Friday, April 29, 2011

Skuli Sverrisson Makes Unusual Music on "Seria II"

His last album was Icelandic Album of the Year. But Skuli Sverrisson, bassist, composer, arranger, producer, has more than a local cache. His follow-up, Seria II (Seria Music) plays on my computer as I write. And I am trying to get a handle on a description of what I am hearing.

[But first a little rant. Some designers think that type is that annoying crap that messes up the design. And I guess because it is supposed to be hip too, type on CDs has become so small as to be pretty much illegible. I have a magnifying glass in my office now so I can try and read what is what. This album is one of many such. The name of the artist and the name of the album on the front cover are nigh close to unreadable. Point size? Maybe five points. In knock-out-to-white type, and all-capitals, no less. This violates just about every rule of thumb designers were taught when I was apprenticed some time ago. It's true size-wise of the inside copy too, but at least there it is upper and lower case, black type on white. What happened to the idea that if you want someone to buy something, you allow them to know what the name of the artist and title of the album are, in legible type? The watchword for many years has been, "Oh, people won't read it anyway" in many such instances. Well I beg to differ. I do wish that some sanity is restored to graphic arts, before I become blind. Words have a function--and I fear album sales are effected when you can't read the words for their meaning. And God forbid there should actually be some sentences on the music! OK, enough of that.]

Back to a description of the music. This is mid-sized chamber music. Not classical exactly. Not exactly new age. Acoustic guitar picking often forms the foundation for the layering of instruments and wordless (sometimes synthesized?) voices. The music has a good deal of ambiance, but also a pulse. The melody ambles on in an attractive flow, without typically repetitious minimalism, but in long strands that have sequencing and mesmeric rhythmic sameness. There is a northern folkishness to the sound and some very interesting instrumental-vocal combinations.

It's music that might well appeal to those who seek new-age-ian repose or semi-trance states of conciousness. Eno? Not really. It almost has an easy-listening-in-space feel to it, but it is too new sounding, too utterly distinctive, to use a phrase that could be conceived as deprecatory.

Entrancing. Music. New. Easy. Contentful. Bright and burnished sound color. It's very interesting indeed. File under "whatever" or "new things that do not yet have an appelation."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

King Crimson's Fourth, "Islands": Anniversary Edition

Fripp and Crimson followed the magnificent, window-rattling Lizard with a somewhat quieter, more introspective, often touchingly lyrical Islands (King Crimson KCSP4). The 40th Anniversary CD/DVD set which you can grab now, like the others in the series benchmarks the standard for definitive edition production. Once again the CD provides a remastered two-channel stereo remix of the album and select alternate takes; the DVD brings to your ears a marvelous 5:1 surround mix and a wealth of early mixes, different takes, fascinating early rehearsal run-throughs, live versions and an unreleased track from the sessions.

The realignment of personnel was a factor, though this particular one-off lineup continued the sound and feel of the earlier groups. Mel Collins on reeds was one of the notable presences, as was Boz on bass and post-Lake-ian vocals.

This is an album that deserves more credit than it perhaps has received. The compositions are strong, the lyrics zero in on the idea of how it feels to be isolated, island-bound in a metaphoric as well as a physical sense. You have some mellotronic onslaughts, free-playing within the song form, gentle balladic melancholies, beautiful chamber-orchestrated art song, and some excellent, sometimes subtle Fripp guitarwork.

The sound is great, the extra cuts give you a round picture of the state of the band at the time and in this case it certainly increases my regard for an album that never seemed to stick in my mind. The distinct and consistently distinctive melancholy of Islands marks it off as a singular part of the Crimson opus, ambitious and successful at it without a great deal of fanfare. Hear this edition and you'll probably reconsider what you think of the music. And the new mixes are ravishing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Another Goodie From Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser's Yo Miles: Lightning

Today a quick look at the second recent reissue/newbie from Wadada Leo Smith & Henry Kaiser's Yo Miles! It's called Lightning (There Records) and you can get it for a good price at your favorite (legitimate) downloadery. It's a good hour of music with interesting tracks that were originally on the albums Upriver: Thunder and Lightning, Macero, and Sky Garden. Three cuts have not been previously released. One in particular, "Tsapiky Freelimo," has good contributions from the Rova Quartet. The band builds on the Miles electric sounds with jams outside of the usual riffs and heads that Miles and his various bands set down. So it is music in the spirit of this part of the illustrious Davis canon.

