Monday, November 15, 2010

A tribute to three departed masters: Solomon Burke, Marion Brown & Ari Up

While it’s certain that Solomon Burke is permanently ensconced in the annals of deep soul, it’s also true that his legacy has suffered a bit over the decades due to his lack of any truly chartbusting pop hits. An association with Atlantic Records certainly worked in his favor, as did the partisanship of acts like The Rolling Stones, but Burke somehow never managed to invade the Pop Top 20, and that fact means many casual listeners are familiar with the man by name rather than through his music. Of course, the curious could’ve picked up Rhino’s excellent 2CD overview of his Atlantic period titled HOME IN YOUR HEART and been well versed in the power and range inherent in his selected work. And since Burke was first and foremost a singles artist, the wide inclusiveness of HOME is useful to more than just newbies. It really deserves space on the shelves of soul fans of any perceptible magnitude, but it’s also a fairly intensive study: you can cue up the set, make out with yr squeeze, get it on nice and slow, have a little tiff that develops into a full blown argument, break up, make up and make out again before the 41 tracks have completed their course. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but am in no way criticizing. I always prefer collections to be exhaustive in their documentary zeal, but it’s also very hard to fault the more digestible oomph found in a couple of his prime LPs from early in his Atlantic tenure. The first is 1963’s IF YOU NEED ME, and it finds Burke carving out territory that’s at times quite similar to Sam Cooke’s gospel drenched innovations.

There is a powerful current of southern grit and sweat in Burke’s delivery, and his extension of Cooke’s malleable template is sometimes comparable to Otis Redding. But just as often he’s onto something different. Much of this is due to how his gutbucket belting and captivating restraint interacted with the Atlantic production team’s slicker, more finesse oriented approach. Factor in the desire of his label to dabble in experimentation against the safety-net of formula (in the hopes of both breaking new ground and also landing chart success) and the stylistic diversity of this record shouldn’t be at all surprising. That Burke feels natural in such a wide variety of circumstances is testament to his talent, IF YOU NEED ME never feeling unfocused, and for material that wasn’t largely conceived for inclusion on a long playing record, that’s quite an achievement. It’s true that the man is most natural when he’s solidly in his wheelhouse below the Mason-Dixon Line, particularly on the Wilson Pickett penned title track and the infectiously boisterous faux-dance ditty “Stupidity”, but it’s maybe most impressive how he’s able to successfully interpret styles that seem outside his comfort range, namely ‘50s style Platters R&B, Brook Benton-esque pop-soul, and even some flashes of Presley-ite hip-swagger. If this LP makes a statement for the scope of Burke’s talent, then the following year’s ROCK AND SOUL soundly expands upon it and also amplifies many of the singer’s strengths.

While Burke could make honey with a horn section just fine, he’s even better at interacting with strong backing vocalists while the band cooks up a tough mid-tempo groove. His work never really displays the sonic density that paved the way for funk, instead opting for spaciousness that casts a wide net over so many differing styles. ROCK AND SOUL adds an unlikely wrinkle to the equation with two cuts which display his interpretive skill with country & western material, namely “Just Out of Reach Of My Two Empty Arms” (recorded by Patsy Cline) and “He’ll Have To Go” (a smash hit for Jim Reeves). This gesture toward C&W is very likely directly related to Ray Charles’ crossover recordings for ABC, and Burke’s proclivity for the genre is readily apparent. ROCK AND SOUL also deepens his gospel sensibility without sacrificing anything in terms of diversity, and coupling these two records on yr personal box while spending a smart night at home with a warm and willing partner makes a whole lot of sense, romantic and otherwise. Uncork the bottle, cue up the tunes and slow dance, Casanova. Solomon Burke’s importance far exceeds the assured majesty of these two LPs (both available for download, by the way), so further investigation will be required for all but the skimpiest or stingiest of listeners. His most influential tune “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” is absent from both records, for instance. Again, HOME IN YOUR HEART is about as necessary as a two disc single artist soul comp gets. But HOME lacks a slew of cuts from both of these albums, and absorbing to them over the last month makes it clear they shouldn’t be neglected. The crossroads of soul, R&B and the fertile garden of ‘60s pop unfolds beautifully on IF YOU NEED ME and ROCK AND SOUL, presenting something close to what it was like to hear this stuff at the time, sitting in a bedroom or a basement or a den as a needle traveled groove and time hurdled forward yet somehow stood exasperatingly still. Something offhand and everyday yet in retrospect voluminous and undying. Something infused with the enduring power of art.

