Archives for category: Jazz

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a favourite album, and had the thought that it was a perfect enough album that it would be one I’d take to a desert island. And thinking on the very long-running (80 years!) BBC program Desert Island Discs, I considered what my other seven would be. And my thoughts took me further – most of my friends are music mavens and would have though on this concept as well. So in the new year, I’ll be interviewing my friends as to what music would see them through if they were the last person on Earth and there were only eight records to listen to.

I came to most of these albums in my 20s, that period after the teenage enthusiasms have been sloughed off. While I still love the music I cut my teeth on, the albums associated with that first period of coming into my own seem more timeless.

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So what was that perfect album? Premiers Symptômes by Air (1997), a compilation of songs from their first three singles. I first picked it up in 1998 or so, when everyone, it seemed, was going crazy for Air’s first full-length, Moon Safari. I preferred the slightly weirder, rawer earlier singles (though, to be fair, Moon Safari is a well-nigh perfect album as well). On these songs, the combination of Fender Rhodes, Moog, and euphonium bring me a strange feeling of nostalgia (for a period and place I never experienced) and are also perfectly of their own moment mid-90s moment.
Favourite track: J’ai dormi sous l’eau (YouTube link).

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1963) – When my friend Steve introduced me to this album in about 1996, I’d known of Ellington because of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and had some idea of his importance in jazz, but I hadn’t yet delved. And I knew Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (an album that after more than 30 years of listening, I still can’t get inside of), but this was something else. This meeting of two giants whose paths hadn’t crossed in the recording studio. Only in the last decade or so have I heard the vast number of collaborations Ellington undertook in the early 60s, but this was the first. For me it’s the interplay of Coltrane’s mastery of ballad forms and Ellington’s understated piano work. There’s a different sweetness in each of the album’s seven tracks that runs from the ebullience of The Feeling of Jazz and Big Nick to the yearning trills of In A Sentimental Mood and My Little Brown Book.
Favourite track: Stevie (YouTube link)

I came to Sister Rosetta Tharp much later than most music in this selection, while I was researching the origins of rock and roll for a series of blogs I wrote several years back. I’d never heard of Tharp. She was one of the progenitors whom the historians reference, but doesn’t get the kudos she should, for her delivery, her style, and her guitar mastery (not in that order). There’s a wealth of compilations to choose from, but Volume 2, the Document Records collection of 1942-1944 recordings has both rock and roll and gospel and my favourites Trouble In Mind (YouTube link) and Strange Things Happening Every Day. (Other favourites, This Train and Didn’t It Rain came later – I might have to keep looking for the perfect album.)

Aviary by M-1 Alternative (1991) – This band should have been huge, something I’ve said for 30-plus years. I got into them on the release of La Llorona, the first of their three albums in 1988 or so. My flatmate Mikki introduced me to them and I saw them perform in clubs in San Francisco over the next couple of years. I love all three albums, but this one features Ghetto and Reclaim (YouTube link), two of my favourites songs of theirs. The line I am a ghetto / a maze of streets far from the landing field always spoke to me – my feeling that I was too complicated and not near enough emotionally or intellectually to any place those I was close to landed and met. Theirs was a sad story, to me. They signed to C’est La Mort records for Aviary, and released the followup, The Little Threshing Floor on CLM as well. Just after The Little Threshing Floor was released, CLM’s distributor, Rough Trade, went under. One of the two members moved to New York and out of sight. The other has recently been remastering their work, starting with their earlier demos, and releasing them to Bandcamp.

The Good Son by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1990) – Dang, but choosing a Nick Cave album for this list was a task. Nearly every album has more high points than lows. I was leaning towards Push The Sky Away which is so beautiful. Other contenders were The Boatman’s Call (beautiful and perfect but closely associated with a difficult time in my life) and Let Love In (great, but I don’t really need to hear Red Right Hand again – it seem to show up everywhere!). When I got into this album, I was still mourning my father who died in 1986 when I was 19. The father/son dialogue of The Weeping Song (YouTube link) spoke volumes to me in its invitation to reconciliation. The son asks in turn why the women, men, and children are all weeping, and finally asks, ‘Father, why are you weeping? / I never thought I hurt you so much,’ with the word ‘hurt’ is stretched out to seven or eight syllables.

Lady In Satin by Billie Holiday (1958) – This is such a strange album – it’s late in Lady Day’s career – one of her last albums, released a year before her death at the age of 44. Her voice is much thinner than it was in her prime, but somehow more expressive. The orchestration is lush and befitting the songs she chose. Violets for Your Furs (YouTube link) and I Get Along Without You Very Well are particularly poignant. My mom or sister bought it when I was in high school and at 15 or so, I definitely didn’t get it. On someone’s recommendation I came back to Billie a few years later with a cassette of Lady Sings The Blues which was in heavy rotation on my walkman for many years. The sheer weight of Lady In Satin, with its lush orchestration started to mean something to me when I turned about 40. A few years ago, I found a 180-gram reissue and my heart just sings when I listen to it now.

