation. The sound quality is fine, as is the picture, in fact, given the age of the recording it's a lot better than anyone has any right to expect. The problem is that who ever did the original filming only recorded eight of the songs that the band performed that night, and two of them, "Respect" and "Natural Woman", are sung by Kathi McDonald without Baldry even being on stage. Don't be fooled by the running time of eighty-five minutes, as only fifty or so are of the actual concert, while a good chunk of the remainder seems to be taken up with promoting other releases on the Quantum Leap label. The backstage interview with Baldry is a truncated affair that starts in mid sentence with him talking about when he met the Beatles in Liverpool and his appearance on the 1964 television show and then ends just as abruptly.

However the six tracks we do get of Long John singing are vintage Baldry. One moment his voice is as smooth and thick as slow poured molasses, only to have him switch gears into a low growl that reverberates through your ear canal. The disc opens with an extended version of "Going Down Slow" which allows him to feature each member of his highly skilled band. Special mention has to be given to Joseph Ingraio on keyboards and Papa John King on lead guitar. Ingraio is not only a skilled blues piano player, he's versatile enough to play some really good boogie-woogie for Baldry's signature "Don't Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock 'N Roll". John King proves to be an inventive guitar player, not only doing a fine job with the slide when needed, but making full use of the fret board to play leads that aren't your usual run of the mill, "see how close I can get my fingers to the pickups" that so many people think are special.

While Baldry plays acoustic guitar on the opening track, from there on in he focuses solely on vocals. His version of "Everyday I Have The Blues" is great as he delivers it with a sly smile that belays any suggestion that having the blues is a negative experience. You can't help but enjoy yourself watching Long John perform as he's having so much fun that he just picks you up and carries you along with his enthusiasm. Of course there's also the site of him shimmying his six foot seven inch frame across the stage. He might be a tall man, but he's also very graceful, and moves around the stage with an elegance that's a treat to watch.

Unfortunately just as you're starting to get into his performance Kathi McDonald joins him on the stage and I found her to be a distraction at best, and a pain at worst. She of the school of vocalist who seems to think that if you spit your words out like a machine gun firing off rounds and shout at the same time that it will pass for emotional intensity. It wasn't so bad when she was backing up Baldry, as his voice went a long way to smoothing over the more jarring aspects of her performance. However, I couldn't sit through her renditions of "Respect" and "Natural Woman" when she soloed. Thankfully Baldry closes the show with great versions of the old classic "Iko Iko" and his previously mentioned signature tune, so the disc ends on an up note and you can easily forget her performance.

Long John Baldry was a marvellous singer and a great performer, but unfortunately It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University barely scratches the surface of what he had to offer. Of course a little Long John Baldry goes a long way, and even this small sampling is enough to understand just how great a talent he really was. It may not be the longest or the best examples of his work, but any Long John Baldry is a damn site better than a lot anybody else has to offer.

September 17, 2008

Music Review: Oana Catalina Chitu Bucharest Tango

Like many European cities between the world wars that wracked the world in the first part of the twentieth century, Bucharest had a thriving night club and restaurant scene where patrons would be entertained with the latest fashions in music. While Berlin in the thirties featured the ribald and decadent cabarets as described by Christopher Isherwood in his collection of short stories that formed the basis for the movie Cabaret, and Paris was the home to the avant-garde both in the visual arts and music, Bucharest's night spots were featuring performances of music whose origins lay outside the metropolitan areas, and maybe even outside of the country itself.

Where the tango originated is unclear, but along with other forms of music not native to Eastern Europe, it came to Bucharest courtesy of the Roma, or gypsy, population that settled there. One of my favourite stories surrounding the tango is that during the retreat of the Ottoman Empire from Spain both Jews and gypsies were forced to go into hiding in order to elude the Inquisition. In Catalonia it's known that they sought shelter together among the caves that dotted the mountains of the region. It's easy to imagine that the two people listened to each other's music and when the skirling wildness of the gypsy fiddle met the more sedate and doleful sounds of Klexmar the tango was conceived.

It's always amazed me how anybody could have ever thought of Communism as being liberal in any shape or form, as they were always so intent on curtailing what they called "decadent and immoral". One of the first casualties of this prudishness in Romania following W W 2 was official discouragement of the Bucharest Tangos. As a result not only were the facilities where the music was played closed down, but the musicians were forced to leave the country in order to seek work, and Bucharest began a slow decline which eventually resulted in the dimming of its lights.
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All of which makes it that much more remarkable that now, seventy years later the music from this period is experiencing a revival. As a child growing up in rural Romania Oana Catalina Chitu (pronounced Kitsu) heard her father singing these songs, and later would have the opportunity to listen to old 78 rpm records her family had preserved of the music. Her musical studies began at a young age, and over the years have included everything from contemporary jazz to opera. In the year 2000 she formed the Balkan band Romenca, which was the first step towards carving a career out of playing regional gypsy music. In 2007 she created a musical and theatrical performance called Bucharest Tango which was initially staged in Berlin. Now, Asphalt Tango Records of Germany will be releasing the CD Bucharest Tango, on September 26th 2008, a collection of tango songs from that period between the wars, mixed in with a few classic songs by a famous Romanian singer from the same era, Maria Tanase, who was known as Romania's Edith Piaf.

For those of you who have some familiarity with tango music, what you'll hear on this recording will take you somewhat by surprise. It's not what you've come to expect from hearing it in the past, and it's definitely not what you'd come to expect if you've only heard it via Hollywood or any of the new ballroom dance programs on television. The Bucharest Tango, while retaining the original familiar rhythm, has picked up an emotional context that has less to do with the sensuality we're accustomed to, and more to do with sadness and melancholy.

It's hard to describe the changes without being able to give examples, but imagine that the sound has been filled out and extended so that each phrase is comprised of more notes played at a slower tempo. Instead of a seduction played out under the warm, star filled night sky of Spain, the music brings to mind looking out the window of a room lit by fire light at a rain spattered cobble stoned street, with windblown gas lighting creating twisting and dancing shadows. There is a darkness and a melancholy that at first seems at odds to what you've come to expect from tango music, but as you adjust to the new atmosphere, you appreciate it for the way in which it reflects the lives of the people who are playing it.

The lyrics (sung in Romanian but translations into English are provided) aren't what you'd call upbeat either as they range from the opening track's ("Pe Bolta Cano Apare Luna" - "When The Moon Rises") assertion that a life without lies would be horrible because how could love exist without lies, to the cheery "Marie Si Marioara"- "Mary, Sweet Mary", where the narrator requests that Mary grab a stake and kill him as he's been lying sick for three days. Needless to say they're not too many people who are going to be planning a seduction around one of these numbers.

Singing lyrics like that would present a challenge to any singer in order to prevent them from becoming the worst sort of melodramatic drivel. Not being able to understand Romanian, the only way I have of judging Oana Catalina Chitu's performance is by the quality of her voice, and the manner in which she delivers the songs. In what I think is a wise decision she has opted for taking a subdued approach. Instead of pulling out all the stops and allowing her voice to soar all over the place she stays within the lower register most of the time and allows the emotion that's naturally inherent in the music to shine through.

She has a lovely rich and dark voice that allows one to luxuriate in the textures of what she's singing, without ever feeling that you're being swamped by an emotional overload. Like an opera or jazz singer she uses her voice not as a means of giving the lyrics intellectual meaning but as an instrument that adds another layer of emotional meaning to what her accompanying musicians are creating. I can honestly say that I've never heard sadness and melancholy sound as beautiful as I did while listening to Oana Catalina Chitu singing the thirteen tracks on Bucharest Tango.

For those of you familiar with Eastern European, or many styles of Gypsy music, the sound of the instruments that accompanies Ms. Chitu won't surprise you as they include what you'd expect from this type of ensemble; their version of the hammered dulcimer, the cymbalon, accordion, violin, guitar, bass, and percussion. Hearing these instruments playing tangos might take a little getting used to, but as is the case with the overall sound, once your ears have adjusted, it sounds fine.

Bucharest Tango featuring Oana Catalina Chitu is a collection of tangos like you've never heard tango played before. Rid yourself of any preconceptions as to what you think the music ought to sound like and it won't be long before Oana's wonderful voice and the powerful music of her band will have you completely captivated and under their spell. It's often been claimed that the tango has magic powers and this disc confirms that belief.

September 8, 2008

Music DVD Review: Rahsaan Roland Kirk Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live In '63 &'67

Why is it that in every musical genre there have to be people who appoint themselves as the protectors of its integrity. I hate to admit that the majority of the time these people are critics who seem to feel that they know what the music is better than the people who play it. Unfortunately that means they usually end up doing their best to squelch anything innovative or different as it messes with their vision of what the music should be.

Even worse though are the ones who set themselves up as some sort of moral arbitrator which gives them the right to decide whether a musician's labour should be taken seriously or dismissed as inconsequential. If someone dare to have fun, or do anything that might look the slightest bit like they weren't taking the music seriously they would be quick to denounce the hapless soul with accusations of reducing the music to a side show. We critics live to be taken seriously, so if there's the slightest chance that something might bring us down from the little points on high where we sit in judgement, we lash out with all the outrage and sanctimoniousness of the insecure.

So it's not really that surprising to read that quite a few jazz music critics, so called purists, treated Rahsaan Roland Kirk with the same amount of respect that they would a circus side show freak when he first started playing. According to the liner notes included in the DVD Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live in '63 & '67, part of the Jazz Icons 3 being released on September 30th by Reelin' In The Years and Naxos, their disdain was based on the fact that not only was Kirk able to play more then one of his instruments at a time, but he would also appear in concert festooned with them all around his neck. If that wasn't bad enough, he had the gall to make use of instruments that either he had had modified to suit his needs or were strange things like nose flutes and whistles.
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Now I must admit the first time you catch site of Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the Live In '63 & '67 DVD it's a little disconcerting. For not only does he wear the saxophone he's playing around his neck, but he also has two other saxophone type instruments, and other, smaller and not instantly recognizable, instruments wrapped around his neck that turn out to be a nose flute and a whistle with a miniature saxophone bell attached. As you watch the DVD and the excerpts from the three concerts included on it, Belgium and Holland in 1963 and Norway in 1967, you realize that's only the start, as he routinely adds more instruments. Another modified saxophone, this one with a French Horn bell, is looped around his neck, a flute appears in the bell of his alto saxophone, and castanets appear as if by magic in one of his hands.

There are two reasons for Kirk to be wearing so many instruments at once and they are interconnected. First of all he is blind and because he switches between them so frequently, and or plays more than one at a time, he can't afford to spend time groping around on stage trying to find the one he needs at any particular moment. While some critics might have dismissed his playing multiple instruments as some sort of gimmick, and dismissed it as not being music or jazz, one only has to listen to Kirk's playing to realize how much blinder they were than him.

John Kruth's extensive liner notes that accompany the disc, describe how a record producer once walked into a studio's sound booth and upon hearing Kirk's playing complimented the engineer on the great horn section in the studio that day. Needless to say he was astounded to find out it was only one man playing. While I've seen other horn players play two saxophones before - usually a tenor and an alto - I've never heard anyone play two different melody lines at the same time. He's actually harmonizing with himself on two separate horns If that sounds insanely difficult, it's only because it is.

Now I don't have what you'd call a great ear when it comes to discerning things like key or other intricacies of music, but even I could hear that he was playing two different things on the two separate horns. There were moments when I was watching this DVD when I couldn't believe what my eyes and ears were telling me. If the recordings hadn't been so obviously made in 1963 and 1967, I would have sworn that they had been done using computer generated graphics in order for what Kirk was doing to be possible.

Of course Rahsaan wasn't limited to playing saxophones, or reed instruments, he was also a remarkable flutist. Listening to him play his flute on the two versions of "Three For The Festival" that are included on this disc, one from the concert in Holland in 1963 the other four years later in Norway, you not only hear how talented a player he was, but you hear how he continually evolved his playing style. While its still obviously the same tune, the version he plays in Norway is far more sophisticated then the earlier performance. The texture of the song's sound seems to have become thicker in the intervening years, as if Kirk has built an additional layer of sound into it somehow.

Probably the most surprising thing about Rahsaan Roland Kirk's playing is how sensitive it can be. Not only can he play at speed, and create the wild skirling music that we'd expect from someone playing multiple instruments, he exhibits a deftness of touch that allows him to be just as adroit with the gentler pieces. Yet even then, if you were to close your eyes while listening, you'd be hard pressed believing it's only one man playing.

The Jazz Icons series is onto its third set of DVDs now, and it continues to provide a wonderful opportunity for people to get to know some of the greats of the Jazz world. Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live In '64 & '68 makes a convincing argument for Kirk's inclusion in that stellar company. For sheer excitement, and jaw-dropping astonishment, there are few players alive today who can match what he accomplished during his years performing and recording. While there might still be a few purists who will dismiss him and his playing, the rest of us can just get on with enjoying his gifts and listening to some great music.

September 4, 2008

Music DVD Review: Cannonball Adderley Cannonball Adderly Live In '63

Fame and renown sometimes seem to be handed out on a whim as one person will achieve international acclaim for doing something while the person right beside him or her doing the exact same thing with equal skill will be left out of the limelight. In some cases it's because one person's force of personality, or charisma, is such that it attracts attention to them like ants to honey, but in others there seems no real rhyme or reason.

In the world of jazz music there are certain players who have become as close to household names as is possible for someone playing in that genre and their names are known beyond the world of jazz aficionados. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coletrane, and Ella Fitzgerald are names that even the most casual music fan will recognize as somebody special. Yet there are others, through no deficiency of talent, whose names are less familiar to the public at large. For some reason they've never captured the imagination of those outside intimate jazz circles, or whose recognition only came late in their careers or even after their deaths.

In recent years the name of Cannonball Adderley has started to gain in ascendancy as people begin to realize the amazing scope and range of his talent and the body of work he produced in his years as a performer and composer. Part of the problem for him was being a saxophone player in an already crowded field, coming along as he did in the years just following the death of Charlie Parker. However, according to John Szwed's liner notes for the Cannonball Adderley: Live In '63 DVD, part of his problem was that he did too many things too well. His supposition is that Adderley never garnered the appreciation he deserved because his abilities exceeded his audience's ability to absorb more than a small portion of his talent.
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He could, and did, play everything from blues a la Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, avant-garde like Coletrane, funk fusion like Miles Davis, to recording a jazz version of Fiddler On The Roof. In fact it's only now that his last recordings from 1975, Black Messiah and Accent On Africa are capturing the imaginations of DJs and dance crowds. Whether or not Live In '63, part of the Jazz Icons Series 3 set co-produced by Reeling In The Years and Naxos, being released September 30th/08, will bring Cannonball any more name recognition then he already has, it certainly shows off some of that famous versatility and virtuosity.

The eleven tracks from the two performances recorded in Europe in 1963 on Swiss and German television respectively, show off not only Cannonball's skill, but his entire sextet's as well. With Cannonball's brother Nat on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes on bass and drums respectively, and the amazing multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef playing tenor saxophone, flute, and oboe, watching them makes you wonder how they could have slipped under so many people's radar. They can handle anything thrown at them from hard be-bop to slow ballad type numbers, without skipping a beat or dropping the level of their intensity.

I have to confess that although I've know of Cannonball for years, it was only from the later stages of his career - specifically the Country Preacher - Live At The Breadbasket album he recorded with Jesse Jackson. None of those recordings had prepared me for what was in store on this disc, for the two concerts are examples of what I would call the pinnacle of jazz musicianship for that era. The liner notes give extensive details about each of the songs, but to be honest that sort of technical analysis of jazz is lost on me. I'm just not familiar enough with the terminology or jargon for it to be of much use. I rely on my emotional responses to what I'm hearing to guide me, and it was those that led me to the conclusion I reached above.

While for others it might be another track, for me the track in particular that hooked me was the second one on the disc, "Angel Eyes". While the opening track, "Jessica's Day", reprised in a different version in the second concert near the end of the disc, was good jazz, there was nothing about it to set it apart from any other well played jazz song. There was something about "Angel Eyes" that contained a spark of genius that took it into another realm. Maybe it was because it wasn't played with the usual vigour one associates with jazz of the early sixties, for it is a ballad, that made it stand out, or maybe it was just the sweetness of the playing.

Of course it didn't hurt that for this track Yusef Lateef was playing flute. I have to confess that I'm a sucker for jazz flutists, and Yusef's playing is as good as any other that I've heard from Eric Dolphy to Michelle Black. Not only can he make it soar with the best of them, he has a mellowness of touch that astounded me. It's very easy for a flute to become shrill, but the tone Mr. Lateef was able to produce was reminiscent of a bass flute. Perhaps it's his experience playing a variety of woodwind instruments that stood him in such good stead, but I've never heard the quality of breath control that he displayed from another flutist before.

I think it says a lot about the nature of Cannonball Adderley that he was willing to surrender the lead to another player so early on in the set. That implied, to me, that what was in the best interests of the music took precedence over everything else, even if it meant his time in the spotlight was reduced. Certainly he had his share of moments in the spotlight during the course of the disc, but it always seemed that was the case only because it was what was expected of him as the alto saxophone player in the ensemble, not because he was Cannonball Adderley.

Cannonball Adderley: Live In '63 is a wonderful opportunity for those of you familiar with the better known names in jazz to begin to broaden your horizons to include this multitalented musician. Be amazed at his virtuosity and wonder at the breadth of his understanding of music. Yet, perhaps, most of all, wonder why you may not have heard him play before, because he's just too good to have been missed for so long.

September 3, 2008

Music DVD Review: Nina Simone Nina Simone Live In '65 & '68

When the slaves came to North America from Africa they brought with them not only their own musical traditions but their way of using the music. In the villages where they came from there had always been a person who kept a record of the people's history in song and music. The griots, as they were known, could be called on to recount either a specific person's family history, or to tell the stories of the people that taught them how to live. Over here the people were scattered with families being split up and sold to separate owners, and villages scattered from the Caribbean to Canada, and the old histories became obsolete.

The music changed so that it reflected the lives they were currently living. It spoke of the pain and hopes of people enslaved; the pain of the labour and the hope of freedom. As their masters imposed their religion on them they used the text of Christian gospels to express some of their feelings, but held onto the music they had brought with the. With freedom the music split between the secular and the religious and the griots of those days could be found in the bars and honkey-tonks singing the blues and banging out the old rhythms on the keyboards of pianos.

