Saturday, March 21, 2009

Miles Davis: The Sound Of Miles

This is really an incredible find. Miles Davis had formed one of the all time great sextets in jazz history at the time: saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianist Wynton Kelley, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Adderley sat out this gig, reportedly due to a migraine, but no matter, the remaining quintet is a wonder.

The two pieces that make up this special were filmed April 2, 1959. The quintet performs “So What” from Kind of Blue, unaccompanied. They are then are joined by members of The Gil Evans Orchestra for three songs from Miles Ahead. The three song medley includes “The Duke” by Dave Brubeck, “Blues For Pablo” by Gil Evans, and “New Rhumba” by Ahmad Jamal.
There are so many great moments preserved here, I hardly know where to begin. One of them comes very early, about a minute into “So What.” Miles takes his first solo, and the camera pans to Coltrane in the background, watching. It may sound corny, but I got goosebumps.

It has been speculated that due to Adderley’s absence, Miles took two solos in “So What.” One before, and one after Coltrane’s great solo. In any case, they are both terrific, as is Kelley’s piano solo. Incidentally, Kelley sat out the second piece in the program, the three song Miles Ahead medley. Miles solos on “The Duke” and “New Rhumba” here, and Coltrane switches from tenor to alto sax.

Miles Davis: The Sound of Miles Davis was originally aired July 21, 1960, as an episode of The Robert Herridge Theatre, on CBS TV. It was filmed in glorious black and white, and the print is remarkably well preserved. In honor of the 50th Anniversary of Kind of Blue, the program is airing nationally on Public Television stations throughout the month of March (check your local listings). It is presented by WLIW21 in association with WNET.ORG.

Miles Davis: The Sound of Miles Davis is highly recommended viewing for jazz fans especially, but I'm preaching to the choir there. I think anyone interested in music of any type should watch this. Miles' late Fifties sextet were one of the most legendary jazz groups ever. Miles Davis: The Sound of Miles Davis captures them at an undeniable peak.

Book Review: Comedy At The Edge

Stand-up comedy has come a long way since the days of Lenny Bruce. Richard Zoglin’s new book Comedy At The Edge- How Stand-Up Comedy In The 1970s Changed America, sets out to document this phenomenon. While the bulk of the book concerns 1970s comics such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Zoglin also contextualizes their achievements in an engaging way.

In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce was comedy’s first martyr. Carlin and Pryor were appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Joan Rivers was the cutting edge of female stand-up. The 1970s were stand-up’s great renaissance, and some of the backstage stories told here are absolutely fascinating. This section (obviously) accounts for the majority of the book. Zoglin brings us into the modern era with chapters dealing with the 1980s boom in stand-up, the inevitable consolidation of the form in the 1990s, and the muted return of socially aware stand-up in the Bush era.

What I enjoyed most was the “smalltown” aspect of the form for so many years. Basically a couple clubs in New York and Los Angeles were it for most of the '70s. High drama, high comedy, and just plain getting high were the order of the day. It’s funny to hear Jay Leno talking about how he used to pick up waitresses after a gig. It’s almost shocking when Jerry Seinfeld talks about getting laid after a set.

All the big comedic “events” are covered. The famous “Comedians Strike” of 1979 pitted starving comics against Mitzi Shore. Her policy of not paying her Comedy Story talent came to an end. The performance art of Andy Kaufman is discussed, Steve Martin’s once unbelievable popularity, and of course the take no prisoners attitudes of Carlin and Pryor.

The devil is in the details here, and I very much enjoyed sections devoted to somewhat “also-rans” in the stand-up stakes. Performers such as David Steinberg, Albert Brooks, and Larry David eventually realized that their place was not necessarily on the stage, but behind it. Coming to that epiphany for them and others led to some pretty hilarious moments.

As Zoglin reminds us, really good, fearless stand-up can be as thrilling, and as dangerous as anything by Coltrane, Kerouac, or Hendrix. The 1930s-'50s are remembered as the Golden Era of Hollywood. Many consider the 1960s to be the peak of Rock. Comedy At The Edge makes a compelling argument for the '70s as the zenith years for stand-up comedy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Music Review: Wicked Witch CD

Wicked Witch, aka Rick Simms, was Washington DC’s answer to Prince in the late Seventies/early Eighties. Simms is a multi-talented musician who has been recording and releasing his own material since 1978. Chaos 1978-82 contains seven tracks, including two remixes, all exhibiting the distinct talents of Wicked Witch.

“Fancy Dancer,” which was recorded in 1985, kicks things off in high style. It is a roiling groove somewhere out of the depths of Miles Davis’ Pangaea, updated for the electro-funk era. Simms plays everything on this track, and it is definitely one of the highlights of the collection. The sticker on the front of this CD describes the music as “machine-funk” and I would agree with the statement for this track especially.

“Erratic Behaviour” was recorded in 1983 and displays a strong Funkadelic influence. “Wars of Armageddon” from Maggot Brain specifically, which is certainly as good an influence as any. “X-Rated” was the B side to this 1983 single, released on his own Infinity Records. “X-Rated” shows a pronounced Funkadelic influence as well. It could be an outtake from their final LP, The Electric Spanking of War Babies (1981).

