Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Week in Listening 1/12 - 1/18

1/12/09- Miles Davis- The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 CD Disc One
Fred Frith- To Sail, To Sail CD 2008
This Kind of Punishment- self titled LP 1983
Eddy Current Suppression Ring- Primary Colours CD 2008

1/13/09- Linda Perhacs- Parallelograms LP 1970
Air- 80 Degrees Below ‘82 LP 1982
Orange- In the Midst of Chaos LP 1977
The Jam- In the City b/w Takin’ My Love 7” 1977
The Bats- Compiletely Bats CD 1991

1/14/09- Bill Dixon- Odyssey CD Disc One 2001
Chet Baker- Complete Holland 1955 Recordings with Richard Twardzik CD
Charles Tolliver- Mosaic Select CD Disc One 2002

1/15/09- The Chris McGregor Septet- Up To Earth LP 1969
Lambchop- (OH) Ohio CD 2008

1/16/09- Various Artists- Imaginational Anthem CD 2005
Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet- Voodoo CD 1986

1/17/09- Shark Quest- Battle of the Loons CD 1998
Albert Ayler Trio- Spiritual Unity LP 1964
Orange- In the Midst of Chaos LP 1977
Paul Flaherty Bill Nace Thurston Moore- self titled CD 2008
Sunny Murray- Big Chief LP 1969
Various Artists- A Million Dollar$ Worth of Doo-Wop Volume Four CD

1/18/09- Sam Rivers- Fuchsia Swing Song LP 1964
Linda Perhacs- Parallelograms LP 1970
Erica Pomerance- You Used to Think LP 1968

MONDAY 1/12- This Kind of Punishment was New Zealander Peter Jefferies’ second recording band, initially a duo with his brother Graeme. The 1983 debut LP, released on the Flying Nun label, was recorded on a four track and stands as a fine example of nude, dour beauty. The name of this unit hung in the air for the better part of a decade before they received any kind of US licensing and this fact contributed harshly to the neglect of their despondent brilliance, forever championed by underground scribes and name-checked as the sensible alternative to most of the gothy/frowny fodder that filled import racks and sated those who lusted for some sort of simulacrum to Joy Division and their ilk. One contributing factor to TKP’s obscurity was geography; another was a seeming ambivalence to a large following, this album initially being released in an edition of 1000 copies; and the third was the non-trendy nature of the music. This wasn’t the soundtrack to cliquish angst. It was the logical graduation sound for legions that wore out copies of Closer while sitting alone in their bedrooms (or dorm rooms). It’s actually a conundrum whether TKP would have been a bigger proposition if they’d been based in Manchester instead of NZ, for there is an inherent subtlety to this music. It requires time and not necessarily a similar temperament but at least a tacit understanding that real life is rarely peaches and cream. The moodier moments of the Velvet Underground loom large over this, but not in the way most artists channel them. VU is basically a template for the brothers Jefferies’ own emotional murkiness, to the point that the band (and Peter’s Last Great Challenge in a Dull World) border on an alternate universe version of the Velvets which Lou and Moe quit after White Light/White Heat that culminated in a “lost” duo recording from Cale and Sterling. At least to me. This is some of the best legit loner-ism I’ve heard, drenched in a melancholy that’s just menacing due to the unblinking maturity of its malaise.