As I said a while back in my coverage of the companion album Shinjuku, this was & is the premier electric-Miles-influenced band. More than a tribute outfit, they expand on the free-rock-funk premises and make an original contribution. Wadada and Henry are in good form and the rhythm team gives it all the smoke.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Macroscopia: deBrunner, Silverman, Carter and Zlabinger in Avant Chamber Improv

Despite the words of a song that blazed over my radio as a youth, freedom is NOT a word for "nothing left to lose." Freedom of choice is almost a terrifying prospect, as you know if you've looked with glazed eyes at the 200-odd brands and sub-brands of spaghetti sauce in the pasta aisle of your supermarket. Sometimes you stop caring that there is freedom of choice, partially because it becomes meaningless. It's a free market thing undoubtedly, to have huge price differences, little variation in actual features, and maximum sensuous overload from the images and graphics of what's on the outside of the jar. We all know the feeling, I suspect. That's not the kind of freedom that free improvisation represents. Freedom, at least here, brings challenge and responsibility. It's serious. All the creativity, all the imaginative and technical resources of each musician comes into play. One's reputation is on the line with every passing minute. The quartet of free players on the CD Macroscopia (Metier Jazz 0403) take that seriously. Listen and you know it is so.

A drummerless quartet of bassoon (Claire deBrunner), electric guitar (Ken Silverman), reeds and trumpet (Daniel Carter), and contrabass (Tom Zlabinger) forms the nucleus of the music. Seven free episodes comprise the CD. The quartet creates spontaneous four-way melodic communications of a modern sort. The tonality tends to be expanded and the emphasis is on invention as a whole. There aren't so much solos as there are collective improvisations. This is music without the safety net of preplanned compositional frameworks, overarching rhythmic patterns or, for that matter, without a lot of energy forays.

Claire deBrunner's bassoon gives the ensemble a distinct sound from the beginning. Bassoons do that! She plays a good bit of it and fits well with what the others are doing. Ken Silverman's guitar work has subtlety and a certain amount of selflessness. He creates lines and some harmonic context with taste and restraint. Daniel Carter loosely responds to the others in ways for which he is known. Tom Zlabinger anchors the proceedings with lower register contributions that, like the others, keep the group context as its focus.

What you get in the end is a promising quartet playing a challenging set of group improvisations which move directionally. Continued future interactions could well mark them off as a free ensemble of importance. For now there is a tentativeness in the explorations, a sounding-out of some possibilities, a testing of the waters. That doesn't mean that this is not an interesting listen. It most certainly is. I wish them the best and hope they continue to blossom as a unit as they continue their journey into uncharted territory.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Broken Records' "Let Me Come Home": A Rock Sound Unto Itself

The Edinburgh band Broken Records started with some song ideas by leader-vocalist-guitarist Jamie Sutherland in 2006. A six-man band formed to put those ideas into sound. Their new album Let Me Come Home (4AD) presents the latest and most evolved version of that band sound. It has a flourish, a rather thickly textured wall-of-simultaneity that is more than just guitars-bass- drums. There's a violinist, who when needed becomes a string section in the studio; there is a well-thought-out rock orchestration at work on all the songs.

And the song-centered presentation in turn centers on the dynamic vocals of Jamie Sutherland, who has some of the rangy intensity of the singing of Jeff Buckley, Ours and No Man. Is this some kind of prog rock then? I'd say yes, only for the reason that the sophisticated art-song forms and the grandly conceived instumental carpeting give it something much more elaborated than a garagy slam. On the other hand there is sometimes a kind of Springstein-ish immediacy (without some of his pop sensibility) that is cushioned by the lushly thick, slightly dark wall of instrumentation.

Yet there is a singleness of direction that doesn't necessarily fit that mould.

Suffice to say at this point that Broken Records make some highly distinguished, rather beautiful music that doesn't quite sound like it was made by anybody else.

Friday, April 22, 2011

King Crimson Anniversary Edition of "In the Wake of Poseidon"

I reviewed the Anniversary Edition of King Crimson's first album on these pages a while back. Today it's time for the second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Like I found on the new version of the first, this is doubtless the definitive edition of this album and a model for intelligent remastering. You get a CD with a remastering of the album and select alternate song versions, all worth hearing. Then there is a DVD with a stunning 5:1 surround mix of the master takes and a host of alternates. I will not dwell here on the sound quality; it is excellent and a very good reason for grabbing the disks.

