Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Music Review: Big Audio Dynamite - This Is Big Audio Dynamite (Legacy Edition)

"Covered wagon, medicine show. Take you to the place where the healing flows..."
I must have listened to those opening bars of "Medicine Show" from This Is Big Audio Dynamite (1985) hundreds of times over the years. It is an album that I never get tired of. With the Columbia/Legacy Edition of This Is Big Audio Dynamite being released this week, it seemed like a good time to reflect back on it.

At some point in life, nearly everyone finds a band that they identify with. The Beatles have been it for a number of people, Deadheads still believe in The Grateful Dead, and then there are Jimmy Buffett's Parrotheads, just to name a few examples. Hell, a (relatively) normal friend of mine has been losing it over The Boss for the past 30 years even.

For me, it will always be The Clash. Give 'Em Enough Rope came out when I was just hitting my teens. This underrated rock album was followed by London Calling, Sandinista!, Black Market Clash, then Combat Rock. I had just graduated high school by the time it was all over. My lord, they really were "The only band that mattered" to me.

As you may have noticed, I make no mention of Cut The Crap, having always considered it a bad Joe Strummer solo album. This Is Big Audio Dynamite seemed a lot closer to the sixth Clash record to me than that one ever did.

But how does it measure up 25 years later? I must confess that it has been a while since I've listened to the album. There was the fear that it might seem too dated by now, but I am happy to report that This Is has held up remarkably well over the years. Surprisingly well, actually. Unlike so many albums released in the mid-eighties, B.A.D.'s debut had a sound all its own, a style that was pretty tough to copy without sounding like a complete rip-off.

The classic spaghetti-Western film dialogue of Clint Eastwood and other Sergio Leone favorites had never been used the way Mick Jones and company did. And it remains a superbly unique element of the record. A few years later, the Beastie Boys would take a similarly creative approach to using samples on Paul's Boutique, and De La Soul would refine the concept even further with Three Feet High And Rising. Much like the first B.A.D. album, these efforts stand as one-of-a-kind visions.

Another reason I liked This Is Big Audio Dynamite so much was the fact that its best songs also happened to be the hits. "Medicine Show," "E=MC(2)," and "The Bottom Line" all received substantial airplay, and appeared in multiple formats. They also stand with anything Jones ever wrote with The Clash. Album tracks such as "A Party" and "BAD" were pretty strong as well.

I mentioned the multiple formats of the singles, and in 1985 that mostly meant 12-inch single remixes up the wazoo. At one time or another, I probably had all of them, but it has been years since I have listened to them. You wanna talk about dated? Jeez, those cheap drum machines that were added to the original LP tracks to turn them into "remixes" sound positively cheesy these days. "Medicine Show" and "E=MC(2)" were issued as 12" B-sides back in the day. "Sudden Impact" and "Stone Thames" were remixed in this manner too, but remained unreleased until now.

Jones had shown his interest in dub way back in the Sandinista! days, so it comes as no surprise the genre is explored here. "Sony Dub" and "A Party Dub" are classic examples in a Lee "Scratch" Perry vein.

The "BAD (Vocoder version)" cut is another unreleased oddity, utilizing the ubiquitous mid-eighties voice modulator to intriguing effect. A tune I had never previously heard of (which didn't make the final cut), "Electric Vandal," is a rocker, as is the non-LP B-side "This Is Big Audio Dynamite." I guess the limits of the vinyl format back then prevented them from being used, because both songs work well in the context of the original eight.

The highlight of the rarities disc comes from a young man by the name of Rick Rubin. His remixes of "The Bottom Line" and "BAD" are everything the format was meant to be. He transforms the songs in a most compelling manner, especially "The Bottom Line," which is mixed to come in three minutes longer than the LP version.

The ultimate-weirdness prize has to go to "Albert Einstein Meets The Human Beatbox," a UK promo only 12" B-side that takes "E=MC(2)" into the stratosphere. Great stuff!

Columbia/Legacy has done an excellent job with this ultimate version of This Is Big Audio Dynamite. If you liked The Clash, but missed out on B.A.D. back in the day, do yourself a favor and check this one out.

The 40th Anniversary Of The Mini-Moog Synthesizer

April 2010 marks the 40 year anniversary of the first live performance of the Mini-Moog synthesizer. Although few realized it at the time, the event was a watershed moment in music history. Previously, the Moog components filled a room, and were nearly impossible to transport for concerts. Walter Carlos had put Moog on the map with Switched On Bach (1968), but did not play live events. With the introduction of the Mini-Moog, the use of synthesizers in live rock appearances exploded.