“Vera’s Back” is a tour de force, clocking in at 12:02. It was recorded in 1978 by Paradiagm, Simms’ six piece fusion outfit at the time. It sounds very 1978 fusion to be honest, with some confusing outer-space spoken word business about “Vera” coming back. An interesting period piece to be sure.

Two versions of “Electric War” round out the seven tracks, and it really is not Wicked Witch’s finest song. I prefer the instrumental version with prominent Bootsy Collins’ style bass poppin’, to the tortured vocal version. “Electric War” was recorded in 1984, which was a strange year for music, despite the huge hits of Springsteen and Prince. I think Wicked Witch were searching for “their” sound at the time. The final song on this collection, a previously unreleased remix of “Fancy Dancer” shows them finding their groove in glorious fashion.

Wicked Witch was probably a sensation in DC back in the day, I wasn’t there to know. But listening to these tracks gives the uninitiated a glimpse of a truly individual talent.

Book Review: Roger Dean Views

First published in 1975, Views is a fascinating artifact. For the uninitiated, Roger Dean was a very famous artist in the Seventies, his medium almost exclusively being album covers. He designed covers for dozens of (primarily British) bands. They include Uriah Heep, Osibisa, Greenslade, Budgie, and Gentle Giant.

Dean’s most famous client by far was Yes. He designed over a dozen covers for the band, plus numerous solo outings. His artwork for LPs such as Fragile, Close To The Edge, and Relayer are burned into every mid-Seventies teen stoner’s brain. They were the perfect visual compliment to the progressive rock of the band. Plus the covers were always gatefold, which was great for separating the stems and seeds from your stash.

Dean’s association with Yes led to him designing the stage for their 1974 Tales From Topographic Oceans tour. The massive set, which included pods, a “drum cave,” hydraulic flowers, and more was somewhat impractical. But it gave Spinal Tap ample inspiration a decade later.

Views is not exclusively about Dean's work with musicians. He went to college to study international design, and there are chapters devoted to his work in the field, and in architecture. His “Sea Urchin Chair” remains a curiosity, although it never progressed beyond the prototype phase. Dean’s “Interior Pod” is also an interesting (if somewhat creepy) idea.
The distinctive and striking artwork of Roger Dean is well represented in this coffee table book. It is said to have sold over a million copies in the original paperback format. I commend the publishers for not “updating” the book, apart from a brief current biography, and a new introduction from Sir Richard Branson.

Views is inseparable from the mid-Seventies era in which it was originally spawned. It is a time period which has been mercilessly lampooned over the years. But in browsing the outstanding graphics, and looking at some of the designs the artist had in mind back then, I had a curious feeling. Certainly nostalgia was a part of it. But the reader may also come away with a small sense of loss for a time and place which are now gone forever.

Rory Gallagher Live In Cork

Rory Gallagher had not played a gig in his hometown in many years before this concert was filmed in 1987. His friends and neighbors in Cork, Ireland turned out in force to cheer him on in one of his finest recorded performances. Although Gallagher sold a reported 30 million records before his untimely death in 1995, he never really broke big in the U.S. It’s a shame too, because he was an incredible guitar player, as this DVD fully demonstrates.

He was touring behind the Defender album at the time, so he opens the show with a song from it titled “Continental Op.” But it's his second song, the classic “Tattoo’d Lady” that puts this crowd on their feet. To say they're into it is an understatement. When Gallagher unleashes the first of many amazing solos on his trademark ‘61 Strat, the place just erupts. Blues aficionado that he was, Rory had to include a nod to one of the old masters. At this show he pulls out “When My Baby She Left Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson, which lights up the joint.

Gallagher’s two-song, acoustic solo set is a highlight of this DVD. He straps on an old National steel guitar and plays some amazing slide during “Wanted Blues.” It almost sounds like the ghost of Robert Johnson has visited Cork for a few minutes. The rest of the show is a balls-out rave-up, especially his encore “Loanshark Blues” from Defender. My guess is the local record shops did a bang-up job on that record the next day.

This concert was originally released in 1989 as Messin' With The Kid, on VHS. Live In Cork on DVD adds much to the original concert. Extras include press archives, a photo gallery, a tour of some of his favorite spots in Cork, and a selection of memorabilia. All in all, Live In Cork presents Rory Gallagher at the top of his form, and should be viewed by all fans of great blues guitar playing.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Music Review: The Dehumanizers "The First Five Years (of Drug Use) Anthology"

“The First Five Years (of Drug Use) Anthology” is a compilation done right for a change. Seattle Punk mainstays The Dehumanizers have finally gotten the CD treatment, and I have to say that P.I.G. Records have done a stellar job.

The Dehumanizers first gained notoriety way back in 1985, with their song “Kill Lou Guzzo” Lou was a notoriously senile TV commentator in Seattle, who went on the air with an anti-punk diatribe one night, which The Dehumanizers sampled liberally. His immortal line “Who needs punk rock anyway?” was particularly galling, so the band let him have it. The song was an instant classic, and was released as part of their 5 song EP debut.