In the introduction to the liner notes of the DVD Nina Simone Live In '65 & '68, part of the Jazz Icons: Series 3 collection co-produced by Reelin' In The Years Productions and Naxos being released on September 30th/08, Nina Simone's daughter says that her mother considered herself a griot for she would take her listeners on a journey. The journey that Nina Simone took her audiences on was a continuation of the one started by the singers and songwriters from the beginning of the twentieth century who sang about the emotional and spiritual condition of African Americans in churches and bars.
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This is especially true of the period in her life during which the two concerts on this DVD were taken. Between 1963 and 1970 Nina Simone recorded and sang songs that reflected the conditions of African Americans in the United States as they fought for equal rights. In his extensive liner notes for the CD Professor of Music Rob Bowman quotes Nina as saying that it was the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street church in Birmingham Alabama that resulted in the deaths of four little girls in 1963 that brought home to her the emotional reality of " what it was to be black in America".

Her first impulse was to build a zip gun and go out and kill someone but her husband pointed out to her that she didn't know very much about killing but knew a lot about music so perhaps that might be the route to go. Within the hour she had written her first civil rights song "Mississippi Goddam", one of the songs she performed at her 1965 concert in Holland that is opens this DVD. The two concerts, the 1965 in Holland and the 1968 Granada television special from England, are emotional tour de forces by a woman known for her ability to communicate emotions through song and music. So be prepared to be on the receiving end of the type of potency that's not often seen or heard in contemporary music as she holds nothing back.

In the 1965 concert she starts off with "Brown Baby" and moves into "Four Women", songs that talk about the social circumstances of black people in America. The second song is especially pointed as it deals with the class structure attached to what shade of black a person was and how it affected their status within their own community. In the late fifties and the early sixties it was still a matter of the paler a person's skin colour and the straighter their hair, i.e. the whiter they looked, the higher their status. Until the concept of Black Pride became predominant in the latter part of the sixties, being able to "pass" as white was considered the apex of social standing. "Four Women" expresses Simone's anger at a world where people are made to feel so ashamed of who they are, that they judge themselves based on another's prejudice.

The Holland concert finishes with "Mississippi Goddamn", and in it you can hear all of the singer's anger and sadness at the events that inspired the song in the first place. It seems only appropriate that those putting this DVD together have opened the second concert of the disc with her song "Go To Hell", a statement of anger if I've ever heard one. She follows that with a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Ain't Got No" and "I Got Life". While she turns the first into a testimony of the deprivations of poverty that most of black America suffered from during the sixties, the second becomes an affirmation of those things that could and will make life worth living.

The real emotional killer on this disc though is the final song "Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)". The song was written by her bass player Gene Taylor in honour of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after his assassination in April of 1968. His death was the death knell for the civil rights movement as there wasn't any leader of the same stature able to carry on his work. Nobody else had the charisma to hold together the alliance of people that King had built, and there's something about the way Nina Simone sings this song that tells you she knows those days are over. The lyrics might be in praise of Dr. King's life, but the way she sings them they're also an elegy for his dream.

Nina Simone: Live in '65 & '68 is an amazing testimony of the power of song to communicate emotions, and the power of Nina Simone to communicate through song. For those of you who thought they had seen impassioned singers before, this disc will leave all of them in its wake. While it's irresponsible to label anyone as a spokesperson for any group of people, Nina Simone's singing captures a good deal of what it must have been like to black in America during those tumultuous times. Like the griot she was, she told the story of her people in song, and this DVD is a record of her storytelling.

Obviously the sound quality is spotty in places, especially in the first concert, as the original masters are so old, but it's remarkable really how good they are, as both picture and sound are probably better than we have any right to expect. Although there are no special features included on the disc, the extensive liner notes that come with the enclosed booklet, are an amazing overview of Nina Simone's life and career, providing information that you'd be hard pressed to find on any other similar music collection. For lovers of Nina Simone, and those just new to her work, Nina Simone: Live In '65 & '68 will be a pleasure and a revelation.

August 24, 2008

Music Review: Garaj Mahal wOOt

So, when does jazz stop being jazz? There have been all sorts of jazz fusion groups over the years that have incorporated elements of other genres into their compositions from funk to straight ahead rock and roll and I wonder if there's a point where the music stops being jazz and becomes the other genre? Why would a song that's primarily a rock and roll song be still called a jazz piece just because the people performing it are nominally jazz musicians?

Perhaps jazz is less a musical genre and more a state of mind, and what defines the music, and by extension the musicians, is the intent behind the music and not the music itself. People who call themselves jazz musicians don't normally constrain themselves by thinking they have to write for a specific market or create any particular sound. They come up with an idea for a piece and then utilize whatever resources they have at their disposal to bring that to life. In some ways jazz is an organic process in that a composition will often develop out of the process of rehearsal as each player in a combo adds new layers and textures to a basic structure.

While there is always a certain element of improvisation in all music, it's far more likely that a jazz composition will not only have been created through improvisation, but a good deal of the song would continue to be improvised each time it's performed. Sometimes it appears that in order to write the ideal jazz song you only need to create a theme around which all the participating musicians can build their own contributions, and each time its played, the song is almost being rewritten. In that sort of atmosphere does it really matter what styles of music are utilized?
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A great example of a band taking the genre be dammed attitude and running with it can be found on Garaj Mahal's forthcoming release on the Owl Studios label, wOOt, which will be in stores on September 9th/08. While some jazz fusion groups might be content with adding either bits of blues, or funk, or rock into the mix, the guys in Garaj Mahal have no hesitation about utilizing any or all of the above in any one song. While that might give the impression that their music is kind of chaotic stew, the reality is ... well the chaos is controlled anyway. In fact come to think of it, sometimes listening to their compositions one is distinctly reminded of the butterfly in Japan flapping its wings and causing an earthquake in San Francisco. What appears to be a series of disconnected events are in reality very much interconnected.

I have to admit that it took me a while to find a way into their music because I wasn't accustomed to their approach. While I've listened to quite a bit of contemporary jazz in recent years and have been steadily gaining an ability to appreciate it, this disc initially left me confounded. Admittedly part of that was due to my ambivalence to the use of synthesizers, which feature in the first few tracks of the CD, and it wasn't until I was able to get beyond those feelings that I began to enjoy this disc. However, part of the difficulty does lie in the fact that this is music that continually takes you by surprise as you're listening to it.

Unless you're prepared not to anticipate what's going to happen bar to bar in the music you will end up feeling perplexed, puzzled, and not a little lost. Yet if you are willing to let go of preconceived notions of what you think music is supposed to do, you will find yourself being taken on some really spectacular voyages by superlative musicians. Kai Eckhardt (bass), Fareed Haque (guitars), Alan Hertz (drums), and Eric Levy (keyboards) are your guides on this journey, and they'll take you as far as you're willing to go.

There are some musicians who write comic songs, and there are even some of them who manage to be relatively humorous, but there have been precious few who have written music that makes me genuinely laugh out loud. On wOOt's first two tracks, "Semos" and "Hotel" the sounds that Eric Levy produces via his keyboards, (I'm assuming the synthesized sounds were produced by the keyboards, but they could also have been generated by Fareed Haque using a synthesized guitar) were so absurd that I couldn't help laughing at them. Once I was able to overcome my personal bias, I realized just how much fun the band was having with these two tracks and enjoyed them for that reason. It was almost like they were letting you know that although this was pretty complicated music that you shouldn't take it too seriously. Lighten up and enjoy yourself already, they seem to be saying, because we are.

It was only after about the third time that I listened to the disc (okay I admit I'm slow sometimes) that I realized just how much fun Garaj Mahal was having playing what they were recording. I don't know if I've ever heard a more exuberant sounding group of musicians. Unlike so many other ensembles who always seem so serious, these guys haven't forgotten that what they're doing is called playing. No matter how intense the music gets, and it does get really intense at moments, there's always that underlying feeling of how excited they are to be making music and how much pleasure and joy they get from it.

Earlier in the review I cautioned potential listeners about the danger of trying to anticipate a song's progression on this disc due to what seems like the band's firm believe in chaos theory. Or, everything is interconnected, somehow, and even if we can't quite figure out how at the moment we're sure to come up with something, sometime. The seventh track on the disc, "Ishmael and Isaac", starts off sounding like something from Fiddler On The Roof and somewhere along the way changes into something verging on hard rock. Oddly enough though, is that it works. You don't even notice the transition happening until all of a sudden you realize just how hard the electric guitar is screaming. Although you might wonder for a second, what ever became of that nice Klezmar music, it really doesn't seem to matter that much because this is what the song sounds like now - and this is what it's supposed to sound like.

Jazz is all about pushing the envelope and discovering new ways of expressing thoughts and emotions musically. If you're going to listen to jazz you have to be prepared to take quantum leaps alongside the musicians and hope that those who you're travelling with know what they're doing. If you decide to take the trip that Garaj Mahal will be offering on their forthcoming release, wOOt, you'll find that not only are you in good hands, but you're going to have a lot of fun. Not only do they play sublimely, they haven't forgotten what it means to play.

August 10, 2008

Music Review: John Ellis & Double-wide Dance Like There's No Tomorrow


One of the things I've always loved about contemporary jazz is the potential it offers those performing and creating it for freedom of creativity. Thanks to the innovators of the past like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Mingus (to name only a few) the precedent has been set for today's musician to take the music in whatever direction they want and still be able to call it jazz. From the electronic minimalism of Chicago Underground Trio to the near tribal rhythms of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and everything in between and beyond, it seems the only boundaries left in jazz are those that the musician imposes on him or herself.

However, lest one think that any idiot can pick up a noise maker, squawk out some sounds and call that jazz, the music also has a history that serves as the foundation for all that is being done today. Just like an abstract painter learns figure drawing, the basics of perspective, and how colour and light work together, before moving on to trying to fulfill his vision, or the writer has to learn spelling and grammar before attempting to break those rules with free form poetry, the jazz musician must first be proficient on her instrument of choice, and know the music itself inside out before setting out for in search of new horizons. The best contemporary/experimental jazz musicians are the ones who can play traditional jazz forms like dixie land as easily as the fusion creations of a group like Weather Report.

The more knowledge that an artist has to draw upon for his creations, the greater her potential for creating something original and to continue doing so throughout his career. Listening to the latest release from John Ellis on Hyena Records, John Ellis & Double-wide, Dance Like There's No Tomorrow, the immediate impression is of a man who has allowed himself to thoroughly absorb the music in all of it's permutations until they've become as much second nature as breathing is to most of us. It's not that you are able to listen to any of the ten songs on the disc and necessarily cite its heritage like you would the breeding record of a thoroughbred horse. It's more that you feel a sense of purpose and direction that only comes from having his been somewhere else first before he's taken on the experimentation that accompanies works that break new ground.
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I have to admit that my judgement on this recording might be slightly impaired due to an inordinate fondness on my part for the bass instruments of the brass section in an orchestra. So when I read that Double-wide included a sousaphone player (Matt Perrine), as well as a drummer (Jason Marsalis) and an accordian/organ player (Gary Versace), I was predisposed to liking it even before I listened to it. When the opening notes, of the disc's first cut, "All Up In The Aisles", were played by said sousaphone, I was hooked. In fact I was so captivated by it that it took me to the second time round listening to the song to pay attention to the other instruments and appreciate the song fully.

What started out as the organ laying down some great gospel quivers over top of the sousaphone, gradually took off into something more up tempo. As John's tenor saxophone joined the fray, along with Jason's drums, it became a song that would most definitely get them up dancing in the aisles of any church. Although I'm not sure there are many churches, no matter how liberal, that would encourage sousaphone leads from their band. There was a kind of sensuality and wild abandonment that the combination of it and the organ generated that wouldn't go over well, especially when they were supporting some of Jason's wilder leads.

In fact the majority of the songs on the disc would encourage a kind of dancing that would be more at place outside of than in the aisles of a church. No matter how gospel influenced, or sounding, the organ playing might be, there's a wildness of spirit that this disc encourages one to feel that would send shivers up the spine of most clergy. Listen to the underlying rhythm of track three, "Dream And Mosh", and the way each instrument's lead spirals almost out of control as its propelled forward by Marsalis' drums pounding insistence, only to catch itself at the last minute as the grounding influence of the sousaphone brings it back to earth, and you'll understand why.

Just when you think these guys are going to take you off into outer space with the wildness of their playing, along comes "I Miss You Molly", the fourth track. Gary Versace's organ and John's saxophone show how a song can be poignant without being mawkishly sentimental. Both the saxophone and the organ have been turned into cliches by too many players when it comes to love songs, so it's wonderful to hear them played in a manner that generates genuine emotion. They both allow their instruments to become conduits for feelings so we really experience the sensation of loss that accompanies missing somebody.

Aside from their honesty and their penchant for a wildness of spirit, what I most appreciated about the music on Dance Like There's No Tomorrow was the sense of humour behind some of the songs. Titles like "Three Legged Tango In Jackson Square" and "Zydeco Clowns On The Lam" give you a fair idea of the mindset involved here. Even better though is the fact that these two songs actually live up to their titles in terms of humour. I'm not talking about obvious stuff like making farting noises with the sousaphone, or something equally juvenile, but witty and intelligent takes on the forms of music mentioned in the titles.

Everyone knows that a tango when performed well is one of the most sensual dances around, so the idea of a three legged tango - along the lines of a three legged race held at a children's sports day - is as absurd as it is unlikely. Somehow they manage to capture that spirit in the music when they play it, and you can almost picture two people trying to dance a tango with two of their legs tied together. While that might sound strange enough, with "Zydeco Clowns On The Lam" they take absurdity to another level. Picture zydeco music as performed by circus freaks from a Fellini film and you'll have a good idea of what's happening with this piece of music. It's inspired brilliance, and you'll never hear zydeco music in quite the same way again.

Dance Like There's No Tomorrow by John Ellis & Double-wide is an album of great jazz music performed by innovative and daring musicians. It's firmly rooted in the history of the genre and daring enough to go places that no one else I've heard has gone before. On top of that its a lot of fun to listen to, and if you let it, it will let you dance like you've never danced before.

July 1, 2008

Music Review: Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966

It always comes as a bit of surprise to be reminded that Toronto, Canada in the 1950's and 1960's had a small but thriving music scene. With the intimate concert facility, Massy Hall as the focal point, three or four clubs in the downtown core hosted everything from Jazz and Blues to Rock and Roll. The Silver Rail, The Colonial Tavern, and The Golden Nugget hosted acts ranging from the Rockabilly sounds of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to the cool Jazz piano of native son Oscar Peterson.

The most famous recording that exists from this period is of course the 1950's concert from Massy Hall featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillispe, and other heroes of the Be-Bop era. While nothing can match that concert for star power, Toronto attracted quite a few other notable names. Although not many recordings exist from those times one that does is from a concert that was given at the Golden Nugget in 1966 by pianists Don Ewell and Willie "The Lion" Smith.

While studio recordings of the two from their time in Toronto were released under the title of Grand Piano, Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966 is the first time the recording of their club date has been issued. The promoter of the gig at the Golden Nugget had arranged for one night's show to be recorded and had given the tapes to Don Ewell. It was his wife Mary who provided them to Delmark Records in 2007 just before her death, having inherited them from her husband when he died.
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Willie "The Lion" Smith began his career as a Jazz pianist before World War One. Aside from a two year stint in the army overseas he had been playing ever since. He was considered one of the foremost pianists of his era, and was considered one of the great innovators of early Jazz piano. Stride piano, judging by what I heard on this recording compared to the ragtime that I've heard performed, offered players far more freedom within a song to improvise and create than other forms of that era. While of a player is still going to have to follow a tune, it was a far cry from the tight constraints imposed on a pianist by the fixed rhythms of ragtime.

While the material included on Stride Piano Duets includes one of Willie's own creations, "Here Comes The Band", the majority of the tunes included are standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown", " Georgia On My Mind", and "Charleston". Aside from Willie going it alone on his own tune, all the material was performed as duets. Instead of one of them providing background for the other, over the course of a song they would either trade leads back and forth, or play in tandem. Initially it's impossible to tell the two men apart, but eventually you begin to discern individual characteristics unique to each of them.

Willie is the more forceful player, at times he comes close to sounding like he's pounding on the keys, yet at the same time he also introduces the more elaborate flourishes and intricate phrasing into the music. Don, other the hand, has a more consistent style of playing that is less flamboyant, but very smooth. In some ways the differences between the two men's style of playing is indicative of the different eras that their respective ages represent. For while Willie reflects the influences of barrelhouse and ragtime in his playing, Don was born the year before Willie was sent over seas to fight in World War One, 1916. His playing would have been influenced more by the big bands and swing players active in the thirties when he began playing professionally.

While unaccompanied piano can sound a bit thin, these two men playing together made the need for a rhythm section superfluous. Like two people sharing a keyboard, while one was handling the leads the other would take care to maintain a song's proper pace and tempo. It's actually quite astounding how well the two men complimented each other considering they hadn't played together for any length of time and the differences in their styles.

Live recordings from earlier eras don't have the same sound quality that we have come to expect from them today, and Stride Piano Duets is no exception to that rule. While we can hear the players clearly enough, the audience also comes through loud and clear. Periodically the music is almost drowned out by the chatter of those sitting up close to the band stand, and the clank of glasses and the sound of orders being taken by the wait staff occasionally interrupts the playing. Yet in an odd way that only adds to the ambience and somehow makes the recording that much more enjoyable.

Willie "The Lion" Smith was sixty-nine at the time of this recording and would be dead in seven years time, while Don Ewell, nearly twenty years his junior, would only last ten years longer then his senior partner, dying in 1983. Even in 1966 their style of playing, especially Willie's, reflected a bygone era, and their concert represented a rare opportunity to see or hear that music played live. Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966 is a glimpse back to the days when Jazz piano wasn't too far removed from the bordellos of New Orleans, and the speakeasies of Chicago. It's loud, raw, and not very sophisticated, yet full of an energy that you don't often hear from today's musicians, and a lot of fun to listen to. Something you can't always say about some of the music on offer today.

June 30, 2008

Music Review: Cy Touff & Sandy Mosse Tickle Toe

I admit that I'm not much of a brass instrument aficionado, but I thought that at least I could name most, if not all, of the modern ones. Everyone knows that woodwinds and reed instruments come in various scales, so you can get everything from a soprano to a bass saxophone, but it never occurred to me that the same was true for trumpets. So I was surprised to find out that not only is there something called a bass trumpet, but it was the regular instrument of choice for a man named Cy Touff.