One of the unsung heroes of the Mini-Moog is David Borden. He had formed an all-synthesizer outfit called Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company in 1968. He was also a bit of a Robert Moog acolyte, and unwittingly helped the inventor “idiot proof” the Mini. Describing his first encounter with the instrument, Borden said, “It looked like the cockpit of an airplane, hopelessly complicated.” Moog tweaked the design of the Mini to accommodate non-engineer types like Borden.

During this process, Moog had given Borden the keys to his shop in Trumansburg, NY — allowing him total access to the prototype. It was over the Easter weekend in 1970 that Borden completed the very first composition done on a Mini-Moog. In honor of the holiday, he named the piece “Easter.” Two weeks later, he and fellow Mallard Steve Drew gave the first live performance of the MM, playing “Easter” at Cornell University.

Mother Mallard became a trio with the addition of Linda Fisher, and began playing all over the Northeast. Arriving at a gig, they often found themselves billed as “The Moog Synthesizer,” rather than their actual band name.

The appearance of the Mini-Moog sparked something of a musical revolution. Not only did every hip band on the planet want one, but Moog’s competition became fierce. The EMS company had the VCS3, which was prominently featured on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Soon ARP had a portable model also, and touted it with ads featuring Pete Townsend and Stevie Wonder.

Slowly but surely, synthesizers became reliable, metronomic beat keepers. The wild sounds Keith Emerson or Brian Eno could find on an “untamed” synth began to dissipate, being replaced with reliable presets. By the latter part of the seventies, very few rock bands were using synthesizers anymore. The instrument became heavily identified with dance music. Producer Giorgio Moroder was a pioneer of this, by sculpting Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” from lengthy sessions in 1976. Kraftwerk were doing similar things with their seminal Trans-Europe Express (1977). One of the most famous uses of the Mini-Moog was by Parliament, with their song “Flashlight” (1976.)

Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co. had recorded a couple of albums by this time themselves. Their music fell into the dreaded “no commercial potential” category though, and they were forced to release the records on their own Earthquack Records. A few years ago, Cuneiform Records re-issued these early efforts, and the music has definitely stood the test of time.

The first, titled 1970-73 originally appeared in 1974, and contained three rather lengthy tracks. “Ceres Motion” (1973) is very much in the contemporary space-rock vein of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Very trippy. “Cloudscape For Peggy” (1970) was composed specifically for a dance performance from Peggy Lawler at Cornell. It would be fascinating to see her dance, as the piece is pure minimalism in the vein of something by Terry Riley or Phillip Glass.

The biggest attraction of 1970-73 for me is the addition of “Easter” to the original set. The 19:23 composition had never been previously available, but with the advent of the CD format, Cuneiform had the space to include it. “Easter” is very different from any other MMPMC tracks I have heard. It is much more adventurous, even somewhat aggressive at times. Borden seemed to smooth out these rougher edges later on, although I happen to like the relative dissonance.

The second MMPMC album was titled Like A Duck To Water. It was released in 1976, again on the Earthquack label. Like its predecessor, A Duck did not exactly set the world on fire sales-wise, but remains an excellent document of a long-gone era. Cuneiform has reissued this on CD as well, with an additional 20 minutes of material.

Borden’s partner in crime, Steve Drews actually composed the majority of Like A Duck To Water. Opening with “Oleo Strut,” we find MMPMC going further into an ambient direction. Another outstanding track written by Drews is “Theme From After The Fall.” This was commissioned for a Cornell University production of the Arthur Miller play, and was previously unreleased.

The centerpiece of Like A Duck To Water has to be Borden’s “C-A-G-E Part II.” This 20:21 track originally filled all of the LP’s second side, and is one of the most memorable works of so-called new music I have heard. As one may deduce from the title, the piece was written in tribute to one of Borden’s idols, John Cage. In much the same way that Cage worked, Borden used the notes C, A, G, and E to build his opus with. The results are extraordinarily hypnotic. The gradual variations of tempo take the listener on a journey, although the actual notes never vary. “C-A-G-E Part II” is remarkably compelling all the way through.

While the very description and definition of synthesizers has changed a zillion times over the years, as has the meaning of “synthesizer music,” the early days remain the most interesting to me. I recommend the two Mother Mallard CDs as prime examples of what forward looking musicians were doing, way back when.

For those fortunate enough to live near Carlsbad, CA there is an exhibition titled “Waves Of Inspiration: The Legacy Of Moog” on display at the Museum Of Making Music — running through the end of April. And if you live a little too far away to make the trek, there is a fantastic book titled Analog Days: The Invention And Impact Of The Moog Synthesizer by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco that does a great job of illuminating the era.