The second Crimson confirmed the stylistic importance of the band and their ability to prevail despite periodically shifting member lineups. There are the cuts that remind one of the first album, but there are new advances as well. "Cat Food" put them in a mode (thanks in part to Tippett's skittering piano) where prog rocking incorporated free and avant elements in ways that worked on either side of the balance. "The Devil's Triangle" took a very loose adaptation of Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War" (from The Planets) and made it into a long and fascinating tone poem for mellotron and virtually all the musical resources Fripp and company had available to them. "Groon," which was the B side of the "Cat Food" single (and not part of the original album, at least in the States) is an avant-rock trio making seriously adventurous music and an opportunity for Robert Fripp to further establish what his guitar style was and could be. The fair number of alternate versions of this number on the DVD shows that they knew what they were after, and each is interesting.

My point is that though it seemed at the time (due to the first side of the original record) that they were repeating the first album in some ways, in fact as is always the case with Fripp's musical vision, they were continually moving forward.

The second album continued what to listeners at the time (myself included) seemed a dramatic development on the British rock scene (and it was). Here was a group that combined a haunting lyricism with an exploratory ethos that, unlike most bands of the era, could pull off the more ambitious elements not just successfully, but with total identity. The Crimson legacy was to achieve art status in the realm of Prog Rock, and to progress from album-to-album into a vast terrain that was charted out and made use of in ways that exemplified what was possible in that realm. It served as a model for other bands to follow, not of course always with the best results.

The point is that In the Wake of Poseidon remains of prime artistic importance today for the rock music of the era; and it is as historically important as any album coming out in rock circa 1970. The fact that the 40th Anniversary Edition is definitive and unlikely to be superseded in the years to come is one more reason why it is a very attractive option for those who were there then or want to understand the development of the music scene as it unfolded in those turbulent days. Take what Hendrix had been doing and what Crimson was just beginning to do and you have the one-two punch of what was advanced about the music and what the future was to bring--again for better or worse.

Have I said enough?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Copernicus' Self-Styled Prog-Prose-Poetic Rant Redux: Cipher and Decipher

Copernicus gives you a new chapter of subatomic rants with Cipher and Decipher (Nevermore/Moonjune 2092). As with his earlier outings there is a sort of psych-prog-fusionesque jamband backing him up. Their job is not to intrude with much in the way of soloing but to give the prose-poem rant a context, and this they do well.

Copernicus starts where Jim Morrison's "The End" leaves off. Instead of "Mother, I want to. . . aaaargh," Copernicus gives out with his vision of a universe forever changed for humans with the discovery of subatomic particles. All bets are off. We don't exist. None of our handiwork, for better or worse, exists. The message is brought to you with a great deal of hubris, such that Copernicus sounds a bit like a madman.

It is not without its interest. Most will not find the need for a complete set of Copernicus rants. And so perhaps you are better off starting with one of the earlier disks, for a foundational rant. Listening to this one first is a little like starting a novel in the middle. Those who are Copernicus adherents will neither be surprised nor will they be disappointed with this new one, I suspect. The rest of us? Festivus!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guitarist Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters, The Ordeal of Civility

In the musical world there are artisans and there are artists. The pure artisan has phenomenal technique but does not harness that technique much to make music that is more than a fireworks display of finger, hand, lip, tongue or vocal-chord twisting exercises designed to wow. The artist on the other hand puts music at the center of the picture, but may not be technically advanced. Gary Lucas manages to be a superior artisan AND an artist of first rank.

This is well-shown in his new album with his band Gods and Monsters, The Ordeal of Civility (Knitting Factory Records 1111). He is joined by a very solid grouping of bass, drums, sax, and trombone-keyboards. The Talking Head's Jerry Harrison produced the album. He gets a tightly staged rock production that fits the overall arch of the music. That is, the music is centered on the song form.

The Ordeal of Civility title is taken from a book by the same name, Cuddihy's 1974 opus looking at the Jewish triumvirate Marx, Freud and Levi-Strauss and their profound impact on the Gentile world. At least, that's what the liner notes tell us. I have not have the pleasure of reading the book myself. (But the originals I have read of deeply. Graduate school, OK? They HAVE profoundly shaped the way we think. Trust me on that if you have not delved much into their work.)