Dømkirke by SUNN O))) (2008) – This is definitely the odd one out in my collection. It’s 60 minutes of drone metal and feedback, made melodic and holy. SUNN O))) (pronounced Sun) are known for shows of punishing volume, the use of deep feedback and strange guitar tunings, but that put the listener in an altered state if they come with open ears. While the shows I’ve seen have been in performance spaces, this set was constructed for a one-off show at the titular Dømkirke church in Bergen, Norway. (To be fair, Paradiso in Amsterdam was once a church, but it’s been a concert venue for several decades.) The band’s lineup for this show included vocalist Attila Csihar whose bass rumblings compliment the guitars of founders Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. My favourite of the four tracks is probably Cannon, but telling the differences between any set of SUNN O))) songs is its own exercise. (Greg Anderson, AKA The Lord, recently released a collaboration with Petra Haden called Devotional (Bandcamp link), which may overtake Dømkirke if you ask me in a year. It’s glorious.)
Favourite track: Cannon (YouTube link)
Bandcamp link: Dømkirke

USA by King Crimson (1975) – I had a very hard time choosing a KC album. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for ages. I think my choice was between this live album and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (represented here with three tracks – part two of the title instrumental, the ballad Exiles and Easy Money, but not Talking Drum). USA was recorded over two dates on the 1974 tour for Starless and Bible Black, but released as an obituary of sorts after its followup, Red. (USA was not a contractual obligations album the way the near-bootleg quality Earthling was a couple of years before.) This version of the band imploded during the recording of Red and there was no tour for it. Even though some of David Cross’ violin work was overdubbed after by Eddie Jobson, this era was intense and beautiful and never matched. I probably bought my first copy of USA sometime in the 90s. Previously I’d most liked the early 80s incarnation with Adrian Belew on vocals and Tony Levin on Bass (alongside founding guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford), but I picked up Larks’ Tongues on the recommendation of my then partner’s violin teacher for the intensity of Cross’ work. I then delved into the ‘72-‘74 period (Fripp, Bruford, Cross, John Wetton on bass/vocal) with more interest. For me, the version of LTIA Part II here is one of the best I’ve heard. (It’s been in their set lists for all lineups from this period through the tours of the last 10 or 12 years.) And the version of USA that I’d want is the 2002 reissue that includes Fracture and Starless (the studio version of which is on Red. Fracture is an insane instrumental that was the result of Fripp wanting to write a piece that he himself would find too difficult to play. And it blows my mind whenever I hear it.

Standout improvisation: Asbury Park (YouTube link)

Island records advert for King Crimson’s USA. Band credits and a representation of the album cover are below the name of the band and album in large type.

Spotify playlist

I missed that jazz musician/composer/poet Cecil Taylor passed away last week at the age of 89. I’ve listened to some of his music (and will listen more today), but not very much. I did see him perform his poetry one night at a tiny art/music venue in San Francisco called the Luggage Store Gallery. The performance was scheduled for after a sold out music gig somewhere else in the City and started late. LSG was on the second floor of a building on near 6th on the south side of Market. I lived at the time in a tiny studio right on the corner, so gigs there were easy for me. Usually experimental music of various kinds. I saw Henry Kaiser, Steev Hise, John Tchicai and a dozen others over the two years I lived in that neighbourhood, in a room that was probably zoned for no more than 100 people. It was generally brightly lit – as the name implies, it was a place for displaying art as much as for music, but the track lighting would be turned down for performance.  Taylor brought along several musicians to a packed gallery – they played percussion while he read this insane poetry sat at a desk in front of them. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time and watching and listening, I knew I had a long way to go. From what I can tell, he lived his art and his artistic life to the fullest. Here’s an example from a couple of years later…

Island Records, 1970

Released only six months after In the Wake of Poseidon (and only 14 months after their debut), Lizard is a definite continuation of the improvisational jazz/rock found on the first two LPs. Almost all of the vocal work has been taken on by Gordon Haskell (whose voice graced the released version of Cadence and Cascade on Poseidon). One of the main changes in sound is the full-time presence of Mel Collins on flute and sax. Lyric duties are still being handled by Pete Sinfield.

In rough structure, we get three uptempo songs on side 1 followed by a ballad. Side 2 consists of the multi-part Lizard Suite. The first thing to catch is that the more rocking of the songs don’t really resemble much from the previous albums, except for the maybe the jazz inflections of Cat Food.