Pinch and Trocco discuss Mother Mallard at length, and David Borden in particular. I am hoping more people come to know this key player in the development of the Mini-Moog. The fact that he is still making music 40 years after debuting the Mini-Moog is good to know, and I hope more people will check him out.

Music Review: Vince Guaraldi - Peanuts Portraits

Like a lot of people in my age group, I grew up watching the Peanuts cartoon specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a holiday favorite, but there were many others that never quite gained the traction of that classic. We didn’t care, we watched them all. The regular bits of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, or the squawking of the adults were always funny. But there was something special about these shows that I did not really understand until I got a little older. That was the music of the great jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.

I actually recorded A Charlie Brown Christmas on my little cassette recorder one year, just for the soundtrack. Later, when I discovered it was available on LP, it became my first Christmas album. For years, I thought I was all set with Guaraldi’s Peanuts work with that one, until I discovered Peanuts Portraits. It is hard to believe that this collection never existed before, because it is perfect.

Peanuts Portraits is subtitled “The Classic Character Themes,” which is exactly what it is. The classic “Linus And Lucy” kicks things off, as it should, for this is the song most closely associated with the series. As the liner notes point out, the tune is often misidentified as the “Peanuts Theme.”

What really makes Peanuts Portraits special to me are the lesser known pieces such as “Frieda (With The Naturally Curly Hair),” and “Sally’s Blues.” Speaking of the blues, with a character like Charlie Brown, Guaraldi had plenty of opportunity to explore this idiom. “Blue Charlie Brown” and “Charlie’s Blues” are two examples of how he imagined our hero’s inner life.

Schroeder was always an interesting personality to me. He loved Beethoven, and Lucy loved him. I had always wondered what his faux classical theme was, because it was so different than the rest of the Peanuts’ music. Turns out it was modeled on “Minuet In G,” by (who else?) Beethoven. Snoopy’s pal Woodstock came in very late, having been formally introduced to us by name on June 22, 1970. He actually was named after the famous rock festival. “Little Birdie” was Guaraldi’s theme for him, and the song is the only one here to feature a vocal from Vince.

George Winston has long been a Vince Guaraldi fan, having recorded a tribute to him titled Linus And Lucy: The Music Of Vince Guaraldi in 1996. In addition to the nine Vince tracks on Peanuts Portraits, the producers have included two from Winston. The first sees him playing “The Masked Marvel.” This little known character was Snoopy dressed as a masked, caped crusader-- who once beat Lucy in a wrist-wrestling match. The finale’ sees Winston doing his version of “Linus And Lucy,” which adds a little piano business midway through, but mainly sticks to the established arrangement.

Except for the annual ritual of A Charlie Brown Christmas, I have not watched a Peanuts special in years. The release of Peanuts Portraits is a great reminder of how good those shows were though, and how integral the music of Vince Guaraldi was to them.

DVD Review: Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart was one of the best reviewed films of 2009, but it had a brief run in my hometown, and I missed it on the big screen. When Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for his performance as country singer Bad Blake, I knew this was a must-see on DVD. The kudos were well deserved, Crazy Heart is an excellent picture.

The story is a familiar one. A washed-up former star is toughing it out on the road, blowing most of his chances at a better life, and in the end (maybe) getting a shot at redemption. I remember Kris Kristofferson (who Bridges resembles here) playing a guy like this in the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. More recently, Mickey Rourke portrayed a character much like him in The Wrestler (2008).

The film starts out with Bad Blake playing a gig in a Pueblo, Colorado bowling alley. From there, he is off to a roadhouse in Santa Fe, where he agrees to be interviewed for the local newspaper. Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the single mother/journalist who Blake takes an instant shine to. He is also offered a chance to make some real money from young star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who he had mentored early on.

Blake’s drinking gets in the way of just about everything, from his budding romance with Jean, to Sweet’s attempts to help him out. At home in Houston, old buddy Wayne (Robert Duvall) quietly steps in, but it looks as if the two have been down this road many times. Even though Duvall’s role is tiny, he is (as always) tremendous. Just a look from him at his friend conveys more than a page of dialogue ever could. Crazy Heart ends on a bittersweet note. There are no big surprises, but a melancholic “what if?” feeling remained for me, long after the movie had ended.

Most of Crazy Heart was filmed in New Mexico, and the scenery is gorgeous. Director Scott Cooper uses the endless vistas of the Southwest to convey the romance of living life on the road, even if the reality of it is far less glamorous. The music was written by T Bone Burnett, and really adds to the film. The fact that both Bridges and Farrell actually sing the songs is a huge plus also. In the case of Bridges especially, I could not imagine it being done any other way, the whiskey-aged voice of his is vital.

