Monday, August 22, 2022

NEVER TOO MUCH COLTRANE OR DOLPHY

 THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD  RECORDINGS--
John Coltrane

John Coltrane--tenor sax / Eric Dolphy--alto sax, bass clarinet /Ahmed Abdul-Malik--oud / McCoy Tyner--piano Jimmy Garrison--bass Reggie Workman--bass / Elvin Jones--drums. 


From the four CD set, the first disc alone is mightily impressive for sheer stamina , and many sections of sublime improvisation. Jones rattles the traps in brisk rhythms, while Coltrane sets fires throughout the side. There are times when 'Coltrane gives in to his worse impulses--but these are brief enough, as Dolphy's alto playing, and his work with the bass clarinet, is enough to make me almost believe that there is a heaven. His bristling inventiveness, his inspired and assertive leaps between intervals, pitches, tones, and harmonic constructions approach enter the realm of pure avant garde sonics, but there is as well a sense of his spontaneous compositions remaining anchored in the bop tradition. These assets make him a perfect counterpart to Coltrane, whose rapidity of ideas, one chorus after the other extending a melody's potential to sustain a flood of brilliantly articulated notes , gives the whole of this four CD set a sustained, spell binding allure.   What had seemed alien to mainstream, bop-preferring audiences as radical and un-jazz like at the time is now a given in the repertoire of younger improvisers. There is not a musician today who can match  John Coltrane for the furious ingenuity that came from his soul by way of his instrument. Modal and operating on a rhythmic principle that  makes me think of W.C.Williams' alluring yet elusive notion of the 'variable foot" of rhythm--cadences and stresses are constantly changing into nearly perfect accents based on the vocalizations of a word arranged in spontaneous combination that convey meaning and purpose in sound as well as strict definitions--Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman construct an ever-evolving foundation , a brooding firmament on which Coltrane, Tyner  and Dolphy overlay a delicious and difficult weave of odd moods and desperate beauty. This is the kind of music that makes me sometimes think that I was born twenty years too late.

Friday, August 19, 2022

THE CLAPTON WE DESERVED

 


 The more cynical among us might dismiss this effort by bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker as a blatant money-grab to secure filthy lucre from nostalgic fans of Cream, replacing founding member Eric Clapton with stalwart blues—rock specialist Gary Moore. Two parts Cream is better than no Cream at all? But hold on a second, Moore's guitar work matches and very often exceeds the admittedly early brilliance of Clapton from those studio and live discs; Moore is technically far more advanced as a musician than Clapton, but what saves the Irish fret lord from being merely another wind-up virtuoso is his retention of the raw aggression, emotion, power of the blues.

 In this video, you'll note that he pretty well recreates Clapton's tone from the period and reveals great evidence of having spent hours, hundreds of hours playing EC with guitar in hand learning his phrasing, his timing, his dynamic sense. This is likely to be the best Clapton tribute that will ever come to be.Moore presents the particulars of EC's style that make me think that this was his (Clapton's) the best era as a guitarist. The timing, the tone, the frantic unpredictability of his blues intonations as the self-taught guitarist battled with the jazz-trained Bruce and Baker in those extended improvisations that were Cream's stock-in-trade.

 Moore brings all that to this performance, and effortlessly incorporates this fiery and swift riffing as well to remind you who's controlling the wah-wah pedal. Bruce and Baker, of course, are in fine shape as aging rock musicians, each improving and goading each other to different rhythmic emphasis, all of which Moore elaborates upon with inspiring blues improvisational escapades. It's refreshing that Moore seems to refuse to treat Cream's canonical songbook with any over reverence. He makes the material his own, and though Clapton's shadow looms over all of his flights, the Irish guitarist takes full possession of the solo spaces allotted and fills with a superbly honed manner, a gregarious aggression you might say.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

WOODSTOCKING AND BAD FAITH

 I had enough trouble maintaining an even keel when the film Woodstock was released in 1970. Even as a 17-year-old poet wannabe who loved the idea that Youth Culture, The Counter Culture, the new poetry found in the New Music would be of great transforming value for the world to yet to come, something about the famous account of the 1969 rock festival in upstate New York—something about the documentary concerning the famed rock festival had an off-putting hubris. All those hippies gathered for no good purpose, catching a ride on the swells of a collective ego, seemed a massive wallow in self-congratulations for being groovy beyond redemption. I remember mostly maintain my cool about the hype around the mythos of the event and the overpraise for the film, only to lose it finally in the matter when in 1981 NBC opted to broadcast the film on the concert’s tenth anniversary. Typical of a ratings grab, the network overkilled the entire enterprise. Rather than showing the film as it was (already noteworthy for its sense of self-congratulation), the powers that be at the network instead whittled it down into something safe and defused, entitled Woodstock Relived. In their production, NBC managed to change Woodstock from an historical footnote where pleasant memories can be derived and gave it the substance of a daydream. Woodstock Relived became, literally, naught but the magic land of Oz. and the audience, a gaggle of Dorothies stranded in a metaphysical Kansas of the soul, became suddenly transported to a land where dreams come true, and all endings are happy. NBC's purpose, I suppose, was to make the surfeit of long-hair, strange costumes, loud music, hints of nudity and free-love in the original motion picture somehow acceptable to the mainstream TV public by contriving a method that would "explain" the phenomena to an audience who might still be bewildered by the fête ten years hence. 


The primary proof of this is their choice of hiring Beau Bridges to provide a running commentary. Seated on a set equipped with a TV monitor, Bridges exuded the authoritarian calm of Walter Cronkite, seeming to adjudicate over a political convention. Where the first version of Wood51ock trusted the editing and the sequence of scenes to form their narrative—perhaps they had a better sense of who their potential audience was—the NBC editors would often flash the beginning of a musical act as Bridges would fit the film into a strained metaphorical context, as evidenced by two principal scenes in which the wishful thinking interpretation of the event belies its banality. In the first. Joe Cocker's head appears on the screen as the first strains of "A Little Help from My Friends" are played while off to the side, looking mellowly certain of his line. Bridges waxes poetic ~t: 'II on the spirit of cooperation that distinguished the event, citing the music as proof positive of his thesis with the words "When Joe Cocker began to sing. He told the world what Woodstock was all about." My response and others as well, was a loud "oh come on now." not because Bridge's analogy sounded stupid but because even a cursory examination of historical fact brings the whole notion of\ what the counter-culture actually was into question .ln fact, "what Woodstock was all about" was a matter of too many people showing up for an event whose producers expected less dense crowds, an alarming strain on existing food, toilet, sleeping and medical capabilities. And the remarkably benign response of surrounding townspeople. The National Guard and the Army to alleviate the hazards of overcrowding. 