Anyway this is rock band-original song material, which is what Gods and Monsters is about. Gary's songs have rock universality on the veneered surface. But then get inside them and they begin to become singular. They breathe, expand, contract, give you pause and play themselves in your head at night. They go from the very catchy opening "Luvsoldsweetsong," the psychedelic-folk Stones-reminisced "Lady of Shalott," to the hauntingly somber "Jedwabne," a song about an anti-semitic, genocidic pogram taking place in a European city years back and the remaining nightmare of its memory. This is moving music.

Gary sings in an effectively serviceable way--he can sound a little later Iggy Pop-like, a Bowie-ish semi-baritone; and then he can go elsewhere and get into his upper range with a different sound.

The brilliant guitar work is there, harnessed to the needs of the songs themselves. You'll hear Gary's blossomed acoustic work in all its finery and brilliance. And you'll hear some of the electric psychedelic tone balancing that helped put him among the ranks of the very best from the beginning of his solo career on.

The balance of song, style, content and musical prowess brings a high level of elements together in equal proportions. This is music to dwell in, reflect upon, and get down with too.

It shows that Gary Lucas remains vital, whatever direction he seeks to move within and towards.

So don't hesitate.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Uwe Gronau's "Midsummer" Spans Genre Gaps with Elegance and Musicality

The borders between genres have never been absolute. There are periods where they may seem more so than others. Now is not one of those times. There has been over the years the development of a certain overall musical sonance that has come about only gradually, starting in the realm of "pure" electronic music from the '50s on, then as a part of the electric jazz of such pioneers as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, cropping up in the music of the classical prog rockers such as Yes and King Crimson, the jazz associated with the ECM label and, ultimately, as a part of the music known as "new age". We now also have something called soundscapes which shares with these other musical forms a kind of cosmic ambiance. As time has gone its way there have been various convergences between any and all of these sound-development side-pockets, for better or worse.

Uwe Gronau exemplifies that convergence in his two-CD offering Midsummer (Doppel-CD). Gronau does all the keyboard playing, composes the music, and conceptualizes the sound. He is joined by a few key sidemen here and there. This is not a music that is about soloing or virtuosity. It has a great deal of the ambiance alluded to above. It often straddles the edge between new age and soundscape (with flirtations into prog rock territory), and it does it with such a consistently good musicality that one does not shrink away from the connotations certain labels may entail. (I mean new age.)

The instrumentation varies from ambient solo piano, synth-based space music, slightly more edgy things (and I mean slightly) with guitars, bass and drums, and so forth. It is largely instrumental (one song has vocals) and it is designed to be easy on the ears.

This is music I could dismiss easily (and I have done that in my mind with similar examples). What kept it on my "to review" pile is the musical substance the album contains. It has a tunefulness that is not just simple pablumatic pleasantry. There is a musical mind at work here. Plus the arrangements have interest. The sound of the production has a vibrancy.

So if you are going to listen to this sort of thing, what sort of thing I hope I have described adequately, I do reccommend you check this one out. It is perhaps rare to find an artist that can create an "easy" sort of music without stepping into a miasma of pap. Gronau sidesteps the pap-holes and gives the music a bit of grit when needed.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this music is an expression of aspects of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language. I like that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Kurt Vile Brings On His Reality in "Smoke Ring for My Halo"

Kurt Vile rings true. Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador) rings true. Some artist don't as much. What almost indescribable thing makes a fellow with a guitar, backing musicians and a bunch of songs seem effortlessly authentic, while others may toil and labor and come off as trying to be something but not really getting there? It's not a matter of complexity, always. Mr. Vile plays pretty simple chords behind his almost casual delivery. But those chords work together and they aren't cliches. And he can do a little picking and combine simple but unusual patterns that bring out a new wrinkle to what can be done. The vocals lay back and tell of something he feels, something about his situation and maybe ours. They are honest. But they are also not just of the "I want a Clark Bar" sort. The complexity of needs and feelings in the world we're in, the imagery of being beyond despair to another level of seeing, the honesty of classic blues with the steel shattering angst of the petty everyday person-in-world not-of-his-particular-choosing. And he tells you to "take a whiz on the world if it doesn't work." Yeah, I can get with that feeling.

That's a taste of why I think Kurt Vile is true, to himself, to us. He's the opposite of glitter and surface; yet he is kind of saying, I may have depth, but it doesn't seem to change anything that I experience.