I guess my two favorite Marion Brown records are AFTERNOON OF A GEORGIA FAUN (ECM 1970) and GEECHEE RECOLLECTIONS (Impulse! 1973), but I don’t think either of those gems are really the best place to start if you’re just getting acquainted with the discography of this avant-jazz master. In 1965 he appeared on both Archie Shepp’s FIRE MUSIC and John Coltrane’s ASCENSION, two indispensible documents of the New Thing in all its fervent glory, so if you don’t know those classics it’s best to take care of that bit of business first. From there, any of Brown’s records as a leader from ’65-‘68 qualify as a suitable entry into his considerable body of work, particularly the Impulse! date THREE FOR SHEPP and his pair of titles in the ESP-Disk saga MARION BROWN QUARTET and WHY NOT? Easily overlooked however, primarily because they’re harder to find, are a couple of electrifying sessions titled JUBA LEE and PORTO NOVO, the former a studio septet featuring a key collection of players, the later a high flying live trio summit meeting with two Dutch avant giants.

JUBA LEE finds Brown’s soaring, searching alto joined by future Miles tenor man Bennie Maupin, the huge trombone voice of Grachan Moncur III and the fascinating trumpeter/flugelhornist Alan Shorter. Throw in Dave Burrell’s sturdy piano, Reggie Johnson’s tough, supple bass and drummer Beaver Harris’s flowing approach to implied swing and you’ve got a roster that’s capable of burning and boiling with the very best of ‘em. And while they certainly attain moments in full-on torch the barn mode, JUBA LEE is far more than just furious blowing and racket, offering depth that’s thick with the undertones of jazz tradition. “512e12” begins with a short bit of disjointed fanfare before shifting into territory that combines the grand swoosh of Fire Music’s energetic rawness with a loose approach to compositional improv which recalls the wilder end of Ornette’s early Harmolodic advancements. The extended bout of solos that ensues, all fifteen and a half minutes worth, portrays a well developed interweaving of complimentary voices. The saxophones of Brown and Maupin adroitly blend together to skronk with an undercurrent of thorny bluesiness, and the sliding moans and agitated gusts of notes from Moncur’s trombone is well matched with Shorter’s idiosyncratic approach, his abstract fluidity feeling at times like a mixture of Don Cherry and early Bill Dixon. Burrell’s versatile piano blends irritated choppiness and clamor with an expert melodiousness and mingles shrewdly with the rhythm team. To me Harris is a bit like the free jazz answer to Billy Higgins or Roy Haynes in how his abstractions seem tied to a forward motion that feels descended from post-bop, and he works exceptionally well in the backfield with the Garrison-esque Johnson, who’s one of the more neglected New Thing players (along with FIRE MUSIC and Brown’s ESP debut, he’s on Dixon’s INTENTS AND PURPOSES, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra’s COMMUNICATIONS, Shorter’s ORGASM, Valdo Williams’ fascinating obscurity NEW ADVANCED JAZZ and a bunch of vibist Bobby Hutcherson’s swell late-‘60s albums. The man clearly deserves some more recognition). As “512e12” progresses, its initial anarchic qualities coalesce into an exceptional pattern of back-and-forth trade-offs that manage to navigate to a fine conclusion. From there, JUBA-LEE’s additional three tracks display an admirable sonic range, with the title cut’s forceful and quite pretty melody perhaps influenced by Albert Ayler’s approach to emphatic hummability. Its playfulness is welcome, and is in sharp contrast to the creeping darkness of the album’s closer “Iditus”, a Shorter composition that gives Burrell the responsibility of ruminating on a simple haunting line for twelve minutes while the horns build an increasingly tense atmosphere and the rhythm team adds to the thickening pulse. It’d make a great soundtrack to somebody’s B&W Super-8 horror project: A full moon, a broken down engine, a rickety old barn, something ominous off in the distance. No words, but a helluva lot of worry. JUBA-LEE compares well with recordings of the same era from groups like The New York Art Quartet and The New York Contemporary Five, due to leader Brown’s desire to examine collective equality as a vehicle for individualist expression, allowing the members to effectively communicate with their solo voices. Too bad it’s only been fleetingly in print on CD over the years. I’ve never seen a copy, only owning purloined downloads, and it would be nice if somehow this (and the whole Fontana free-jazz catalog, for that matter) could be restored to legit availability. It would be a big step in showing the creative depth of Brown in his earliest years, where he’s sometimes painted as just a Coltrane/Shepp acolyte. An easier way of getting to the core of Brown’s power is to cop PORTO NOVO, which IS in print, and delight in its stripped-down, spacious magnificence.