And Cocker himself, being less than the spokesman for anyone, was a scheduled performer with only one US hit who had to play under the most unusual of circumstances. Wood - stock, in other words, was an accident of circumstances, and the fact that the crowd was more or less peaceful was little else but a fortuitous fluke. The NBC folks, though, wanted a structure in which to place the fair, a coherent "theme" with which to make the film an item one could stand, so they exercised their kind of historical revisionism, a revisionism intended to give the illusion that Woodstock can be understood in the most banal set of generalizations. More insidious than forcing the image of Cocker into a cheap, glittering cliché was the way they represented Country Joe McDonald. If memory serves me correctly. McDonald and his group The Fish were the mo t straightforwardly political of all the Bay Area rock and roll bands, going beyond the then trendy politics of the anti was movement and involving themselves with many new-left causes, including various benefit concerts for the Black Panthers, SDS, and other militant groups whose rhetoric frequently called for a "revolution" of a usually unspecified sort. 

The sensibilities at NBC, though, were either afraid of the depth of McDonald's obvious activism or were just plain ignorant of it, and chose instead to reduce him, like Cocker, to little more than evidence for a foregone conclusion. Completely sniping out McDonald's "Fish Cheer" ("Give me an F," and so on, until everyone is deliriously yelling FUCK). McDonald is first shown half-way through his son~ "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die' on the set's TV monitor while Bridges, his eyes puppy-wide his voice dripping a honey toned sincerity, generalized about the turmoil of the period, mentioning the dissent over the Vietnam War as a demonstration of "thousands and thousands of young people who deeply loved America who had something to say about the quality of life in this country, not just for them, but for generations to come." Then almost as an afterthought. The rest of McDonald's tune is played uninterrupted. Other examples abound endlessly throughout the run of Woodstock Relived of the way the producers of the show sought to make the original film presentable: the excising of all nudity, the elimination of all strong language that formerly peppered the soundtrack, only a cursory depiction of the drug use and most galling, Bridges' insistence that Woodstock was nothing more than "kids letting off steam." During a sequence of shots that show kids mud-sliding after a heavy rain. 

Bridges literally said something to the effect that they were engaging in "not good clean fun , but what's the difference?" The festival sounds positively wholesome, all-American, like going on a weekend retreat or sending one's son off to Boy Scout Camp. By implication, the 60s are made to sound wholesome and good clean fun, just a period of rowdy behavior no more deadly than a fraternity panty-raid. The implication, though, goes deeper, hinting that the Woodstock festival itself can be held up in the light of history as being the quintessence of what the 60s were "about." All the Prepare for variegated strands that marked the cultural and political atmosphere of the decade had merged to a head at the festival, and that each had found its fullest expression. This revisionist arrogance galls me to not end - the assumption being that Woodstock can be called representative of the 60s - but the fault in this case must fall to the TV producers and not the original filmmakers. The original Woodstock was, to its credit, a documentary of a specific event that did not attempt to generalize a world view. Even with the paucity of good music, the cretinous photography of the acts and the inane good vibe banter of the concert goers, the original Woodstock is nonetheless an accurate, if obviously biased representation of the festival, treating the event as something in and of itself, within context, without any pretense of imposing an overall "meaning." Though, the film has dated badly. 

One can still see it and retain a perspective that keeps one's sense of propriety in order: something similar to people recognizing the follies of unrepentant youth. Woodstock Relived, however, denies the original film's generic integrity and transform into an effective additive to the cultural epidemic of nostalgia, a condition that has us believing in false Edens. Like an evangelical preacher citing Bible passages over the airwaves to legitimate their political stance in terms that transcend the machinations of human being, the how's producer composed for themselves a bill of good as to what the 60 meant and used the festival the Irrefutable Truth. Woodstock thus become romanticized to the point that excludes perspective for analysis. The 60s become trivialized with no attempt to take the longer more comprehensive view of the decade, and ultimately, all of our experiences of the period become cheapened, having fallen victim to a corporate reductionism whose ideology demands a narrative style that deliver us to a horde of dollar-eyed advertiser. The larger pity of this is that anything anyone was struggling for - a better world, peace, a society free of exploitation—become part of the mainstream, the birthday ribboned package of lies we tell ourselves to have the nerve to trudge ahead into a future with something like hope. Under the shoulder-to-the-wheel bravado we drape our waking lives in, our dreams tell us what we won't speak of over breakfast, at work, or even sitting alone minding our own business, that the future is not a destination legitimated with greater and finer purpose, but merely a station of merely passing through the days with what we've learned from being alive so far. The idea is that life in -the -moment exists in what we bring to it, our experience and the eventual gathering of personal knowledge sometimes called wisdom. The real terror of this life is we wonder if we've learned anything at all up to this point. 


Friday, August 12, 2022

BEING WRONG ABOUT RY COODER

 

Image result for ry cooder
The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to attend the Nov. 16 Ry Cooder concert in the UC gym. Cooder, I knew, made a name for himself for the slicing slide guitar work he did on the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album, a record I enjoyed. But word had it that Cooder was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, someone who does songs they've learned from hillbillies, blues pioneers, sailors, and other sources. In other words, Cooder wasn't any Hollywood pretty boy stroking his Ovation guitar while singing self-penned tomes to his sensitivity, like Jackson Browne (though Browne's stylistics  their reward),  Rather, Cooder was strictly bucolic, with rough edges In both voice and guitar work, not a virtuoso but engagingly honest in presentation to an audience that I suspected picked up on folk music as part of a collective rejection of high art in general.  But while my admittedly dour presuppositions could have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The old and still adolescent school of making up your mind before being in possession of facts), I realized I needed to switch off the contempt. It was a bit like culture shock in your culture. Cooder, without the band he's been using for most of this tour, ambled sleepily on stage!! and sat in his chair and goaded the sound crew to "goose” the volume up in the monitors, finally imploring them to " crank it. Don't be afraid." The height of his performance was his guitar work. Basing his styles in rural blues inflections and country picking techniques, Cooder's approach is an enticing hodgepodge of effects that don't fall into any category, but rather rest between the boundaries. His picking is quick and firm, with the vigorous pulling of the strings, and his chord mix ragtime jazz progressions, classical chording, and blues phrasings with egalitarian ease that's positively organic. His slide work, his strongest forte, avoids the dying dog moans that neophyte players, mostly British, manage, and _ maintains a solid flow of incisively slashing riffs. The fact that he seemed affable and good-natured worked in his favor as well. He seemed to enjoy the songs he did, avoiding the sort of inverse snobbery I thought pervaded this genre and its audience. Cooder debunked that prejudicial nonsense. Opening the show was Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, who played banjo, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica, Jew’s harp, as well as guitar, set the night's mood with an amicable way of going about his job. The highlight of his set was his Jew’s harp playing, which with the utilization of the University's super fine sound system, approximated the unearthly buzz of interstellar insects, a ploy Pink Floyd might consider next time they take their million-dollar quad system on tour. It's astounding that sometimes the strangest emanations come not from smoky, sparking, colicky electronic amplifier banks, but from the recesses of man's musical past. His concert was refreshing to remember that not everything we’ve done as species is ugly and created with it in mind to stomp on the next guy.