That's my take. Kurt Vile on his Smoke Ring for My Halo (the new one) comes through with laconic post-angst that sounds right, lays right, and communicates how perhaps people feel right now. Anyway one never doubts that this is what HE feels. He is anti-matter. He is anti-pop. He is not a product. He might start feeling very happy if you buy his new album. I'm sure that wont ruin the place he's in right now. So do it anyway.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sanda Gets Back to the Roots with "Gypsy in A Tree"

When we refer to something as "World Music," what we mean in some sense is "rest-of-the-world" music, music that is not precisely part of our world in the local sense. Otherwise of course all music is "World Music," unless we start getting radio signals from some would-be Hendrix of Alpha Centuri. Since we only have found a few amoeba sorts of things on meteors and such, we do have a wait, I suspect. And while "World Music" has a kind of almost post-colonialist ring to it, I guess it will have to serve for now.

Which brings me to today's music. It is contemporary, downtown-ish arrangements of Romanian Gypsy music by Sanda Weigl, Gypsy In A Tree (Barbes Records BR0029). Sanda has had an interesting journey to where she is today: Eastern European rocker, political prisoner, downtown new music-avant-gypsy figure.... Her new album includes a cast of interesting big-apple based Japanese musicians and assorted others. Sanda's training in the Brecht school of dramatic presentation serves her well in how she sometimes falls into a kind of new-old cabaret style a la Brecht-Weill and Threepenny Opera, which leads me to believe she could be excellent in the cast of one of those classic singspiels. But of course Romanian folk has those dramatic declamatory tendencies too, so it works either way you look at it.

This is a good listen. Sanda sings with the enthusiastic abandon these sorts of songs demand. The arrangements are consistently interesting with hints of everything from klezmer to Weill to Carla Bley to some of the Zorn contingency.

Once you give this one a few listens to sort out what it IS and what it ISN'T, if you are like me, the music takes over and you simply sit back and enjoy. If you like the minor-strained passion with the infectious dance rhythms indigenous to music from this part of the world like I do, you will no doubt find this to your taste. She sings heartily well, the musicians do interesting things and the songs are certainly worth the earful. Oh and by the way, if you are New York-centered, Sanda will be having a release party performance at the 92Y Tribeca one week from today (April 22nd).

Recommended for those of this world. Those Alpha Centurian Hendrix-types will have to take a chance on this one; I can't predict what it is you'll like from our many earth musics.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whoarfrost Kicks Out the Jams in A CD of Avant Skronk

You know when you hear the opening track, "The Young Are Sniffing Waste," that Whoarfrost (Engine 038) is not a typical power trio by all counts. They thrash, they put on a punk attitude, they exude a tremendous amount of energy... all this is true. But there is something else in there. Or rather a series of something else's. Funny little repeating figures that stick out of the mix, some blocks of power chords that aren't the typical ones, and they are hit in a complicated, jagged sort of way by the band. Vocals that aren't just punk-skronk yelling-self-hoarse, though there's a good bit of that. There too are art melodies of some sort. Additive and subtractive rhythmic phrases. Noise jam, post-Hendrix group psychedelia of a sort that shows they have musicianship to spare. I could go on.

It would be just like Steven Walcott, his Engine Records philosophy and his irreverent attitude toward the status quo that when he-they put out avant punk music it sets on its ear the setting-on-its-ear process, setting the setting on its ears.

These three goodfellows, these three "yutes," John Lipscomb (guitar, vocal), Tim Shaw (bass), Ethan Snyder (drums) are onto something and have quite obviously worked hard collectively and individually to get their aura together.

I hand you no bull, these Berklee renegades regroup under their own banner and continue the general onslaught on normalcy that avant garde anything and everything is all about. I hope young folks get a snootful of this music. It might give them the sort of jolt that the Fugs, Mothers, Beefheart and Hendrix did when I was a lad. Beyond age-ism, though, this is a new sort of punk that is no longer punk. It is much too accomplished to hide behind the angry slacker pose--and it doesn't, really.

Yes, boss, this might be one you should search for.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mamadou Diabate, African Kora Virtuoso, and His Album "Courage"

The best of the West African kora players (a 21-string harp) rival the musicianship and imagination of players of any instrument, anywhere in the world. Mali's Mamadou Diabate is one of those. His fifth album, Courage (World Village 468108), gives you ample opportunity to hear some wonderful sounds, traditional yet contemporary enough to include a western bass player in addition to African xylophone and three instrumentalists who might ordinarily be found in such ensembles

This is music that is likely to appeal to listeners who may not have much exposure to the African musical heritage; and it will impress anyone who knows the kora tradition. The kora, especially in the hands of a master like Mamadou, has a unique beauty and a gently exuberant presence playing atop an accompaniment of insistently but subtly rocking rhythm and note patterns. There are ensemble passages of a compositional nature. Each piece concentrates on particular rhythm feels, a tonality, thematic material and ensemble-melodic signposts.