In addition to the Best Actor award Bridges won, Crazy Heart also took the Oscar for Best Original Song with "The Weary Kind." Maggie Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, although she did not win.

The DVD extras include six deleted scenes, of which only one is really interesting. It concerns yet another drunken night in a bar, where Bad Blake winds up stranded with some drunk woman in the middle of a downpour.

The talented loser Jeff Bridges portrays in Crazy Heart is something of a stock character, but that in no way detracts from the stellar performances he and the rest of the cast give. I think this is a film that deserved all of the attention it received last year, and is well worth checking out for both the acting and the music.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Music CD/DVD Review: The Grateful Dead - Crimson, White & Indigo

In 1989, The Grateful Dead were enjoying a late career resurgence, and playing together at a remarkably high level. Much of this had to do with the renewed vigor of Jerry Garcia. After slipping into a diabetic coma in 1986, Garcia had to virtually re-learn the guitar. In 1987, the band released their biggest album ever, In The Dark. On July 7, 1989, The Dead were still touring behind it, and previewing new songs from the follow-up, Built To Last.

In The Dark touched off the final era of The Grateful Dead, which the band termed “Mega-Dead.” Their audience exploded, and they were playing the largest venues in the country. The 100,000 fans filling JFK Stadium in Philadelphia that day were no exception. On what turned out to be the final concert ever in the stadium, the group were firing on all cylinders.

Crimson, White & Indigo documents every note of this great night, on three CDs, and one DVD. The concert begins with one of the highlights of In The Dark, “Hell In A Bucket.” Right from the start, you know that this is going to be a good night. Bob Weir’s voice is in tremendous form, and Garcia’s leads are perfect in their economy.

Things get really interesting with “Little Red Rooster.” This Willie Dixon classic features some furious guitar exchanges between Garcia and Weir, and the first vocal appearance of keyboardist Brent Mydland. Bob Dylan had always been a Grateful Dead favorite, and they pay tribute to their friend with a rollicking version of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.”

The second set opens with Phil Lesh‘s semi-autobiographical
“Box Of Rain.“ Lesh’s bass playing is in top form throughout the show as well. The drum duos of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are a wonder. “Rhythm Devils” in particular is a thrilling ten-minute polyrhythmic excursion. As this segues into “Space,” then “The Other One,” we find ourselves transported back in time to the legendary Acid Tests.

The band then step out of the ether, with Jerry’s grand lament, “Wharf Rat.” This is followed by “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and finally a version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” And there you have it, three hours of prime late-period Grateful Dead.

Crimson, White & Indigo is the way I like to remember this band. Not long afterward, Garcia would relapse, and never really recover. But on this tour, and this night specifically, The Grateful Dead were as good a rock and roll group as you are likely to hear.

The three CD, one DVD packaging is nice too. I find myself listening to the discs in the car, and have already watched the whole concert a couple of times. I have never considered myself a Deadhead, so this is not a case of preaching to the choir. I just find Crimson, White & Indigo to be a superlative three hours of music. For anyone who has never “gotten” The Dead, this is a perfect starting point. For longtime fans, the set is yet more proof of the unprecedented career renaissance they were enjoying at the time.

Music Review: Les Moore - Yesterday

Yesterday by Les Moore is another of those obscure gems from the early seventies that surface now and then, seemingly out of the blue. In the case of Les Moore, he was a young singer-songwriter, who was opening for the likes of Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, and The Allman Brothers. He met Capricorn Records engineer Terry Kane at this time, who got him signed to the label briefly. When it was obvious that nothing was going to come of the deal, the two moved to New Orleans, where Yesterday was recorded.

The album was released in 1973, on their own Natural Records imprint, and was sold primarily at local shows. A couple of years later, Les Moore moved to North Carolina, and that was seemingly the end of his brief shot at musical stardom. But the seven tracks he and Kane recorded would not go away. Unlike a million other self-released vanity projects, Yesterday is an unforgettably dark and personal series of songs, which are not easily forgotten.

For the most part, all seven are just Moore and his acoustic guitar. The album opens up with “From Where To Turn,” and the listener is immediately drawn in by Moore’s voice. For someone who had mostly just played coffee houses, his voice is remarkably self-assured. One of Moore’s biggest strengths is the absolute conviction he brings to lyrics full of self-doubt.

“Ooh-Pah-Do-Pah-Do” another beauty. How a man alone with his guitar can evoke such haunting emotion is beyond me. The only thing I can compare it to is Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, which would not come out for another year. “Now To Begin” is the lone “topical” tune, and is directed against the Vietnam war. But the truths it illuminates are universal, and speak of matters that go much further than just the troubles in Southeast Asia.