JEFFERSON STARSHIP'S LONG CRASH LANDING

 

Image result for GOLD JEFFERSON STARSHIP
GOLD--Jefferson Starship

The Jefferson Starship are ·one of the more remarkable Jobs of a late Sixties acid rock band re-tool their image so that they might fit in the Seventies marketplace. The original Airplane, if you· remember, were a group of LSD crazies who espoused the glory of chemically expanded consciousness years before Carlos Castaneda got Into the act. In their original conception, the Starship became paranoid revolutionaries (on paper anyway) who'd lost any grasp they had on reality, and whose political broadsides resembled a Psychedelic piece of hate literature. (The peace and love gleam had faded from the Jefferson Airplane’s collective gaze and the first Starship album, Blows Against the Empire, was a quizzical and quixotic way of trying to rouse their fans to act of resistance. I’m still hesitant to say that writing a semi-rock opera centering around hijacking a starship and heading out some a cosmic place where longhairs, dopers and select people of color wouldn’t be hassled by the man was the best way to change one’s lived-in circumstances. Ah, the Sixties…)  In this age of lower expectations, though, it's understandable that the Starship's rebel stance has wizened, and that their music has become more commercially approachable. They've placed themselves safely on the record charts with a series of hit singles and albums, the sounds of which border on the easy-listening lilt of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, or The Eagles. Lucidly for old Airplane fans, the new Starship has produced several well-crafted hits, most of which are on Gold. The standout track is Marty Balin's "Caroline," a superbly produced and arranged song that screams for radio programmers to include it on their playlist, "Miracles, " a stunningly layered ballad with an elusive, captivating melody that is , besides,  perhaps the greatest  song ever written with oral love references, and "With Your Love." There will be those die-hard rock and roll counterculture adherents who’ll feel that the Starship has betrayed the cause, whatever that might be. One must remember, however, that the Airplane/ Starship has a formidable body of work complete with stratospheric highs and the lowest lows, and their momentary upswing on the record charts is more than anyone could expect from a band who, by rights, should have burned itself out years · ago. 






Thursday, August 11, 2022

MIKE BLOOMFIELD PLAYS SAN DIEGO

 

It’s been mentioned by offhand wits that one’s younger days get hipper the more one speaks of them, an understandable response to a friend or stranger’s grand recollections about the times they’ve been near the famous, the legendary, the brilliant, the ignoble, the stylishly crude. But there’s no intention to brag that I had seen the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band somewhere between 1967–1969 at the Chessmate, a no-age-limit, alcohol-free coffeehouse in Detroit where local and touring folk, blues and jazz acts played.

This is more in wondering whatever happened to the memory of the band’s first guitarist, the late Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a white boy, born in Chicago, from the suburbs, who was in love with black Chicago blues and traveled to Southside Chicago to witness the music he loved in the black clubs where they played: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubert Sumlin. I knew next to nil about the blues then nor did I know who Bloomfield’s influences and mentors were. What I did know was that he played guitar like nothing I had encountered until then.Biting, fluid, aching, and bittersweet, Bloomfield was masterful that night, a scrawny, jerky Jewish kid playing a black man’s blues with an intensity that was absent of cliché or recycled rockabilly riffs; what he was doing was something else. I was converted to the blues and the cause of lauding Bloomfield each chance I had with fellow music geeks. He recorded two widely praised albums with the Butterfield Band, Introducing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East West. Just as things began to break for the band, Bloomfield did what became a predictable habit throughout his career, he abruptly left the band. He started one of the first rock-oriented horn bands — the Electric Flag — leading a racially diverse group of musicians through a variety of American music that include blues, jazz, rockabilly, and soul. A Long Time Coming, their first album, was well reviewed and again, just as things began to percolate, Bloomfield bailed on the project and wound up recording with Blood, Sweat and Tears founder Al Kooper for the Super Session album. Mike Bloomfield, though, couldn’t finish the album and left the project after recording half an album’s worth of splendid guitar work, with Kooper enlisting the aid of guitarist Steve Stills to finish the disc.And so it was, a genius guitarist who was easily a decade ahead of his time with regard to the art of rock guitar, leaving one promising band and collaboration after another, impatient, a walking case of the jitters. He couldn’t stay in one place too long.

My family moved to San Diego in the summer of 1969, during the Woodstock Festival, and, as it turned out over the years, Mike Bloomfield was a frequent visitor to the area during the 1970s, playing with an assortment of friends at colleges and clubs to promote whatever album he’d just released, or merely picking up a date because he still had name recognition even in music that was becoming increasingly corporate and predictable in a broad range of commercial releases. Bloomfield’s gigs promised the loose-fitting grit of the Bay Area style as well as a funky blend of folk, blues, jazz, and Eastern influences that ran contrary to the tight shoes record companies and radio stations were increasingly insisting musical artists wear in order to gain exposure. Bloomfield had done his best to sabotage his commercial potential by his erratic behavior and inconsistent performances, but there was something intriguing about Bloomfield’s live performances; you didn’t know how well Bloomfield would play, inspired and ruling the frets like the master he could be or so distracted and disassembled that his musicianship would make those unaware of what he could do wonder loudly and angrily what the big deal was with his reputedly great musician.

Apprehension over pending Bloomfield gigs was understandable, considering that his swings in mood and delivery made the interested fan wonder out loud which Mike Bloomfield would show up, the wonderfully expressive blues player who was one of the ground-zero white players to introduce blues, jazz, and raga and improvisational charms into rock ’n’ roll’s evolving instrumental style, or the mercurial bright boy who couldn’t stay in one place, stay in his seat, finish what he’d started? I’ve seen both in San Diego venues, hither and yon, the results different as old steak and the freshest, sweetest fruit.

It sorts of works out as a story of two university engagements, the night and day, the sweet and stinky, the great and the gross.

In the early 1970s, Bloomfield and Friends played a concert at the University of San Diego gym ,the first time I’d have a chance to see him live since Detroit; he was magnificent and everything critics and admirers claimed him to be. Energetic, even smiling, a change from his usually scrunched up scowl as he punished the guitar strings. The music consisted of up-tempo shuffles and rhythm and blues chestnuts, slow, heartbreaking blues and some instances of the fleeting jazz/raga improvisations Bloomfield introduced to the larger world, which was still living within the confines of Top 40 radio. There was always something simultaneously graceful and unwieldy about Bloomfield’s manner of playing; blessed with a fluidity that was uncommon in the day for rock-oriented guitarists, Bloomfield’s habit was to use everything he had when he sallied forth on a long solo. His slow blues would begin with the bittersweet and golden-hued tone of B.B. King — a sublime replication of the human voice. He would seem to lose control of his stream and have his phrases go over the 1–1V-V progression and wander into dissonance and near atonality as though channeling Coltrane’s high-register skirmishes.

After that, he would bring it back to the V chord, his playing deeper, with a long, searing blues bend sustained for several measures as the pitch increased higher in tone and intensity until he released the note and altered the mood again with softer, whispering phrases that brought the blues to a finely buffered resolution. It wasn’t all slow blues and bathos, though, and I remember how amazingly Bloomfield made the up-tempo blues stomp and rock under the snapping lash of his hot-tempered lead work, or how he displayed a knack for rapid, single-note runs during jazzier instrumentals, highlighted by the full, ringing octaves pioneered by Wes Montgomery. It was a good night for Bloomfield, a good night for the blues. Bloomfield, though, needed to keep moving after the show. He was quickly gone, seen rushing out of the gym’s side door holding his guitar case, brusquely brushing past fans trying to shake his hand or give him high fives or something stronger. He was in a hurry to get somewhere.