During the 1950's Cy teamed up with another native of Chicago, tenor saxophone player Sandy Mosse, to form a quintette. They recorded and played together quite a bit during this period before going their separate ways. Cy continued to play in and around Chicago, much in demand as both a trombonist and a bass trumpeter, while Sandy went on the road during the 1960's with Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich, before moving to Amsterdam in the 1970's.

In 1981 Sandy came back to Chicago for a visit and Cy set up a recording session for them at Universal Recording Studios. Cy arranged for them to be accompanied by three younger musicians who were just beginning to make names for themselves; John Campbell on piano, Kelly Sill on bass, and Jerry Coleman on drums. It turned out to be the last recording that Sandy and Cy would make together as Sandy Mosse died less then a year later. Now, twenty-seven years later, the seven tracks laid down during that session, comprising over an hour of music, are being released under the title Tickle Toe by Delmark Records.

The tracks on Tickle Toe are a fair sampling of modern Jazz with works by composers as diverse as Ira & George Gershwin, ("The Man I Love"), and Lester Young (the title track "Tickle Toe"). The session was more than just a sentimental reunion with two old friends trying to recapture some of their former glory as you can tell by listening that both men obviously put their heart and soul into every note that they played while in the studio. The three younger men obviously responded to the level of commitment set by Mosse and Touff as their playing is equally intense even though they were primarily providing support for the two leads.

I was intrigued as to what a bass trumpet would sound like, and how it would be used working in tandem with the more familiar tenor saxophone. If you can imagine a trumpet that sounds like a trombone, you'll be on the right track, yet unlike other bass instruments which are primarily concerned with beat and rhythm, the bass trumpet, like its counterparts in the higher ranges, plays leads. Thus on this recording there is the rather unique occurrence of two lead instruments playing at opposite ends of the scale; providing compliment and contrast simultaneously.

Having this range available between the two lead instruments made for expanded roles for all the instruments in this recording session, with the bass especially being more involved in arrangements than I'm accustomed to hearing in most combos. This is particularly noticeable on the second track, "Centrepiece", where Kelly Sill's bass comes to the forefront for a lead. A lot of the time when the bass or drums play leads, they feel somewhat out of place, as if they've been grafted on as an afterthought. That's not the case in this song, or any of the other songs where you hear it being played, as the way has been prepared for its appearance by the presence of a lead instrument of a similar tonal quality.

So far I've talked mainly about the novelty of the disc, yet what's equally important is the fact that the familiar is done so well. The Jazz played by Cy Touff and Sandy Mosse is the style that the majority of people think of when Jazz is mentioned. While some people dismiss it because it isn't as ornate as John Coletrane's work, as free form as the work of the avant-garde, or as funky as the fusion boys, when performed by players of this quality, it's as exciting as any other form of Jazz.

Sandy Mosse has a wonderful feel for the music that he's playing so that it's remarkably easy to get caught up in the songs. It's the type of thing where you'll be listening and without realizing it you'll find your foot tapping and your head nodding along to the music. This is the music that gave the saxophone its sexy reputation. There is a sultry elegance to some of Mosse's playing that evokes romantic scenes of late nights listening to music by candle light or cafes on the Left Bank of Paris.

Jazz is many things to many people, but the one thing it never should be is boring or ordinary. In the hands of Cy Touff and Sandy Mosse the music on Tickle Toe is as exciting and vibrant as anybody could want. With the additional attraction of being offered the opportunity to hear an instrument as rarely employed as the bass trumpet, and the wonderful added dimension that it brings to the music, Tickle Toe will be a welcome addition to anybody's music library.

June 29, 2008

Music Review: Corey Wilkes Drop It

For the last couple of years I've been receiving regular shipments of music from the Chicago based Jazz and Blues label Delmark Records. Practically every month an envelope shows up in the mail containing the past, present, and future of music from the city which is arguably the crucible of American Jazz and Urban Blues. I can usually count on a couple of CDs of re-mastered recordings of older Jazz styles, a live recording of a recent Blues gig in Chicago (DVD and CD), and a contemporary Jazz recording.

I have to admit that initially listening to Jazz was like listening to a foreign language. While some of the earlier recordings were relatively straight forward and deciphering their syntax didn't take very long, recordings from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago era and latter were a different story. Nothing I had ever listened to prepared me for that experience, in fact I found that in order to properly appreciate it I needed to let go of all my preconceptions of what constituted music. Like abstract painters the majority of these men and women were less concerned with form than they were with intent when it came to the creation of their pieces.

That's not to say there is no structure to this work, it's merely a structure that I wasn't familiar with. After a while of listening and not understanding, gradually I began to hear with new ears and comprehend what was happening with the music. Understanding has led to appreciation, not only for the avant-garde, but for all Jazz. So when I listen to something like Corey Wilkes' latest release on Delmark, Drop It, I'm able to appreciate nuances in his music that I might have previously missed.
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You see Corey Wilkes has looked at Jazz music, all of Jazz music, and found bits and pieces that he likes from various eras throughout the twentieth century and blended them together. Not being content with limiting himself to Jazz, he's also looked around at the other African American music and decided that it's all part of Jazz. Listen to some of the cuts on Drop It and you're going to hear a funk base line sneaking under his trumpet solo in one song, some seriously tribal drums shaking the foundations of another song, and some mean trumpet and flugelhorn playing.

Now I have to admit that I have a hard time with the way some people play trumpet. They play it like rock guitar heroes play electric leads: fast, high pitched, and furious to the point where it becomes just so much noise pollution. That's not the case with Corey Wilkes as he's more than just an excellent trumpet player, he's also a band leader and composer. Of the eleven songs on Drop It Corey has written nine, and each one demonstrates the depth of the rapport he has with the music.

"Trumpet Player", the opening track on the disc, is a piece with lyrics by the great African-American writer Langston Hughes. Its actually a spoken word piece with Miyanda Wilson speaking Hughes' words over top of Wilkes' music. In part an ode to an unknown trumpet player, "Trumpet Player" is also a history of the African-American experience in North America. While the words are a powerful element in their own right, the music that Wilkes has composed to accompany them are the extra ingredient that brings them alive for the listener by underscoring the emotions that run through them. So muted that at times it's almost impossible to hear, the music is an electrical current coursing through the lyric, illuminating and highlighting each event recounted by Ms. Wilson's recitation.

"Trumpet Player" stands in contrast to the other vocal piece on the disc, "Funkier than a Mosquita's Tweeter" by Ailene Bullock. This is a rambunctious funk/jazz fusion piece which takes on the attitudes of men who pretend to be free so they can take advantage of women. As the lyrics challenge men who extoll the virtues of free love so they can get into a woman's pants, the music echoes the scorn Dee Alexander, the vocalist has for the man's hypocrisy. Here Corey's trumpet playing is shrill and harsh, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense and sounds exactly right.

While none of the other songs have lyrics to act as a guide through the music, Corey Wilkes' compositions and arrangements are such that we can find our own way through the pieces. His trumpet, or flugelhorn, is our guide, as Pied Piper of Bremen like he leads us through the various landscapes of his musical creations. Like the stirring resonance of a bugle sounding the charge or the gentle breath of wind through leaves, the sounds he generates are able to stir and calm our emotions. Yet no matter how he plays; soft, loud, fast, or slow, he holds our attention with the intricacies of his playing. Even when he is playing loud and shrill, he introduces cadences or phrasings that prevent the sound from becoming tedious or atonal.

As with any recording I can't help but have a favourite cut on this disc, and in this case the live version of the title song "Drop It" takes that honour. For sheer exuberance I don't know if I've ever had as much fun listening to a Jazz tune. I don't seem to be alone in that sentiment, because Corey and his band have sure swept the crowd listening off their feet, as they are whooping and hollering with pleasure and excitement. You also get to hear Corey really cut loose on his horns during this track, and I don't think I've ever heard a freer, or more joyful sound, than the music he generates during his solos. His playing on this track is as much a celebration of being alive, as any Gospel track you'll hear is a celebration of the Lord.

Jazz music might sometimes sound like a language you don't understand, and perhaps you still won't understand the entire vocabulary, I know I don't, but as long as the're musicians like Corey Wilkes out there playing, you should have no problem understanding enough of what's being said to have a truly uplifting experience. Corey Wilkes' CD Drop It is one of the most exciting and exhilarating recordings, in any style or genre, that I've heard in years. Do yourself a favour and buy a ticket on the ride that he's offering, you won't regret it.

June 13, 2008

Music Review: Omara Portunondo Lagrimas Negra: Canciones y Boleros

Anyone who watched the documentary or listened to the CD of The Buena Vista Social Club will have noticed a significant absence of women among the featured performers. One who was in attendance, and stood out because of it, was Omara Portuondo. Like the rest of the participants in these recordings Ms. Portuondo was a veteran of Havana's night club scene, and had sung with all the famous bands and orchestras that had played throughout the years.

Although she was brought out to share the spotlight for a duet with Ibrahim Ferrer, she was overshadowed by the men and relegated to a supporting role for most of the proceedings. Yet unlike most of the men her career had continued unabated from when she started as a young woman in the 1940s. Initially she had started as a dancer, but her real love was singing, and when she won a radio song contest she was able to parlay it into her first professional job.

Still in spite of her popularity throughout the Latin Americas, including Mexico, aside from her appearances with the Buena Vista Social Club she has remained a relative unknown to Anglo audiences in North America. Part of that has to be laid at the feet of the American embargo that prevents any interaction between the United States and Cuba, but part of it is the gulf that has always separated Spanish performers from English audiences. While in some metropolitan centres, like New York City, there is bound to be an audience for the other language's music, you're not going to see Omara's music walking off the shelves in Omaha.
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Fortunately for those who want to hear the music of Omara Portuondo, companies like MVD Audio are distributing recordings that were originally released some time ago. Lagrimas Negras: Canciones y Boleros (The Black Tears: Songs and Dances) was originally released in 2005, and is made up of two discs of her music. Disc one is from recordings she did in the late 90's with other alumni of the Buena Vista Social Club recording sessions, while disc two is a collection of recordings with various bands and orchestras that she made between 1967 and 1985. While the title of the recording suggest that there would be an even mix between the Boleros and Canciones, in actual fact all of disc one is composed of the dance oriented tunes, while disc two is an even split between the two.

The differences between the two types of music are significant enough to make the fact that the boleros outnumber the canciones a contributing factor in the listener's enjoyment depending on which type of song they enjoy more. My tastes run more towards the less orchestrated and more singer oriented canciones, so I was somewhat disappointed by the predominance of the boleros. That's not to say there is anything particularly wrong with the boleros, or the way they are performed, it's just they sound far too much like the slickly orchestrated numbers that I associate with Hollywood versions of Latin night club music from a 1940's movie.

So while the music is well played, and the singing is highly polished, the final result is something a little too slick for my tastes. It's like they have concentrated on making them as palatable as possible for an Anglo audience and removed any of the rough edges that would have it given it any genuine emotional punch. While it's not as noticeable when you listen to the first disc, as there's nothing to compare them to, I still felt as though there was something lacking in their delivery.

It was only when Omara Portunondo lets loose on some of the canciones on the second side that I was able to understand what it was that I had felt was missing from the material on the first disc. Instead of the slick and polished arrangements, and smooth as silk vocals that marked the boleros, the canciones are musically simpler and vocally rougher. This gives them a much stronger emotional impact, and to my ear, makes them more enjoyable to listen to.

Listening to the two different styles of music on this collection of music you would almost think there are two different vocalists performing. On the boleros Omara sounds as slick and polished as any Las Vegas night club singer. Her phrasing is perfect and she hits every note yet there is no emotional commitment in her voice. Not being able to speak Spanish I don't understand what she is singing about, but from the tone of her voice it might as well be about the weather as anything else.

She's a completely different singer on the canciones, as she allows the passion of the music to infuse her voice. On these songs you at least have some indication of what she's feeling, even if you don't understand the lyrics that she's singing. Even better is the fact that there is passion in her voice as she allows herself to be swept up by the music and the intent of the song. I don't know why there's the difference between the two types of music, but I do know which of them I prefer, and which version of Omara Portunondo I like best.

There is no denying the talent of any of the people involved with the project, or the quality of the production. Omara Portunondo herself is a wonderful vocalist with an impressive range and the potential to have a highly expressive voice. It's unfortunate that the majority of the songs on Lagrimas Negras: Canciones y Bloeros don't give her the opportunity to show off her voice to its finest.

June 6, 2008

CD Review: Yusa Haiku

Ever since Ry Cooder broke the rules and went to Cuba to record the first Buena Vista Social Club disc, (he ended up having to pay some sort of astronomical fine as a result of that first visit and only was able to return for his second go round because the last official act Bill Clinton did as President was to sign a special permit giving him exemption from the embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States), there has been a resurgence of interest in that country's music. While the music that Cooder and company recorded, and the subsequent tours that those recordings spawned, were undeniably of the highest quality, there have been quite a few releases since that have looked to merely cash in on that success without seeming to care about the quality.

Historically Cuba was the gateway for ships crossing the Atlantic coming to the Caribbean. Originally a Spanish colony, the island country saw its fair share of slaves deposited on her shores. It doesn't require a great deal of imagination to see how what we know today as the Afro/Cuban sound developed out of that history. Contact with both South and North America in the first half of the twentieth century continued the evolution of the sound that is now so familiar to our ears.

While the Afro/Cuban big band sound has attracted all the attention, other performers do exist and have continued to evolution of the Cuban sound by drawing upon much the same influences as young musicians the world over, while holding on to their original foundation. One of the effects of the American embargo on Cuba is to have created the impression that there has been no new music developed on the island since the hey-day of the ladies and gentlemen of The Buena Vista Social Club.
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Nothing could be further from the truth of course, and as Cuban musicians begin to circumvent the embargo by signing with labels outside of their own county American audiences are going to realize that there's more to Cuban music than they first thought. One of the rising stars of the new music scene is Yusa, and with the release of her latest disc on June 10th/08, Haiku, on Britain's Tumi label, the world should begin to notice the new direction Cuban music is taking.

In the liner notes of the disc, Yusa quotes Mexican poet Octavia Paz's definition of a haiku as "a poetic experience re-created as lived poetry". For Yusa that means singing about the intimate details of life, which could be anything from the swaying of the sea to a friend's dream. To sing about that type of subject matter requires a more personal style of music than the brash and romantic sounds of the Buena Vista generation. Yet, even though her arrangements are far less complex, there is no denying that her music bears the stamp of the same Afro/Cuban heritage.

Yusa is another one of those multi-talented woman who are able to not only play a multitude of instruments, but writes all of her own music as well. Part of that is a reflection of her extensive musical education that started in grade school and continued with studies at a conservatory of music, but it's also an extension of the passion that she brings to her work. She sees the poetry in life around her, and that compels the creation of her music.

The songs on Haiku range from solo efforts where she accompanies herself on keyboards, bass, and tres guitar, to those with a full complement of musicians including a horn section and a variety of percussion instruments. Interestingly enough, even those tracks with multiple performers appearing on the disc maintain, the atmosphere of intimacy. Instead of what happens so often with other performers, where the accompaniment becomes the focus of the songs, here they have managed to ensure that her voice is always our point of focus,

The majority of the song lyrics on Haiku are in Spanish, and although translations are provided for each song, it still feels like you're missing out on the subtleties that the songs might contain. Yet, by listening to the music and the expression in Yusa's voice while reading the translation, you are able to get a fairly good understanding of her intent each song.

The one song whose lyrics are in English, "Walking Heads" gives you a very good idea of what Yusa means by saying her lyrics reflect her inner world and the music the world around her. This song features a full band and the music captures the gentle sounds of the city around her, while she puzzles out thoughts about love. "There's no answers in the room/Just walking heads" brings to mind the way people can worry a thought or concern to death and not come up with any answers. Just pacing back and forth with your head full of thoughts that don't make an iota of difference to anybody - least of all you.

For those of you who still only think of Cuban music as being performed by the Buena Vista Social Club, or others of that generation, Haiku by Yusa will be a revelation. Not only is she a wonderful singer with a range that allows her to be as expressive as she needs, she has a wonderful ear for how song and lyric work together to create a mood. If Yusa is one of the new faces of Cuban music, than we can only hope that more of the new music finds its way to North America. Yet another good argument for ending a silly embargo.

May 10, 2008

Music Review: Various Performers Miles...From India

There's a difference between using the sound of another's culture's instrument in your music because you think its cool, and those same instruments being used as equal partners in the creative process that brings a piece of music to life. In the first instance you usually end up ignoring the structure of the music that the instrument was designed to play and using it like you would any other instrument at your disposal. In the second instance it is played as its meant to be played - drawing upon the traditions that govern the instruments usage.

In the case of Western popular music and its relationship with the instruments of Indian Classical music, the sitar and tablas predominately, it was more often than not the first instance, with the sitar being used more like a "neat" sounding guitar than anything else. The time signatures and structure of Indian Classical music precluded pop musicians from doing more as the differences between the two were seemingly insurmountable. It wasn't until musicians like Harry Manx took the trouble to properly study Indian music - a minimum of a twelve year commitment - that the two have began to be blended successfully.

On the other hand, Western Jazz music has had more of a successful history when it comes to the incorporation of Indian instruments. With it's openness to experimentation in time signatures, and musician's improvisation skills, there have been successful attempts at integrating the two styles of music for some time now. Notable examples of this were John Mclaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra's first releaseThe Inner Mounting Flame in 1971. Subsequent McLaughlin releases, Shakti in 1975 and Remember Shakti in 1999 only confirmed his abilities when it came to fusing the two styles of music.
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McLaughlin was the obvious choice therefore to create an original work for a unique collaborative project between American Jazz and Indian Classical musicians honouring the music of Miles Davis; Miles... From India, released on Times Square Records. Where else were the producers going to find someone who not only played with Miles at one time (1969 - 72) but also had his history of experience with Indian music? "Miles...From India", the title track of this new two disc set, is a perfect example of what the producers hoped to create with this release in that it brings together the two traditions to create a unique work inspired by the music of Miles Davis.

In 1972 Miles Davis incorporated tablas and sitar in his recording On The Corner, and its the music from that release that inspired this music. Co-producers Bob Belden and Yusef Gandhi came up with the idea of revisiting Miles' Indian influenced music, (his 1972 recording On The Corner included tablas and sitar), utilizing both musicians who had appeared in the original sessions and Indian Classical musicians. The began by having the musicians in India record their parts for each song, and then took these tracks back to the States where the American Jazz musicians were asked to improvise to them. None of the American musicians were allowed to listen to the music prior to the time they actually sat down in the studio to record, ensuring that they were only able to react to what they heard and not pre-plan anything.