At a finer level, there seems to be both a lyrical and a musical plan to the whole thing. Almost, but not quite, a concept album in much the same way that Court seemed to follow an interlocking plan, but wasn’t a single story carried through.

Cirkus musically feels on the one hand like four verses in search of a chorus, until the crashing cadences of the first three verses cross-fade into a soprano sax and Mellotron-led bridge that feel more a part of some AM radio soft rock hit. This doesn’t last. The fourth verse collapses into a crash of noise which evolves through several phases and concludes with what sounds perhaps like the ‘megaphonium fanfare’ referenced in the second verse.

Indoor Games feels much the same as Cirkus, both musically and in terms of wild lyrics that come from all over the place and might reflect how a writer who has never taken psychedelics might script a trip: ‘One string puppet shows amuse / Your sycophantic friends…Whilst you loaf on your sofa / Sporting falsies and a toga-Playing Indoor Games’.

Happy Family features Haskell’s voice run through a vocoder most of the time (in the second and third verses sounding almost like a dalek), arrayed against some flute and organ. Some of the instrumentation again brings the midway to mind. The bridge is again a controlled madness of improvisation, anchored primarily by Collins’ flute work.

Lyrically, we hear of four men, Uncle Rufus, Brother Judas, Cousin Silas, Nasty Jonah, who grow rich (whipped the world and beat the clock / wound up with their share of stock), perform (Uncle Rufus grew his nose / threw away his circus clothes), and presumably go to war. Four times the lyrics repeat ‘four went on (or ‘by’ in the first verse) and none came back’. Thematically, this points backwards to the opening track and forward to the Battle of Glass Tears, again suggesting that perhaps there’s a plan in all this madness.

Side 1 closes with Lady of the Dancing Water which at less than three minutes and only ten lines, is the shortest of of the tracks on Lizard. It also seems the most like the easy folk Haskell would do a couple of years later. Lovely as it is, Lady doesn’t seem to fit with anything else on the album. On the other hand, it’s not as though a little respite doesn’t add poignancy to the proceedings.

KingCrimson-Lizard-backRight then. On to side 2, the Lizard Suite.

The first section, Prince Rupert Awakes, features an unadorned and untreated vocal from Jon Anderson of Yes, which also sounds like he’s handling his own harmonies. Before getting into the lyrics and the structure of the piece, I’ve got to say that this must have been particularly galling to Haskell, who cited his treated vocals as one of the reasons he left KC following this album. Haskell at the time had a strong voice, though not one with much expressed range. (His 1974 album It Is and It Isn’t features some lovely work, such as this piece.)

Lyrically, it’s more Pete Sinfield mush, but there’s a wonderful contrast between the verses in which the vocals play against dissonant instrumentation – piano in one channel and bells and synth flourishes in the other, while the choruses feature almost Spanish-style guitar runs and Mellotron.

The suite continues with Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale, which is a nice little pun that references the last verse of the opening, ‘Now tales Prince Rupert’s peacock brings / Of walls and trumpets thousand fold’. It’s an interesting instrumental that I suppose is mostly a jazz battle between pianist Keith Tippet and Collins. The bolero sounds like it’s closing about a minute before it should, and the the flute rises in a crescendo joined by a quieter piano accompaniment and finally kettle drums. The Battle of Glass Tears, the third part of the suite, is itself divided into three parts. The name of this section again draws from Prince Rupert Awakes, in which ‘Prince Rupert’s tears of glass / Make saffron sabbath eyelids bleed’. Dawn Song, a vocal, describes armies preparing themselves for battle, ‘Three hills apart great armies stir / Spit oath and curse as day breaks. / Forming lines of horse and steel / By even yards march forward.

It’s interesting to note that with Mel Collins’ 2015 return to active service in King Crimson, Cirkus and The Battle of Glass Tears (along with Pictures of a City from the last album, and The Letters from the next one) have become regular features of the band’s live sets.

With the lyrics to hand, the plan behind the whole thing seems obvious. The first verse of Cirkus concludes ‘Bid me face the east closed me in questions / Built the sky for my dawn’, suggesting that perhaps the battle is just another aspect of a cosmic ringmaster’s production.

Fairly straightforward, the aptly titled Last Skirmish finds the band at its most dissonant. Prince Rupert’s Lament builds a high wail from the guitar balanced against metronomic notes from Haskell’s bass.

In true King Crimson style, the album doesn’t end on this note of despair. Big Top, which sounds like a demented fun fair carousel committed to tape, slowed and sped up, fades out in just over a minute. When the album is played on repeat, it feels as though it really is a circular experience as Cirkus starts up again.