TUESDAY 1/13- Discussions over underrated jazz groups can go on for hours. I’ve had a few. The sore mouth is more than worth it for the insights and camaraderie. Next time I’m presented with one of these marathon sessions I think I’ll let Air escape my jaws in more than one sense. This trio of Henry Threadgill on sax, Fred Hopkins on bass and Steve McCall on drums are at least fortunate to have been given significant critical acclaim. They are one of the rare avant-garde groups to largely avoid controversy, somewhat thematically comparable to The Art Ensemble of Chicago, though obviously different due to the smaller lineup. Air leavened the territory they opened up with an inspirational focus on jazz history that avoided even a hint of stodginess and seemed to neutralize naysayers and encourage fandom from within the jazz establishment. When they were truly collectively ON (which was often) they could hit sweet zones of deep feeling and exceptionally rendered musicality that leave me stumped as to why they weren’t a much bigger deal with listeners. They did get major label support for a significant portion of their existence, but it never seemed to cross over like it did for the AEoC. I think 80 Degrees Below ’82 was the last record they released before McCall’s death (Threadgill and Hopkins eventually reformed as New Air with other musicians), and it is a nice trip. Hopkins’ bass sound is just huge but always steady, working a split between anchoring the music and expressing ideas toward the tandem flow. His solo on “The Traveller” recalls Jimmy Garrison’s extended ruminations in Coltrane’s mid-‘60s groups, though Hopkins has a forward propulsion that’s distinct. Threadgill is warm and measured but never conservative. He’s a concise improviser, cutting down to bare essentials and insuring that every note is relevant, contrasting sharply with the style of player who’s long on lung stamina but short on ideas. McCall is one of the unsung greats on his instrument; I’ve never heard him fall into the mode of simple time-keeping. He can momentarily vanish from the audio only to supplely sneak back in with a subtle accent or a wrist-snap and crack followed by a scurry into the margins temporarily, listening and then adding exactly what’s needed. “Do Tell” is a tour de force for all three members, celebrating rhythm, vibration, abstract melody, and communication most of all. It’s very similar to the best moments from the Wildflowers Volumes that were reissued by Knitting Factory back in the ‘90s (and these guys were involved with the loft scene of that era, contributing to those sets and leaving their mark on that unique and inviting part of jazz history), replacing the fury and splatter-dynamics that many people associate with free jazz with a more relaxed, welcoming creativity without being regressive. Air was approachable, but never mellow, and this record was a fitting denouement to their legacy.
Henry Threadgill of Air
The Bats can be looked upon as an inverse coin side to This Kind of Punishment in terms of success and notoriety outside their home country. Like the other big names to emerge from the Flying Nun roster in the ‘80s (Chills, Clean, Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs), they eventually landed a stateside record deal, releasing some fine music on the Mammoth label, and are still active today. This comp gathers the early releases from the band into a swell hunk of jangle. Batsman Robert Scott has always been afflicted with a tendency for being involved with (possibly too) many concurrent musical projects both prolific (he’s a Clean member) and obscure (the still unheard by me Electric Blood project); I tend to think if he’d settled on just doing this band he’d be as well known and respected as Chris Knox or David Kilgour. But that’s okay because Scott’s okay and you’re okay too, particularly if you have an interest for something similar to the pre-Document REM or Paisley Undergroundish post-Byrds’ sort of sound. What’s great is that The Bats avoid the polish that often came with this type of scientific approach. It’s big without being too clean. It’s very nice work from a discography that’s full of great moments.