If the previous six cuts did not show his utter fearlessness, Moore’s cover of The Beatle’s “A Day In The Life” certainly does. In Acid Archives, Patrick Lundborg describes Moore’s take as: “A scary jump into the abyss.” He is entirely correct on that one. Moore may not have written it, but his voice and guitar are positively revelatory. It is as if this is a completely different song than the one The Beatles recorded. It is one of the best interpretations I have ever heard.

Thirty seven years later, Les Moore is a happily married man, with kids even. His newly written liner notes for the reissue barely acknowledge the darkness and depth of his lone LP. “I attribute [the darkness] to the times, and bleakness of the winter,” he states. Maybe so, but the music he laid down all those years ago remains incredibly powerful. It is our great fortune that the people at Riverman Records saw fit to re-release this gem. I recommend it to fans of Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon, Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, and Neil Young‘s On The Beach.

Book Review: The Woman Behind The New Deal by Kirstin Downey

The name of Frances Perkins is pretty much forgotten today, but her New Deal legacy will live on forever. Kirstin Downey’s new book The Woman Behind The New Deal is an excellent look at the life of this extraordinary person. Although she wrote the majority of the legislation that comprised the New Deal, Mrs. Perkins is virtually unknown 75 years later. Her programs however, are still the stuff of front page headlines.

Frances would probably be happy in the knowledge that her name is now largely absent from the history books. During her lifetime, she did her best to conceal her role, and in her later years she destroyed much of her personal correspondence and papers. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary Of Labor, Frances was the very first woman to occupy a cabinet seat in the White House. For this reason alone, she had a huge target on her back.

But keeping herself out of the limelight to quietly broker deals had always been her way. While laboring as a mid-level social worker in New York City, Frances witnessed the devastating Triangle Fire in 1911. She watched as the ten story fire-trap was engulfed in flames, and as people on the top floors leapt to their deaths rather than be burned alive. 146 workers lost their lives that day, and the reasons behind the fire were shockingly avoidable. Laissez-fare was the cause, the building went up in flames because the owners did not care that the conditions were dangerous. Frances worked out deals between management and government to put into place the first fire codes in the nation. These were later adapted to be used across the country.

The systematic abuse of workers was rampant in the early 20th Century, and Frances Perkins devoted her life to ending it. The early fire codes were just the beginning. Frances realized that the only power strong enough to impact business was government. When she was offered a position on the staff of New York City mayor Al Smith, she took it. Her first order of business was to abolish child labor. Later, governor Roosevelt put her in charge of the state industrial board, where she excelled as well.

When FDR went on to become President, Frances was at his side. Virtually every significant portion of the New Deal was written by her. She adapted an existing British program to create Social Security, developed the concept of unemployment insurance, as well as the 8 hour day, and paid overtime. The only significant piece of legislation that did not make it was a form of universal health coverage. The AMA was too strong in opposition, and the war was looming, so Roosevelt quietly shelved it.

I wonder if all the Tea Baggers would be squawking if Social Security were repealed, or the unemployment insurance they get when being downsized were eliminated. How about no more paid overtime? If it wasn’t for Frances Perkins and the New Deal, none of these things would exist today, and life would be a lot more difficult for a vast number of people.

Frances stayed on in government after Roosevelt’s passing, but resigned from the Cabinet when Harry Truman won election. The post-war years saw her teaching at Cornell University, writing her memoirs, and speaking at various functions. Along with Eleanor Roosevelt she began to be seen as something of an elder stateswoman by the younger generation. John Kennedy even consulted with her after becoming President in 1960.

Frances Perkins was 85 when she passed away in 1965. Her work in government as the “mother” of the New Deal is a towering achievement. After reading The Woman Behind The New Deal, I get the sense that all she hoped to do in life was to help others to live better. She was a devout Christian and never looked to glorify her own position. Paradoxically, this is exactly the reason she is so respected by some — and virtually unknown by most. She lived a remarkable life and permanently changed the role of government in the lives of all Americans.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Music Review: Lisa Gerrard - The Mirror Pool

When Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance released The Mirror Pool in 1995, it was not even available on vinyl. Thank goodness for the resurgence of the format 15 years later, because the depth of sound inherent in the music is served in a manner that the original CD could never duplicate. Over the course of two 180-gram virgin vinyl LPs, her solo debut has never sounded better. The depth of the arrangements is stunning, and her vocal abilities are spellbinding.

