Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Three recent listens: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Angles, Sharon Van Etten

Back in the day, if a smart set of ears wanted a comp of vintage Screamin’ Jay Hawkins material, the best bet was FRENZY, which the Edsel label lovingly kicked out around ’81 or so. During the tail end of the LP era, if you stumbled onto a Screamin’ Jay section in a particularly happening indie record shop, it was almost guaranteed it would be fortified with at least one copy of that fine 14-track collection. Well, roughly a decade later, in a rare display of corporate smarts, Epic corralled 19 of this demented behemoth’s cuts onto compact disc, titled it COW FINGERS AND MOSQUITO PIE, adorned it with a swell cover courtesy of artist Kathy Staico Schorr, and offered it up for those who can’t resist a good time. And while the worthiness of FRENZY is still intact since three tracks from the former remain unique to that edition, COW FINGERS is assuredly stuffed to the maximum with this magnificently twisted gent’s overwrought strangeness. Jay Hawkins is often denigrated by the stingy and the stodgy as an early rock ‘n’ roll novelty act, but actually listening to the guy shows just how much weird depth was in his grasp before the nose-bone shtick totally took over. A man of legitimate operatic talent and aspiration whose booming voice just happened to be perfect for the echo laden production values of R&B-spiked mid-‘50s jukebox junk, Hawkins occasionally approached the booming stately presence of Paul Robeson, one of his early influences. The majority of the time his stuff was infused with a screwball humor that revealed him to be in stylistic cahoots with another neglected ‘50s act, The Coasters. Look down on this stuff if you must, but kids (of all ages) wanted to laugh, y’know? And while he’s no Bo Diddley in the undercover diversity department, those who are only familiar with his still immaculate “I Put a Spell On You” (as grand a testament to the powers of excess booze on the artistic process as has ever been documented) might be surprised by the breadth of what’s here. Tracks like “Little Demon” and “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me” prove that he could really sizzle in an essentially straight up R&B context and his stern goof on Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” feels like a legit antecedent to the kind of inspired tomfoolery that Biz Markie bestowed upon the early rap scene. Sadly, it’s undeniable that “Hong Kong” is as racist a relic as Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate turn in Blake Edwards’ BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS; Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp” simply pales in comparison. But hey, those were less enlightened times. The naked truth is that tunes like “Yellow Dress” and “There’s Something Wrong With You” have inspired across generational divides and continue to be crucial to this day. Just ask Poison Ivy of the Cramps or (of course) Jim Jarmusch. Hell, I bet a couple of relative new-jacks like King Khan and Mark Sultan would tell you the same. The essence of this stuff simply won’t die.

