Saturday, September 01, 2012

Mahogany Frog

For the past decade, NYC's Moonjune Records has presided almost singlehandedly over the renaissance of progressive rock in the modern era. From various permutations of the Soft Machine personnel to the expansive explorations of Italy's D.F.A. and Arti & Mestieri, the vocal acrobatics of Boris Savoldelli to Allan Holdsworth's fiery guitar to unexpected Indonesian fusion, label head Leonardo Pavkovic has proven unafraid of breaking down borders to stump for this often maligned genre.

One of the label's most fascinating discoveries has been Mahogany Frog, a Winnipeg-based ensemble that weaves the inspirations of Italian prog, classic Soft Machine, and the mind-boggling metric jumps of Mahavishnu. Senna, the band's sixth album and their second for Moonjune, is both a celebration of prog's notorious excess and the kind of virtuosic display that has been missing from the horizon for too long in these days of DIY minimalism. (And no, I don't know why the album is named for a natural laxative; use your imagination...)

This is not a quiet music, certainly not dinner party fare. The quacking, crushing guitar assaults, twittering keyboards, outright drum mayhem and multi-layered compositions either call for deep, pinpoint listening or your favorite form of chemical indulgence. The Froggers don't just stick to the tried-and-true sounds of prog's seventies heyday, but mix in hip-hop and electronica references that fit will with the current vibe of international music. Their humorous side is reflected in the uplifting "Flossing with Buddha" while the two-part "Message from Uncle Stan" recalls the 1960s sitar infatuation; "Saffron Myst" is very contemporary, "Expo '67" as retro as its title. "Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service" is like a love note surreptitiously slipped to Yes behind the trig teacher's back.

All in all, Senna holds a lot of pleasure for prog-heads, guitar fans and those who love their music as loud and ostentatious as possible. This is the pure joy of sound.

Laswell solo, at last

Solo bass recordings are one of the most fearsome things on the musical market... usually because they're so uninteresting, poorly recorded and monotonous. There are a few absolute masters of the craft, Dominic Duval standing out foremost in my mind. To the tiny pantheon we can now add Bill Laswell, who has just issued his first solo bass recording, Means of Deliverance, on the Innerhythmic label.

This new album is as much a full-length advertisement for the new Warwick Alien fretless acoustic bass guitar (shown below) as it is another triumph for Laswell, whose massive list of credits includes recordings and tours with John Zorn, Herbie Hancock, Curlew, Public Image Ltd. (that's his bass on the smash hit "Rise"), Pharoah Sanders, Material, Napalm Death, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Praxis, the Golden Palominos, Ginger Baker and Otomo Yoshihide. The new Warwick bass is revealed, under the hands of the master, to possess a tremendous tone that perfectly balances upright depth with bass-guitar resonance. As a bassist I'm excited to try one of these suckers myself.

But it's Laswell's flawless technique and expansive imagination that sell the product. His skill with chords, harmonics, multiple rhythms and effects are whirred together in a dizzying display of vitality throughout Means of Deliverance. He is gifted and creative enough to keep this ten-track album from sounding like one long, repetitive composition as some solo artists are wont to do. Sure, there are a handful of spots (the slightly monotonous "In Falling Light") where one begins to long for another voice in the mix. But these are few and far between, more than balanced by the sheer virtuosity and hypnotic depth of Laswell's vision.

Aside from one or two samples, the only other person on the recording is Ethiopian-born vocalist Gigi Shibabaw, Laswell's wife, who has appeared on some of his past projects and productions (Buckethead's Enter the Chicken, for one). Her bright, soulful voice is central to "Bagana/Sub Figura X", flitting over and through Laswell's throbbing, buzzing pulses. "Lightning in the South" has a heavy groove to it that would probably fill out as a great addition to the Praxis (Laswell/Buckethead/Brain) repertoire, but it's tense and exciting on its own.