The Mirror Pool was the culmination of work she had been accumulating for a number of years. Clocking in at nearly seventy minutes, The Mirror Pool looked like a clean break from her Dead Can Dance partner Brendan Perry. While that was not actually the case, as the duo released their final DCD album Spiritchaser the following year, The Mirror Pool did signify a major departure for Gerrard.

The first four songs on The Mirror Pool were recorded with Australia‘s Victorian Philharmonic. The lush sound of the orchestra, in conjunction with her brilliant vocals is a marvelous combination. As anyone who is familiar with Dead Can Dance knows, Lisa Gerrard does not really sing, but emotes in a language all her own. She describes the results as, “The language I was born with.”

In any event, the sounds she evokes fit the music like a glove, and only add to the mystery inherent in each song. “Violina: The Last Embrace” opens the record, and it is a gorgeous introduction. The sweeping orchestral arrangement draws the listener in immediately, and Gerrard’s voice sounds almost Gregorian in it’s chant-like cadences.

“Sanvean: I Am Your Shadow” closes this initial suite, and brings to mind the glorious “Silence, Sea And Sky/Perfume Garden” from the criminally under-appreciated Chameleons. I doubt that this was intentional, but then again, she always showed impeccable taste.

Moving into the main body of The Mirror Pool, we see Lisa exploring a very deep interest in the music of the Middle East. This was foreshadowed with the Philharmonic on “Persian Love Song: The Silver Gun,” which is a traditional Iranian work, arranged by Gerrard. But originals such as “Glorafin,” “Werd,” and “Celon,” mark the artist as 1995’s true Bedouin Babe.

The whole thing with Dead Can Dance was their earnest pretentiousness. Lisa Gerrard lives up to this legacy with tracks such as “The Rite.” The song was pulled from her unpublished operetta of Oedipus Rex. There is also a heavy Nico influence throughout the album, most especially on the closing “Gloradin.”

In interviews at the time of release, Lisa explained that the songs had been written over the course of the previous decade, but simply did not fit on any Dead Can Dance recordings. In many ways the “group” had run its course by the time this collection was released. But she would find a second career as a composer of film scores. In fact, three of The Mirror Pool’s songs would find a home on the soundtrack to Heat (1995), which kick-started this next phase in a definitive way. An Academy Award nomination was to follow in 2000 for her work with Hans Zimmer on Gladiator.

The Mirror Pool is the first and best of Lisa’s solo efforts. In many ways it does sound like the soundtrack to a non-existent movie. Record label 4AD has always been known for their extravagant packaging, and this limited vinyl edition is no exception. With a deluxe gatefold sleeve filled with incredible graphics, the presentation alone is a work of art. Thankfully, the music contained inside lives up to all expectations. The Mirror Pool is the perfect record to test out that new turntable you may have just gotten

Thursday, April 15, 2010

DVD Review: Janus Films Presents: Essential Art House, Volume V

With the formation of Janus Films in 1956, the era of the art-house film began. The company began importing foreign masterpieces from renowned directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman among others, showing them to audiences in New York and Boston. The move was such an immediate success that the art-house became nearly synonymous with the nascent Beats, not to mention inspiring an entire sub-genre of film buffs.

In 1984, Criterion emerged as the home video arm of Janus. The Criterion Collection series pioneered the “special edition” of classic films, by including commentaries, documentaries, alternate endings, and other ephemera with the original feature. The year 2006 saw the 50th anniversary of Janus, and was celebrated by Criterion with the Essential Art House 50th Anniversary, a 50-DVD Box Set.

The box is simply stunning, with definitive editions of 50 films, but with an MSRP of $850, it is also a bit of an investment. In 2008, a more pared-down version of the Essential Art House Box was introduced. Volume I featured six essential Criterion Collection DVDs, and was an immediate success. Criterion has just issued Volume V in the series, which includes the following titles:

Brief Encounter (1945) — David Lean’s fourth effort takes place just after World War II, and concerns two married people who embark on a six-week affair of the heart. The latter-day criticisms of this as dated due to the lack of sex are completely off base. What makes the story and performances so riveting are the intense emotions Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are forced to express without resorting to sexuality.

8 ½ (1963) — Federico Fellini’s hugely influential film is as unique a vision today as it was upon release. Marcello Mastroianni plays a director who is suffering from “a crisis of inspiration.” Writer’s block, in other words. The story changes locations at random, from a spa, to scenes from the director’s childhood, dream sequences, and a rocket launch pad, among countless others. In the end, the whole thing may or may not be a dream. One thing is certain though, 8 ½ is an enormously entertaining piece of cinema.