WEDNESDAY 1/14- Miles Davis aside, there is no doubt that the saxophone slowly emerged as the dominant wind instrument in jazz, moving from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young through Charles Parker and into post-bop where Coltrane reigns for many as the jazzman’s jazzman’s jazzman. That’s just a surface observation, because the history of the music is so complex that attempts at summery always come with the price of neglect. My point is simply that for many the first thought that springs to mind RE: jazz is the sax, and for many the love of jazz is the love of sax playing. While the trumpet has adjusted to a more diminished role in the continuing narrative of the art, it has, like the piano, continued to forge forward as one of the most interesting and varied threads in the jazz fabric. Three disparate examples would be Bill Dixon, Chet Baker, and Charles Tolliver.
Dixon’s been on my mind lately, and I’ve just started inspecting the audio contents of his self-produced six disc box of solo recordings. I’ll will take years to get a substantial handle on his achievement here, and I’ve yet to venture beyond disc one. The intensity of Dixon’s mastery is immediately clear, and his use of reverb sticks out as a device/tactic that’s unusual and quite gripping. The warmth and closeness of the recording are also striking, the audible pedal sounds and perceptibility of Dixon’s breath joining with the demanding abstraction and at times harsh tones with the result of a challenging but rewarding listening experience. Many will hear nothing but noise, but that was often uttered about Louis Armstrong in the days when the trumpet ruled the jazz roost and the sax had yet to escape its rep as a novelty instrument. It certainly isn’t easy listening, but there are moments of calm and periodic passages that are very pretty. It’s nothing like most people’s default definition of jazz, but neither were Parker or Coleman when they first burst onto the scene. Bill Dixon is nothing short of a musical giant and a national treasure who deserves his proper place in the halls of glory. This exhaustive and laboriously loved over document helps to drive this point home, and any full picture of the trumpet in the second half of the 20th century necessitates its inclusion.
The same goes for Chet Baker, a guy who’s often maligned as a pretty boy and drug casualty who made pleasant but insubstantial music and who had the hubris to vocalize when he should’ve just shut up and blew his horn. And if that’s your opinion you’re welcome to it, since this chunk of battered and bruised real estate is still a free place to be. But in my house and on this blog, Baker is what’s known as fine listening. He was a product of the sometimes perplexing ‘50s west coast “cool” scene, which was the kind of place that would encourage a great horn player but unexceptional singer (though oddly appealing, he really creeps up on you) to potentially cheapen himself as a swoony crooner. I can’t deny that I very likely would’ve had some seriously steamy ears over the bastardization of Baker had I been a jazz hipster during this era, but at this late date the weird twists of his early career are simply history. And Baker was an exceptional player when he wanted to be. The guy debuted with Charlie Parker for crying out loud. His membership in Gerry Mulligan’s groundbreaking pianoless group stands as a landmark in ‘50s jazz (and one of many correctives to the notion of the west coast of this era as a laid-back, smooth, cravenly commercial enclave), and many of his recordings from the decade are rightly considered classic. The Holland live dates captured on the above listed disc are probably more appropriate for established Baker heads or those curious about the promising, tragic pianist Dick Twardzik (who died of an overdose on this tour). Tracks repeat, “My Funny Valentine” is incomplete and the sound quality would give Rudy Van Gelder a severe case of heartburn. But it’s still fascinating for what it is: a generous look at the multifaceted talent of Baker. Bop chops are on strong display, his vocal on “Someone to Watch over Me” is woozy as fuck, and the more typical cool stuff is superbly rendered. Twardzik sort of steals the show with his fine playing, his tough solo on the third “Indian Summer” in particular. Chet Baker will almost certainly remain an easy target for detractors, especially because the guy was his own worst enemy, consistently sabotaging his career and ending up as a journeyman who pathetically fell from a window to his smacked-out death. It’s undeniable that his good looks and skin tone allowed for his rise in the ‘50s and some will never forgive him for this, but to my ears his playing from this era his proven consistently rewarding, and while he suffers in comparison to Miles and Clifford Brown, it really shouldn’t be a contest. Baker had his own qualities and for a while was in control of them.
A young Chet Baker

Charles Tolliver is a consistently underrated musician who worked in the middle ground between the progressive post-modal Blue Notey gush and the more temperate avant-garde action of the same time period, that being the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. It wouldn’t be a misstep to call Tolliver the Andrew Hill of the trumpet, except with the caveat that Tolliver lacks a canonical record like Hill’s Point of Departure. The Mosaic label has collected his recordings with the group Music Inc into their Select series, and that’s a grand gesture towards increasing Tolliver’s stature as an exemplary trumpet player and creative thinker. Music Inc is made up of heavyweights: in addition to Tolliver there’s Stanley Cowell on piano, the insanely prolific Cecil McBee on bass and Roland Kirk alumnus Jimmy Hopps on drums. They tackle and advance the sweet vibe that Coltrane proffered with A Love Supreme in a manner that can be mildly reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders, though never drifting into the joyous freak-out mode that Sanders loved to employ, while often being distinct from any specific similarities. It is a deep, hot sound that has developed a cult following through the interest of the Strata-East label, the original home for these recordings, co founded by Cowell and Tolliver. All the players are in outstanding form, and Tolliver’s trumpet flows with assurance and precise intensity. The name of the band is significant, since it eschews the leader designation and presents the quartet as a group of equals, a concept that is accurately portrayed in the music. Music Inc was not about ego, it was about communication and a collective embrace of a shared goal. The succeeded righteously.