The memory gets blurry again recollecting another Bloomfield concert, a reunion concert not so long after the show in the USD Gym. I can’t recall the date, but I do remember what happened.The Electric Flag, the band that Bloomfield formed after his departure from the Butterfield group, leaving promptly after their widely praised first album. Moby Grape also played, a fantastically talented group of musicians that arose toward the end of the San Francisco rock era and produced two worthy albums. Moby Grape and Wow, before their rapid decline due to drug problems and member struggles with mental illness, were scheduled for a double-whammy reunion concert on a date in the mid-’70s at the UCSD Gym. There was a good amount of commotion among my fellow music obsessives, mad chatter over beers and bongs about how this would shake out. Two bands of short life spans but worthy discographies on tour together, attempting again to be relevant in a terrain that was rapidly forgetting the magic and value of the hippie vibe.

Moby Grape’s performance was, to be kind, something resembling an arrangement of mannequins dressed as old bohemians that held guitars while music was piped in through a scratchy PA system.A desultory display all around, the band sometimes came to life with a snappy guitar riff or unexpected burst of energy from the rhythm section, but there was the element of songs sagging in the middle, the musicians fall out of time with each other, of lyrics being forgotten, missed cues. The harmonies were ragged, a moth eaten weave of voices. That night Moby Grape’s fine legacy was a burden, a standard they couldn’t come to terms with.

Some of the crowd liked it though, but the applause and war-howls was as lackluster as the music. It was an open seating affair, which meant audience members found their patch of hard wood floor and made themselves comfortable amid the other attendees who had the same idea, to get as near the stage as possible and commune with the drum beats, guitar solos, and the passing of ignitable drugs. The lights remained low during the break between bands; I could see the cherry tips of joints floating in air, passed finger tips to fingertips, and the room was filled with the noxious aromas of marijuana reeking sweet. But the rule was this: stay for Bloomfield, the First Guitar Hero, the erratic genius of electric blues and roots music.

It was a pensive wait for the Electric Flag’s arrival on stage, as the squatting student audience, cooling their heels between bio chem exams and writing padded term papers notable for turgid prose and jargonalia, started a murmur of sorts, people yelling out “Bloomfield” or the staid and sturdy “rock ’n’ roll,” voices hoarse with the burn of pot. A Frisbee was being tossed about. There was the tangible feeling that one was a sardine in a can.

The Electric Flag soon took the stage, first the horn section, all proper looking gents dressed for the gig, alert and seemingly sober, and then the others, the bassist and keyboardist. Drummer Buddy Miles came on and took his place behind a large drum set, ready to let the world know again how it was he’d been picked by Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and Bloomfield to handle the sticks on various projects. Miles was a good, not great drummer, able to adjust his rhythm and blues approach to a variety of rhythmic requirements, minimal but firm, steady, on the mark. He was not a Tony Williams, not a Mitch Mitchell, but he got the job done. His second biggest talent seemed to be skill at landing high-profile gigs with famous rock guitarists. Then vocalist Nick Gravenites took his position, an underrated vocalist and the composer of the blues standard “Born in Chicago,” made famous by the Butterfield Blues Band.

Finally, Bloomfield himself emerged, thin, lanky, jeans drooping and back curved, looking not a little like a guitar bearing pugilist approaching his opponent, sensing where the next punch was coming from. There was a good amount of applause and this time the gymnasium echoed with the fanfare, as much from the relief of the waiting as it was anticipation for Bloomfield’s artistry. The performance itself was wanting, though, not bad nor slovenly, but strangely professional. In the metaphysics of judging such things, or at least reconsidering the events years removed, that secret something was missing: the elan, the verve, the energy that comes from playing the notes in such a way that the nervous system lights up like Christmas lights and infuses the sounds with a feeling that resonates in a listener in areas of the soul that have nothing to do with the quality of technique. The band, musically on point, could have been employees gathered to collect their paychecks after a Friday shift. Bloomfield wasn’t having a good time of it and seemed hesitant to play anything.

Where the band would play a solid, Albert King-style blues requiring suitably mournful and sting guitar fills between phrases, Bloomfield was often silent or late to the cue, and his solos were tentative half the time, as if he were trying to remember why he was in the center of the stage in the spotlight. He did play a great solo on the band’s signature song “Texas,” a moment when talent and sensibility jibed and made something moving, a slow blues solo as very few people could play it. This was half way through the show and it made me optimistic that the rest of the night would ascend to the proper heights of excellence. One could here, though, electrical crackling and short bursts of electronic blurting from Bloomfield’s amp.

He was agitated; his face was a road map of exasperated furrows. Two songs later the band went into a slow soul ballad featuring Buddy Miles on drums. Bloomfield strummed away in accompaniment while Miles softly drummed and crooned the lyrics. Miles, who had a voice that was, say, adequate to sing in harmony but far too thin and screechy to take on the Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett gospel-influenced style, had walked up from behind his drum kit and took the microphone from the stand, confessing to the crowd on why he needed his baby. It became an endurance contest but Bloomfield couldn’t take it. His amp continued producing extracurricular belches and his facial features vanished behind a mask of irritation. He abruptly yanked the cord from his amp and walked off the stage, not to return. The rest of the Electric Flag managed as best they could but by that point one could seem a growing stream of students, hippies, faculty and assorted bohemians headed for the exits, heading to the parked cars or buses that awaited them, wondering what happened to Bloomfield and if they could get a refund.

This was the deal one made with their admiration of Bloomfield’s guitar work — that one would either be in the presence of a master, an innovator, a man who changed the way succeeding guitarists approached the way they played guitar, or be witness to a burned-out case. Michael Bloomfield was found dead of an apparent drug overdose February 15, 1981, in the front seat of his Mercedes. He was a heroin user and suffered, it’s been said, from chronic insomnia, two things that might provide clues to the musician’s famed inconsistency. For all his breakthroughs in revolutionizing rock-oriented guitar playing with a heady fusion of blues, jazz, swing, raga and traditional folk-blues techniques, Mike Bloomfield was a man who didn’t stay with a project for very long, as his brief but galvanizing stints with Paul Butterfield and the Electric Flag and Al Kooper attest. Other projects, such his collaboration with Dr. John and John Hammond Jr. in the trio Triumvirate, didn’t go beyond one album and one tour. Another band called KGB with Ric Grech (from Family and Blind Faith), Barry Goldberg (Butterfield) , Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart) and Ray Kennedy (James Gang) was an attempt to put a “super group” together, but , again, didn’t last beyond one album. Bloomfield did, though, keep busy with his music, appearing on a good number of albums by other musicians, and releasing a steady stream of studio albums of his own where his best skills were displayed.

It’d be a little grandiose to maintain that Bloomfield is the Forgotten Guitar Hero, but it irksome to those of us in the early circles of fans to hear younger blues fans discuss the genius of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Robin Trower and the like without a mention of MBs monumental importance to establishing blues as the Rosetta stone through which all contemporary rock guitar playing comes from. Under discussed, obscured, perhaps, but not forgotten, not wholly.