Floating Weeds (1959) — The only color feature included in this collection, Yasujiro Ozu’s update of his own 1934 picture is visually stunning. The story takes place on a small Japanese island, where a Kubuki troupe stop to perform. The group’s Master has a son, who only knows him as “Uncle.” Floating Weeds is a very deliberately paced character study especially notable for the nearly still-life compositional qualities Ozu was exploring at the time.

Jules And Jim (1962) — Francois Truffaut directed this landmark French New Wave tale of a three-way romance between best friends Jules and Jim and the free-spirited Catherine. Upon release, it was considered scandalous, and the story of two friends effectively “sharing” the love of Catherine is still somewhat disconcerting. While Jules And Jim is an undeniably important film, I found myself getting more and more frustrated with the manipulations of Catherine on the two men. The denouement was probably shocking in 1962, although it seemed a little obvious to me.

Kapo (1959) — This is my personal favorite of the collection. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo presents a powerful World War II drama based inside a Nazi concentration camp. When a young Jewish woman is captured and is facing certain death, a camp doctor takes pity on her and gives her a new identity. To survive, she collaborates with the guards, eventually becoming a warden herself. Her attempt at redemption in the end is heartbreaking. Kapo was one of the first films to realistically portray the brutality of the concentration camps.

Loves Of A Blonde (1965) — If Kapo is the most powerful picture in Volume V, Milos Forman’s Loves Of A Blonde is the most charming. The film follows the romantic entanglements of shoe-factory worker Andula over the course of an evening. When her choices find her venturing to the house a boy shares with his family in a far-off village, we feel every bit as uncomfortable as she does. Fortunately the young musician returns her love, and we are left with an open-ended, yet seemingly positive conclusion to this chapter in her life.

The six films contained in Essential Art House Volume V represent a variety of directors and styles. With each title available individually, one may be tempted to just pick and choose their own selections, rather than buying the set. One big reason to go for the box is price. The collection costs about half of what the six DVDs would if purchased separately.

More significantly though is the element of surprise. Unless you are a hard-core foreign film fan, chances are that you are not familiar with some of the titles here. This is one of the great joys of the art-house experience, the discovery of a new-to-you picture. Like the previous four volumes of Essential Art House, the latest is a marvelous collection of cinematic originals, and a great introduction to the world of foreign film.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Music Review: Sonny Rollins - Way Out West

From the hilarious cover art, through the amazing music of the Sonny Rollins Trio, Way Out West is a stone classic. Sonny was definitely on a roll in March 1957, when recording of the album took place. Having just issued such landmarks as Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, and Tour de Force, Rollins was at an early peak in his career. Strangely enough, Way Out West was initially viewed as little more than a gimmick initially.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. As a Depression-era youth growing up in Harlem, the movies provided an escape for him. “Westerns took me away from reality,” says Rollins, “They took me to another place, and gave me hope that a Utopia did indeed exist in life.”

The sincerity Sonny felt towards the subject matter is apparent right from the start. “I’m An Old Cowhand” finds drummer Shelly Manne tapping out the beat like the clip-clopping of a horse before Sonny steps in. His tenor sax articulates the quirky lyrics composer Johnny Mercer originally utilized, right down to the immortal “Yippie-yi-o-ki-yay.”

The choice of the great Duke Ellington ballad “Solitude” as the next cut is an odd one at first glance. The sophisticated Duke may seem out of place on a record like this, but Rollins knew what he was doing. In utilizing such a song, he points up the essential loner status of the cowboy. It also presents a great opportunity for Rollins to explore the depth of tone inherent in his playing. The bass solo from Ray Brown late in the tune is especially entrancing.

Sonny’s own “Come, Gone” ended side one of the original LP in an energetic manner. On this track, Rollins is very much the “saxophone colossus,” as he completely dominates the song in a post-Bop frenzy.

The longest track on the record is up next, the ten minute “Wagon Wheels.” It is certainly the most cinematic of the six sides. Beginning with some relaxed bass and drum figures from Brown and Manne, Rollins takes his time coming in. When he does, it is as if the tumbleweeds are slowly tumbling along, nothing is rushed. The space Sonny takes is reminiscent of the wide open spaces of Monument Valley, where so many classic Westerns were filmed.

“There Is No Greater Love,” is another fine ballad, notable for Sonny’s fluency, and a nice bass solo from Brown. Finally, we come to the title track, “Way Out West,” written by Rollins. It is his own take on the genre, and evokes sort of a “Home On The Range” feeling, again reminding us of the infinite vistas of the Old West.