Mamadou Diabate is a beautiful player. The music will enchant you if you give it time to work its ways. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bird Names Debuts with Some Odd Sort of Garage Music: "Metabolism"

OK, we have a group called Bird Names on tap today. They did an album in their basement (Chicago) which they call Metabolism: A Salute to the Energy of the Sun (Northern-Spy). It has a strange sort of garage momentum combined with an element that is so original I don't quite know how to describe it. The Northern-Spy website mentions the Residents, and there is a wall-to-wall conceptualism here that I suppose has some Resident qualities. There is a hint of classic Beefheart and psychedelia, but then it goes off on its own so you might just forget all that and approach the music on its own turf.

There is a DIY ingenuity at play though. They have a low-fi kind of authenticity and an asymmetrical kind of alt going on. It's absolutely underground sounding in the classic sense. The vocals are garagy, they use the usual rock instruments plus extra percussive and home-grown sounds.

It's fun and rather deranged. I have trouble easily assimilating where they are coming from. Which is a very good thing. This is recommended for those searching for another way to do things. They are original and perhaps a bit nuts. That is quite cool with me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bruce Arnold's "Heavy Mental" Guitar

We've been looking at a couple of albums by guitarist Bruce Arnold in the last several weeks. Here now is a third, Heavy Mental (Muse Eek 156).

It's a flat-out dash, a cranked guitar, fused power trio outing with a distant cousinship to Allan Holdsworth and Terje Rypdal's forays into this territory, and it's a good go of it to boot.

Bruce is joined by Andy Galore, bass, and Kirk Driscoll, drums for the thrust of fused rock with the sophisticated harmonies and melodic invention of jazz. The bass-drum team are right where they need to be, but it's pretty much Mr. Arnold's guitar that makes it all elevate to those extra level notches above just good. Bruce has shown us he can be accomplished in avant-avant and also avant-mainstream playing. Now he shows equal comfort with and facility in the more electric zone.

The first thing you notice on listening is Bruce's beautiful tone. It is highly electric but rich and velvety, almost silken, charged with sustain, made three-dimensional via resort to finger vibrato at certain points in the melody curve. His chording and note-conjuring are ahead of the pack and well executed, with chops to spare. Mention should also be made of Galore's solid bass ensemble work and his effective solo spots. Mr. Driscoll has a busy driving style that does not rest content with the backbeat stance; he's all over the place and rightfully so.

Bruce does the compositions here and they stay in a good place, without recourse to fusion cliche whatsoever.

It's a terrific outing that will please those who like the drive of rock with intelligent playing and arranging. Mr. Arnold should find plenty of eager converts to his brand of axe wielding with this disk. Give it a good listen and you could well be one of them!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Michael Bisio, Covert Choreography, 1996

We turn back the clock today to 1996, and an album that has not been given its due. I'm talking about the Michael Bisio Quintet's Covert Choreography (Cadence Jazz 1063). It documents a part of the lively Pacific Coast improvisatory scene of those days; it gives equal weight to the bass playing and compositional side of Michael Bisio's work of those years; and it features some excellent musicians who perhaps do not get the recognition they deserve.

The central focus of the album is on the title cut, a 40 minute opus, with compositional elements occurring as signposts throughout, and plenty of room for the players to stretch out and solo in various settings, swingtime, freetime and out-of-time instrumental combinations. Michael Bisio, of course, has by this point gelled in his playing approach to an all-over propulsive dynamo whether in pizzicato or arco mode. Eyvind Kang is Michael's violinistic counterpart, with an energetic approach, the technique and projection of a Michael White and the energy of Leroy Jenkins in overdrive. Rob Blakeslee wields a rootsy yet out trumpet that contrasts nicely in sound color with the other soloists. Ed Pias swings and gives a surcharge of energy to the ensemble in ways that show his sense, taste and keen ears. Bob Nell is a pianistic revelation, a cut-and-dash charge of adreniline at his most frenetic, a man with bop and after roots, and an out lyricists in the less propulsive passages. He's someone I am glad to be catching up with.