One day few years ago I was at La Jolla’s Pannikin Café on Girard Ave., next to DG Wills bookstore, and there were the familiar plaintive, slicing, fluid riffs of Mike Bloomfield coming out from behind the counter. It was turned up loud, like it should be; I could hear the notes emoting from across the street as I waited for the traffic light to change. John, a fine young man with an angelic crest of long brown hair, was the manager on duty and the Bloomfield disc, 1969‘s Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, was his choice of play. I ordered my coffee, black, no sugar, no room for cream, and asked him if he liked Bloomfield.

“Oh yeah” he replied. He took my money, gave me change. I threw the coins into the tip can.

“You know how old this recording is?” I asked, hoping to brag with on
e of those back-in-the-day boasts that maintained that the past was better than what’s being sold in the current time. John just smiled and ended the conversation with the best response regarding the matter.

“Really doesn’t matter” he said, “it sounds great right now.”

Sunday, August 7, 2022

THE DEPRESSED BRILLIANCE OF THE LOST POETS


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

LADY GAGA'S STATUS IN 2009

 

A brief piece appears in Slate this week that wonders how smart dance hit phenomenon Lady Gaga happens to be with her conspicuous cherry-picking of style points from previous avant garde trends, with some discussion of the specific debt she might owe to Madonna. The article's theme is that there is a constant recycling of cultural artifacts that , it seems, a few people manage to package and market into lucrative careers, but one might make note a sub theme that goes uncommented upon; the recycling of old feature story ideas.If one were to change names, references and dates, we'd have the same sort of article that appeared , a dozen a month, during the mid-eighties and early nineties that attempted to parse Madonna. What Lady Gaga and Madonna both share is not only pretentiousness but a talent for recycling dated avant-garde gestures and an instinct of what they can get away with in a climate where even the recent past is forgotten. The basic difference between the two, it seems, is that Lady Gaga would really like to be taken seriously , as one can see in her continued references to Warhol, performance art, Bowie, the Bauhaus school.


Like the autodidatic Bowie, she appears to know a bit about experimental art and the like. What I get , though, is a regret and resentment of being born 50 years too late for the generation of edgy art she obviously admires; she wants to , it seems, to join the ranks of her heroes not only through her music and choreography but by trying to talk her way through the clubhouse door way.This Gaga entity might be contrived and a fake, but all this falls under the rubric of art, which deals in things that are created, made up, stitched together. In this sense, she is not dumb at all, and shows smart sources to pilfer from; she is, in fact, in a great tradition of western artists, low, middle and high on the culture scale, who made interesting careers piecing together things they've lifted from other their betters.Lady Gaga might not be an intellectual, but she isn't stupid. She is smart.The question, really , is whether it's good art or not, a less simple task than condemning her outright. I find her a late comer to the game , and less interesting because I've survived the David Bowie and Madonna years, and have witnessed the bric-a-brac aesthetic of postmodernism bloom and wilt with the fashion season it was part of. I see her as a little girl in an attic trying on her grandmother's old clothes, adoring herself in a mirror as she imagines herself dressed for the day in a generation that isn't hers to claim.Madonna's pretentiousness was several decibels turned down.

Not a raconteur, as is Bowie , she kept her declarations relatively spare and didn't dwell long on her extra-musical projects, such as the monumentally vacant product that was her book "Sex". She seems to have realized that she wasn't a public intellectual and didn't try to be anything of the sort.One might remember the Esquire magazine interview with her conducted by Norman Mailer . Mailer was ready to do for her image as he had done for Marylin Monroe, to put forth a case that Madonna, like Norma Jean, was a brilliant and profound artist on terms entirely her own. While Mailer's controversial biography on the actress resulted in fanciful if touchingly expressed speculation, Madonna seemed unwilling to follow Mailer's blustery lead. She gave terse answers, sticking to what she knew, the result being one of Mailer's sorrier moments during his late career.Her energy and her wits brought her back to the music, a mix of obvious borrowings, re-fittings and conflations of compatible musical styles--disco, techno, rock-- and had the self-honesty that although it was arguable, that was an artist with a capital "A", she was, as she remained on our radar , a confirmed A-List celebrity. She, like Bowie, appeared to have gotten over the urge to prove that they're still the ones who define what is current on the emerging scene and are content to work at their pace, on terms they've written for themselves. Will Lady Gaga be so lucky?

THE FLUIDITY OF SONNY STITT

 



Image result for SONNY STITT
 In the seventies, while a young man appropriately bored with the slamming two-dimensional dynamics of late-period jazz-rock (which had morphed into a stylized arena of tick-rock riffing termed "fusion" that was monotony incarnate), I ventured forth into older jazz forms, bop, swing, big and, Ellington, Davis, Mingus, people who swung over unpredictable tempos and fantastic chords. It was a love affair that hasn't stopped yet. Curiously, though, I formed jazzbo attitudes about artists I hadn't heard, a phenomenon not uncommon among some of us desperate for a hip reputation. You followed the herd-thinking. What I heard was that alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt was nothing but a low down Charlie Parker imitator, technically adept and adroit in extemporizing over a 6/8 time breakdown of a popular tune, but he was a technician only, without a soul. I went with that for years and dug into my Miles Davis phase, binging over a the late eighties and nineties on as Much MD as I could afford, everything from what he'd done as a sideman with Bird and through his various labels as band leader, from the hard bop session he'd done, through the modal experiments and into the blistering jazz-rock he created., noting, as well, the history of his saxophone players, a fine fettle of reed geniuses: George Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Dave Leibman. Nothing but the best for Miles. I was one of those who scoured the used CD bins, looking for my preferred artists and one day, lo! I came across a record titled "Walkin': A Jazz Hour With Miles Davis" on released on the now-defunct economy label Laserlight.

 Featuring a previously unavailable live performance in Stockholm in 1952, this was not the classic earlier studio album "Walkin'" (one of MD's many masterpieces), but so what, it was Davis live and on sale. Reading the personal, all seemed worth the purchase despite the misdirection of the title, as it highlighted, worthies like pianist Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on drums, Jimmy Cobb on drums, on saxophone...Sonny Stitt?? The plagiarist, the rip off artist, the Parker wannabe? The man I relegated to the minor leagues without endeavoring to hear what he played like? With Miles? This wasn't so earth-shaking a revelation as I might want to make it sound and, of course, I didn't ask myself that sequence of disbelieving questions presented in incomplete sentences. I was curious and bought the record. I was more than pleasantly pleased with the hard bop brilliance of the band--Miles Davis of this period is essentially flawless as he applies to his muted, modulated, middle register approach to the hard-charging changes this fine band challenges him with--and came to the conclusion that Sonny Stiff had been given the short shrift as a musician. 