As far as I can tell the purpose of this was to ensure that they wouldn't be influenced by any preconceived notions they might have had about the music based on their own experiences with the original compositions. The result of their only being able to react to what the Indian musicians created was not only the creation of almost completely new pieces of music, but an almost perfect fusion of the two styles of music.

While its difficult for me to pick out specifics to cite as examples, experiencing the music as a whole is overwhelming and it was far too easy to just let myself drift with the sounds and rhythms generated by the musicians, a couple of moments stand out in particular. Vocalist Shankar Mahadevan is one of India's most popular singers and his voice is used in numerous Bollywood productions. On Miles...From India he uses his voice like an instrument so that on "Blue In Green" and "Spanish Green" he "sings" the melody of the tunes.

Most of the time Jazz vocalizations, scat, are staccato exhalations of sound that accentuate the rhythm more than the melody. That's not the case with Shankar's work on these songs, instead he has taken the role of a horn or other lead instrument and recreated their parts with his voice. The result is that both songs have a warmth and emotional depth that can only be achieved via a human voice. Shankar Mahadevan's range and breath control are such that he is able to bring the same sort of expression to his "solos" as that of a horn player, which in turn allows American Wallace Roney's trumpet an opportunity to create beautiful counterpoints and harmonies.

It's only when you hear the Carnatic Violin played that you realize the differences between it and the violin those of us in the West are used to hearing. There's something about the quality of its sound that makes it seem somewhat unearthly. On "It's About That Time" Kala Ramnath's playing caught my ear right from the start and it was the main thread that I followed throughout the whole piece. Even when it was mixed into the background for another's solo, its flavour could still be heard in how it coloured what the other musicians were creating.

In the past I've never been fond of Jazz violin, it always seemed to lack a certain fullness of sound and felt scratchy and weak when compared to the horns or woodwinds. Perhaps it's the way its been recorded in the past, or the way other musicians have related to it, but whatever the reason I've always thought it sounded out of place. Kala Ramnath's Carnatic Violin on the other hand felt like it was perfect instrument for "It's About That Time". Not only did it sound wonderful on its own, but it worked beautifully in tandem with the other players.

Miles...From India is a remarkable collection of music featuring some of the best musicians of contemporary American Jazz, Indian Jazz, and Classical Indian music coming together to honour one of the most brilliant composers of our time. Miles Davis not only created remarkable music on his own, but he provided the inspiration for some of modern Jazz's best and most creative minds. Everybody from Wayne Shorter to Chick Corea and John McLaughlin played with and were influenced by Miles and his innovations. While some of them might have pushed the envelope of fusion much further then he did, he was the one who put their feet on that path.

It is only fitting, therefore, that a collection of music in his honour is such a bold attempt at fusing two such disparate types of music. The fact that it is so successful is surely a testimony to his genius as a composer. Miles...From India is not just an example of how to properly bring East and West together musically, it is as magnificent collection of Jazz music that you are liable to find anywhere these days.

April 23, 2008

Music Review: Wally Rose Whippin' The Keys

I think it 1973 when Paul Newman and Robert Redford released their second buddy movie, (the first being Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid), The Sting. Set in the depression of the 1920's, one of the things the movie was noted for was it's period soundtrack featuring the music of Scot Joplin. Joplin was notable for being the person who originally popularized Ragtime at the beginning of the twentieth century, and his song "The Entertainer", taken from the movie's soundtrack, became a hit close fifty years after it was written.

Although, like everyone else at the time I was infatuated with the song, I've never been much of a fan of ragtime since. Most of the performances of it that I've heard have been frankly boring, because of the seemingly endless repetition of the same theme. So I was interested to read something that traditional Jazz pianist Wally Rose had to say about why ragtime originally died out. According to him it was because it was too demanding for the pianist who didn't have classical training. "It requires a rugged touch" he's quoted as saying. "like Beethoven's".

Now what I found most interesting about that comment was I read it after I had listened to Delmark Record's new release Whippin' The Keys, a compilation of two Wally Rose's recordings from the old Blackbird label. The original Whippin' The Keys recorded in 1971 and Rose On The Piano recorded in 1968. The very first thing I had noticed when listening to the first track, "Whippin' The Keys", was how untypical it was of any ragtime playing I had heard before.
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There was something about his playing that made me immediately think, here's a man with at the least a classical music education. There was a body and texture to his piano playing that only comes from having to play the more complicated arrangements and subtleties I've come to associate with classical compositions. As I listened to the songs on the disc I realized he was approaching the music more as a pianist would approach playing variations on a theme, instead of merely repeating the same melody like so many are wont to do with ragtime.

As a point of reference; one of the most famous variations on a theme is the song most of us know as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Written by Mozart, the performer begins by playing the tune we are all familiar with and as the piece progresses plays variations on the melody that become increasingly complex. While the ragtime pieces on Whippin' The Keys don't have the same potential for variations as Mozart's children's rhyme, Wally Rose is able to take their basic melodies and expand them in ways that I've never heard from anyone else.

On his version of "Cannonball Rag" by Joseph Northrup not only does he come up with an elaborate introduction, at various points throughout the piece he adds fills with both his right (melody) and left (rhythm) hands that add texture and depth to the tune. It's also quite amazing what he is able to accomplish simply with volume. Whether it's repeating the same phrase with just a minor reduction in volume or a slight increase, it makes a world of difference when it comes to breaking up what would otherwise have been tedious repetition.

One of the other pieces of ragtime that I was most familiar prior to listening to this disc was "Elite Syncopations" by Joplin. Just after The Sting was in the theatres, The National Ballet of Canada deviated from their predominately classical repertoire of the time to perform a work based on the music of Joplin and his contemporaries that took its title from the song.
With "Elite Syncopations" providing the basis the orchestra played a medley of orchestrated arrangements of Ragtime variations, that would return on a regular basis to the signature tune.

What I remembered being impressed by most, (aside from the crush I had on the prima ballerina at the time, a href="http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0004210">Karen Kain, and the fact that once she finished dancing she sat two rows behind me and I don't remember any of the dances that came after) was the way the music had been elaborated on sufficiently to allow the choreography to be more than just music hall dance steps that you would find in a Hollywood movie.

Now obviously only having a piano at his disposal Mr. Rose wasn't quite able to come up with anything so elaborate. Anyway, he was still recording albums of Ragtime, not adaptations, and was only interested in playing the pieces to their fullest potential. The version of "Elite Syncopations" that he recorded in 1968 sounded like it could have been the piece that the arranger for the ballet had used as his, or her, starting point. Rose took this song, and the rest of the material on the disc, as far as they could go without actually re-writing the music. It was like he was able to take each phrase in the song and bring it to its full potential musically; finding and playing all the nuances possible while still maintaining the integrity of the original composition.

Ragtime was music composed to be played over the noise of a crowd in the honky-tonks, whore houses, and taverns of the early twentieth century in the days before there was amplification. It was full of loud notes and easy refrains that could muscle their way through almost any competing sound. What was appropriate for that atmosphere is not exactly music designed for listening to while sitting around at home.

Wally Rose's Classical music training and performance experience allowed him to take the songs of people like Scott Joplin and elaborate their sparse frameworks to give them a life outside of being merely background noise. Whippin' The Keys is a great example of just how accomplished a musician Rose was, and how successful he was in adapting Ragtime music for a contemporary audience.

April 20, 2008

Music Review: Jason Ajemian The Art Of Dying

Artists in all fields of expression have one basic thing in common; what they are attempting to do. All artists spend their days either looking for the inspiration that will give them the vision for their next project, or desperately trying to actualize that vision so that it can be appreciated by others. Where it can get especially tricky is if you're trying to realize a concept that can't just be spelled out.

Abstractions are difficult to communicate even with a media where you use a language that an audience is familiar with. Yet the difficulties involved in writing about a subject pale in comparison to those faced by those working in the more transitory arts like music. Someone listening to a piece of music doesn't have the luxury of being able to read a sentence over and over again until they comprehend it. Instead a composer's audience is dependant on his or her abilities to communicate via their ability to make their music understood on an emotional level.

Like the abstract painter who uses shapes and colours in an attempt to stimulate a reaction in his or her audience, the composer uses sounds and their arrangement for the same purpose. Compounding their difficulties is the subjective nature of music. Unless you are willing as a composer to be blatantly obvious, most pieces of instrumental music are wide open to interpretation making it very difficult to communicate, even imprecisely, what you were trying to say.
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Jazz musicians have been working together in improvisational collectives since the 1960's, and the listening public has grown used to the idea of them creating pieces based on a single phrase of music or an idea. This does not meant the ensemble is necessarily creating a piece of music anew each time them play it, because the basic structure has been developed through rehearsal, but individual solos might change from performance to performance. The same holds true whether a band is in the studio recording, or in front of a live audience.

Bass player/composer Jason Ajemian had been playing improvisational gigs with percussionist Nori Tanaka and saxophonist Tim Haldeman for some time before they decided to enter the studio. It was only when Nori's visa allowing her to stay in the United States was about to expire that they decided to create a record of the work they had been attempting. The Art Of Dying, on Delmark Records, is a distillation of the past four years of their experimentation.

Time is of vital importance in music of course, and according to his liner notes for The Art Of Dying it's time and the way we use it as a society that Jason and his fellow musicians have been exploring. If timing is everything in comedy, what is it in music? Of course there is the basic notion of keeping time, where in you maintain a steady beat, but maybe even more importantly, there is what you do with the time at your disposal. You can fill it with numerous notes in the hopes of hitting the right one, or you can find the right one to start with and sustain it long enough for people to hear what it is you want to say.

What Ajemian and his fellow musicians have been exploring sounds a lot like meditation in certain ways, as they have been attempting to develop a style of playing which allows them to sustain moments sufficiently that they are able to explore all the emotional possibilities available to them. Whether pain. joy, grief, or love, society, according to Jason, doesn't normally allow us the time to see the beauty in what moves slowly We aren't encouraged to plumb the depths of an emotion and experience them to their fullest.

The expression, being in the moment, which means existing completely in the present; not thinking about what just happened or about what is just about to happen; could well have been coined to help describe what Jason and his band mates are attempting. What they have tried to do with their music is create the circumstances where the listener can appreciate moments to their fullest.

Talk about your abstract concepts that are highly subjective! Obviously I can't speak for others about what emotions the music made them feel, yet I can't help but feel like they are on the right path with what they have created on The Art Of Dying. The first song of the disc "With Or Without The Universalator (Birdie's Dream)" (The Universalator is a machine that creates a drone like effect) was written by Matt Schneider who plays guitar on the disc, in response to being asked if a song should be played, with or without The Universalator.

What he did was write a song that allows a band to emulate the drone sound created by the Universalator with what ever instruments they have at their disposal. The drone like effect made with the full band extends each moment of music far longer then most of us are used to hearing and allows us to go deeper into the moment. What emotional chord that the moment strikes I think has been deliberately left in the listener's hands by the band. It's not important what you feel, what's important is that you feel, seems to be their credo on this attempt.

The next thirteen tracks on the disc are all variations on playing with what can be accomplished with short moments of sound. Tracks range in length from thirteen seconds to five minutes and have titles like "Ludicrous Dreams And Solar Guided Lovehandles", "Miss O" and "The" that don't suggest a particular feeling one way or another. They all take up moments in time, and those moments have been given titles that don't suggest anything in particular, allowing the listener to take from each track what they will.

The final track on the disc, "Smokeless Heat" is a live recording and checks in at nearly twenty-four minutes and is the penultimate attempt by the composer and the performers to create a piece of music that allows the audience to appreciate something that develops slowly and over a period of time. I found that while I didn't feel anything in particular, that it caused my mind to wander down a variety of emotional paths, as various moments stirred reactions within me.

Yet I wonder at how effectively they would be able to communicate with people who are not used to, or willing to, take the time to listen to something which unfolds this slowly. There is beauty is each moment of the song for those who are willing to spend the time allowing it to affect them, but those used to being spoon fed emotions and told how to think and feel by popular culture are not going to be interested.

The Art Of Dying is an exploration of how time can be used in music to help increase the depth of feeling expressed by the performer and experienced by the listener. While the musicians are most definitely committed to this project and have done some exemplary work, the problem is whether or not there is an audience who is willing to listen beyond those who are already interested in this type of music. If a person would be willing to take the time and put the effort into listening they would get something from it, but how many people are there willing to do that anymore?

The Art Of Dying is beautiful and evocative music that challenges our perceptions of time and what is needed to create an emotional response. If you are willing to take the time to listen you will be deeply rewarded.

April 16, 2008

Music DVD Review: Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, & Autour Du Blues The Paris Concert

Quick: what places do you associate most with the Blues? Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, and most of the state of Mississippi are I'm guessing what most of you would answer. Historically those would be fine, and I'm sure they're still hotbeds of Blues today; but more and more the Blues are making a home for itself in Europe. Labels like Germany's Ruf Records boasts a roster of Blues musicians that include the likes of Jimmy Vaughn, Omar and The Howlers, the late Jeff Healy, and Sue Folly from North America plus European young guns from England and the continent.

Jazz and Blues music have been popular in Europe since the 1920s when African American musicians first started coming to Paris to play to escape the oppressiveness of American racism. In the years after World War Two Blues musicians were touring Europe on a regular basis either independently, or in the late fifties and early sixties as part of the American Folk and Blues tours that saw performwes play concerts across Europe and England. It was those tours of the early sixties when young British musicians like Eric Burden, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton had their first chances to share stages with the men whose records had inspired them to pick up guitars and start singing in the first place.

While the Blues in North America has only ever had minimal mainstream success, Europe has not only welcomed North American performers wanting to rejuvenate careers with open arms, a thriving domestic scene has developed as well. From Finland to the former Yugoslavia Blues players and performers have been popping up all over the continent. Just how well established the Blues are becomes clear when you watch a DVD like Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, & Autour Du Blues Paris Concert that's being made available by MVD Entertainment
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While guitarists Larry Carlton and Robben Ford are familiar to audiences in North America, the same can't be said for the men and one woman who accompanied them on stage that night at the New Morning night club in Paris. The five guitar players, two keyboardist, harmonica player, bass player and vocalist who made up Autour Du Blues for that night's concert were an all star collection of players from France. While both Carlton and Ford are world renowned players and carry heavyweight reputations onto stage with them, it was soon obvious that the locals didn't look out of place on the same stage.

While Francis Cabrel (guitar), Denys Lable (guitar), Michael Jones (guitar), Patrick Verbeke(guitar), Claude Engel (guitar), Slim Batteux (keyboard), Gerard Bikualo (keyboard), Claude Salmieri (drums), Bernard Paganotti (bass), Pascal Mikaelian (harmonica), and Beverly Jo Scott (vocals) may never obtain the status of their famous guests, they show they're every bit as talented and passionate about the Blues as any group of players from North America. This concert was the culmination of a week's worth of festivities celebrating New Morning's twenty-fifth anniversary in 2006 and the result is a hundred minute plus concert of great Blues music, being played for the sheer fun of playing.

When you get as many as seven guitar players on stage at once it can get awfully crowded and the chances of it turning into a pissing contest seems to be good. Yet, somehow these folk have been able to leave that sort of shit behind and nobody tries to "outgun" anybody when they play. Of course you hardly ever get all seven on stage at once, but there's at least always three guitars up. While one player ( I believe it was Claude Engel, but I'm not sure as it's hard to tell from the photos in the liner notes who is who) was content to handle the majority of the rhythm guitar duties for the night, and occasionally playing a mean slide, everybody else soloed at least once while on stage.

My biggest complaint about so many Blues based guitar solos is how many guys just seem to live to bend the really high notes and forget about the rest of the frets. So, I was really impressed by the fact that no matter who from among Autour Du Blues turn it was to solo, they would make use of the guitar's entire neck. They put on an absolute clinic on how to get the most out of your guitar during a solo; instead of worrying about speed, and playing more notes then the human ear can possibly hear, these guys showed how great it sounds when you linger over a note.

The two keyboard players, Gerard who played electric piano and Slim on organ, made sure that it didn't turn into just a guitar festival, by being every bit as good as their companions. Gerard's piano playing was especially good, as he ran off a couple of really nicely played solos. Slim also handled a lot of the vocal duties, and showed himself to have a really good voice for the Blues. The only real disappointment of the evening was the vocalist Beverly Jo Scott, who just didn't have the breath support to give her singing the strength that is required for singing the Blues.

The stars of the evening were of course Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. While the gathering didn't really lend itself to either of them really taking off while they were playing with the full band, there is a nice added bonus to the disc of an extra cut featuring just the two of them. It's here you get to see them really shine by doing what they are both famous for. Carlton's playing shows his Jazz influences with a fluidity and elegance that you don't normally associate with Blues guitar. Yet, he also has enough grit that it stilled retained the earthiness needed for it to have the emotional depth that Blues has as compared to Jazz playing.

Robben is a different story as he is a pure Blues guitar player. What really impressed me about him was his ability to use rhythm in his leads to give them body and way more texture than I've heard from most Blues guitarists. Like the guys in Autour Du Blues he's another exponent of the less is more theory of leads, and was able to wring some great sounds out his guitar during his solo.

I've seen a couple of other concerts recorded at the New Morning, and like those both the camera work and the sound on this DVD are wonderful. There is great footage of each man's solos and some wonderful shots where you see the interplay between the guys on stage as they are working things out on the fly. As for the DVD itself, it says on the cover it was recorded for HD television originally, but I had no problems playing it through my DVD ROM and a non HD monitor. With widescreen presentation and DTS and Dolby 5.1 surround sound it can be played on any modern system and you'll get great quality audio and video.

The Paris Concert recorded at the New Morning night club featuring Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, and the all star band of French Blues musicians, Autour Du Blues, is a great DVD of wonderfully played Blues music. This DVD will put to rest any doubts you might have had of the universal nature of the Blues. The man sure was right: Everybody really does get the Blues!

February 28, 2008

Music Review: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette Setting Standards: The New York Sessions

For some reason or another there have never been many keyboard players who have captured my imagination. The only explanation that I can come up with is having come of age in the seventies I was subjected to so much over the top keyboard playing by the likes of Emerson Lake & Palmer that the only associations I had with the instrument was melodramatic histrionics. Stuff like that can scar you for life and it took me a while before I could even be persuaded to sit down and listen to anything played on piano.