A trio that features stalwart Euro-jazz figures Han Bennink on drums and Maarten Altena on bass playing live in ’67 in the city of Soest, it finds them working, at least in spirit, in the inexhaustible tradition of Sonny Rollins’ WAY OUT WEST. A more appropriate sonic comparison might be Coleman’s mid ‘60s trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett that produced both volumes of AT THE GOLDEN CIRCLE, though this muscular triangle doesn’t favor any particular strand of influence other than the tradition of jumping on the bandstand and blowing yr top. Those familiar and simpatico with Bennink’s unique style will not be disappointed, and chronologically this appears to be Altena’s recording debut (edging out Nedley Elstak’s ESP-Disk THE MACHINE by a few months), so it holds much import. The original LP featured five tracks that spotlight some of Brown’s most aggressive yet lyrical playing as the Dutchmen hold their own and lend valuable commentary and interaction. The currently available Black Lion CD/download deal adds two tracks from a 1970 duo recording on Freedom by Brown and trumpeter Leo Smith titled CREATIVE IMPROVISATION ENSEMBLE that finds the saxophonist successfully working in a roughly AACM-like context. This is conceptually much different than the trio stuff, but it’s not at all unwelcome. It’s what some folks call “added value”, but I’d never use such gauche terminology (By the way, the full 1970 recording with Smith was also part of a 2LP set on Freedom titled DUETS that held a separate session with electronic musician Elliot Schwartz. It’s out of print but not hard to locate on the net). Marion Brown’s status as an integral part of the ‘60s avant-jazz landscape has suffered somewhat over the years, and it seemed the longer many of his key recordings remained out of print the less likely they were to be reissued. But I find that complaining about an artist’s notoriety is something I do far too often in this space, and that Brown, while surely underrated, hasn’t endured anything approximate to the neglect suffered by legions of jazz players, many of whom hardly had the opportunity to record at all. Marion Brown has a sizeable discography and it’s around if you want to find it.