Both upright players and bass guitarists will find a lot to love on this new disc, as will Laswell's regular contingent of fans. It exposes some different facets of the man and will stand as one of the better solo recordings of the era.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pending Trombone Legislation (thanks to Robert Robb for this)

(UP Newsfeed: 2/10/11) WASHINGTON, D.C.

Each year thousands of people are killed, maimed or annoyed by Trombones.

The statistics of head, neck and even shoulder injuries sustained by Reed Players, French Horn and String Sections seated within reach of the Deadly Seventh Position are truly shocking...not to mention forced early retirement due to ever-increasing hearing problems reported by Classical Musicians of all types who are forced to play the music of Wagner, Mahler and Brahms, as well as the hundreds of Alumni of the Herman, Ferguson and Kenton bands, and devotees of Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Abe Lincoln, Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino and Charlie Vernon.

There is current legislation pending in Congress to restrict the sale of Trombones and equip them with child-safety devices. The influential Trombone Lobby is, of course, opposed to this. There have even been several proposals for requiring a so-called "trigger lock" on all Bass Trombones! Every year there are reports of hundreds of innocent children, attracted by the Shiny Brass and Smooth, Seductive Curves of an unattended Trombone on a stand in the corner of a room or in an unlocked case who are traumatized for life by the attempts of a playmate to get a sound out of it, or who may suffer a collapsed lung or the effects of hyperventilation by trying the same effort themselves. The owner's feeble "I didn't know the slide was unlocked" is no excuse!

Trombones should be stored Out of Reach of Children and out of the hands of potential predators.

Efforts to enact a Mandatory 10-day waiting period to purchase a Trombone - which would simply allow a reasonable period of time for Law Enforcement Officials to cross-check the purchaser's name against an International list of Registered Trombone Offenders and Slide-O-Mix addicts, have been repeatedly thwarted by the powerful Conn-Selmer-Yamaha (CSY) Lobby. Law Enforcement Officials are particularly alarmed over the increase in crimes involving use of the "sawed-off" Trombone or "Sackbut." Legislation is also pending in several progressive states, including New York and California, to make carrying a concealed Alto Trombone a Class A Felony.

Some Governors feel that there are sufficient laws already on the books that simply need stricter enforcement - such as the 1932 nation-wide ban of Screw-on Bells, the indiscriminate use of Pond's Cold Cream or KY Jelly and unsupervised emptying of water-keys ("spit valves") on public property - a filthy, unsanitary habit which will help spread the Flu this year.

One popular response to the spread of delinquent behavior is the imposition of mandatory longer sentences for those using a Trombone while committing a crime ("Use a trombone - Go to jail").

Surveillance video tapes have proven especially effective in identifying violators of this statute because career criminals have often tried to avoid convictions by having their lawyers insist that what eye-witnesses reported as a Trombone was really only an AK-47 or other Legal Assault Weapon. Strict enforcement has been especially effective when used in conjunction with the new "Three Sharps, You're Out" Statutes that have already been approved by many state legislatures.

Of course the Automatic and Semi-Automatic Valve Models - both Piston and the Middle-European Rotary - are much more dangerous than the traditional Single Valve Trombone.

Interpol has also reported the sudden appearance of Rear-Blasting Cavalry Models that were thought to have been completely eliminated during the Great Confiscation mandated by the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, signed by representatives of every civilized country of the period.

You may recall that those instruments were melted down and became an integral part of the Trans-Atlantic Telephone Cable that helped to unite America and Europe.

It is believed that the new source of these WMDs are isolated factories in rural areas of China.

The awesome destructive power of the Trombone could never have been imagined by the Founding Fathers when they granted us the right to keep and bear arms.