The first pianist that broke through the walls I had built up was the late, great Glenn Gould. In all honesty I have to say that it was hearing about his eccentricities of character that attracted my attention before his actual playing. The piano stool so low that the keys were almost at eye level when he played and his habit of humming under his breath - out of key and off beat - made him sound so completely different from the ham fisted fellows of progressive rock, I was intrigued enough to seek out his recordings and give them a listen.

Once I realized that pianos when played by a person with sensitivity and intelligence could produce beautiful music I was less resistant to offers of listening to piano music. Which is how I found Keith Jarrett. A friend had a recording of The Koln Concert, a solo performance Jarrett had given in the mid-seventies at the Opera House in Koln Germany. What sticks in my mind even today is how he was able to do so much with what seemed so little. Each note was played with such intensity of purpose that it almost felt like I was intruding upon someone's private meditation instead of listening to a recording of a live concert.
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Needless to say this left an indelible impression on me, one that I have never really ever been able to shake. When I thought of Keith Jarrett, heard his name mentioned or saw it in print, the image that would come to mind was what I could remember of that record album's cover. A black grand piano standing in stark contrast to a blinding white background and the figure of a man sitting with his fingers poised over the keyboard; forever frozen in time awaiting the perfect moment to strike just the right note.

But time doesn't freeze like the photos on album covers or memories, and artists of Keith Jarrett's calibre don't stand still or endlessly repeat the same moments. Eight years after that 1975 concert found Keith Jarrett performing as part of a trio composed of Gary Peacock on double-bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums recording a collection of what are, sometimes dismissively, known as "Standards". The strange thing about this term is that it can apply to so many different styles and types of songs. While ostensibly referring to popular music songs that pre-date the rock and roll era that are performed by Las Vegas style lounge acts, anything from Broadway tunes to songs by Stephen Foster have been included under this designation.

The idea that Keith Jarrett would release a collection of music that someone like Wayne Newton or Tom Jones might sing sounded as ridiculous as telling me the Clash had released a collection of Osmond Brothers covers or the collected works of Celine Dion. Yet if John Coltrane was able to take one of the biggest pieces of schmaltz ever written, "My Favourite Things", and turn it into such a tour de force, that it became almost his signature tune, why shouldn't musicians of Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette's calibre do the same?

In commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of these original recordings ECM Records has released the three disc box set Setting Standards: New York Sessions that brings together all the material the trio recorded during those first sessions in 1983. While the ensuing years have seen them make other recordings of similar material, including a live recording in 2001, My Foolish Heart: Live At Montreux, and they still perform together to this day, it was these initial sessions that set the standard for what they were attempting to accomplish with their new renditions of classic pop tunes.

In the exhaustive essay written by Peter Ruedi for the booklet that accompanies the box set, he asks us to picture a Keith Jarrett who is worried that he is somehow becoming bigger then the music he performs, and feels the need to show people "that music arises from music, from ideas, from material that doesn't necessarily belong to anyone." In choosing to mine the popular standards songbook for material he has selected music that belongs to everybody because of collective familiarity with the tunes, or the associations that the songs might have for individuals.

For two discs, "Standards Volume one" and "Standards Volume two", Jarrett, Peacock, and Dejohnette take us on a journey through music that we might have thought we knew intimately, or at the least were familiar with, and show us the infinite possibilities inherent in any piece of music. Funnily enough it was here for the first time that I discovered a characteristic that Keith Jarrett shared with the late Glenn Gould - the habit of singing along with the music as it's being played in a manner that bears no relationship to the material.

In Gould's case it always sort of struck me as a humming under the breath as he worked, much like any person might tunelessly whistle while working, but with Jarrett it seems to be an outlet for the emotions that he builds up while playing, and it becomes a means of underlining passages of music that are particularly rich or involved. If Jarrett is feeling a kind of emotional purging through his playing, as his listeners we can't help but be effected by his state of mind and the level of intensity that this suggests.
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In these types of trios, where there is only one traditional lead instrument the bass player and the drummer run the risk of being overlooked, especially when they are sharing space with someone as dynamic as Jarrett. Yet without them the piano player's performance would become just so much self indulgence. Aside from holding the centre together in the face of the storm of notes that are occasionally unleashed by Jarret, Peacock's bass and DeJohnette's drums contribute their own layers of texture and nuance that make the pieces songs.

Together the three of them burn down the original structure of the piece of music that they are performing, and then they guide the phoenix like resurrection of the new song out of the original's ashes. It takes an amazing amount of communication between three musicians to be able to accomplish this type of performance; of a type that goes beyond merely listening to what the other is playing but knowing instinctively what they will play almost before they do so themselves.

You never get the feeling that they are reacting to each other, or even responding, but that everything is in complete concert. It would be understandable if they were working from a score, and they each had assigned parts, but that they are able to do this while the music is being created is nothing short of astounding. This is especially true of third disc in this box set, "Changes", which consists of three pieces written by Jarrett; "Flying Parts 1 & 2" and "Prism".

Here in uncharted territory, where they don't have the luxury of having heard and played the pieces countless times before as was the case with the "Standards", their almost precognitive abilities can't be ignored. On "Flying Part 1" Jarrett opens the piece with a slow, sedate melody. After only a few bars you begin to hear a thrumming sound from Peacock's base, first very faint as if far off, but then gradually growing in volume and insistence. Until, what at first might have been the sound of wings in the distance, fills the air, and we are washed with the sound of flight.

The light tap, tap, tapping of the cymbals throughout the entire build up, whose own increases in volume are carefully measured against the pressure of the bass, helps to expand on the feeling of space that the piano has created. Without space there is nowhere for flight to take place and the sound of the bass would only be so much noise, but because of the context created by Jarrett and DeJohnette, the illusion is generated beautifully.

Fast-forward to the year 2001 and the double live disc My Foolish Heart, also just being re-released by ECM records, and hear the trio in full flight playing standards like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose", and "Only The Lonely" and you can hear the same elements captured in front of a live audience. That the same tension exists in the playing that made the studio performances so stimulating is obvious in the explosive responses of the audience to the conclusion of each song. It's as if they have been holding their collective breaths throughout each number and only release it once the song has reached its conclusion.

As for the trio, they seem to have been able to shed some of the seriousness that marked their first forays back in 1983 and there is a lightness of spirit about their playing that only comes from experience. Yet there is nothing stale about the performance either, these explorations are still new and exciting, and the interactions between the three men still are as laced with the strain of adventure as they were on their first collaboration eight years earlier. While according to the liner notes from the Setting Standards: New York Sessions box set they have been very deliberate in only working together for a few weeks every year as a means of preserving that freshness, I think that given the qualities of each of these three men they could probably do this day in and day out and still not lose that edge.

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette joined forces in 1983 to make a record of familiar pop "Standards". While the material maybe referred to as a "Standard" there was nothing standard about the results of those recording sessions. Setting Standards: New York Sessions shows that these three men really did set the standard for how this music could and should be played, and what's even more amazing, they continue to match and even raise that bar each year. This is truly some of the most exceptional music you're liable to hear at any time, anywhere and no Jazz collection would be complete without owning at least one recording by this trio.

February 25, 2008

Music Review: Deepak Ram Steps

Aside from the simple act of beating out a rhythm by hitting something hollow with a stick, the other most universally common form for creating music is the blowing of air through a hollow tube to create a sound. Variations of the the six holed flute, either played transversely like today's modern flutes, or by blowing down into the shaft like a recorder, have been found in cultures all over the world.

While relatively simple to play at its most basic, it takes a highly skilled player to play music of a more complicated nature because with only six holes it takes amazing breath control to push the flute's range beyond the octave it was built to play. In recent years it has been modified to include a seventh finger hole in order to facilitate a player's ability to meet the demands of more complicated music. Even though the instrument was not designed originally to play these styles of music, with this modification, and in the hands of a skilled player, its unique sound can bring a new life to familiar pieces of music.

In India this type of flute has as many name as there are dialects spoken, but it is most commonly known as either a Bansuri in the north or a Venu (an eight holed variety) in the south. No matter what name is used to refer to this flute it's roots run deep in Hindu culture as the God Krishna is often depicted as playing the transverse version. Despite its history, the Bansuri's limited range has caused it to receive short shrift until recent times, as it was considered inadequate for performing anything but folk music. Now, especially with the addition of the seventh fingering hole, it is common to hear it used in both the classical and popular repertoire.
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It's also only been in recent years that attempts have been made to cross pollinate Western and Eastern music with instruments of the other culture. While a lot of platitudes have been said about music being the universal language, the truth of the matter is that music can be as specific to a culture as a language and a belief system and can prove very difficult for someone outside that culture to reproduce.

Indian flutist Deepak Ram has, with the help of some friends, chosen to try and bridge the gulf that separates Indian and Western music by recording a disc of American Jazz music. Steps, released on Golden Horn Records is a diverse collection of Jazz music ranging from "Standards" like "My Funny Valentine" by Rodgers and Hart and "Summertime" by the Gershwin brothers to the more technically advanced sounds of "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane and "All Blues" by Miles Davis.

While the flute is nowhere near as common a lead instrument in Jazz as say the saxophone or trumpet, it has in recent years started to gain in popularity. Yet in all those cases the players are utilizing a concert flute that gives them the same range as any other orchestral instrument. Deepak Ram, on the other hand, is attempting to play these pieces with an instrument designed to play only one to one and half octaves. Even the inclusion of the additional finger hole only makes it easier to do what's called "overblowing" which means using increased amounts of breath to achieve a higher note. So not only does Deepak Ram have to worry about playing the songs, he also has to worry about being able to form the notes necessary to play the songs.

All things considered therefore it would be quite an accomplishment for him to be able to even get through the songs that he's chosen to play with a degree of competency. The fact that he does that, sounds like he's been playing Jazz all his life, and makes it appear as if little or no effort was involved in the whole production, is testament to his amazing musical ability and talent as a flautist.

Like all good musicians he's not just satisfied with reproducing a song note for note in imitation of how somebody else performed it, but strives to give each of the numbers he's chosen his own interpretation. Of course the very element that provides the challenge for performing the pieces, his instrument, goes a long way to helping him create a distinctive sound. Wooden flutes have a fullness of sound that gives them a warmth that I find too often absent when listening to the metal flutes and that brings a whole new feel to each of the songs.

On a piece like "Summertime" it helps to recreate the sense of the sultry conditions that the song is so redolent with. The heat of a lazy Southern American summer afternoon, when time slows to a crawl, can be heard in the opening bars played by the flute, as can the warmth of a mother's love for her child. The song fairly vibrates with the resonance of the low notes formed in the body of the bamboo flute, and it's the echo of that carried to us listeners that conveys the depth of feeling felt by Pandit Ram as he plays the song.

I think it has something to do with the fact that when playing these types of flutes the musician has to take a more direct involvement in the creation of each individual note that it feels like more of a personal statement then it might in another instance. When you consider that Jazz by it's nature is very much a personal message from those playing to those listening, this makes Pandit Ram's playing all the more effective.

The rest of the musicians involved take their cues from Deepak Ram, and the result is these pieces are given as probably an elegant and eloquent reading as they ever have. The three other members of the quartet; Vic Juris on guitar, Tony Marino on bass, and Jamey Haddad on drums and percussion; have geared their performances to accompany and accent Deepak's flute. This is especially noticeable in Juris' guitar solos in that he attempts, and succeeds, to replicate the gentle persistence of the flute's approach to the music.

What I think is the most amazing thing about Steps is not the fact that Deepak Ram has taken an instrument not normally associated with Jazz music and been able to play a wide variety of Jazz tunes with it, but that I never once noticed that's what he was doing. From the opening track to the last song's final note, all I heard was a wonderful collection of Jazz tunes being given interpretations that I wasn't familiar with. If that's not brilliance I don't know what is.

February 23, 2008

Music Review Steve Reid Ensemble Daxaar

I'm not one for using sports analogies very often, yet when I think about the role played by the drummer in most bands it's hard not to think of the equally vital, but unnoticed until they make a mistake position, of goalkeeper in soccer or goalie in hockey. Situated in behind the rest of the team ( um sorry band) the drummer is seemingly off in his own little world. Like goalies they are often seen as individuals in what is otherwise considered a joint effort, and usually allowances are made for their eccentricities.

If a drummer ( or a goalie) does something that's just a little off, people will shrug and say, well he or she is the drummer, and somehow that is considered an adequate explanation for everything from afternoon naps to seeing how high a television set will bounce when chucked from a hotel room window on the fourteenth floor. It's rare for a goalie, in soccer especially, to obtain the status or stardom of their team mates on the front lines; the glamour after all comes from scoring goals not in stopping them. The same holds true for drummers, as aside from the occasional solo that's tossed their way during a live gig, the majority toil away in relative anonymity while the lead singer and guitar players attract all the attention.

Of course there have been exceptions over the years both in sports and in music, as occasionally goalies - more often in hockey on this continent than soccer - and drummers will step out of the shadows and into the limelight. Those that do are either possessed of a talent so singular that's it impossible to ignore or through sheer force of personality forge an indelible impression on all who observe them. There are also those very rare individuals whose combination of talent and charisma ensure that they not only get their share of the spotlight, but they are also considered leading lights of their profession.
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In the world of music they are usually the drummers who have been willing to serve their time playing in bands supporting others as a time of apprenticeship before they start carving out their own niche. Steve Reid began his professional career behind the drum kit at the age of nineteen when as part of Quincy Jones' house band at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem New York he appeared on his first recording, Martha & the Vandellas' 1964 hit "Dancing In The Streets" for Motown Records. At the time he was working his way through collage playing Jazz gigs six days a week, and graduated in 1965 with a B.A.

After graduation Steve followed in the footsteps of the man he refers to as his first inspiration, Art Blakey, and travelled to Africa. For three years he continued his apprenticeship in music, travelling around West Africa performing and learning from musicians in Ghana, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, the Congo, and Egypt. The seventy-five dollars he paid as his passage aboard a tramp steamer carrying diesel engines across the Atlantic Ocean not only carried him back to what Blakey referred to as "the root" of their music, but into a world of new found freedoms for Black people as many of the countries he visited were gaining their independence from former colonial masters.

Unfortunately for Steve returning to the States saw him lose his freedom, as the FBI busted him for being a draft dodger and he was sentenced to four years in jail. Upon his release he chose self-imposed exile and moved to Europe where he now calls Lugano Switzerland home. Needless to say, after having had his taken away from him for refusing to fight in a war he didn't believe in, freedom in all shapes and sizes has become central to his being.

Listening to his newest release, Daxaar, traditional name of the Senegalese capital Dakar, where the disc was recorded, on the Domino label it's hard not to notice how that commitment to freedom is expressed in the music. Steve and long time collaborator, electronic music whiz Kieran Hebden were accompanied by keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev on the trip to Africa. Once there they joined forces with five African players; Khadim Badji percussion, Dembel Diop bass, Roger Ongolo trumpet, and Jimi Mbaye guitar.

It's only natural that as a drummer Steve uses rhythm as the starting point for his music, and the idea behind this album was to create the music from a series of spontaneous jams around various rhythmic constructions. The results are something quite awesome. Daxaar starts off sedately enough with "Welcome", featuring the high, clean vocals that have become the hallmark of Senegalese sound. Isa Kouyate provides the vocal and plays the korah, a type of West African harp, that opens the door for us to enter into Africa via Steve Reid's vivid imagination and love of rhythm.
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For the rest of the disc, while of course Africa remains firmly in the mix, the seven piece band sets out on an exploration of rhythm and melody in order to express themes or capture an image that Steve has in mind. For example on the title track "Daxaar" Reid had an image in his head of the people he had seen running on the beach when he first came into town from the airplane. That sets up an interesting contrast with "Dabronxaar" which mixes Steve's old "Da Bronx" neighbourhood and Daxaar into a sort of exotic funk stew.

The songs are built in layers of rhythm, so that they each develop a unique texture to the point where they become almost tactile experiences as well as auditory ones. "Daxaar" for example, starts out with only keyboard and electronic sounds, which are joined by muted conga drum, trumpet and guitar. The near hypnotic affect that's created by their almost loop like repetition, is saved from becoming tedious by the interjection of an occasional crash from Steve's drum kit.

It's unexpected elements like that, or the trumpet solo in "Jiggy Jiggy", that give the disc Daxaar its spice and strength. Those are the expressions of freedom that are so important to Steve Reid, because while rhythm is the pulse that lets us know a piece of music has life, there's more to life than just making sure your heart is beating. There has to be the highs and lows of emotion and thought or else the body will just lie there inert and unfeeling.

Steve Reid's music is the furthest thing from being inert and unfeeling that I've heard in a long time. Unlike other rhythm based contemporary music that repeats itself in an endless drone causing listeners to shut down emotionally and intellectually. Steve's music has sparks of freedom blown into it that break through the walls of the rhythm stimulating your heart and keeping your mind ticking over.

I have to say that at first I found the use of electronics sort of disconcerting, but Kieran Hebden isn't just after making "neat sounds" or creating a single effect. He creates another instrument that works and responds to the acoustic instruments around him just as if he were playing a saxophone instead of "electronics". The only other group I've heard incorporate electronics into Jazz based music this seamlessly has been The Chicago Underground Trio.

Steve Reid is quoted as saying he writes his music after its been played, and that when they started work on this disc and his fellow musicians asked what he wanted them to do he told them "just play". Working at that level of improvisation can be the equivalent of giving yourself enough rope to be hung with if you don't know what you're doing or don't have a solid foundation to build from. For Steve Reid, the clues all reside in the rhythm, and he is a master at deciphering the clues that live in a particular rhythm to bring it completely alive.

The Steve Reid Ensemble's Daxaar is a brilliant example of what happens when the potential of rhythm is fully realized. Its some of the most fully alive music that I've listened to in a long time.

February 16, 2008

Music Review: Climax Golden Twins Victola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days

How long has there been recorded music? Well we know there are wax roll recordings that date back to the late 1800s as we have records of them still either in their original forms or transformed over to vinyl in attempts to preserve them. But the majority of our knowledge of early recordings comes from music that was recorded to be played on the old windup Victrola machines.

I'm sure most of you have seen at least a picture of those old gramophones, or Victrola as they were called, with the huge speaker trumpets that looked like a cornucopia horn. I remember being amazed at how heavy the tone arm on one of those things was, and that the weight of it, combined with a diamond needle, didn't dig holes in the records. Of course if you've ever held one of those old 78 rpm records you'll know they were built for punishment; thick circles of vinyl that could be used as throwing weapons if you really wanted.