I first heard The Slits upon purchasing a cherry used copy of the amazing Rough Trade comp WANNA BUY A BRIDGE?, with their track “Man Next Door” providing a slinky, dubby, hissy mess of UK post-punk that stood out in the midst of some serious company. Shortly thereafter, I located the band’s 1979 album CUT and quickly understood that my thoughts concerning late-‘70s Brit post-punk were due for reappraisal. You see, up to that point, I was a solid Raincoats man. My admiration for the ‘coats is still high as a junky kite, but upon dishing CUT onto my platter it quickly became obvious I simply had to make room for The Slits. They were a personal revelation in numerous ways, first being how they so successfully integrated such a heavy Jamaican influence into their music. Up to that point, I was quite suspicious of non-island musicians playing island sounds, and while I’ve surely lightened up a bit with age, I’ll still say there was a high historical level of suspect skankin’ going on, particularly in Merry Old England. What helped The Slits succeed was a blunt attraction to the screwy weirdness of the best dub. Many of their punky peers were instead attempting to replicate the much trickier tradition of smooth and soulful Jamaican stuff, and while I’ll admit to developing an appreciation for certain examples of brittle Brit-ska, I’ll also add that precious little from this style is much more than passable. But The Slits were experimenters, and that’s how their music crossed an ocean and spanned a decade to help influence a slew of wound up mostly female musicians that sparked the explosion of Riot Grrl. Vocalist Ari Up, guitarist Viv Albertine, drummer Palmolive and bassist Tessa Pollitt were the lineup that led to the recording of CUT, though Palmolive bailed before the session to join those aforementioned Raincoats, where she made a huge contribution to their debut LP.

She was replaced by future Banshee Budgie, and it was at this point that Ari really became the prism through which The Slits’ creativity was refracted. As vocalist, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it must be stressed that Ari Up’s flamboyant, confrontational, aggressively fun-loving personality, when combined with her immense talent, basically elevated her to the pantheonic level in punk’s twisted history, and her status as inspired gadfly continues to stick in the craw of assorted grumps and chumps to this very day. Initially, the naysayers derided The Slits as being a prankish lark instead of a “real” “band”, the nattering nabobs apparently missing how that argument was often leveled against punk as an entire genre. The more measured dismissals were likely due to a lack of any obvious musical precedent for the band. Plus, to this very moment many observers admire punk more in theory than in actual practice, so they naturally often unconsciously gravitate toward the conventional. The more hostile detractors of The Slits surely recognized them as the disrupters they were and felt threatened by their upset to the (essentially male) hegemony. The early, Palmolive-era Slits are prominently documented through their first two sessions for the John Peel program, and they can be found in numerous packages, though the best bang for the buck would be the remastered two-CD set CUT DELUXE EDITION from last year. Those tracks present a raw and ragged prototype for Riot Grrl’s righteous and vociferous defiance. In a blindfold test, folks only familiar with CUT’s deep production (via Dennis Bovell) and advanced aesthetic just might peg these 1977 air checks as originating from the early ‘90s Pacific Northwest via the Kill Rock Stars or K labels. The vast difference between the Peel and CUT recordings of “New Town” and “Instant Hit” really emphasizes post-punk’s rapid fire growth and innovation while lending proof to The Slits’ lasting worth. The DELUXE release includes, in addition to the original LP and the radio sessions, an embarrassment of bonus cuts that while largely different mixes and versions of album tracks still do a great job of avoiding the redundancy that expanded editions often engender. It bookends incredibly well with what I consider The Slits’ other essential document, Y3LP – THE OFFICIAL BOOTLEG, a deliberately low-budget/street-level slab that refuses to give up its status as fascinatingly confounding.

The low fidelity murk of “A Boring Life” and “Or What Is It?” could easily pass for the double A-sides of a limited and long gone late-‘90s 7” of prime non-retro garage-punk. From there everything feels fed through a Dadaist auto-splicer. The most prominent theme is a strung-out and twisted approach to rhythm. One extended passage wiggles around like a wonky tribal ritual enacted in an airport parking lot, and there’s some aggressive acoustic strum and holler that could’ve been taped in either Calvin Johnson’s modest backyard or Greil Marcus’s vast study. Cake-walks or Kurt Schwitters, you decide. It ends with a wonderful snippet of a very choice live performance where The Slits collided with The Subway Sect and The Prefects to throttle “Sister Ray” but good. Y3LP unravels like a fever dream remembrance of punk at its most uncompromising and non-commercial, and as such is a fine testament to the band, the era and the spirit and ingenuity of Ari Up. Like Solomon and Marion, it’s doubtful we’ll ever see her like again.

Viv Albertine, Palmolive, Tessa Pollitt, and Ari Up

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