THURSDAY 1/15- The Chris McGregor Septet’s Up to Earth was recorded in 1969 but was not released until last year. Of all the reissues I heard from 2008, this one takes the prize. For swinging skronky freedom you can’t do much better. This recording falls between the Very Urgent album from the Chris McGregor Group and the debut from Brotherhood of Breath, so those curious for more formative wailing from many of the members of the classic BoB should’ve had this yesterday. There is some serious fire in this group, with trumpeter Mongezi Feza and reed players Dudu Pukwana, John Surman, and Evan Parker reaching some strenuous heights of righteous blare, Louis Moholo giving expert and inspired rhythmic inspiration with bassists Barre Phillips and Danny Thompson (who some will know from UK folkies The Pentangle), and of course McGregor’s keyboard working a territory that’s similar to Cecil Taylor and Dave Burrell in terms of spikey energy. While the proceedings are full of wise fury, it never looses an explicitly jazz like feel, at times directly recalling the ensemble rowdiness of early jazz as well as the sort of riotous blowing that flew from the bandstands of Ellington and Basie. They also know when to lie back, giving the wild wind tangents more emphasis. This slab is wall to wall double aces deluxe, but a few moments stand out: McGregor’s vigorous solo attack on the title track; about eight minutes into “Years Ago Now” the horns lock into a tangle that’s sweetly remindful of Albert Ayler’s Bells; and the giddy insanity of “Union Special”, where the band hit a pitch that feels like a cranked up/out Dixieland combo playing for raw meat on the corner of Mezz St. and Booze Ave. Unimpeachably necessary.

FRIDAY 1/16- The deluge of Soul Note/Black Saint releases now available on EMusic for cost-effective download is cause for rooftop jubilance. So many records previously only heard about can now be fully experienced in their groundbreaking splendor. One of the standout titles is from The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, a group made up of New York Downtowners John Zorn (sax), Wayne Horvitz (keyboard) and Bobby Previte (drums) with prolific bassist Ray Drummond along for the ride. I have friends who get a fearful look whenever the name Zorn is uttered, however there’s nothing frightful about this recording. This isn’t faceless reverence, but it is a legit and loving examination of Clark’s brilliance. It lacks any of the stern postmodern studies that mark Zorn’s artistry….but wait. This is a Clark tribute, so I should note that Horvitz’s playing is outstanding, channeling the personality of the subject through his compositions but always remaining his own improviser. Drummond and Previte are solid and kinetic, playing true to the post-bop rhythmic style (Blue Note central) that Clark knew would be the pulse of his music. It’s true that some of Zorn’s solos flirt with the reputation he’s known for, but it’s just flirting. Honest. Grandparents and those with fragile constitutions shan’t be rattled by his blowing, which isn’t any more “out” than one of Roland Kirk’s Prestige-era flights of imagination. True-blue philistines might carp, but they are always carping about something. Forget ‘em, for this is strong session that deals its namesake some deserved justice. It’s great to be able to hear it.

SATURDAY 1/17- Much like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler turned the jazz world upside down. His sound erupted as a new kind of joyous and raucous freedom that divided the jazz audience as it influenced many young musicians and opened up new possibilities for the form. After thousands of free jazz records have been released, Spiritual Unity still retains its luster, primarily because Ayler’s style is so idiosyncratic and heartfelt. In many ways, he’s the antithesis of post-bop’s technical ecstasy, preferring simple melodies that cry out with a seductive strangeness. His music is at times haunting, outlandish, natural and beautiful. He’d recorded previously, but it wasn’t until the release of this record that Ayler’s ideas clicked in communion with two other artists and formed a whole that simply had to reckoned with. Sunny Murray’s drums and Gary Peacock’s bass interact with the saxophonist’s revolutionary zeal and the result is inspired mayhem and moments of unusual brilliance. Like Parker and Coleman, nothing sounded like this before. There was an implicit connection to New Orleans, though Ayler certainly sounded as maddening to most listeners in ’64 as King Oliver did in ’24. Even today, many ears will bristle and consider this record to be slightly organized anarchy with occasional heralding melodies thrown in. The ecstatic gush of the horn can at first seem unfocused and, dare I say it, crazy. Spend a little time however, and it will reveal itself to be a sublime statement on the potential for human expression. Ayler titled one of his records Music is the Healing Force of the Universe and I can concur wholeheartedly. This album and many others from this master have served me as a salve for many wounds and continues to be an inspiration to this day.