Yet in their day the 78 and the equipment used to make them were as much a technological breakthrough as the CD burning process is for us today. While computer technology has allowed anyone who wants to turn their home computer into a recording studio, the 78 equipment not only allowed people to record, it made music available to the general public on wide scale for the first time. While not many people would have owned a wax tube player, a gramophone was another matter.
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Rob Mills and Jeffery Taylor are the Seattle Washington based experimental music group Climax Golden Twins. In the past they have composed music for gallery and museum installations, film soundtracks, worked on documentary films, and contributed soundscapes to NPR radio shows. Their latest project, Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days available on the aptly named Dust To Digital label is a multi-media project that celebrates the diversity of music that was recorded for playback on the Victrola.

The two CD set comes in a 144 page 6" X 9" hardcover, cloth bound book, that is crammed full of pictures of memorabilia of old 78 records. Photos of old record labels, are blown up to fill a whole page, while old, full page newspaper advertisements have been reduced in size to easily fit the confines of the page. It's like some sort of strange pressed flower arrangement where the act of preserving the material changes the original image to suit the needs of it's medium.

Therefore an image of an old tin of German made gramophone needles is blown up to a size where only a portion of the image is seen on the page while an old British postcard that included a record (Tuck's Post Cards by appointment of the house of Windsor) has it's front and back displayed in full on another page. Yet the first image in the book, which you might overlook as its hidden beneath the first CD is of neither a record nor the paraphernalia that accompanies them.

Lifting the CD out of its slot you could be forgiven for squirming a bit as it reveals the image of a multitude of insects crawling around. Even though they are by no means realistic in appearance, I still managed to feel like you would when lifting a rock and finding the earth under it alive and moving. Anyway the little creatures revealed are a type of beetle that secretes a resinous substance called Lac. When the substance was purified it was used to make the old shellac records.

Which I guess explains the brittle nature of the old 78 records, they weren't vinyl at all. While it sounds sort of organic and natural to make records from the secretions of an insect, I'm betting the process was not only time consuming and labour intensive, but in the long run very environmentally damaging. Consider that the resin secreted was left behind on the leaves of trees by the insects, and who knows what chemical reactions occurred when the stuff was processed into shellac. Still it's fun to think of the old records being made from what sounds like the trail of an insect as it crawled through a tree.
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The music that's contained in the two discs are pretty much examples of every type of recording that you can imagine. You're taken on a journey around the world with stops in India, China , Japan, Africa, Thailand, Persia (now Iran), Greece, Portugal, Hawaii, Mexico, and the US. Everything from sound effects, "Sounds Of London" is a recording of church bells ringing in that city, to the sound of the Chinese Buddhist Nuns "Chanting The Ten Vows" in a recording made in Hong Kong, can be heard.

It really is a case of travelling from the ridiculous to the sublime in some cases, when one second you can be listening to an excerpt from classical Chinese Opera and the next something called "The Insect Powder Agent" which I'm not sure was a commercial or a piece of strange radio drama. Needless to say there are some pieces which will appeal to some people more than others, and in my case I was particularly interested in the recordings of early Blues musicians like Blind Boy Fuller or Noble Sissie and his Orchestra.

Some people might find the seemingly haphazard nature of the music disconcerting as it really doesn't follow any noticeable pattern. Some of the juxtapositions, like the Seven Galleon Jug Band's recording of "Wipe Em Off" followed by the Mozmar Caire Orchestra from Egypt playing "Raks Baladi Hag Ibrahim" are even jarring in their sudden changes of sound and tonal quality.

I don't think there really is any deep hidden meaning behind the way the songs are laid out, anymore than there is a pattern to the arrangement of the accompanying pictures. If you ever have made a compilation cassette tape or CD of some of your favourite music, you'll know that you usually have your own reasons as to why certain songs go together, and I'm sure that's the case with Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days. and its creators Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor. I can't believe that they would have done anything accidentally. Even a decision to be completely random is a deliberation after all, and they would have known it would result in a certain amount of disorientation on the part of the listener. In any case, part of what made this such an interesting experience to listen to was the not being able to anticipate just what you'd be hearing next.

One thing that is for certain, no matter how confusing the sounds might sometimes become, this is a fascinating musical voyage around the world, and one that anybody with an interest in the history of recorded music won't want to miss.

February 8, 2008

Music DVD Review; Live From Montreux 2004 - A Tribute To Edith Piaf

The story goes that after her mother died Edith Giovanna Gassion went to live with her grandmother who ran a brothel in Normandy. When she was between the ages of 3 and 7 she was struck blind and it was only through the prayers of the prostitutes working for her grandmother that she regained her sight. It continues with her moving back to Paris to live with her alcoholic father and by the age of fifteen she was living on the streets supporting herself as a singer.

It was there she was discovered by Louis Leplee whose nightclub attracted all of Paris, and it was he who is credited with naming her La Mome Piaf, The Little Sparrow. When he was murdered a year latter she was charged with being an accessory, but was acquitted. Some facts are verifiable, like that she was born on December 19th 1915 and died on October 11th in 1963, and maybe somewhere in the dusty archives of the Paris police force lies an old arrest report, but Edith Piaf's early life has become the stuff of legend over the years.

If anyone has ever deserved legendary status, perhaps it was this y waif from the streets of Paris who captured the hearts of her countrymen, and after World War Two, North America and Hollywood fell at her feet. She stayed in France during the war, and while her public face was that of a willing performer for the occupation troops her assistance to the resistance was so well known that never has there been the faintest hint or suggestion that she was a collaborator. She would have pictures taken of herself with French prisoners of war, who in turn would cut their image out of the photo to use on forged identity papers to help them escape.

While all of this has added to her reputation and her legend, it was her singing that really mattered. It was her voice that saved her from the gutter and carried her up to the stars, and it's her voice that still lives on in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. A tribute album released in 1994, Tribute To Edith Piaf, featuring signers ranging from Donna Summers to Willy DeVille offering up their renditions of her music, showed just how far her influence spread.
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Of course Europe has always been where she was first appreciated and where her influence has run the deepest, so it shouldn't be of much surprise that the renowned Montreux Jazz Festival would stage a tribute concert in her honour. Now as part of their Live At Montreux series of DVD presentations Eagle Rock Entertainment has released A Tribute To Edith Piaf that was presented in 2004.

Supported by a four piece Jazz combo led by French pianist Baptiste Trotignon, six singers from points of the world as diverse as Benin, Switzerland, the United States, Germany, and of course France, came to show their appreciation. No matter what they sing now, no matter what country they hailed from, all six proved time and time again just how much this one woman changed the shape of popular singing. It wasn't that she wrote any of the material she sang, it was her manner of singing, the way she turned a phrase, how she would pour her heart into every note as if her life depended on it, and the way she could appeal to audiences across all social and class lines by singing in the language of the people, that made her so popular.

Of the six performers; Michael von der Heide, Ute Lemper, Regine, Barbara Morrison, Catherine Ringer, and Angelique Kidjo, two stood out in my opinion for the manner in which they approached the music and their performances. That's not to say the others weren't good or competent, it's just that Ute Lemper and Catherine Ringer seemed to capture more of the spirit and jois de vivre that made Piaf so special.

Perhaps Ute Lemper had the advantage of being a stage performer, and years spent singing the songs of Kurt Weill had given her the understanding of what it takes to connect to an audience. With an earthy voice and an equally earthy presence, she easily captured the "singer of the people" spirit that was the trade mark Piaf, while at the same time imbuing the songs with the passion that brings the music to life. While not trying to sound like Piaf, she did try to present the songs she chose to perform in the style of Piaf to great success.

Catherine Ringer may not have had the best voice of the singers who appeared on stage that night in Montreux, but she more than compensated for it with performance and elan. While a couple of the other performers seemed to think it appropriate to treat the material with a reverence approaching the worshipful, Ringer understood that this was the music of a flesh and blood woman who had loved, cried and laughed just like the rest of us do. If she felt that some lyrics needed to be spoken instead of sung she did so, and if she needed to sustain a moment for effect she'd do that too.

I think what I appreciated most about Ringer and Lemper, was their efforts to make their presentations performances, as if they were actors playing a character rather than just singers singing songs that someone else made famous. While the others all did wonderful jobs of singing the songs they selected, these two women managed to bring a little bit of "The Little Sparrow" to life on a stage more then forty years after her last performance. I doubt if either Ringer or Lemper ever saw a live performance of Piaf, but watching them on this recording you would swear they had just come from watching her performing at the Olympiad in Paris.

While there is probably more myth than reality regarding the early life of Edith Piaf, there can be no doubting the respect and honour her talents are held in. When she died in 1963 the Archbishop of Paris refused to allow her a Catholic funeral because of her lifestyle, but her funeral procession was so large that it brought the streets of Paris to a standstill for the first time since the liberation in 1944. She belonged to the people, and the people didn't give a fig for what the authorities thought of their beloved Edith.

That type of spirit is almost impossible to recreate, yet there are moments during the DVD Live At Montreux 2004: A Tribute To Edith Piaf where you can catch glimpses of what she was, what she meant to the people of France, and what she has meant to the singers that have come after her. That in itself makes this a treasure worth owning. Edith Piaf will not come again, but if occasionally we can catch glimpses of her in someone else's performance, those are glimpses to be held on to and cherished.

February 1, 2008

Music Download Review: OK Go & Bonerama You're Not Alone

In Catholic countries all over the world next week marks the run up to the Lenten Fast, where the devout are encouraged to sacrifice a pleasure in symbolic representation of the sacrifice that Jesus made for them. While there are special days set aside for religious services, Ash Wednesday, for example, the week has been traditionally given over festivities.

While there are celebrations from Quebec City in Canada to Koln in the Catholic Rhineland district of Germany, two have always stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of renown and infamy; Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While neither event would let anything as trivial as Hurricane damage normally stand in the way of a good time, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has surely suffered because of the continued absence from home of so many musicians who would normally have participated.

In this, the third Mardi Gras since the levees broke in 2005, literally thousands of musicians are still scattered across the American South in refugee camps awaiting word that housing is available for them. Unfortunately there is a definite lack of political support for the rebuilding that would be required to accommodate most of those left homeless. It's been left to various action committees, charitable organizations, bands, and individual performers to raise funds in an effort to either find rental units or build new housing, one musician at a time.
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The latest project is a collaboration between the bands OK Go and Bonerama who are releasing a special five song E.P. You're Not Alone to raise funds to build a Habitat For Humanity home for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. It's only fitting that this benefit project be launched at the onset of Mardi Gras, as forty years ago Al Johnson wrote the song which has since become the week's unofficial theme; "Carnival Time".

Although You're Not Alone is not due to be released until February 5th the bands are joining forces this Saturday, the 2nd, to promote the fund-raising drive with a concert at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 club. Tickets are $20.00 and will kick-off the fund-raising. You're Not Alone is only going to be available for download through i-Tunes, who have agreed to donate all the proceeds. What's really wonderful is the fact other companies are joining in: IODA, a major digital distribution company will service and promote the disc free of charge, and EFM Worldwide/Horizon Cargo and Music Travel Management are paying to ship all equipment to the gig Saturday, and cover the bands' travel expenses. In other words, very little of the money raised will be used for anything but the purpose it's being raised for.

Al Johnson's story is like so many other musicians in New Orleans. A resident of the Ninth ward, when the levees broke his house was swamped and he was forced to evacuate. The house was actually lifted up off its foundations and moved on it's lot a few feet. While Al was able to rescue a couple of items ("things that were laminated he says") the city demolished his house without asking his permission or even letting him know. (Since we know from Naomi Klien's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism in her chapter on New Orleans, that there is a concentrated effort by politicians at the state and local level to prevent the rebuilding of housing, you have to wonder how many houses were destroyed in just this manner).
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Now aside from the feeling that you're doing something intrinsically good by purchasing You're Not Alone, when it goes on sale next Tuesday, you'll also be receiving some really good music. I wasn't familiar with either band before reviewing the material so I had no idea what to expect musically when I first listened to it. The title is taken from a line in David Bowie's classic tune from the Ziggy Stardust album "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", one of two cover tunes the bands play.

Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, does a magnificent job of re-interpreting the vocal line for "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide". His inflections are such that he is reminiscent of Bowie without really sounding like him. He is able bring the proper emotional weight to the material, while avoiding sliding over the edge into the melodrama. Of course Bonerama, a brass band, are right at home with the song, and have expanded upon the original's use of horns. It always continues to amaze me how sultry a trombone can be made to sound in the proper hands.

I was pleasantly surprised by the three original songs from OK Go's most recent release Oh No that have been adapted for this release, with "Lately It's So Quiet" standing out in particular. While both "A Million Ways" and "It's A Disaster" are good songs, well performed and interestingly arranged, there was something about the emotional quality of "Lately It's So Quiet" that held my attention more than the others. Kulash has an impressive voice, not so much in terms of power, but in its expressiveness.

What served him so well in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", the ability to pull emotion from a lyric without having to "emote" all over the place, is on display in each track. It's very impressive for a young singer to learn the less is more rule so effectively and so quickly. Someone with less self assurance might have been tempted to belt out lines instead of trusting in the power of the lyric and his ability to communicate to make the song work.
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The fifth song the bands do is a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released", and Al Johnson joins them, singing the lead vocal. I've heard quite a few versions of this song performed and I must say that this is one of the best. First of all there 's something about the song which lends itself to being accompanied by a horn section, and that is complimented by Bonerama's arrangement, eerily reminiscent of the funeral marches traditionally played by New Orleans' Brass Bands.

Combined with the mournful, and extremely soulful, rendering of the lyrics by the man whom the benefit is for, you question just what release Dylan was actually talking about. Maybe it's the final release we all have to look forward to at the end of all our struggles and tribulations. Now those are pretty heavy thoughts to be putting into a disc to raise money and awareness of the situation still facing people in New Orleans, but maybe that's the point. People need to be made aware of just how serious the situation remains.

Here it is the third Mardi Gras after Katrina and thousands of people are still living in refugee camps with no sign of there ever being homes for them to return to. While there is an effort to try and find housing for displaced musicians, what about all the other people whose lives were uprooted? What release do they have from their misery?

OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash shows he understands how important it is for the whole community to be rebuilt when in the press release he talked about how the, "People get together on the weekends and parade through the streets just playing songs; 12-year-old-kids learn funk on the tuba; everyone dances. Life elsewhere in the world simply isn't as celebratory". Without those people who make up the community that culture will die, or simply become a sham. Culture does not grow in a vacuum, it is an extension of the people in it's community. It's all very well and good to bring the musicians home, but without the people from the neighbourhoods to provide the heart and soul that makes New Orleans what it is, it will just be a flimsy facsimileof what once was.

The title of the EP, You're Not Alone, is from a line in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", where the lead singer sings "You're not alone - give me your hand" and the backing vocals respond with a chorus of "You're Wonderful". Yet, while that sentiment is true as far the band members of OK Go and Bonerama are concerned, I'd be willing to bet that after two plus years in refugee camps the majority of people are probably starting to feel like they have been abandoned.

There are many ways for the rest of us to show that's not the case. Buying the EP, You're Not Alone when it comes available for download on i-Tunes on Shrove Tuesday, February 5th 2008, the beginning of this year's Mardi Gras, is not only a chance to enjoy some great music, but to reach out a hand and let the people of New Orleans know that you remember them.

January 31, 2008

Music Review: Various Performers Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults

The first time I ever heard the band Canned Heat was when I first listened to the original Woodstock soundtrack - the old triple album set. For years after that they were the band whose vocalist sang in falsetto. It was until years latter when I picked up a copy of director's cut on DVD of the movie version of Woodstock that I even discovered there was another vocalist in Canned Heat.

Bob "Bear" Hite wasn't called Bear for nothing. He looked like somebody from another age, a veritable mountain of a man with a mane of shaggy black hair and a black beard that you would call biblical if the man wearing wasn't so wonderfully profane. Watching the footage of Canned Heat that had been added to the extended version of Woodstock I had no idea who or what I was watching. There was this huge guy on stage belting out a Blues tune, and growling like a wild thing.

My first thought was some biker had commandeered the microphone from what ever band happened to be playing at the time. I thought my assumptions was confirmed, about the biker, when I read it was supposed to be Canned Heat who were performing - Canned Heat's lead singer was a falsetto - not some big bear who looked like he ate falsettos for breakfast.
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That's how I found out that there was more than one vocalist in Canned Heat. I was saddened to hear that he had died young, from a heart attack, but I don't think I was too surprised. He was an awfully big man and if he lived with anywhere the abandon that he performed, well lets just say it would have put quite a strain on anybody's heart. I don't know if this is true - and I'm sure someone will correct this information if it's wrong - but I seem to recall reading something about him having the heart attack that killed him while rehearsing with the band after rejoining them in 1980 for a couple of gigs.

Considering his passion for the music, it seems only appropriate that he would leave in that manner, It turns out that not only was Bob an accomplished Blues vocalist, harmonica player, and guitarist, he was an avid collector of older music dating back to the days of 78 rpm records. Long before he helped found Canned Heat he'd begun his collection of records, and by the time of his death had amassed a massive collection. Unfortunately a great deal of his collection vanished when Bob shuffled off somewhere else, but fortunately some few hundred records ended up in the safe hands of Adolpho "Fito" De La Parra, Canned Heat's drummer for more then forty years.

Walter De Paduwa, better known as Dr. Boogie, is a musicologist and radio personality from the town of Overijse Belgium who also happens to be a friend of De La Parra. Together the two men have started the laborious process of taking those old 78s and transferring then onto CD so that these treasures can be preserved. Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults on the Sub Rosa label is the first compilation that's been made available. If the nineteen tracks on this disc are an indication of the quality of the material that they have at their disposal, we can only hope they will make this a continuing series.

The earliest track on the disk is a 1941 recording of Pete Johnson's "Death Ray Boogie" and you can see from this track why he was acknowledged as one of the great boogie-woogie piano players. The rest of the tracks on the disc are taken from recordings made in the fifties and represents a fair sampling of some of the great boogie-woogie music recorded during that time.

The difference between this music and the early rock and roll music that Elvis and others started playing is this is played with more abandon, and is definitely lacking any of the hillbilly/country influences that defined Elvis's material and made it more acceptable to White audiences. You only have to listen to Bill Haley from a 1955 Decca recording singing "Birth Of The Boogie" to hear the differences between the two types of music. For those of you who thought you knew Bill Haley's music because you've heard "Rock Around The Clock", you'll be in for a big surprise.