After "Covert," things get a bit more intimate with some excellent duets between Michael Bisio and Bob Nell on "He's Everyone I Ever Knew," and Michael and Rob Blakeslee on "Spheroid". The album concludes with nine minutes of boisterous violin, high-voltage bowed bass and bombastic drums on "Geographically Correct." In the end you feel satiated and, if you are like me, quite satisfied that something good has taken place.

There you have the basic run-down. It's a beautiful free date that shows what very good music was coming out of Seattle in this period, with an excellent ensemble and Michael Bisio in top form.

This is a sleeping gem that needs to be awakened by you. Get a copy and dig it. Click on the CIMP Records link on this page and once there, click on Cadence Jazz Records and you'll find the complete details on the album and, if you like, have the opportunity to order a copy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

New Recording of Gene Pritsker's Chamber and Electronic Music

Composer, guitarist, musical iconoclast. Gene Pritsker has one constant about him. No two. First he cannot be pegged. Modern concert music, classical-style classical, rock, hip hop. . . he can and will go wherever the spirit moves within a work and in his overall oeuvre. The second is that whatever he does, he does it with distinction.

The newest recording devoted to his works is the second such volume in the Composer's Concordance series, namely The International Street Cannibals Present. . . the Chamber and Electronic works of Gene Pritsker (Composers Concordance Records). It covers much ground, from the somewhat conventional piece for string quartet, "Credit System of Truth", to a chamber work combining bass clarinet, cello and electric guitar ("Poem #1"), to purely electronic/electro-acoustic music ("inside"). (See my other blogsite at for a review of the first volume. See this site for additional coverage of various other Pritsker releases.)

Some of this music has a kind of 20th century expressionist sound to it and/or a sort of New Americana point of view. The electronic pieces are the more unconventional, using a variety of sampled and electronic sounds to create a vibrant mini-universe.

In sum the Chamber and Electronic Music goes in a number of different directions. But it ultimately succeeds in giving the listener a well-performed cross-section of the composer's work in the smaller ensemble mode, and a tantalizing glimpse of the purely electronic side of the Pritsker opus. Those unfamiliar with Gene's music might do better to start with the first volume of the series (which covers several of his works and those of other new composers) or his Innova recording of "The Varieties of Religious Experience Suite." Those who know Gene P's music will not be disappointed in this one. Nor will those who favor the chamber mode of expression, I would think.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Esben and the Witch: "Violet Cries," Indie Rock from Brighton

Formed in Brighton, England in 2008, Esben and the Witch have a trio configuraton but it isn't meant to be a "power" sort of threesome. There's Rachel Davies on bass, and on vocals that remind me a little of the Cure's lead singer, only a female version and a little more raw; Daniel Copeman, guitar and electronics; and Thomas Fisher, guitar and keys. In other words no drummer--but there are electronically produced drums and percussion, perhaps activated by the keyboard sound module?

Anyway their 2011 album Violet Cries (Matador) has a sound that does not put them in pop territory. Instead they dwell in a zone that allows ambitious sonar explorations of their physical and internal worlds.

They do not entirely fit in with some prepackaged notion as to where a band of this sort is supposed to fit in. To listen to Violet Cries is to listen to something on its own terms. There are large electronic caverns to dwell in, walls of sound that sometimes rapidly vanish like a mirage, to be replaced by another sound universe. The electronic, echo-laden ambiance and contrasting unfolding blocks of guitar-bass-synth-drums make for interesting listening. The vocals may take some getting used to.

They are doing something stylistically advanced. What that "is" is, is not your standard fare. (Hmm...three "is"'s in a row?) For this reason I would heartily recommend it for those looking for something that is not something else!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jakko Jakszyk, Robert Fripp and Mel Collins Create New King Crimson ProjeKct

I do not usually address forthcoming releases. But in this case I could not resist.

DGM/Inner Knot Records announced the upcoming release of A Scarcity of Miracles, a new release in the King Crimson ProjeKct series. The ProjeKct features Robert Fripp, Jakko Jakszyk and Mel Collins with a rhythm section of Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison.

A Scarcity of Miracles will be released on May 30, 2011. Information for the release can be found at I'll be reviewing the recording once it comes out. Stay tuned.

Yo Miles Presents Shinjuku: Miles' Electric Legacy Extended and Evolved

Of all the electric Miles Davis tribute outfits, Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles went the furthest in taking the innovative (and in some avenues still controversial) style of Miles' principal electric period (1969-1975) and growing it with the implications of how those bands made music.

