Friday, November 27, 2009

Music Review: Oliver Jones/Hank Jones - Pleased To Meet You

This is one sweet set of music for fans of old-school jazz piano. Pleased To Meet You is the first recorded collaboration between pianists Oliver and Hank Jones. They are unrelated, but brothers on the ivories. At the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2008, their idea of recording together finally came to fruition.

Pleased To Meet You kicks off with a classic Duke Ellington tune, “What Am I Here For?” It is a wonderful showcase for the complimentary styles of the two pianists. Listening to the way the two play off of each other is exhilarating.

“Makin’ Whoopee” is another example. It is rare to hear two soloists of any instrument play together, especially in jazz. Monk never brought another pianist in, and neither did Oscar Peterson. That is one of the reasons I enjoy Pleased To Meet You so much.

The quartet for this date is filled out by bassist Brandi Disterheft and drummer Jim Doxas. While Pleased To Meet You is very much a showcase for the headliners, there is room for the rest of the band. On the very first track, “ What Am I Here For?” Doxas takes a nice drum solo. The leaders of the band offer bass player Disterheft his space on the very next track, “Groove Merchant.”

Pleased To Meet You is comprised of a mix of standards and originals. There are the Monk and Ellington tunes previously mentioned, as well as pieces from Oscar Peterson and others. Both of the Jones men contribute as well.

Oliver Jones was 74 when this record was recorded, and Hank Jones was 90. I love the fact that jazz musicians are still as incredibly vital as these men are. There is never a missed note on Pleased To Meet You. For anyone who enjoys piano-based jazz of the bop era, this is a damn cool record.

Pleased To Meet You is very much a piece of the past. It is also a great reminder of what this music can still be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Music Review: Zero Set - Zero Set

The Bureau B label is rapidly becoming my favorite record label in the world. They continue to reissue some of the most provocative music ever made. Most of it comes from Germany, and is usually called Krautrock. The term is a bit of a misnomer, especially considering Zero Set, but it stands as the best shorthand available.

The self-titled Zero Set LP was originally released in 1982. While it features musicians from the Krautrock heyday of the 1970’s, it is far from the progressive extravaganzas the genre is known for. Zero Set is a record that sounds like a blueprint for the funky, percussive and proudly electronic jazz that Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis pursued to great effect in the 1980’s. It is a shame that nobody else ever heard it.

The record is a percussive extravaganza from a super-session of German experimental music pioneers. Dieter Moebius is best known for his work in Cluster; Mani Neumeier was the drumming, driving force of Guru Guru; and Conny Plank produced everyone from The Scorpions to Neu! to Kraftwerk. Zero Set comprised a trio of musicians who clearly were at the top of their game.

The heavy percussion of opening track “Speed Display” says it all. The best fusion of The Mahavishnu Orchestra only hinted at these possibilities. From there it is a short journey to “Pitch Control,” which anticipates the beat to a well-done electronic sound the song “Rockit” made so famous.

Most presciently of all is the final cut, “Search Zero.” This is a tune that prefigures everything Miles Davis made as his trademarked sound of the 1980’s. It is a sadly illuminating track. Marcus Miller always took credit for the idea of sampling Miles’ trumpet, but the whole thing is established here, five years prior.

Discovering the Kosmiche Musik roots of Miles Davis’ final era is an amazing thing. Zero Set is in no way, shape or form a jazz record though. This is the sound of pioneers in every way as adventurous as any, creating the music they wanted to.

Zero Set stands as a truly great record. Thank you Bureau B for putting it back out there for the world to hear.

Music Review: Fela Kuti - The Return Of The Black President (Deluxe Edition)

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was an amazing talent. During his approximately 20 years of active recording, he recorded nearly 50 albums, toured the globe, and single-handedly invented the genre of music known as Afro-Beat. He was also arrested over 200 times, beaten mercilessly, and spent a lot of time behind bars in his homeland of Nigeria.

Fela’s Afro-Beat was a mixture of jazz and funk, with traditional African elements thrown in at times. His songs usually stretched out well over ten minutes, and often filled a whole side of a vinyl LP. Fela’s lyrics were sung in what is known as Pidgin English, which he used so that a large part of the continent could understand what he was saying.