The resemblance to Parker is there, undeniable, and it's understandable how jazz snobs of the time, wanting to consecrate jazz as America's art music in opposition to the tradition of European classicism and establish both canon and criteria for our best gift to the world, would deride particular players, diminish them in stature without fair estimation in an effort to create standards for an emerging aesthetics. Understandable and unfair because what I discovered was a musician of envious fluidity and lyric invention within his scope as an improviser who could negotiate steeple-chase tempos and obstacle course chord progressions with precision and yet never, or at least rarely, lose a song's melodic nuance ; for all the high-velocity bravura bop-related jazz musicians are known for, Stitt had a ribbon-like, sweetly undulating method of teasing notes and shading their sounded presence with variations within the pitch, a legacy from the blues that maintains a vocal quality, a sharp note of surprise as the solo unfolds. 

 Stitt was not a bloodless technician. Whatever debt he owed to Charlie Parker is nearly besides the point; the style is something Stitt took possession and made it his means to express something that, in itself, was beyond race, economics, and the general ugliness mere existence weights us with; it is simply beautiful and exciting music made by a musician who deserves to be reexamined for his best recorded moments. Life itself does not get rosy, as a unified condition of creation that maintains a just and serene equilibrium, merely because a black musician could make beautiful music with a saxophone. Whatever his whole story, Sonny Stitt remained black and a male and, above all, only human when it came to the combined forces of human stupidity, judgment and physical gravity pitted against his too-too vulnerable flesh. He made his music, found some solace for those moments during and after the notes played, and then returned to the eternal struggle of being in the world, dragging our burdens, sometimes easily, sometimes slowly, dirthfully, always toward the grave. But the magic a person can make with imagination, skill, a mind that wants something better than the weight of weather and wealth grinding them into the ground, well, I believe, that much makes life worth living and worth going back. We have the capacity to make this life of ours a better one, if only by the smallest increments, a little at a time, and , let us not forget, we can make the lives of each other better, even if only slightly. 




Monday, July 18, 2022

NICE WORDS FOR THE STANDELLS, AND A FEW FOR THE ELECTRIC PRUNES

 

Dick Dodd, lead singer for the proto-punk garage band The Standells , passed away in 2013 at age 68. Dodd had a nasal, snotty, irritating way of singing , or rather vocalizing , perfect for a band that was composed of hammering backbeats and barbed wire guitar riffs, and it was a choice component of the band's one big hit, "Dirty Water", a left-handed salute to Boston . Talking about grime and filth of the River Charles and hanging out with "lovers, muggers and thieves", the song was a telling bit of self reflection of a town that was on edge with the collective trauma set upon by The Boston Strangler. Boston at the time was not a happy town , like any number of American cities experiencing the full wrath of the 60s, and Dodd's obnoxious refrain at the chorus "I love that dirty water....ooooooh Boston YOU'RE MY HOME..." was the kind of defensive, fist in the face move a local gives to a hand wringing out-of-towner too busy tsk-tsking over the sad plight of a city to actually understand what was happening in Bean Town. The punk genius of the song, though, was that the Standells weren't from Boston, but from Los Angeles, inveighing on a song written by their manager. Now that's punk.

My thinking has it that "Dirty Water" was the first bit of punk iteration, predating even the hallowed grind and gassy grimace of the Stooges and the MC5 by three years. A blues riff the guitarist was more interested in making irritating than emotionally expressive, a lyric that bad-mouthed the narrator's origins who otherwise thinks it's glorious how grim, grimy and switchbladey his home turf is, a singer determined to brag, mock, leer and sneer in a decidedly juvenile manner--this was the first thing I remember hearing when I started to take rock bands seriously that seemed so sublimely obnoxious and willfully idiotic that it couldn't be anything apart from an authentic expression of some righteously immature attitudes. Even today, the rusty and repetitive riff, the snot swallowing vocal, the unintentionally Kurt Weilish lyrics, sound juvenile, fresh, convincingly hubris tic, countless dropouts owning their limitations and happy that it leaves you irked and uneasy. This project and other efforts of the dozens of one-shot wonders who cascaded during the period--the Barbarians, The Syndicate of Sound, The Music Machine, The Seeds-- had as much to do with the creation of what we'd later term a "Punk" style, with the ratty guitars, the sub-literate lyrics, the construction site style timekeeping of the mostly anonymous rhythm sections as were the deservedly praised and expansively influential works of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, or the MC5. 

The difference between those last three bands, household names in rock fiefdoms in every cranny of the internet, and the earlier bands emerging  from garages and basements and eventually making their into the studios of local record labels and to appearances at no age limit teen clubs and TV dance shows, was that Velvets, the Stooges and the 5 made a choice to sound and exclaim the way they did; it was a choice backed by   aesthetics and short   order versions of 20th century philosophy, a body of thought heavily seasoned with post WW2 gloom and rootlessness. The other guys just wanted to make noise and meet chicks and expressed a worldview not far advanced than the average teenager's harrowing time of extreme self-consciousness and expressions of that in terms no less over the line and loudly presented. Their lives weren't so far removed from the issues Chuck Berry might have outlined in his classic teen theme masterpieces, but only harder, ruder, with an edge that would only get more cutting with time. 




A little later in the decade, 1967, a band with an equally obnoxiously odd name The Electric Prunes had a hit with a fuzz -tone-y anthem called "I Had Too Much Last Night".  A grating distortion characterizes the ensemble,  guitar tracks played backwards looping throughout the song, melodramatic from major to minor keys, drum beats more remindful of heavy shoes climbing loose-boarded stairways, the song is ridiculous in idea and execution, centering on a young man's long night of the soul as he recalls a strange dream about his girlfriend. This is a garage psychedelia or course, and it's to be expected that the dream is described in words that are overripe and garish, a first timer's first attempt at a serious poem without first having read Wallace Stevens. I  relate to that, as I read rather a lot of gruesome juvenilia myself after my first encounter with 'Desolation Row". Earnest rhymes and images, yes, but still pedestrian and without a credible pulse of wit. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022

THE BEATLES AS GUITAR HEROES

My view, of course, but I would argue resolutely that the opening of the Beatles  1965 hit "Paperback Writer" is one of the greatest intro guitar figures in rock history. I doubt I'm alone in this view: this tune prefigures a lot of non-metal hard rock that came after it. It's easy enough to imagine Van Halen or Dixie Dregs easily refitting the song for even more guitar slam-dunkery. And beyond the guitar-rock bona fides, it has the additional advantage of being quite literate. McCartney and Lennon are said to have written the lyrics together, and it's remarkable that the subject of the song is a hack writer who maintains he can compose any sort of pulp fiction, on demand, for a fee. I was attracted to it because I was reading numerous novelizations of TV shows and popular films at the time, cheap paperback spinoffs, and I wondered who these folks were that scribed this stuff. I wondered how, in my mid-teens, I could get in on the action.


What I particularly like about how these verses work is that the character is allowed to tell his story. Just the way he describes what he's able or willing to do to get the job reveals a personality in a few deftly stated details. This is much better than, say, "Nowhere Man", an attempt at a "message" song ala Dylan ; I never liked that tune principally it was a ham-handed handed attempt to "tell it like it is". Who the narrator is, certainly not the nowhere man himself, is caustic, critical, judgmental, with none of the faults outlined being convincing in any regard. And the turn around, that little "twist", the "Isn't he a bit like you and me?" line where we learn that we all share the same vanities and inanities of personality, was a hokey, easy and dumb sounding morale of the story as has ever been conceived by major songwriters. "Paperback Writer", though, is a minor masterpiece, and is effective for the same reason an Elmore Leonard crime yarn is: character driven, personality revealed through dialogue, no authorial intrusion instructing a reader (listener) what to think. The song shows, it doesn't tell, and it rocks.