That's not the only gem on this recording, well they're all gems - some just stand out a little more than the rest. There's a great recording of Etta James singing "Good Rocking Daddy" from a 1955 Modern recording, Otis Rush on a 1957 Cobra recording of "Jump Sister Bessie", the late, great Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown is "Taking My Chances" on a 1951 Peacock recording, and on the same label in 1955 Johnny Otis sings out that "You Got Me Crying".
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But for me the real highlight of the disc are the last six songs; three different recordings of Elmore James from 1953 featuring A & B sides from three different companies. That's when you hear a master of boogie-woogie at work. According to the liner notes, none of these songs were ones that Elmore was well known for, but that just goes to prove how good he must have been. It's hard to imagine how good he must have been if these were just throw away sides only ever released as singles.

What really impressed me about the whole disc was how pristine the sound is on all the tracks. That's testimony to more than just the technology used but also to the immaculate condition the originals must have been in. Any time you have to use digital "cleaners" on old records you're taking away some of the original sound whether you want to or not. The way they work is to eliminate any sound in the frequency range that the noise of pops, hissing, or cracks occupy. It invariably leaves the music sounding sort of flat, because some of the high end has been removed.

Bob "Bear" Hite, and De La Parra after him, must have kept the original records in wonderful shape, because these are some of the best recordings I've ever heard of older material after going through the analog digital transfer process. Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults is a remarkable collection of music that might otherwise have been lost to the ages. It's a fitting tribute to the memory of a man who obviously loved the music, and a great treat for music lovers every where.

January 30, 2008

Interview: Bob Koester Founder And Owner Delmark Records

In this day and age of bottom lines and demographics controlling the music industry, it's hard to believe there are still people in the business because they love the music they record and sell. But when Bob Koester started selling Jazz and Blues records out of his St. Louis University dormitory room it was simply because he liked the music. Now fifty-five years, three or four store locations, and a move to Chicago later Bob's Delmark label continues to issue four or five CDs and a couple of DVDs every month of the music he still loves.

For about the past year or so I've been reviewing the discs that Bob's label puts out. That means I've been listening to everything from traditional Jazz, the Avant Garde, Barrelhouse Piano, Be-bop, Chicago Blues, and everything else that could fall into the Jazz and Blues categories. Listening to the music from Delmark Records is like being taken on a guided tour of Jazz and Blues music from the early parts of the twentieth century up to what's being played in the local club scene in Chicago today.

In one month I've received a CD of music that featured re-mastered and digitally transferred player piano roles, a DVD of a concert given by an improvisational Jazz group, a traditional Jazz CD, and a DVD of a Blues gig from one of the many clubs that are still thriving in Chicago today. One of the clubs that Delmark records gigs at is The Green Mile, which first opened it's doors in 1907. You can imagine during prohibition people drinking whisky out of tea cups and guys like Al Capone commandeering a table in the corner for himself and his cronies in a place like that.
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There aren't not many contemporary record labels around that allow you to feel that sense of history, or even care about it. At Delmark they don't live in the past, but they don't forget about it either. Folk singer Utah Philps once said "The past didn't go anywhere ... it's a stream that runs by my door". Bob Koester and Delmark records have been panning that stream for fifty-five years now and pulling out chunks of musical gold for whoever wants to listen.

On Friday January 25th/2008 I spent a couple of hours on the phone with Bob, talking about the history of Delmark Records, and his personal love affair with the music. After talking with Bob I'm convinced if I ever want to write a book about Jazz and Blues music of the twentieth century, he'd be the first person I'd go to for information. He's a walking compendium of twentieth century Jazz and Blues. The interview you're going to read probably represents only about a third of what we talked about - stuff that pertains directly to Delmark records and Bob. But I think you'll be able to get a good idea of the depth of his knowledge, and love, for the music.

You actually founded Delmark Records in St. Louis, not in Chicago, can you tell me how that came about, how long you were in St. Louis, and why you made the move to Chicago?

Bob: I went to university in St. Louis to study cinematography. My parents didn't want me going to school in one of the big cities like New York or Chicago because they didn't want me to be distracted from my studies by music. Unfortunately, for them, there were Black Jazz clubs all around the university, oh I don't know maybe six or seven. By the time I was in second year I was selling old Jazz records out of my dorm room that I had picked up in second hand stores around the city. I also joined the St, Louis Jazz club, and they used to allow me to sell my records at their meetings. But I needed more space, so a guy name Ron Fister and I opened a store just a couple blocks from campus.

We were still selling mainly records that I would pick up of older recordings, you know buying up stocks from all over the place, but I also started doing some recording at the time, we did five ten inch records, and after they stopped making them I recorded four and half twelve inch records before I moved to Chicago.

A half?

Bob: Yeah I had started recording Big Joe Williams in St. Louis but didn't finish it until I was in Chicago.

How did the move to Chicago come about

Bob: Well Ron and I had split up, he wanted to start selling pop music and I wanted to keep selling the Jazz and Blues, so we had each opened up our own stores by the late fifties. The owner of Paramount records had decided that he wanted to get out of the business and offered to sell me his catalogue. He also told me I should come out to Chicago, that's where they were based, and he'd set me up as well. So in 1959 I came to Chicago and with his help I took over Seymour's Jazz Mart - which had been owned by the songwriter and trumpet player Seymour Schwartz..

I had two small trailers of records that I hauled over with me, but there wasn't really much stock in Seymour's so, just the fixtures and a cash register really. (Me: What about Paramount Records?) Oh, I never ended up buying Paramount because he had made a deal with Riverside Records that had given them the rights to most of the stock - so there wasn't actually much available. Anyway, I was still buying up master tapes from earlier recordings from companies that had gone out of, or that were going out of business. We're talking about stuff from the twenties all the way up through the war years (World War Two) and the late forties.

There was also the stuff I had recorded in St.Louis, like The Windy City Six, who are trad. Jazz (traditional Jazz) and the first band I ever recorded. I got Big Joe Williams to come to Chicago so we could finish recording what we had started in St, Louis and released that In 60 or 61. I also recorded Speckled Red, great Blues piano player.

We were in Seymour's until '63 and then we moved over to Grand Ave, and we just didn't have enough space there so we moved again until now I've got the store- The Jazz Record Mart on Illinois street, and the studio, Riverside Studios just over on North Rockwell.

The funny thing is you know I'm still releasing stuff that was recorded back when I started in St.Louis, although I didn't record them. Back when I was a member of the St. Louis Jazz Club there was another member who was a cop, Charlie O'Brian, and he tracked down all these great old time players who had played in town during the 1920's. He was the one who found Speckled Red and Barrelhouse Buck McFarland. The disc we released last year by Barrelhouse was recorded in 1961 in the Robert Oswald's, he was the president of the St Louis Jazz club, basement. He had a basic set up there with a couple of microphones and a tape machine. There were a lot of guys I wished I could have recorded in St. Louis and never had the chance or the money really.

I guess I should have asked this first, but I'm a little backwards, why Jazz and Blues? What was the attraction for you to that type of music? 

Bob: I don't know, why not? (laughs) It was the music I loved you know. I never liked Country music, and growing up in Wichita Kansas there wasn't much else. There was a mystery to the names of those old Blues guys, "Speckled Red", "Pinetop Perkins", that made it sound really appealing - probably something to due with a repressed Catholic upbringing.(laughs) But I guess what got me hooked first was trad. jazz. Maybe it's because the only stuff I could find was old used 78s in used record stores.

It's still some of my favourite stuff today, and I can't understand why people are always dumping on it - I still put out a lot of trad. Jazz when other people won't touch it. We've got some great bands in Chicago - The Salty Dogs - and others. (Me. I really liked that German group you put out last year, the ones who recorded in the Ace Hardware store that used to be a Jazz club. Bob: Oh yeah, The Footstompers, they're coming back again this year, you can come and check them out. Me: That's a problem - I'm up in Canada, in Kingston near the New York State border, so that's a bit of a distance to travel for a night out.)

I know you spent a lot of time and energy on purchasing old catalogues like Apollo, and making new pressings from the masters and was wondering if you ever considered only doing that. Or did you always plan on making "new" recordings as well?

Bob: Like I said I started out by buying out other people's stock - you know buying a 100 records for a buck a piece and selling them for three or something like that. A lot of it was buying up masters of various companies - and it would take about three of four of them to make an album because there were only three or four songs on each tape. I still have some of those I haven't done anything with because of that - especially now when you need about sixteen songs for a CD.

The CD we just released, Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers Crazy Rhythm disc, was made up of two recordings. I had bought the Blackbird label back in 1966 and we released an LP of theirs. So this year we brought them back into the studio and recorded the version of the band that's around today and combined the two recordings for one CD. So that disc was a 50/50 split between the old and the new - and I say right now we are doing about 75% new recordings and the rest are reissues.

We're lucky we have our own studio so we don't have to rent studio time when we want to record stuff, and in fact we can rent the space out for a little extra money, because it costs money to do a recording and the sales in Jazz and Blues are so low you're going to be damn lucky to make it back. You know what percentage of record sales Blues accounts for in Amercia? 1.5%. Jazz is double that at 3%. We're lucky to sell 1000 copies of a disc in the first year of its release and after that sales only slow down.

We're lucky because we own a record store where we can sell our recordings, and we've got distribution deals with some online places and some stores. But you know there aren't any cross country chains anymore that will keep stock on the shelves for any length of time. Some place like Borders will only keep something on the shelf for ninety days and then its gone. I haven't got the figures for last year yet, but if we're lucky we might have broken even because the Buddy Guy disc did really well - but the year before that we lost 25,000, and before that 40 something and the year before that 65 thousand.

You know what was killing us - illegal downloads - it fucking almost drove us out of business, I'm not kidding. Or people burning discs for somebody else - same thing. I had two guys in the store the other day and one said to the other - burn me a copy of that and I'll burn you a copy of this - and bang there are my sales cut in half. And it's theft - because no matter what you're taking money out of the artist's pocket if it's a new record - or his family's if he's dead. Sure the publisher who owns the rights to a song gets the money, but they have to pay the songwriter every time that song is used.

It used to be we were paying three cents a song - that's three cents per song per record. Now its nine and a half cents and they're talking about raising it to twelve. When you start adding that up with all the other costs involved with making a record; packaging, distribution, hiring the sidemen and paying the artist you're going to be lucky to break even to begin with, but if people are stealing the music it really screws you. It's better now that they've stopped most of the illegal downloads and we're getting some money from places like I-tunes, but we still lose money to it.

When you got to Chicago had did you go about starting to record - did you just walk up to people in clubs and say - hey I've got a recording studio you want to come a make a record? Or did you already have some connections?

Bob: Well I had a couple of things that I had recorded in St. Louis, a Bob Graff record and of course the Big Joe Williams disc Piney Woods Blues that I released in 1960 a year after I got there, but yeah, basically I would go up to guys in a bar after hearing them and offer to record them. We would do it for a flat rate with no contract, which was good and bad. They could record with us and do a bunch of songs one week, and the next week they could do the very same material with someone else and they'd be in competition with themselves.

I've done the occasional royalty recording and those are the ones where you can run into problems cause the guy might think you're ripping them off. But you've got to pay for the recording and all the stuff we talked about earlier and that comes out of the same pie, and if they received an advance, well it was against the royalties - so right there that could be a thousand bucks. If a record only sold five hundred or even a thousand copies there might not even be enough to pay for the costs of recording the damn thing let along royalties.

I know it wouldn't have been an issue for you but others might have wanted to make it one. Was race ever an issue, considering the climate in the sixties and the fact that most of the people you were recording were black?

Bob: Chicago wasn't the south, so the prejudice wasn't out in the open, it was there in the fact that Blacks weren't welcome in certain neighbourhoods and there were restaurants downtown that wouldn't serve Black people, but you learned to avoid them. Once I found out which they were I stopped eating at them all together. They didn't have signs up saying no Blacks, or anything like that, but it was known they would serve them.

Most of the Jazz and Blues clubs were on the South or West sides, which were Black neighbourhoods. When a White guy showed up in a Black bar it was assumed he was either a cop, a bill collector or looking for sex. When they found out you were there to listen to the music and for no other reason you were a friend.
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The worse time I had were from White cops who would try and throw me out of the bars. They probably thought I was there dealing drugs, or something. But aside from that I've never had any other problems. You know a lot of the problems were about money in the old days, cause there's no denying that people were screwed out of money owing to them because they were Black. Because I didn't do very many royalty recordings, and always paid what I said I would, there was hardly any of that problem.

You have a reputation as hands off producer, letting the musicians have their heads. What do you see as your role in the recording process? Is there ever a time when you do have to step in and nudge things in a certain direction?

Bob: First of all I'm not the producer anymore, Steve Wagner handles the day to day stuff anymore. But if I made one suggestion during a day's worth of recording that would be it. I'm not a musician so I'm not about to tell somebody what to do. I don't believe in production, I'm not about to bring in a bunch of stuff that you can't hear a guy doing when he's up on stage in a club for instance. Even if we did bring in horns or strings or something like that, I'm not going to be the one doing the arrangements.

It's funny you know because we had Luther Allison signed to a contract for three records, and he didn't want to honour it because he said we weren't producing him enough. I can understand if a guy wants to back and fix some of his mistakes, but to be honest I can't afford for some guy to spend twenty hours in the studio working on one song trying to make it perfect.

Anyway I don't want perfection, I want the balls that I hear in the club - the sound the guys have when they're at the point in the night when they've really hit their stride is what I want to record. When if pick somebody to record I do it because I like their ideas, what they're trying to do on stage with the music, not because they're technicians. Some of the guys I've recorded really don't play guitar all that well - they just sort of strum along if that - but the things they do with their voices is amazing, and that's what I want, what they do that's amazing, that makes them who they are.

How would you describe your relationship with the musicians you work with?

Bob: Well it's usually a good relationship right up to the point when they become you're employee. Nah, it varies from group to group and person to person you know. Like I said it's probably one of the reason I do so few royalty recordings so there's never any questions about money or being screwed. We just don't have the sales to make royalty deals worth anyone's while, especially the musician involved.

Delmark was one of the first labels to record avant-garde Jazz music that came out of Chicago in the sixties. How did that association come about?

Bob: I'd always been aware that Jazz had gone through and goes through changes. All you had to do was listen to what was being done from decade to decade. There was Barrelhouse and Boogie Woogie in the twenties and thirties, Swing and Big Band in the thirties and forties and after that Be-Bop. So when I was first starting out in St. Louis back in the fifties I had the first Sun Ra disc in my store even back then, and that was fifty-six.

One of the albums that I always made sure to keep in stock was the famous Massy Hall concert (Me: Massy Hall in Toronto Canada?) Yeah that's the one. Anyway that recording was of Dizzy Gilispe, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Bud Powell, and Max Roach - hell it's the only recording that is listed under five separate names, because you could put it under anyone of those guys in your catalogue and it wouldn't matter.

You know what's even more amazing, that album still to this day sells about 10,000 copies every year. The sound had been so badly recorded though that Mingus didn't come through at all on the masters, so they gave them to him before they pressed the album, and he re-recorded all his parts.

But when it comes to the early Avant-Garde, or you know modern Jazz that we recorded at Delmark it was mainly because of Chuck Nessa working with me in those days. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were part of a serious Jazz movement happening in Chicago in the early but and they hadn't done any recording yet. We're talking about guys lik Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richards Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. It was Chuck who produced those first two albums that we did of the ACCM, which ended up being the first ever discs recorded by them. We also purchased the Transition masters - the label that had produced Sun Ra's first couple of discs with the "Arkestra" , when they folded, and re-issued them.

What these guys were doing was some of the most important music being played at the time, and still is. I have to tell you I'm still not sure that I really understand what's going on all the time, but what's important is they do. They also brought back multiple horn improvisation which was a feature of Trad. Jazz that died out when the focus shifted to the solo work that was the focus of Be Bop. It's funny you know because these guys don't play Trad. Jazz but they draw upon it for inspiration.

That's something I can really appreciate is that they understand there's a history to the music and they're not afraid to use what's been done before as a springboard to bigger and better stuff. It pisses me off that the Jazz media ignores Trad. Jazz, and that so many people won't even give it the time of day or just dismiss it out of hand. The pity of it is that's it really good stuff (Me: Something that I've noticed is that there's been a resurgence of interest it in since Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans - maybe something good will come out of that and people will start listening to it again)

There have been lots of changes in the recording industry since you start, not the least being the change from analog to digital. Part of that change has included making it easier to film and produce records of live performances with DVDs. Delmark has recently started producing it's own line of DVDs, featuring live concerts in Chicago's bars and small venues. When and why did you start producing them.

Bob: Well you've got to remember that I went to school for cinematography so I've always been interested in film, it just wasn't economical before digital media and video cameras. It's mainly my brothers Tom and Steve who do the filming. Tom actually did become a camera man and worked on shows like The Rockford Files and was a Director of Photography on some other stuff. We'll sometimes use as many as ten cameras on a shoot.

Of course there was an initial outlay for buying all the equipment, but we thought it was a market move that would work and make sense for what we'd been trying to do with all of our recordings, trying to capture the live sound. We've had some good success selling them, especially at gigs. For a lot of the bands we record gig sales are really important because like we talked about earlier there just aren't the record stores there used to be that sell Jazz and Blues records, and keep them in stock.

It used to be that there were chains you could put a record in all across the country, but now you're lucky if you can get into something like Wal-Mart. The one cross country chain left doesn't even pay it's bills right now, and you don't want to be chasing after people to get your money because it almost ends up costing you more than it's worth. You used to have a great store up in Toronto (Me: Sam The Record Man - yeah he went out of business a little while ago) Yeah I know, so there's not much in the way up there of cross country chains either (Me: Well there's HMV and another small one called Sunrise, but I'm not sure if Sunrise goes across the country)

Well that's the way it is down here with Towers gone out of business now. The other thing is there aren't even that many distributors anymore - maybe four or five really big ones that get you into stores. But a lot of our bands don't play outside of Chicago so who's going to be buying them in Peoria or some small town in the Mid West anyway? So gig sales become really important because of that - and the DVDs give us something else to sell. People have just been watching the band on stage so a DVD is an attractive offering because it's a chance to be able to take them home with you in a way you can't with a CD.