And what Fela had to say got him into a lot of trouble with the authorities. He grew up in the last days of English Colonialism in Nigeria, born to a middle-class family who were somewhat radicalized activists. When Fela traveled with his band to the US for the first time in 1969, he met some members of the Black Panther party. When he was deported soon after, Fela had developed something of a revolutionary spirit himself, and expressed it in his music from then on.

Fela’s Afro-Beat records were immensely popular in his homeland, which is little wonder. His music is fantastic. Many of the songs stretch way out in a groove similar to that of a James Brown or George Clinton. His bands featured up to 30 members onstage, who would take leisurely, and at times incredibly powerful solos throughout the pieces.

Fela’s lyrics were always the main point though. One of his most well-known tracks, “Zombie,” proved to be literally incendiary at one show. “Zombie” opens up with some superb sax from Fela, over a rhythm track as funky as anything Sly Stone ever did. When Fela’s lyrics, which compare the military to zombies, were played at a concert in Nigeria, the place erupted in a riot.

The new, two-disc compilation The Return Of The Black President contains 13 songs, a few of which were edited slightly, for space considerations. There is not a weak track among them. Fela’s band were as tight as any jazz or funk unit have ever been. There is so much joy in this music, it is disconcerting to read about the horrible conditions so much of it was recorded under.

A couple of my personal favorites include the track chosen to open this compilation, “Lady,” and the full 17 minute version of “Army Arrangement (Part 2).”

Knitting Factory Records have fully committed themselves to the music of Fela, and The Return Of The Black President is just the beginning. They now have the rights to all of his work, which will be released on CD and vinyl as well as digitally.

The deluxe edition of Black President includes a DVD titled A Slice Of Fela that is quite interesting. The first segment, “Music Is The Weapon,” is an excerpt from the film of the same name, made in 1982, and features him playing live in his nightclub in Nigeria.

The second segment, “Powershow,” is a furious recording of the band playing that song live at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978. It is about ten minutes long, and is really something to see.

The third segment, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” is excerpted from the BBC program of the same name, from 1984. This is some pretty fascinating material also, as it includes live footage from the Glastonbury Festival, and interviews with Fela.

The final portion of the DVD features interviews with two experts on Fela, Carlos Moore, the biographer who wrote Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, and director Bill T. Jones. As unlikely as it may seem, Jones is bringing Fela and Afro-Beat to Broadway, with a musical simply titled Fela! All of this material is introduced by actor Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela in the show.

The Return Of The Black President is an outstanding compilation of some of Fela’s greatest works. But there was so much more to the man’s life than just his music. At one point, he declared his compound in Nigeria a separate state, which resulted in an ambush that nearly killed him, and actually did result in the death of his 82 year-old mother.

In 1978, to commemorate the one year anniversary of this horrible event, Fela married 27 women in a mass wedding. He continued to record, tour, and suffer beatings from the police until the end. Fela passed away from complications of AIDS in 1997, and it was reported that his funeral was attended by over one million people.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti lived an extraordinary life, and The Return Of The Black President is just the first of what looks be an enormous amount of recognition for him. It is a fine place to start, as his mix of soul, funk, and jazz called Afro-Beat is timeless. The deluxe edition of this package, with all the live footage is well worth it, because as amazing as his records are, nothing compares to seeing the man and his band live, in full-flight.

Music DVD Review: Thin Lizzy - Are You Ready?

The legend of Thin Lizzy is a glorious and ultimately tragic one, perfectly reflecting the life of the band’s founder, Phil Lynott. He was a larger than life character, both literally and symbolically. Towering at well over six feet, Lynott was of mixed-race descent, but considered himself an Irishman. Watching him lead the band on the Are You Ready? DVD, it seems as if Phil Lynott was born to be a rock star.

Many of us Yanks first heard of Thin Lizzy with their anthem “The Boys Are Back In Town” in 1976. It really seemed as if they had the world at their command in the late '70s. In 1978 they released one of the all time great double-live LPs Live And Dangerous, and in 1979 followed it with Black Rose: A Rock Legend.