Friday, July 1, 2022

CITY, COUNTRY, CITY: Blues Harmonica and Organ Kick Out Hard Bop Jams!

 City, Country, City-- Jason Ricci and Joe Krown

Jason Ricci is easily one of the greatest blues harmonica players in the world, a master of the difficult "overblow" technique that allows this New Orleans-based musician to produce full chromatic scales on a modest folk instrument that's usually limited to the diatonic range. Briefly, through modification of the harmonica reeds and practiced application of novel approaches to em brochure, Ricci transcends the limits of blues structures and improvise with a particular complexity and brilliance and melodic invention that brings his playing closer to a good number of fleet jazz masters from who Ricci takes inspiration. Jason Ricci, make no mistake, is a blues harpist with both feet solidly in the tradition of Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, or Blind Owl Wilson (of Canned Heat), a gritty player who makes the harmonica howl, growl, yowl, cry, and moan. There's the sweat and urgency of blues feeling, but one also notices on his frequent extended improvisational extravaganzas a fluidity of ideas, quotes from Coltrane and Django Reinhardt, high-octane bluegrass riffs alternating with Parker-era bebop flourishes, dense chord constructions, rapid fire train patterns. Ricci is a supremely fast player, to be sure, making the diminutive harmonica in his harmonica thunder ahead with the instrumental command of a spotlighted lead guitarist or divinely blessed jazz trumpeter.
Jason Ricci (harmonica), Doug Belote (drums), Joe Krown (organ).

 But like the best musicians noted for technique, speed of ideas and
precision of performance, JR's long improvisations are master classes in solo building; he builds mood with a few notes, a partial duplication of the melody, and then ventures forth, filling out the ideas, playing  on, before and after the beat in playful investigation, surely moving toward a wondrous and prolonged stretch of cadenzas that deconstructs and reassembles the composition at hand. It's the stuff of wonder to behold Ricci start with bluesy aggression before eventually venturing off in various musical side roads to see if he can produce musical moments no one expected. Classical phrases, jazz chromaticism, fleet bluegrass pentatonics, hard power-trio blitzing, softer, lyric acoustic interludes are the elements this player has mastered, and which give his harmonica power. Jason Ricci, incidentally, played on Johnny Winter's Grammy  Award-winning album Stand Back in 2014, was invited by former David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer to play on "Born In Chicago" for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in   2015 (broadcast on HBO), and has released twelve albums with several  musical alliances including the scorching New Blood, with singer-songwriter J.J. Appleton, and most recently with the visceral Bad Kind. 

All that said, Jason surprises us again by stepping back momentarily from the manic tones that are his usual fare and brings now the superb City Country City. His partner in this endeavor is organist and fellow New Orleans resident Joe Krown, the sound rear is something of a throwback to an early jazz era of hard-bop, and organ trios, a domain of jazz grooves characterized by a solid rhythm and blues feel, a music grounded in funk. Bolstered by the unfailingly swing and verve of Big Easy drummer Doug Belote, this is a trio well grounded   in all the traditions, have all the right moves and add moves of their own to keep this gumbo percolating, popping and jiving. The title track “City Country City” many will recognize as being the instrumental from the band War for their 1972 The World is a Ghetto disc. The Ricci/Krown reimagining picks up the pace from War’s original, smooth and mellow inspiration. Ricci plays the supple intro figure as Krown supplies gorgeous chords, swells, and swelling tones, and each take steadfast, sharp solo breaks over Belote’s tight, on the note beats. It’s a terrific hook into a session of ancient school playing with a very contemporary edge. Soon enough, Krown and Ricci give themselves license to show their wares in full on the sexy and savvy strut of “Down and Dirty.” Krown takes the first chorus, blending gospel phrases and swift, skidding runs that make you think of Jimmy Smith in his bluest mood. Ricci then takes up the cause after his partner hands it over to him, making his serpentine harmonica work resemble at times other horn instruments; the angelic high notes of a clarinet, the throbbing undulations of a baritone saxophone, the hard and rapid cadenzas of a feverish trumpet player are suggested  Ricci mixes up the ideas, varies his attack, modulates his tone and his pacing as the solo progresses through its conventional blues progression. He keeps it intriguing; he brings you in, he keeps on the hook. The tune rocks like nothing else. From the opening bars, a jaunty theme that could be used as a jazz march, drummer Belote keeps things tight and moving along. The record as a whole is like this, full of Southern fried funk, edgy city blues, jazz fantasias of all sorts. “Jimmy Smith Strut,” “Don’t Badger the Witness,” “Good Clean Funk” are other highlights from this inspired trio. Jason Ricci is very much the best of the best in the blues harmonica world, and this trio collaboration with the estimable Joe Krown and Doug Belote is a grand place to become acquainted with the grace, power, and beauty of this artist’s playing.

Those intrigued about Ricci's other music should additionally seek the 2008's  Rocket # 9, credited to Jason Ricci and New Blood. Anyone with a strong need of hearing some of very fine and blistering blues harmonica work by a player dedicated to extending that small instrument's capacity to surprise a listener, I'd recommend getting the new disc by Jason Ricci and New Blood, Rocket Number 9. Ricci is one of those musicians where you can here the influences of players he's "gone to school" on (sounding to me like a sweet blend of Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Sugar Blue, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howard Levy , and a smattering of mainstream saxists ala Paul Desmond )who has blended what he's learned into a vigorous, original style. Rocket Number 9 is a glorious and tight blues rock album, with plenty of sharp guitar work, a rhythm section that balances tightness and an appealing , shambling looseness, all of this highlighting Ricci's serpentine harp improvisations and ragged-but-right vocals. What becomes obvious is that young Ricci is not stuck for an idea, and it's a wonder to hear his solos rage and soar and then transform into jazzier lines; one would have a hard time to finding another harmonica player with a better grasp of his technique and imagination or who makes as much of an effort to present fresh notions, configurations, and twists into his playing. There's a naturalness to what he brings forth, a sensual joining of his lines that is remindful of Butterfield at his most prime; rather than seeming like an upstart perfunctorily playing his warm-up licks before launching his super chops too soon and too often, Ricci, like Butterfield, has a jazz-players of dynamics. They're the rare skill of building and releasing tension that keeps on the edge, motivated by the band's virtuoso rhythms and the lead man's sober unpredictability. New Blood, as I said, is a tight, rocking, funkified band.

(This originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).




 JUMP CHILDREN --the Scott Silbert Big Band

Little else existing gets the blood pumping faster than the pulverizing rhythm of big band swing. Limbs twitch, hands beat a tempo on table tops, feet tap then turn and then twist in acrobatic dervishing as the ballroom floor fills with the righteous joy of dancers moving to the galvanizing pace of trombones, trumpets, and saxophones galore joined in a righteous 4/4 stride. In its prime in the 30s, 40s and up to the 50s, it was the music supreme. Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, and many others filled the ballrooms, the concert halls, and  radio airwaves coast to coast. 