You've been doing this for fifty-five years now, I guess the inevitable questions are when you started out doing this way back when did you see it lasting for this long and becoming as big as it has and do you have any regrets?

Bob: You know it's harder to get out of this business than it is to get into it. You end up sinking so much money into it, that you can't afford to stop. The past five years have been tough, and we're just starting to come back up to zero again, maybe. The DVDs have helped and we got lucky with a couple of CDs last year selling better than we had hoped. I can only hope that it keeps going that way and my wife and son can get some of the money we lost.

The only regrets I've had are the missing chances of recording some people, just not being in the right place at the right time. I almost did some folk recordings once, even tough it wasn't really my thing, but at one point there were some really good people playing in Chicago. There was this one time this guy was playing in town and everybody kept saying you should go check him out and all, but I kept putting it off. You know how it is, people tell you some guy is amazing and he's really not all that hot shit.

Well it turned out the guy was amazing, John Prine, and I went up to him after his show and said you know I've got a record label and I'd love to record you. He told me that he had already had two offers, one was from Atlantic and I think the other was Capital. I told him he should really go with Atlantic cause they had a better reputation for handling their people. That's who he ended up signing with, so I like to think I maybe helped him make up his mind.

But really you know, I've done okay and I've no regrets about anything.

Well Bob, I think that's about it for me, thanks for this

Bob: Okay, now go out and make me famous on the Internet, oh and send me a tear sheet (laughs)

I think it's a sad commentary on the music business and pop music in general that Bob Koester and Delmark records aren't household names considering the contribution that both he and his label have made over the past fiftey-five years. In spite of what he said about it being harder to get out of the music business than starting in it, there have been plenty of other independent labels that haven't stood the test of time the way he and his label has.

I think of all the people they give Grammy's too for lifetime achievement awards or contributions to the recording industry, and there are few who can match what Bob has done with his label. Not only has he recorded some of the best and the brightest Jazz and Blues players of our time, but he has salvaged some incredible music from the past that might have otherwise been lost forever.

Take for example the latest project that Delmark has undertaken. The re-mastering of old player piano rolls onto CD that were first recorded back in the 1920's and thirties and then later recorded on the Euphonic label. But if it weren't for Bob and Delmark this piece of American music history would have been lost. Go to the Delmark web site and look through their on line catalogue, or get a copy of the Jazz Record Mart's (the Delmark record store) newsletter, Rhythm & News sent to you, or download the PDF version and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

But Delmark Record is more than just music and video. It's a history of the only music born on this continent. Every Jazz and Blues lover in North America and the world owes a vote of thanks to Mr. Koester for founding this label and sharing with the rest of us his love for it all, no matter what form it takes.

January 22, 2008

Music Review: Keefe Jackson Keefe Jackson Project Project: Just Like This

I have to admit to still being a little intimidated by Jazz music. It's like standing in front of an abstract painting where your eye doesn't even know where to start looking in order to form an impression. With art I've been able to train my eye not to look for an "entrance" into the work and try to let the whole speak at once in an attempt to assimilate the artist's message. In some ways you have to start on an instinctive level, and evolve into rational thought gradually.

While it's one thing to be able to do that with your eye, to do the same thing aurally feels much harder to me. Part of the reason is that my ear is not as sophisticated as my eye, I've had very little music training and while able to distinguish notes and tunes etc, I lack the ability to recreate what I hear. This makes me feel insecure when it comes to my abilities to appreciate the music to it's fullest. It feels like I'm living the adage those who can't play teach, and those who can't teach, critique.

But I've never interpreted that to be a literal reference to someone's ability, more of a state of mind. When I hear that saying I always get the image of some bitter, failed actor, musician, or author sitting behind a typewriter thinking of ways to take revenge on those who have been able to succeed where he or she failed. Since the people whose work I review in these instances usually leave me amazed at the scope of their imaginations and the breadth of their talent I know I don't fall into that category.

So when I hear a disc like the most recent one released by Keefe Jackson, Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This on Delmark Records I take a deep breath, and dive in without trying to think about it. I don't know enough technically about what he and his fellows are doing to analyse it from that perspective, but at least I can give an honest emotional opinion.
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Sometimes that means of course that my first impression of the music is going to be the strongest, and in this case what I felt was that the mind behind these compositions has a great sense of humour. The first track on Just Like This is called "Dragon Fly" and it begins with two sputtering trombones emulating the spasmodic motions of dragon fly wings. The song gradually opens up to include all twelve members of Project Project, as they create a wonderful homage to the flight of a dragonfly.

Aside from the obvious homage/joke to the orchestral piece "Flight Of The Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, it felt like there was a thread of laughter floating woven into the whole piece. Think of a dragon fly darting across the surface of a pond on a hot summer's day; zipping back and forth, with speed and agility. Now think of what trombone sounds like when playing staccato notes at the bottom end of the scale.

There are the inevitable comparisons to flatulence that spring to mind, but aside from that there's the incongruity of the brassy notes and the airiness of the dragonfly's flight. In fact before I knew the title of the track, the opening bars of the song sounded for all the world like they were revving a car engine on a cold winter's day. It struck me as a humorous way of opening an disc of music - gentlemen start your engines - but now the humour seems even slyer.

Normally you'd associate a flute or a violin with the rapid flight of something like a dragonfly. But on a second listening I had a clear visual of the big lumbering dragonflies you see occasionally - ones that look so primordial that they could just as easily be buzzing a brontosaurus as you - bumbling through the bull rushes by a riverbank on a hot and humid July.

Of course not all the songs on the disc are designed to create such vivid visual imagery, these are sound pieces after all. But even on some of the more discordant and chaotic tracks, "Which Well" for example, it really feels to me like the mind behind this has an impish sense of humour. Maybe it's just me but for a while it sounds like the collage of instruments, we are talking about a twelve piece band after all, are trying to simulate the hollow sound that would be found inside a well.

That impression is only compounded for me because it is immediately followed by a wailing saxophone solo which sounds like somebody falling down a well. Does that sound frivolous?Would you rather I said something about how the discordant and abrupt sounds reflect the panic stricken, anxiety filled atmosphere that so many of us experience? Or perhaps how the contrast between the melodic clarinet solo that follows on the heels of the torrid saxophone is a commentary on the choices we face when it comes to how we approach the difficulties life throws at us?

Maybe though it's none of the above, and the pieces are all about experimenting with sound and discovering the modes of expression available to them. I don't know, and I can't without asking Keefe Jackson. He says that he writes music keeping in mind the people who will be playing it and the potential for sound that each of them brings to a performance. These are free-form improvisational players who he is building a frame work for. so he wants to allow them plenty of room for manoeuvring.

It would seem that no matter what layers of interpretation I, or anybody else for that matter, wants to impose on the music, it comes down to what each individual creates from what he is given to perform by Keefe. While this sounds like it could quickly become an exercise in chaotic discordance, the overall structure of the piece dictates that they stay in contact with their fellow performers at all times. The result is always exciting, occasionally confusing, but always interesting to listen to as you never are quite sure what to expect from either the composition or the performers.

Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This is a great example of how a composor and gifted instrumentalists come together to create unique pieces of music. On occasion some of the pieces lend them-self to interpretation, but in general they are the expression of people who take great joy in the playing and creation of music.

January 11, 2008

Music Review: Sabertooth Dr. Midnight Live At The Green Mill

What is it about Jazz music that associates it with late nights? Oh sure there is Jazz that's played in the afternoons, but it sometimes feels as much like Jazz as Pat Boon is Rock and Roll. It's polite and well mannered music that you can bring home to meet your mother and she won't throw it out into the street. No, there's just something about the music that calls for the atmosphere that is generated in a big city long after daylight has vanished.

Speakeasies, after-hours bars, and other late night venues just feel like they are made for Jazz. Perhaps it's the seductive sound of the saxophones, the soft hissing of a snare being brushed, or the gentle thrumming of the stand up bass that makes the music feel like it needs the soft velvet of darkness for it to thrive. There is something almost magical about the way the elements of a Jazz tune come together that makes it feel so ethereal that daylight would burn it away.

There is also something about music being performed in the wee hours of the morning that gives it an extra spark of excitement. Perhaps it's some sort of connection to our genetic memory of a time when we performed rituals in the deepest part of the night to aid in our communications with the spirit world. All I know is that one of the most memorable memories I have of Jazz was listening to about a dozen saxophones playing in a fourth floor studio at three in the morning in downtown Toronto.

For the past fifteen years the Chicago Jazz band Sabertooth has been playing a Sunday morning gig that starts at midnight and winds down at five in the morning at the venerable Green Mill Tavern. (The Green Mill first opened its doors in 1907) It says a lot about their quality as a band, and the enthusiasm of Chicago's Jazz fans, that there is an audience for this show week in and week out. However, I bet that a fair number of the audience members are as attracted by the event as much as they are the music. It's still a pretty unique experience to listen to Jazz until the sun comes up the next morning.
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For those of us who can't get to Chicago on a regular, or even an infrequent basis, to catch Sabertooth live at the Green Mill, the good folk at Delmark Records have released Dr. Midnight, Live At The Green Mill. The seven tracks on the CD were all recorded live on June 23rd 2007 during the quartet's regular Sunday morning gig.

It's obvious that these guys are aware they are doing something just a little bit different with this gig. On the introduction to the title track, "Dr. Midnight", Cameron Pfiffner, makes mention of of the time of day's special qualities. He talks about the sounds that you can hear during these hours and wonders if they are messages from people on the other side. That's where Dr. Midnight comes in, as he's someone who can interpret what these sounds mean.

Pfiffner is joined as lead in the quartet by fellow tenor saxophone player Pat Mallinger. Aside from each playing tenor, Pfiffner also plays soprano saxophone, concert flute, and piccolo while Mallinger plays alto sax, and Native American flute. Rounding out the quartet are Pete Benson on the Hammond B3 organ and Ted Sirota on drums. It's not what most people would expect as a standard quartet line up, but these guys aren't exactly what you'd call, if there could even be such a thing, your standard Jazz quartet.

They play everything from original bebop tunes, "It's surely Gonna Flop If It Ain't Go That Bop", adaptations of movie soundtracks, the theme from the movie the Odd Couple, to a cut by the Grateful Dead, "China Cat Sunflower"; not songs that your apt to find sharing most band's set lists for a concert. Of course what those songs have in common is that they all allow plenty of room to manoeuvre, so there is a lot of extrapolating on themes and playing around with tunes by the two leads.

With the two front men taking on most of the improvisational duties Sirota and Benson are responsible for holding the framework together. Not only does Benson handle that with his keyboard, but also with the bass pedals on the Hammond. In many ways he's doing the equivalent of playing both the guitar and bass parts for the band. On the opening track, "Blues For C. Piff", a twelve minute plus hot and heavy bluesy number written by Mallinger for Pfiffner, you can feel Benson's presence running through the tune like an electric current.

As usual for a Delmark live recording the sound is impeccable, and not only have they recorded the band wonderfully, but they have allowed enough of the crowd noise to leak through to ensure that you feel like you're at the gig. A great example of how effective a job they have done with this is the song Tetemetearri. Up until that point the crowd has been boisterously responding to the rambunctious nature of the music, but at the first note of the Native American flute that Pat Mallinger opens the song with, you can hear a pin drop.

Because the sounds of the crowd have been such a constant throughout the disc until this point, having it drop it off to completely in reaction to what's happening on the stage, increases our attention to what's happening on stage. While the song would have been captivating enough on its own, this serves to accent its distinctive quality and pull us into the track deeper then we might have gone normally. I don't think I've ever experienced a live recording where I've become as directly involved in the music as I did on this disc.

When it comes right down to it Sabertooth's Dr. Midnight Live At The Green Mill is an exhilarating Jazz party. Everybody, including the band are having such a good time that it's impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. There's nothing quite like listening to live Jazz until the sun comes up, and if you can't be there in person this disc is the next best thing.

December 18, 2007

Music Review: Various Performers A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music

Years ago when I was helping to run a children's theatre company something that really pissed me off was people seeing nothing wrong in asking us to perform for their group or organization, and not expect to pay us anything for our troubles. It would be one thing if they were asking us to participate in a benefit for some worthwhile cause or other, and even then we'd ask for expenses to be paid, but for just an everyday regular performance we'd expect people to pay us for our time.

Still to this day I can't understand their logic of asking us to do what we did for a living for free. Did they think because we worked in the arts we had some special arrangement with life where we didn't have to pay rent, buy food, or any of those things that people with more conventional job worried about? Well, if there are any of you out there who suffer from a similar delusion about people working in the arts you need to get over it in a hurry. It doesn't matter whether someone is a painter, musician, actor, singer, sculptor, dancer, or writer they still have to have enough money at the end of the day to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Unless an artist is incredibly lucky and makes it big, he or she will be leading a hand to mouth existence for most of their days. Artists don't have a pension plan, and, at least in North America, if they don't live in Canada, the chances of them having medical insurance is slim to none. The fact that it is next to impossible for artists to afford any type of insurance leaves them particularly vulnerable in emergency situations. But if you think that artists in general are vulnerable, that situation pales in comparison to the one faced by a particular group within that community.

Predominately African American, the older generations of Jazz and Blues players in North America are at most risk from the deprivations of age, illness and misfortune. Far too many years of creating wonderful music for no money and sometimes little recognition, has left that community in difficult straits under normal circumstances. When a devastation like Hurricane Katrina destroys not only their homes, but their means of earning a living by destroying their instruments, equipment, and the venues for their performances the consequences are catastrophic.
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With all levels of government seeming more intent on ensuring they never return to their former homes or their neighbourhoods are rebuilt, the musicians of New Orleans were facing circumstances we normally associate with refugees in countries that don't consider themselves "world powers". Fortunately there are people who recognize the contribution that they have made to North American culture, and are refusing to allow these men and women to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Since its founding The Jazz Foundation Of America has worked to make life more comfortable for the elder generations of Jazz and Blues musicians in America. They have done everything from ensuring people's rent is paid, securing them housing, putting food on their table, to supplying them with new instruments so they can work and make a living. But they haven't just been doling out handouts to tide people over on an interim basis, they've also developed programming that allows the musicians to work for a living, doing what they do best.

So when it became clear nobody at an official level was going to do anything to preserve New Orleans for the people who are the city's heart and soul, and were in fact intent on making it as hard as possible for them to return to their homes (Read the chapter in Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism on New Orleans for a full description of how local, state, and federal officials are ensuring that the Ninth Ward will not be rebuilt and its former inhabitants prevented from returning) the people at The Jazz Foundation have done their best to take up some of the slack.

Aside from donations and sponsorship from individuals and corporations whose hearts and souls are in the right place ( Note here should be made of the contributions of Dr. Agnes Varis who has donated a million dollars to fund a musician in the schools program that pays for musicians to perform to school children and the corporation E*Trade Financial who run an emergency housing fund that supplies rent and mortgage payments to musicians in dire need) there one main fund-raising activity each year has been a special benefit concert staged at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem New York for the past six years.

This year's A Great Night In Harlem took place on May 17th and raised 1.5 million dollars at the gate, making it their most successful event yet. But the need for funds isn't going away, and will only continue to worsen; people are still living in temporary shelters run by the government as far away from their home in New Orleans as Texas and that can't last for ever. One of the ways that people who want to help can contribute is by purchasing a copy of the CD made of the concert.

This year's A Great Night In Harlem was subtitled A History Of Music as it presented a history of African American music in North America from it's roots in Africa up through to contemporary Jazz, Blues, and the popular music of recent years. I've been reviewing a lot of music from the time period covered on this disc, and what amazed me was how few of the people I had heard of before, and how many of them were truly spectacular.

Track one gives you an indication of the CDs power. Its a medley of music that starts with the insistent and compelling drums of Africa, segues into the New Canaan Baptist Praise Team performing a compelling gospel tune reminiscent of what slaves would have been allowed to perform, and finishes off with ninety year old Johnnie Mae Dunson, accompanied only by her son Jimi "Prime Time" Smith, raising the roof of the Apollo with a version of "Trouble Won't Let Me Be"

Johnnie Mae was typical of the performers that the Foundation worked to support, still vital enough to work for a living if given half a chance, she was on the verge of being made homeless in her eighties if not for the intervention of the Foundation. This was a woman who wrote over six hundred songs, was never compensated for one of them, even though they were recorded by people like Elvis and other equally famous performers. She died on October 3rd listening to the CD of her final performance. The doctors were actually officially declaring her gone when the final track on the CD started to play - featuring her, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Paul Shaffer singing "Let It Roll Baby Roll".
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In between Jonnie's tunes on A Great Night In Harlem you'll find everything from Dr. Michael White & The Original Liberty Brass Band playing old style New Orleans Jazz from 1905, Henry Butler playing some quite amazing ragtime and other early Jazz piano, The Duke Ellington Big Band playing some mean swing with "It Doesn't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and then being joined by Fay Victor for a heart rending version of "Strange Fruit.

The disc turns the corner into harder Jazz next and picks up the pace with Arturo O'Farril and Candido for a burning version of "Caravan", and Roy Haynes gives a clinic in Jazz drumming with an amazing drum solo. Next it's time for the boys with the horns to take the stage, and what could be more fitting then "Straight No Chaser" to represent the bebop era. It's then on into the modern era and Jimmy Norman sings his song "Time Is On My Side" (some guys named the Rolling Stones had a hit with it some time back) and is followed by Davell Crawford singing "Everything Must Change"

Sweet Gerogia Brown, and Johnnie Mae Dunson join Paul Shaffer and others on stage for the grand finale of a Blues Jam that includes the aforementioned "Let It Roll Baby Roll", and sounds just amazing. It's a fitting end to a concert disc that features some truly special musical moments. Making it even more special is the knowledge that all the musicians are performing in order to help out their compatriots who are in dire need, and that all the money raised will one way or another end up in the pocket of somebody who has made the world a better place with their song or the sound of their instrument.

I figure that buying a copy of A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music isn't a matter of giving to a charity, it's a way for all of us to finally pay back the money that's long been owed to the people who wrote the music we've all loved for years, and who were never paid for their efforts. The fact that the disc was considered for a Grammy nomination under the legends of music category tells you something of its quality, but there's no award out there that can match the reward of listening to the heart and soul being poured out on every track of this disc.

You can purchase copies of A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music directly from the The Jazz Foundation Of America's web site and be able to enjoy a piece of history forever. Remember some of these people aren't going to be around for ever, and if we are ever going to pay them back for what they've given us, we should be doing it soon, if not sooner.