Running parallel to these achievements, though, were internal struggles that eventually overpowered the unit. Besides Lynott’s uniquely poetic lyrics and singing style, a huge part of the Lizzy sound were the twin guitars of Gary Moore and Scott Gorham. Moore had left and rejoined the band a couple of times by 1981, the year Are You Ready? was filmed.

Guitarist Snowy White takes Moore’s place on Are You Ready? While the music does not suffer at all from this change in personnel, White had little of the charisma of Gary Moore. Still, the main focus of this concert remains Phil Lynott. The 19 songs that make up the nearly two-hour show are excellent and run the gamut of the band’s career.

The concert was filmed in Loreley, Germany and became the first to be shown on the legendary German TV program Rockpalast. A definite highlight is “Cowboy Song”/”The Boys Are Back In Town,” and live versions of “Chinatown,” “Jailbreak,” and “Rosalie,” stand out as well.

The only drawback in the footage is the lighting. In 1981 the kinks in filming a live concert had yet to be worked out. Consequently, there are a few instances where the entire band is washed out by the spotlights. I guess that is the price we pay for seeing such historical material, but it is a shame nonetheless.

There are no bonus features at all contained on Are You Ready? but with a nearly two-hour concert to enjoy, I have no complaint. This is a nice document of a great band, and even without Gary Moore, they put on an remarkable show. Are You Ready? is essential viewing for rock fans of all ages.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Music Review: Nick Oliveri - Death Acoustic

Desert rat Nick Oliveri has played with everyone in Southern California by now it seems. His first band was with Josh Homme, which eventually morphed into the legendary Kyuss, and later became Queens Of The Stone Age. In between Kyuss and Queens, Oliveri put in time with godlike shock-rockers the Dwarves, as bassist Rex Everything.

In between these commitments, and fronting his own Mondo Generator, Oliveri has played with an incredible number of others. A partial list includes: Eagles Of Death Metal, Auf der Maur, Masters Of Reality, Blag Dahlia Band, and the Mark Lanegan Band. This guy stays busy.

Whether meant as a tribute to friends—or simply because he did not have enough time to write a full album—Oliveri’s Death Acoustic is mostly covers. You have to give the man credit. though; who else would do acoustic versions of songs by the Dwarves, GG Allin, and the Misfits?

Oliveri’s taste is eclectic, to say the least. Death Acoustic opens with a killer take on “Start A Fight,” by obscure Italian punks Raw Power. This is followed with Nick’s voice at it’s sand-paper best on his own “Invisible Like The Sky.” Next comes a song I had to laugh out loud upon hearing, Oliveri’s acoustic stab at the Dwarve’s classic “Dairy Queen,” from Thank Heaven For Little Girls.

A couple of songs he wrote with old friend Josh Homme and company follow. First up is “I’m Gonna Leave You,” originally recorded by Queens Of The Stone Age on their Songs For The Deaf album. He then reaches back to “Love Has Passed Me By,” from Kyuss.

Nowhere is Oliveri’s distinctive strum more pronounced than on the old Misfits warhorse, “Hybrid Moments.” The highlight has to be the final cut though. Nick Oliveri strums a malevolent guitar, and brings his all to a version of the GG Allin anthem, “Outlaw Scumfuc.”

Death Acoustic is well titled. As a whole, this record is anything but easy-listening. Oliveri's playing style is aggressive as hell, and with this choice of tunes, Death Acoustic is much more than a simple vanity project. It is a downright spooky set, and howls as strongly as a desert wind on the wrong side of midnight.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Music Review: Love Train: The Philadelphia International Story

It’s a rainy Saturday morning here in Seattle, and I happened upon a review of the new Hall & Oates box set by a favorite Blogcritics writer, Connie Phillips. She mentioned a live cover version they did of the classic Billy Paul song, “Me And Mrs. Jones.” It inspired me to go back and listen to the original, which is on the box set Love Train: The Sound Of Philadelphia.

I wound up listening to all four discs of this incredible set again, and was reminded of just how brilliant the Philadelphia International label was at its height. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff owned soul music in the pre-disco age. Just look at the roster of talent on this box: The O’Jays, The Stylistics, The Delfonics, MFSB, Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes (featuring Teddy Pendergrass), the list goes on and on.