Remember: When Trombones are outlawed, only outlaws will play "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

From the mid-1960s until he retired from music in 1982, Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) and the Magic Band epitomized the avant-garde frontier of rock-and-roll. His ferocious blend of Howlin' Wolf-inspired blues passion, stream-of-consciousness ranting, and cutting-edge rock energy was unmatched in his lifetime. Despite his friendship with Frank Zappa and his ability to recognize and nurture new talent -- Gary Lucas, Ry Cooder, Bill Harkleroad and John "Drumbo" French, among others, paid dues in the Magic Band -- Beefheart remained mostly a cult figure in American music. Along the way emerged stories of mental illness, a fanatical need to control the world around him, his withdrawal into the California desert to spend his days painting, and his death from cancer on December 17th, 2010. If ever a man were too inventive for his own good, it could well be Beefheart.

French, one of the most legendary and respected members of the Captain's entourage, joined the Magic Band as an impressionable teen and spent his formative years under Van Vliet's obsessive wing. About a decade ago he and some past bandmates reconvened the Magic Band with French in the lead role, but did so humbly and with all due respect to Beefheart and his legacy. Now comes French's sizeable but always fascinating memoir, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic (Proper Music Publishing). At 880 pages this is not an easy read, but it is one of the most consistently engaging, informative reminiscences you will ever pick up.

Though I have yet to meet John French in the flesh, he and I have carried on some correspondence for a decade or so, ever since French's solo album Waiting on the Flame (Demon) became one of my desert island discs. I had the honor of interviewing John for Signal To Noise a few years ago and was impressed by his creative spirit, perspective and humility. Both a thoughtful man of God and a frustrated artist, French faced a lot of personal trepidation in deciding how much of the Beefheart story to share with the public. He finally chose to put as much as possible into print, to excise his own demons as much as to inform fans about the rich, deep history of the music and its players. Again, this is not for the faint of heart. French's tales of endless rehearsals, physical threats of violence, sleep and food deprivation, and such will give some readers a chill. But underneath all of the revelation lies a deep, abiding respect for Don Van Vliet as an artist and visionary. For better or worse, French and his bandmates would not be who they are today had they not crossed Beefheart's path.

French really makes the times and places come to life: the tense vibrancy of the Sixties as the Kennedy era gave way to hippiedom, the players' pursuit of music because there just wasn't anything better to do in the Antelope Valley desert, the fickle ups and downs of the music industry. He conducted extensive interviews with musicians, club personnel, locals and incidental figures to piece together this remarkable mosaic. A track-by-track appendix of all of Beefheart's recordings is also included and is worth the price by itself.

Much print space is devoted to the construction and development of Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart's most popular and enduring album. It's here that much of the pain and tension in the book rises; I won't delve into it so as not to spoil your reading. Suffice it to say that Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic is required reading for anyone with even a passing appreciation of the Captain's music. The book really is an incredible achievement, and I commend French for sharing his heart and his memories in this fashion. It's a combination of cautionary tale, epic history and personal catharsis, and highly recommended. You will rarely encounter a memoir like it.

As a side note, here is a Beefheart tune that I was completely unaware of until the day the Captain passed away, even though it was covered by The Tubes and Everything But the Girl. It shows a lesser-known side of the man, beautifully lyrical and romantic like little else in the Beefheart canon:

I have been reviewing music long enough to be a little skeptical when so-called "lost recordings" emerge. While a good number of them turn out to have been worth the wait and make one wonder why they were forgotten for so long, the bulk of such unearthed sessions tend to be uninteresting additions to the artists' discographies, notable more for their novelty than their quality.

How wonderful, then, to hear pianist Mitchel Forman's solo masterwork Lost and Found, recorded by his employer, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, in Milan in 1979. Following an enjoyable tour, Mulligan and his wife, Franca, had invited Forman and drummer Richie De Rosa to join them at Franca's family villa in Tuscany. Mulligan also had an ulterior motive; he was so impressed by Forman's formidable talents that he wanted to record the pianist in a solo setting. For whatever reasons the tapes were set aside for more than thirty years, but Forman has finally issued the session on his Marsis Jazz label. And it's about time.