The momentum carried over into the recording of the full length LP “The End of Time” which is included in it’s entirety as a bonus disc here. The original sequencing of “End of Time” remains an extraordinary achievement, utilizing comedy breaks and music snippets between tracks, creating a work that is best heard in it’s original, unaltered form.

As for the compilation disc itself, there are alternate versions of tracks from “End of Time” and also selections from their nearly impossible to find 2nd lp “The Dehumanizers Go Hollywood” and the equally rare “Here’s To You”. Over the years, The Dehumanizers have weathered a number of personnel changes, which is fairly common in punk bands. But the one constant presence has been drummer “Infra Ed” who pounds the skins mercilessly throughout the 40 tracks contained herein.

Special mention must also go out to Coby Jackson’s extensive and thorough liner notes. He puts the somewhat convoluted history of this great band in excellent perspective, so even a novice listener will come away knowing what The Dehumanizers are all about. And why to this day, they remain relevant to Seattle’s ongoing punk rock scene.

Book Review: "The Encyclopedia of Punk" by Brian Cogan

This is an incredible resource for anyone even remotely interested in one of the great musical movements of the past 30 years. “The Encyclopedia of Punk” is a truly exhaustive compendium of all things Punk Rock. The main bulk is filled with band bios, literally hundreds of them, from all over the globe. I guarantee, no matter how big a Punk fan you consider yourself, you will find groups in here that you had never heard of before.

The bios/histories of each band are extremely well written, concise and accurate. In many cases you may discover things about bands you may not have been aware of before.
I found some of the other information in here indispensable as well, such as the sections on Scenes, covering hotbeds of activity around the world. There is also a great section covering notable Punk ‘Zines through the years. The section pertaining to relevant Punk and associated record labels is also invaluable.

This is a huge, 400 page coffee table sized book, with hundreds of archival photos, many published here for the first time. Legendary filmmaker Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization) wrote the introduction, which is a big thumbs up in itself.
For a book like this, it is priced very reasonably. Hats off to Brian Cogan and Sterling Publishing for this magnificent, informative, and highly enjoyable book.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Music Review: 68000 "Techno Color"

Take a 130+ bpm jones, cut it with heavy Kraftwerk damage and you have a rough draft of Portland's 68000. Jeremy Wells (Mr. 68000) is a manmachine of considerable depth. Ninety-nine percent of the current techno explosion is paint by beats product, forgettable by design. Wells beats these odds by putting himself into the mix. The Clash once dreamed "If Music Could Talk," while instrumental bands from the Ventures to Pell Mell have been proving it can for years. Like Kraftwerk before them, 68000 break through the perceived sterility of synthesizers and drum machine to create a rich assortment of melodic statements. "Technohead," "Data Cloud 9" and "Juno Echo" are liquid music, working head, body and feet as the listener sees fit. Despite its name, Techno Color is not just a techno record, nor is it faux Kraftwerk. It is a combination of these and many other elements, but most importantly Techno Color returns what has been missing from electronic music for far too long: A little bit of soul.

Music review: The Westerners "Beautiful Departed"

The Westerners are the latest L.A. band to join the Alt-Country movement. They formed in 2007, and have just released their debut, “Beautiful Departed” Their sound is incredibly rich, considering they are but a two piece combo: Joe West, and LaDon Drummond. Drummond’s vocals are quite extraordinary, especially considering she was eight months pregnant while recording “Beautiful Departed”. Of course they have ample studio support from friends, including the stellar pianist Luca Varesano.

The subject matter is pretty powerful as well, as it concerns the memory of West’s daughter, Laura. Very touching, but done in such a respectful manner it is hard not to be moved by these 11 tracks.

From the first cut “Faith” this is arresting music, with an almost gospel call and response arrangement. West’s guitar intro to “Opening Red Eyes” is gorgeous, leading into “Red Eyes” whose subject matter is pretty self explanatory. The understated guitar figures beneath the spoken word piece “Samara” is riveting. It is plainly obvious that this couple worked through their grief in recording this, it is as personal as music can get.
The final track “Wayfaring Stranger” is written from the point of view of Laura, and ends “Beautiful Departed” on a note of acceptance. Varesano’s piano coda is simply magnificent, and ends the disc with an appropriate air of reflection.

The Westerners can be contacted at

Music Review: Ping Trace Traces

Ping Trace are an interesting band out of Denver, CO. The cover art struck me first, it looked as if the music would fall into the ambient, or trance category frankly. But as they say, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Although Ping Trace have a very high gloss, electronic sheen to their music, it is very much a jazz recording. They have developed their own, unique style to be sure. Kind of an ambient jazz I guess you could say.

The five tracks on this EP are extremely tasty. I have always had a jones for Smooth Jazz, in a certain mood, it is perfect. So it’s great to hear a band updating this classic genre. “One More” has a sort of Sade “quiet storm” feel meeting Air for a cocktail or something. Upon first listen to “Illumination” I thought of some of the classic Al Jarreau arrangements of the early Eighties, minus his distinctive vocals of course. “Fall Away” reminded me a bit of Swing Out Sister’s less dance oriented sides.

All in all, a fine introduction to Ping Trace. They can be contacted at