Besides The O’Jays though, most of these acts are remembered as “one-hit wonders.” Name another song by The Three Degrees besides “When Will I See You Again,” and drinks are on me (no Googling allowed).

My point is that the Philadelphia International label was the great successor to Motown, and has never been given the credit it deserves. “Classic” Motown was really an early Sixties phenomenon, outside of notable exceptions like the Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye. Likewise, Philadelphia International was an early Seventies thing, besides the later emergence of Teddy Pendergrass in the latter part of the decade.

So why is it that “The Sound Of Philadelphia” is so forgotten today? It defines a particular point in AM radio history with songs such as “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays, “Then Came You,” by The Spinners, and “Kiss And Say Goodbye” by The Manhattans. These tunes are period pieces to be sure, but I never get tired of hearing them.

What happened was disco, and Philadelphia International got caught up in it. In retrospect, it was a huge mistake to take the quick buck with extended mixes of “Bad Luck” or “I Love Music.” Incidentally, these versions are not available on Love Train, but are worth seeking out.

Regardless, the patented groove of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s productions took a backseat to The Bee Gees and their Saturday Night Fever ilk. Don’t get me wrong, Saturday Night Fever is a great record, but there is nothing on it as powerful as “Me And Mrs. Jones.”

And there’s the rub. Love Train: The Philadelphia International Story is a snapshot of a particular moment in time which will never be duplicated.

The only thing missing is the first white performer to appear on Soul Train, Sir Elton John. While the theme to Soul Train, MFSB’s “TSOP,” is included, Elton’s homage to the music with “Philadelphia Freedom” (1975) is not. It’s too bad, because at the time not only Sir Elton, but John Lennon’s Walls And Bridges and David Bowie’ Young Americans were also paying specific tribute to this fantastic branch of the music tree.

Love Train: The Philadelphia International Story is a box set that I cherish.

Friday, November 6, 2009

DVD Review: Evilution

There is trouble in Iraq, and it is not anything the military was expecting. A microscopic alien life form with the properties to possess the living, and resurrect the dead has been discovered. The problem is that these aliens do not play well with others. Their entire modus operandi is to kill off the humans, and take over their bodies.

When is a zombie film not a zombie film? In the case of Evilution, it is when the zombies are “Alien Possessed Lifeforms,” according director Chris Conlee. Whatever you say, Mr. Director. But Evilution is a zombie flick of the first order, and a pretty fun one at that.

The Iraqi compound that the aliens were in was bombed, but one of the scientists managed to escape, with the remaining specimens in hand. Newly civilian, Darren Hall (Eric Peter-Kaiser) has a plan for the aliens, he wants to try and communicate with them. Fool. He finds a really creepy low-rent apartment to conduct his experiments in, and things quickly spin out of control.

On the plus side, he has a smoking hot neighbor named Maddie (Sandra Ramirez) who inexplicably just wants to do him. This is another “only in Hollywood” moment, but the interlude serves a purpose. While the dork is getting it on, some street junkie breaks into his apartment, and injects himself with the alien specimen.

Instant alien zombie-mania! This is where the movie gets good, as the apartment tenants go all Night Of The Living Dead on each other. Big bad Sgt. Collins (Tim Colceri) has tracked Darren down, and shows up just in time for the party. Eventually, even Darren’s new squeeze gets bitten by the alien bug. The movie ends with him making the ultimate sacrifice, pulling her with him off the top of the building, killing them both.

The DVD extras include interviews with the director, cast, and stunt people. There is also a segment discussing the location Evilution was shot in. It was an old, abandoned hospital, that everyone swears was haunted. It seems to me like the perfect place for a flick like Evilution to be shot in.

Although the movie is obviously a fairly low-budget affair, Chris Conlee and his production crew have made the most of it. Evilution is a worthy addition to the zombie genre, and lord knows we can always use more zombie flicks.

Product Review: Dwarves "Throbblehead" by Aggronautix

Aggronautix recently honored legendary punks GG Allin and Tesco Vee with their own bobblehead dolls, which the company calls “Throbbleheads.” The company has now upped the ante with the third installment in the series, producing its first "double-headed" Throbblehead. The latest incarnation features both Blag The Ripper (formerly Blag Dahlia) and HeWhoCannotBeNamed of the Dwarves on one larger-than-ever platform.