The recently issued, download-only album Shinjutsu makes for a great example of this. Working around the nucleus of Henry's guitar and Wadada's trumpet, the band builds their own edifice of psychedelic rock-funk and sound color that both remains true to the many aspects of Miles' music as it takes them further along in ways that allow the soloists to bring their own personal takes on the Milesian mode and gives the collective band a chance to create additional colors and group presence.

Four tracks were previously issued on Sky Garden and Up River and there is one weighty unreleased track, "Muhammad Ali (Live)", which is especially notable for the interaction of Wadada Leo Smith and tabla master Zakir Hussein.

Most readers will be aware of the reaction against this music, well organized and consistently put forward by certain famous and infamous individuals. They claimed that the style was illegitimate, against jazz, and ultimately uninfluential. I believe strongly that that is not the case. Shinjuku shows as well as any the lasting legacy, the continued vibrancy, and the open plasticity of Miles' concept. It brought--and continues to bring--the music into the contemporary world we live in. Of course there have been other stylistic trends that have done that and continue to do that as well. In order to benchmark the importance of what Miles accomplished in light of later developments, one cannot look entirely at the acoustic jazz groups that have operated in its wake. For color, for rhythm, for freedom within a set of form parameters, the influence is everywhere you find electric bands working in the long form. And you find it too in acoustic bands looking for a way around head melodies, changes, straight modal, and hard-bop group routinings, as well as in free-playing groups seeking to find additional ways to extend improvisational form.

All in all Shinjuku is a great example of Yo Miles in its evolved stage, an entity unto itself. And at the same time it's an example of what Miles's electric legacy has given us.

Much recommended. Find out more details and download the album at the usual download hot spots: i tunes, Amazon, etc.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Guitarist Bruce Arnold and The Art of the Blues

Bruce Arnold does not operate in one dimension. He slides through various musical zones with facility and imagination. For example his duet recording with Ursel Schlicht (reviewed a little while ago on these pages) operates on a high level in a free zone. Today's CD, The Art of the Blues (Muse Eek 157), addresses some of the roots of today's music, namely of course the blues, in a trio setting.

Mr. Arnold's blues do not sound like Robert Johnson's. Bruce applies harmonic, rhythmic and melodic ideas to the blues form to get something that extends that form into areas that sound quite modern, without losing the basic essence of the classic earlier forms associated with the plugged-in electric players of the mid-20th century.

The trio of Arnold, Dean Johnson, bass, and Tony Moreno, drums, has a forward-moving linear approach yet expands and augments the basic pulse in ways that put a spin on asymmetrical odd-meter time feels while maintaining a swing-pulse groove. The harmonic-melodic extensions in which the group operates also make this a most distinctive set of music. This is blues on a plane of its own.

But if it were only that it would not be as interesting and satisfying as it is. It's the musicianship of the trio that convinces. The main impetus is Bruce Arnold's lucid and consistent application of his ideas to the solo craft. It works too because Johnson and Moreno are totally onboard with what is going on.

If you are willing to take the time to listen closely and repeatedly to this music, it will reward you with some fine sounds. Arnold does something very worthwhile here. From the level of guitar art and ensemble chemistry, this one has it! Recommended.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet Brings the Sauce for a Satisfying Trombone Dish

Latin music, from the mambo, son and salsa days onward, has favored brass enclaves and soloists. The trumpet and trombone have special status in the Afro-Cuban music of the dance. Reciprocally and/or complementarily Latin jazz often puts pride of place it its brass players. After all Diz, a trumpet master, has much do with encouraging the form and innovating within it from the '40s on.

So when a trombonist, Wayne Wallace, puts together his Latin Jazz Quintet and features himself on bone as well as the recurring use of a four-man bone choir, it makes sense. That's what is going on in his To Hear From There (Patois 012). The core nucleus for this album is his quintet of self, Murray Low on piano, David Belove, electric bass, Michael Spiro, percussion, and Paul van Wageningen, drums. The three additional trombonists and a vocalist or two jump in from time to time.

What you get is grooving latin percussion and rhythmic Latin style riffs, nicely arranged lines, some standards and originals that fit together well, and hell of a lot of good Wayne Wallace trombone.

This is music that will catch the ear of the Latin Jazz enthusiast, and for entirely good reasons. If it doesn't quite have the drive and dynamism of an Eddie Palmieri, well it doesn't. Not many bands can equal Eddie's in its prime. And ultimately we are talking about a quintet at its base for the Wallace unit, so they don't have the larger band clout for the most part. For all that though if you come for the trombone you will be very happy.