Forman was one of the best foils Mulligan ever had onstage, perfectly capable of working in cool, bop, and more lighthearted contexts without flinching. This album, in which Forman assays three of Mulligan's compositions, seven of his own, and De Rosa's charming waltz "Travels in Three" for good measure, reveals just how much of the Mulligan quartet's pure magic could be attributed to Forman's touch. His buoyant voicings and casual professionalism are couched in a sense of real enjoyment. We can tell that the pianist was having a ball as he was left free to interpret the material on his own.

The album opens with "Jeru", which Mulligan had written and arranged for Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" sessions in 1948 (the song title was Mulligan's nickname). Though the tune was already three decades old when Forman waxed it here, it sounds as fresh and contemporary as everything else on the disc. The pianist stretches out, tweaks and reinterprets the familiar tune according to his own vision, and it works brilliantly. The next track, Forman's own "Angelica", was brand new in '79 and due to be recorded for Mulligan's 1980 big-band album, Walk on the Water. As pretty as that version was, the solo piano take is downright scintillating, almost touching in its fragile beauty. Forman has always had a gift for Guaraldi-style arpeggios and dynamics, and those colorations shine through here. This disc would make fine background music for a dinner party, but it reveals so much more upon closer listening.

The selections range from intelligent bop to lush ballads, and include a few surprises. "Butterflies with Hiccups" is a Mulligan tune, the title track of a usually ignored 1965 session by the saxman's sextet. The main melodic line is repeated several times in succession, but Forman adds new twists and turns to every cycle and really ropes us in. Forman's "Tall Boots", by contrast, is funky enough to sound at home in a Horace Silver session. The pianist's left hand work is always impressive, just as fluid and imaginative as the right. The album closes with a quieter, more introspective version of "Angelica", a beautiful rethinking that finishes the set on a lovely note. Highly recommended for fans of pure, unadorned piano genius.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A tip of the hat in memory of Dr. Billy Taylor, godfather of the Jazzmobile, icon of jazz education in America, and one of the finest pianists this nation has ever produced. While he was never as famous a musician as many of his peers, Dr. Taylor positively impacted more lives with the joyous gospel of jazz than most educators could ever hope for. He was universally respected, deeply loved, and will be profoundly missed by the jazz community worldwide.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A few years back, in a blindfold test done for Down Beat, bassist Charlie Haden referred to a piece of music (this one, actually) as "completely unnecessary". It was an interesting choice of words, and led to a brief but insightful discussion within the jazz community as to what type of music would be considered "necessary". At the time I thought Haden was a bit off-base; while the piece in question wasn't the most creative thing to come along, I thought labeling it as "unnecessary" was pretentious and a bit arrogant. Now, however, I have to admit I've seen the light, having come across what might be the most unnecessary recording ever.

Trumpeter Lew Soloff, one of America's top-flight jazz and session players, has banded together with conductor Steve Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble New York to, essentially, recreate the classic Sketches of Spain session by Miles Davis under the direction of Gil Evans. Richman has done a few tweaks to Evans' score, the ensemble passages certainly sound brighter than in the original, and former Evans sideman Soloff is rarely less than flawless in anything he does. One couldn't ask for a better musician to ape Miles' spirit as closely as possible. But one is finally led to ask, why?

The original Sketches is an inarguable classic; controversial in its time, of course, for its attempt to blend orchestral lushness, edgy jazz horn and Spanish flair, and rather rough around the edges, but still one of the key recordings of the jazz canon. I'm not comfortable with the idea that Richman received a substantial grant to, in essence, reshape this timeless music into what he thought it should have sounded like to begin with. It might be fine if Soloff had made more of an attempt to put his own personal stamp on the music; that would be his right as the featured soloist. But he doesn't. Instead, he spends most of the session aping Miles note for note, nuance for nuance. And this gives the whole disc a sense of utter meaninglessness in the long run.

I'm fine with tribute albums, even tributes to albums. But this recording is to music what Gus Van Sant's to-the-letter recreation of "Psycho" was to cinema: a veiled exercise in ego that, for all its polish and glitter, still pales next to the original. Save your money for the double-disc 50th anniversary reissue of the real deal.