For those not familiar with the Dwarves, they were an uncompromising punk band of the late 80s and early 90s. Probably their most infamous album came out on Sup Pop in 1989, titled Blood, Guts And Pussy. The cover alone made their reputation. It featured a stark photo of two naked, blood-soaked women in front of a white background, plus a naked dwarf sodomizing a rabbit.

The music was relentless hardcore. The longest of the 12 songs clocks in at 1:23 and is a lovely ditty titled “Motherfucker.” Other top hits from the album included “Detention Girl,” “Skin Poppin’ Slut,” and “Insect Whore.”

The Dwarves double Throbblehead figure is 5 1/2 inches tall, and comes packaged in a sturdy plastic clamshell casing. The display box is a nice tri-windowed affair. Blag the Ripper and HeWhoCanNotBeNamed are portrayed as they appear onstage, Blag with his microphone, HeWho with his axe. Their attire features HeWho’s ever popular lucha libre mask, bondage wear, and Blag’s skull boner buckle.

This baby will make a hilarious addition to every old geezer's punk collection. As with GG Allin and Tesco Vee, Aggronautix are releasing the set in a limited, numbered edition. The Dwarves run is only 1,000, so if you want one, do not hesitate. The GG Allin T-head was a 2,000 piece run, and it sold out almost immediately.

The best place to get the new Dwarves double-headed Throbblehead is straight from the source at Aggronautix.

DVD Review: The Christians

Like the religion itself, The Christians is epic in scope. This five-disc, 13-hour DVD box-set provides a sweeping history of the past 2,000 years as seen through the prism of Christianity. This is no religious tract however. The documentary takes a neutral look at the impact Christianity has had on the world through history, both good and bad.

Certainly no other religion has ever approached the cultural influence upon the Western world that Christianity has. So much so that the basic timeline of Christianity’s development is pretty well-known by the layman.

The early Christians were persecuted by Rome, before the religion became the official doctrine of the empire. Many, many wars were fought in the name of Christianity over the centuries. Gorgeous cathedrals and churches were erected in Europe to honor Christ. And in the present day, we have endless debates on evolution, the separation of church and state, and abortion, all in one way or another tied to Christianity.

Thank goodness this is a British production, with their legendary reserve intact, otherwise things could have gotten out of hand. Especially in regards to our current culture wars.

One of the more notable aspects of the series is the location filming. Host Bamber Gascoigne and crew traveled to more than 30 countries around the world to provide the footage, and much of it is remarkable. I was especially taken with the tours through centuries-old cathedrals and monuments. The architecture, and artwork of these structures is breathtaking at times.

A handy bonus feature included in the package is the 16-page accompanying booklet. In it, we find highlights of each episode, as well as a section titled “Questions to ponder.” This is a nice touch, although the series was produced originally as entertainment, by focusing on some of these ideas, the episodes becomes a little more educational as well.

Other extras include photo galleries titled “The Culture Of The Cross,” and “Christ In Art.” There are also text biographies of select influential people in Christian history called “Architects Of The Faith.”

The 13 episodes of The Christians were originally shown on the British ITV network in 1977, and re-broadcast on PBS in the United States during the 1980s. The newly produced Introduction by a now grey-haired Gascoigne brings the events of the past 30 years in Christianity up to date. The most significant of which was the fall of Communism in 1991.

The Christians is an extraordinary historical overview of Christianity over the centuries. This is a DVD set that I heartily recommend to anyone interested in Western civilization, and how it has been shaped by one of the most powerful cultural forces of all time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Music Review: Eric Muhler - The Jury Is Out

On Eric Muhler’s fifth album, The Jury Is Out, the pianist can be heard breaking all the rules, again. “I’ve never followed the correct path toward being a ‘jazz pianist," Muhler states, “There are so many rules about what you can and cannot play, it’s almost stricter than classical piano.”

Muhler’s playing can be compared to both Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner. The understated approach of Thelonious Monk comes to mind at times as well. But The Jury Is Out is no one-man show. Muhler has assembled a worthy quartet, featuring bassist Michael Wilcox, drummer Brian Andres, and saxophonist Sheldon Brown.