It’s possible I had this album during my 90s period of KC fascination, but there was nothing for me to grab on to – it was far too late for my prog-bound adolescence on the one hand and the jazz and improvisation didn’t seem of a piece with anything else I knew in the rest of the work. That said, having listened to it at least once a day for the last week, it’s a strong offering and well worth checking out. (And because there don’t seem to be any live versions of songs from this album on YouTube, here’s an 8-bit rendition of Happy Family.)

Next up: Islands.

Friends and others recommend musical goodies to me all the time. This is probably not surprising. This morning, my friend Rusty suggests Darkthrone, a black metal/punk band. I’m sure the moment will come when that satisfies my musical desires. On this foggy Friday morning, the music of choice is The Jazz Crusaders at the Lighthouse (the first one recorded in ’62) featuring the recently departed Joe Sample on keys.  I know there’s much to be written about the early 60s West Coast sound, but several help files on cost analysis beckon.

Prior to the 1950s, Billie Holiday recorded primarily singles. From 1952 until her death at the age of 44 in 1959, Lady Day recorded ten studio albums and three live albums, primarily for the Verve label (and its Clef subsidiary). She recorded her final album, 1958’s Lady in Satin, for Columbia.

This last period of her life was marked by a lot of personal strife, including abusive relationships, as well as heroin addiction, but even on that final album, she’s well in control of her talents, though her voice had lost a lot of its range.

The thing to remember about these albums is that, unlike her earlier work, these are their own set pieces, not standalone singles, or collections of singles. Of course, this isn’t true only of Billie’s work – it’s the nature of the music business in general in the 1950s– with the advent of LPs, artists, label, and producers began to conceive of pieces listeners would enjoy at a sitting, generally in front of a large console hi-fi system.

By this period, the recording art had become such that the instrumental solos get as much attention as Holiday’s vocals. I don’t think in recording she was ever less than generous with the people who played with her, but on these late albums the band members all get a chance to shine.

1952    Billie Holiday Sings / Recorded: March 26, 1952 (Clef)

This eight-song 10” (extended to 12 and renamed Solitude for the 12” 1956 rerelease) maintains a mostly upbeat take on love with gently swinging arrangements. On the one hand, producer Norman Granz keeps the instrumentation light and Billie’s voice to the front. On the other, her interplay with the musicians, notably Charlie Shaver’s muted trumpet on Solitude and Oscar Peterson’s piano on Blue Moon, highlight how well she used her voice as an instrument in much the way Ella and Sarah Vaughan did. I recall hearing her version I Only Have Eyes For You sometime in the 90s and falling in love with it. I was already familiar with a lot of her work, but only knew the slower 1959 version by the Flamingos.

1953    An Evening with BilliImagee Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & July 27, 1952 (Clef)

This is an altogether more down affair than Billie Holiday Sings. Stormy Weather sets the tone – this is a collection of lost love and love on the rocks songs. While My Man, He’s Funny That Way, and Tenderly address love as a good thing, the tempo and timing are as sad as those on opener Stormy Weather. On the other side of the coin, closer Remember addresses a lover who has strayed, but with a much happier the tempo. This track also features a pair of really nice solos from Peterson and Barney Kessel. (At the time Kessel and bassist Ray Brown rounded out the Oscar Peterson Trio, though Kessel only stayed a year.)

1954    Billie Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & April 14, 1954 (Clef)

As you can see all three of these albums came out of sessions that occurred in a four month period, and with many of the same players on all sessions. That said, the musicians are all at the top of the game. The playlist has all eight tracks because they weren’t obviously available on Spotify in sequence. Listen, in particular to Everything I Have Is Yours. Billie and tenor man Flip Philips are engaging in a sweet dialogue. As with the first two sets, the songs strike a melancholy balance between love and lost love. The closing tracks, however, positively swing. What a Little Moonlight Can Do features another fantastic solo from Peterson and some sweet trumpet work from Charlie Shavers while I Cried For You, a defiant kiss-off to a faithless lover is notable for its building intensity.

1955    Stay with Me / Recorded: February 14, 1955 (Verve)

This seven-song result of a single recording session with Tony Scott’s orchestra and features on side A a couple of longer pieces (each well over six minutes) sandwiching a modern take on Fats Waller’s 1929 hit Ain’t Misbehavin’. (I’ve added a Waller rendition to the playlist as well, for a contrast.) These are strange recordings in that the solos really stretch out. Everything Happens To Me, with its line “I’m just a girl who never looks before she jumps” has the not quite defeated feeling of the classic recordings of Good Morning Heartache and Travelin’ Light off Lady Sings The Blues recorded the following year. The sequencing of the album reflects that of Billie Holiday, with two swingers on side B, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Irving Berlin’s Always, though it closes with a thoughtful rendition of Ellington’s Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.