Saxophonist Paul Flaherty is one of the most uncompromising free players currently going. He’s been around for a long time, first hitting the underground radar in the ‘80s in connection with drummer Randall Colbourne and slowly inching his way into the consciousness of heavy duty improv and noise fans. I’ve seen him live once, throwing down a brief set with drummer Chris Corsano, and the CDs I own that include his participation feature blistering lung work that’s in the ballpark with Charles Gayle in terms of nerve-shredding ferocity. The Orange record was recorded in 1978 and is the first work to feature Flaherty. The Connecticut band escaped the attention of almost everybody at the time, and while the sound is quite different from what Flaherty would be known for later, it’s still a wonderful document. The tendencies are more floaty and expansive than fierce and eruptive, and it’s currently available on disc via the Destijl label. The 2008 trio recorded will Bill Nace (who?) and Thurston Moore (you know who) shows where Flaherty is at these days. Much hazy string bending is in evidence, not only from Moore but from Nace, who has worked in a duo with Corsano as Vampire Belt, a duo with Moore as Northampton Wools, and in some trio sessions with all the names mentioned in the last two sentences. The disc features three tracks, two of them nice and lengthy, both emitting strong levels of something that sits sweetly in the spot between noise and free improv. If you can’t tell them apart that’s okay. You’re learning. We’re all learning.

SUNDAY 1/18- Sam Rivers has secured his name in jazz history in varied ways; certainly and foremost as a player of great creativity and skill, but also through his support of the scene in the ‘70s (once thought of as a dark time for serious jazz, though with a slew of reissues and scads of cyberspace downloads of out of print material to help clarify the record, the sky has opened considerably) with his Studio Rivbea. He’s played with Miles, Andrew Hill and Anthony Braxton in addition to releasing a bunch of classics under his own name beginning with his Blue Note records, which stand as some of the most interesting work the label released in the 1960s. Fuchsia Swing Song was his debut as a leader, and it remains a vibrant document of Rivers’ early sound, then still very bop-like. It’s what’s known as an “inside-outside” recording (a.k.a. free-bop), similar (though different) to what Jackie McLean was doing for Blue Note around the same time. The more out or avant-garde tendencies integrate or contrast with a core that never really drifts very far away from more established patterns of expression, though it should be noted that this rarely felt like compromise in the hands of players of the stature of Rivers or McLean, or for that matter the many bands that Eric Dolphy was the wildcard member of. Roland Kirk often played around with the in-out sensibility as well, and it can still sound terrific as a look at how edgy musicians utilized the post-bop modal. For jazz fans, this group is a dreamboat. Mingus staple Jaki Byard on piano and the Davis rhythm team of Ron Carter and Tony Williams are vital contributors, providing more than just a solid jazz template for Rivers to expand upon, often pushing outside the margins themselves. Byard in particular is in inspired form, his unique, powerful blend of diverse styles matching and reacting well with Rivers’ raspy tone and searching lines. Carter and Williams are two of the best on their respective instruments (bass and drums) in the entire history of the form, and the music benefits from their passionate and intelligent interplay. Rivers was soon to become a more overt exponent of the avant-garde with his later Blue Note and Impulse! releases ranking as my personal favorites. This one is a major statement, showing the artist in the process of transitioning from the music that shaped him and to the sounds that would eventually define his legacy.
A young Sam Rivers
Erica Pomerance’s ESP album is a classic of outsider folk sounds. Until the CD reissue boom took off in the early ‘90s, this record was a seriously unheard item, and it still sits squarely in the cult arena, not having gathered the appropriate steam from those who open their ears to contempo sounds of a freaky and folky nature. It’s much more about stunted chugging than whispy fragileness, Pomerance being assertive and feminist in her performing personality, uninterested in being a quiet cutie-pie for legions of “open-minded” dudes. This record rubs elbows with a loose jazziness that’s befitting it’s inclusion on the ESP roster, though I can’t think of another album on the label that’s comparible. In terms of gender and defiant creativity, it’s similar to Patty Waters, but sounds nothing like her doomed torch songs and delirious free-vocal freak-outs. Suffice to say if you’ve ever bought a homemade CDR wrapped up in tree bark from a chick adorned in suede and earth toned tights at a pass the hat show held in a dilapidated school bus (that’s at least six of you, right?), you’ll want to hear this Pomerance record. It’s zoned out and timeless.

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