It was rebellion, rhythm, pot, secret hooch in pocket flasks, riffs romance, the music of a Nation on the go on the dance floors, in the factories, on the march in the War to End all Wars as America seduced the world with the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I'm nearly 70, born too early in 1952 to remember what monumental big deal the big bands were, but decades of speaking to elders kind enough to share their memories and record collections with me, I think it would be safe to assume that collectively those telling me tales of big bands, tour buses, and bandstands thought that this was a glorious thing that would never end. But it did. The eventual ascendancy of Elvis, Chuck Berry and rock and roll in general in the 50s, to make a complicated tale too brief in the telling, was a principal reason the Big Bands were pushed from the center spotlight. Though never completely out of the public mind, jazz in general and big band jazz in particular became marginalized. Efforts over the years to restart interest in the Swing Era brand of brassy sass have mixed results over the years. In a general way and in the interest of keeping this review concise, suffice it to say that college big bands, various sorts of revivalist ensembles and especially that faddish "Swing Revival" of the late eighties-early 90s, to varying degrees, struck me as academic recreations at best, gimmicky opportunism at worst. You couldn't help but wonder if anyone would happen along, unexpected, with a blazing take on this grand tradition, not as an ancient thing that needed to be refurbished or rehabilitated instead as a life force that can make the nervous system jump again in an age where modern music seems determined to deaden our wits.  

Jump Children by the Jeff Silbert Big Band is a choice step in that direction, a session of hard-rocking swing music, fueled by propulsive drums, two fisted piano chords and sharp, superbly textured, rapidly applied horn and reed arrangements. Silbert, a jaunty and fluid tenor saxophonist and arranger and a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, proceeds here as though Big Bands never went out of style. He's assembled a formidable fourteen-member band, players who lock together in common cause to move the listener through deep, brash colors, and intricate time signatures. There's abundance of ensemble electricity here. Or, more like an embarrassment of hot, very hot jazz.

A bold statement, but the music's galloping swagger is  evidence that enthralls and rattle the senses. The album opener and title track "Jump Children", a tune recorded in 1945 by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (an all-women and integrated unit that found a measure of international acclaim) is  given a blasting, endearingly fidgety treatment here, with fine solos from trumpeter Josh Kauffman on trumpet and Grant Langford on tenor sax swiftly and lightly darting over and around the cut time horn arrangements, all of which boosts Gretchen Midgely's already animated vocals to heights of finger snapping jive. This collective of virtuosos through a rich swath of known and less known tunes from the period, performed with a superb rhythm section that makes the music move with a youthful flair you might not have expected. There is nothing dated here. There are many sweet spots, but I would point out two especially catchy numbers, the first being an intrepid  iteration of  1939's "In a Persian Market" by Larry Clinton indulges in magnificent stop-time fun after the main theme is stated. Second, the Silbert Big Band's treatment of Mercer Ellington's "Jumpin' Punkin" from 1941 is an elegant jaunt, a spare set of horn charts laced together with sublime statements from multi-reedist on clarinet and Leigh Pilzer on baritone sax. The album concludes on a stratospheric note, the warhorse tune "Stompin at the Savoy" (composed by Chick Webb and  Edgar Samson), the trademarked horn charts soaring over a brutally effective swing section while a round house of soaring and succinct solos from Kauffman (trumpet), Jen Krupa (trombone), Silbert (tenor sax) and Ken Kimrey switch off with the unison horn lines in a melee of musical chatter.



Wednesday, June 1, 2022

BLUE KIND OF MILES--Peter Sprague


It's an odd situation when there's a jazz artist giving tribute to history's most acclaimed jazz trumpeter who proceeds with a band lacking what you'd assume is the  most essential instrumentalist. Yes, we're speaking of a Miles Davis commemoration that exists and moves forward without a trumpet player in their ranks. Odd yes, but no quandary need apply here. Guitarist Peter Sprague’s recent offering, Blue Kind of Miles, the absence of a trumpeter is strategic artistry. A reinterpretation of Davis’ music from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue, Sprague and longtime comrades (brother Tripp Sprague on sax, flute, and piano; Mack Leighton on bass; and Duncan Moore on drums give themselves the luxury to play with Davis’ seminal compositions. Anyone awaiting the chance to distract with useless complaints about how a younger horn player goes about playing the music of someone whose oeuvre many think invaluable can take the day off. Blue Kind of Miles, highlighting Sprague’s delicate arrangements of Davis’ mystical, modal, and near minimalist tone poems, allows the music to breathe with the fresh breath of this quartet’s sublime collective personality. 

Far more than compensating in place of a trumpet is versatile reed man Tripp Sprague as the album’s secondary soloist, and throughout the disc he reveals what he knows about tone, phrasing, and constructing a soulful message. He fills his solo space with a bevy of melodic ideas on the album’s opening number, a high-stepping rendition of the Davis classic “So What.” His sound is warm and full. His relaxed yet agile playing commands close attention. Peter, as always, combines a precise lyricism to his guitar work; his ensemble work approaches a world-beating classicism, but as those who’ve followed his diverse career since he first appeared on the scene with Dance of the Universe in the seventies, there is an innate swing to his playing. Samba to bop to a bluesy funkiness, all embodied in this improviser’s statements. The haunting flamenco inflections of his spotlight section on Davis’ “Blue and Green” moves you in a way usually reserved for the saddest lyric poets. 

“Freddie Freeloader” is a funky conversation among Tripp, Peter, and bassist Leighton—short, bluesy phrases and clipped riffs, something said, a pause, a quizzical response, an emphatic reassertion, another pause, and a musical shrugging of the shoulder. The band then finds the shuffling groove and makes it move steadily with sway and sass, led by Leighton’s fleet bass outing, making the bass run and skip through its walking paces and maintaining the feeling of a rag shop boulevardier seen in all his street corner majesty. Tripp and Peter provide their solos in seamless order; Tripp’s reed work is a moaning blues mosaic of deep-toned exhilaration, laying down a rhythm and blues inflected hard-bop grit he manages with  dexterity and lightness of touch. Peter’s foray into sharp notes, deft runs, and graceful octave work, following the bass line closely, hewing close to the spare theme, but lacing fleet lines at unexpected intervals. The proverbial sound of surprise. “All Blues,” likely the most covered Miles Davis composition, gets a shrewd modification in this outing, with a brisker than usual pace and some additional and tricky changes before the improvisations commence. It is to be expected, I’d say, given the universal familiarity of the original motif. Odd, but most of the versions I’ve come across over the years don’t alter Davis’ spare construction very often. This arrangement provides the atmospherics for a twisting pair of extemporization from the Sprague brothers, followed by a remarkable, rich bowed solo from Leighton. Drummer Moore, a champion on all the tracks as he performs wonderful rhythm section duties with Leighton, cannot be praised enough. Pulse, groove, flawless shifts in tempo, the man behind the traps keeps this session grooving the particularly provocative paths that Miles Davis laid out. Blue Kind of Miles is an intriguing and innovative tribute to the man’s singular vision as an improviser and composer.