On this 2008 live recording, the group were very definitely on. Muhler’s piano is a revelation during the title track for instance. He is all over the ivory, much like Tyner sounded in the early 1960s.

Muhler’s music is a mix of the traditional forms of jazz, with more modern elements thrown in. Nowhere is this mix more prominent than in some of the bass playing from Wilcox. During the opening track, “Punkly,” Wilcox’s bass positively pops. For a minute there I thought Bootsy Collins had dropped in.

The sax of Sheldon Brown really stands out in his solo spots. On extended cuts such as “Alexandra Cristina A.M.” he complements the ballad with some extremely tasteful lines. The sound of John Klemmer comes to mind at times on this track. During his solo on the final “Jane At Home,” Brown really lets loose, reminding me a little of the great Wayne Shorter.

One of the more interesting uses of Brown’s sax comes in the early part of “Sand Castles.” Following Muhler’s piano introduction, Brown’s sax comes in, and plays a near perfect quote of Dave Burrell’s keyboard as recorded on “Lower Egypt,” the great Pharoah Sanders track from the 1967 LP Tauhid.

It may be coincidental, but I hear a lot of Sander’s and even John Coltrane’s styles in Brown’s playing, and these elements add a great deal to the whole of the quartet.

Part of the reason for the diversity inherent in The Jury Is Out is rooted in the intriguing life Eric Muhler has lived. As a 60 year old man, he has had some interesting experiences. He was Jimi Hendrix’s chauffer at Monterey Pop, and his grandfather is the famous occultist Aleister Crowley.

In the end though, it all comes down to the music. And, cliché or not, the jury is in on this one. The Jury Is Out is a very good modern-day jazz record, and one well worth hearing.

DVD Review: Guns On The Clackamas

Portland, OR filmmaker Bill Plympton’s first feature, Guns On The Clackamas is pretty intriguing. This faux documentary purports to chronicle the 1991 shoot of the most troubled film in Hollywood history: Guns On The Clackamas.

The problems begin almost immediately. The original financial backer insists on giving his girlfriend the lead female role. Director James X acquiesces for the sake of the movie, not even bothering to give her a screen test. When the cameras roll, we discover that she has an insurmountable stuttering problem. She can yodel without stuttering though, so a scene is filmed with her yodeling her lines.

When this approach is abandoned, she is fired. Of course her rich boyfriend then pulls out of the production, and the cast is left high and dry. James X is desperate for money now, and manages to get a couple of Catholic priests interested. Everything is looking good until some pictures of the producer and his dog are publicized. It seems that the pup was a little more than simply “man’s best friend.”

The production is then contacted by the “Man-Dog Love Association” and offered some money, which is politely declined.

Even though nobody is getting paid, they continue to film. To drum up some cash, the crew is directed to remove half of the screws and nails used on the set, and return them to the hardware store for a refund. The resulting accidents mark the first deaths associated with Guns On The Clackamas.

The funniest scene is the one ostensibly filmed at night by the campfire, when the bad guys sneak into camp. There was supposed to be a cloth over the lens to make it appear to be nighttime, but they did not have one. So the whole scene is shot in broad daylight. Definitely a nod to Ed Wood here.

The scrimping naturally extends to catering. On one particularly hot day, most of the cast makes the mistake of eating the macaroni salad. The food poisoning proves to be fatal, wiping nearly everyone out, including the two leads.

But the show must go on, right? To finish the movie, James X films the static corpses of the leads, and has actors dub in their lines. A brilliant solution.

Guns On The Clackamas is pretty funny. In one of the bonus interviews, director Bill Plympton describes it as “Spinal Tap meets Blazing Saddles.” While I would not go that far, The movie does have its moments. Gus Van Sant must have thought so. He makes a cameo appearance as himself early on.

The DVD extras include a five minute appearance on local morning show Portland Today, and a short bit featuring Plympton hawking the film at IFP in New York. For some inexplicable reason, there are also a series of text-only duck jokes here also.

While Guns On The Clackamas is not Spinal Saddles, or Blazing Tap, it is a very good first picture from a director worth keeping an eye on.