Nothing contempo is kicking my ass quite like Angles’ EPILEPTICAL WEST- LIVE IN COIMBRA CD from the excellent Clean Feed label. I’d stupidly overlooked the debut of this Scandinavian jazz sextet, 2008’s EVERY WOMAN IS A TREE, but I’ll be remedying that slight on my next Emusic roundup. Their first release was dedicated to the women of Iraq, and that boldly humanist statement sheds much light on the incendiary mixture of music and message leader Martin Küchen is compelled to blast into the stratosphere. This sophomore effort finds an excellent improvising collective successfully navigating a longstanding tradition of political music; specifically, they stick relatively close to a generally accessible center in an obvious attempt to relate to a potentially larger audience. Frankly, for most this is a hazardous trap. While Phil Ochs or Archie Shepp shrewdly married art and ideology, thousands of well intentioned individuals and groups weren’t so lucky. This was the heart of John Fahey’s beef with Pete Seeger, and I know many who don’t really cotton to Dylan until after he went electric and started getting lyrically obscure. As an erudite gent one told me, the poster remains the best avenue for political discourse. Yeah, certainly, but occasionally some person(s) slip(s) in a righteous haymaker. And this release by Angles is one of those, largely because it’s political without being polemical or rife with sung/shouted slogans (which only ever really works in hard folk or punk rock contexts). This is instrumental music, conceived with conviction but simultaneously existing simply as inspired sound. When you hear the sheer power of the playing and then marry it to Küchen and company’s civic minded sensibility, never is there a worry over the potential obnoxiousness (the bluntness, the naivety) of words sullying the atmosphere. So, enough about this aspect of Angles, and onward into the sonic sweet spot at which they so expertly excel. To be blunt, this is some fine jazz. While it’s surely a product of the avant/free continuum, please keep in mind what I typed above about accessibility. Much like some of the more recent efforts to feature the fingers of bassist extraordinaire William Parker, the focus is stridently on hitting a perfect balance of heaviness, abstraction and brutal, beautiful groove/swing. A striking group made up of bass, drums, three horns (trumpet, trombone, and alto) and vibes, Angles marry rhythm to throat/wind dexterity to produce an often joyous equality, so you really shouldn’t be a bit surprised when I impart how the heft of this stuff isn’t incongruous with dancing. And I’m talking the swaying, get lose and loose yrself type of physical celebration. Also in evidence is a generous helping of the sharp, tough gnaw that the post ‘60s free Euros basically perfected, sustained tightness that I can’t help but equate with the more outré wing of the pre-boogaloo/fusion Blue Note stable, and a wonderful indebtedness to the grandeur of rhythmic Africa that wraps back around to the classic Euro-free jazz blast via Peter Brötzmann Group’s FUCK DE BOERE: DEDICATED TO JOHNNY DYANI, a three-way combination that forms a concentric path of undiluted brilliance. Mattias Ståhl’s vibes really stick out in this fantastic equation. There hasn’t been much (or enough, I guess) serious progressive action on the mallets post Bobby Hutcherson and Karl Berger. Ståhl’s work is somewhat comparable to Hutcherson in its lack of virtuosic busyness. He doesn’t want to show, he just wants to tell. Magnus Broo’s trumpet is as strong as when I saw him live with Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, and Küchen’s sax integrates hints of Dolphy and Ayler with the sort of well-conceived “inside” attack that I associate with great names like Cannonball Adderley and Joe Henderson. Mats Äleklint's trombone is fluid and huge. Along with holding down the bottom, bassist Johan Berthling can play arco like nobody’s business, and Kjell Nordeson’s drums smartly gravitate toward a mixture of force and restraint. These six are firing on full creative cylinders, and it feels like they’re just getting warmed up. What Angles ultimately produce is roughly approximate to the grandeur of Brotherhood of Breath, and this’ll be one of the year’s best, for sure. If you have any interest in the current state of improvisation, you should definitely snap it up.

Speaking of hot new ones, Sharon Van Etten’s second record EPIC finds her smartly developing her already potent sound into welcome new directions. There is a great picture of her currently making the internet rounds that finds her just candidly sitting at some modest table in a thick dark bathrobe while smoking a cigarette, and the no-bullshit honesty of that snap really gets to the heart of what makes her music so refreshingly special. I’ve reported before in this very place how Van Etten’s debut BECAUSE I WAS IN LOVE is an amazing dose of lonely late night folk. I think that record has the legs to last for decades, but it was also in a style that doesn’t lend itself to sustainability. EPIC finds her branching into the daylight without sacrificing any of the stuff that made her so initially intriguing. It’s always hard to not play the name-check the influence game, and in this case, when the references are as top-notch as Cat Power, Jeff/Tim Buckley and the Cali-nexus of Hope Sandoval and Kendra Smith, there is no use in not mentioning them. The seven tracks offered on this long EP haven’t abandoned the enthrallingly achy quality that made her work such an attention getter. Instead, she smartly shifted that bruised feel into a less overtly autobiographical context, and I for one feel that’s a sound decision. It’s far less a matter of her getting more “pro” and much more a development of sensible maturity. EPIC is a major step for an artist that could move into any number of solid directions. Based on the full band arrangements presented here, she seems well suited for collaboration, for instance. And her harmonium playing is a joy. I recommend both of her records to anyone that digs the ‘60s femme folkies (either American or Brit), the vital solo work of Skip Spence or Nick Drake and any of the above mentioned reference points. Play this in between SHE HANGS BRIGHTLY and THE GUILD OF TEMPORAL ADVENTURES and I think you’ll find it’s quite up to snuff. Sharon Van Etten is one of the small handfuls of current musicians that appear refreshingly unsaddled by the burden of career building maneuvers. If her new label Ba Da Bing could somehow arrange a three way tour with Beirut and Dead C I’d be there faster than you could say “I’ll chip in on gas”. This is very happening stuff. Jump on it now or play ketchup.

photo by Kristianna Smith

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