The recording of Way Out West took place in one marathon session which began at 3 a.m. March 7, 1957 — and stretched into the late morning hours. Besides the original six tracks released on the album, there were alternate takes of “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Come, Gone,” and “Way Out West.” The Original Jazz Classics 24-bit remastered release includes these alternate versions, which are all worthwhile in their own right.

Way Out West is one of the most unique recordings in the extensive Sonny Rollins catalog. It is also one of his finest.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Music Review: Moses - Changes

Moses were a heavy-duty power trio from Denmark, who released their lone LP, Changes, in 1971. It is another incredibly obscure period piece unearthed by the great German reissue label Shadoks, who will release the CD version of it later this week. The recently written liner notes describe Moses’ music as “Best appreciated in a hall filled with the smell of fun-tobacco.” No argument here, their blend of influences is a stoner’s delight: Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk Railroad are just the most obvious ones.

The opening title cut, “Changes,” begins as an almost direct lift from Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard.” It quickly falls into a deep blues groove, however, with a tale of woe about the singer killing his wife and spending ten years in jail. Guitarist Soren Hojbjerg channels Clapton’s “Crossroads” solo to great effect midway through.

The blooze continues with “I’m Coming Home.” Bassist Jorgen Villadsen keeps things steady with a bassline recalling Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.” Evidently the “fun tobacco” in Denmark was not all that fun, as this is a lament about a returning Vietnam vet. Hojbjerg’s psychedelic guitar solos are the highlights of this seven-minute tune.

No matter how many times the band cite legends such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix as primary inspirations, it was really Blue Cheer. “Everything Is Changed” is Moses’ version of the Cheer doing Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues.” The fuzzed-out guitar solos are perfect, as is the vocalist’s exhortation to “Dig it!” at the end of the track.

Side two of the original LP began with the instrumental “Beginning.” This tune is based on a riff similar to that of the Spencer Davis Group's “I’m A Man” (written by Steve Winwood), and gives the full band ample room to stretch out. There is even an abbreviated drum solo from Henrik Laurvig.

The lyrics of “Skaev” are all in Danish, so I have no idea what Moses are talking about. But it really doesn’t matter; the powerhouse blues overwhelms everything anyway. Again, the heavy psychedelic guitar solos are outstanding.

Finally, we come to “Warning,” a cautionary tale that was obviously very personal to lyricist Henrik Laurvig. In 1967, the band Steppeulvene released the very first rock album with Danish lyrics, titled Hip. Its effect was profoundly inspirational to the musical community of Denmark, including the soon-to-be members of Moses. But the life of a (relatively) successful hippie rock star was not all that it seemed to be. After being busted for pot, Steppeulvene’s singer Eik Skaloe set out on the so-called “hippie trail,“ with the ultimate destination of Nepal. He was found outside of the Indian border town Ferozepore in October 1968, dead of an intentional overdose.

“Warning” recalls the sledgehammer version of “Inside Looking Out” by Grand Funk Railroad more than anything else. It is a basic blues, with some serious guitar interludes. But the focus is squarely on the lyrics, and the sad story of a life wasted.

Original copies of Changes trade hands in collector’s circles for big bucks these days. Fortunately, those of us who are just merely curious about such an obscure album now have a chance to check it out at a reasonable price. Fans of late-sixties and early-seventies garage/psyche/hard rock should look into this one. It definitely rocks.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Music Review: Finjarn & Jensen

Finjarn & Jensen is one of those records that turns up every now and then that was previously thought to be lost to the ages. The lone LP from Svein Finjarn and Leif Jensen was only released in Norway, back in 1970. Leave it to German psychedelic reissue specialists Shadoks to unearth this treasure and make it available on CD for the very first time.

For most of the 1960s, the two had been kicking around separately in various Norwegian combos prior to joining a group called Jumbo. After recording two singles with the band, Finjarn and Jensen decided to split-off and record their eponymous album. The seven songs they laid down in a Scandinavian studio are prime latter day flower-power, with a few hints of psychedelia thrown in for good measure.

The first song, “One More Day” would have been described at the time as “heavy rock.” The tune has something in common with contemporaries such as Ten Years After and Steppenwolf. The guitar solo by Finjarn is a smoker, and recalls the great Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer.

The hippie vibe takes over in a big way with “Blue And Peaceful,” a thoroughly groovy bit of whimsy. It is a vintage bit of Swinging London, circa 1967. A staple of all respectable late-sixties psych records was the drum solo. Leif Jensen obliges by mercilessly beating the skins on “What Else Can We Do?”

If there were any doubt as to the influences the two shared, it is answered definitively on “Lady Windsor.” Their tribute to British underground music is perfectly conceived. It is done so well in fact, as to come off as almost a parody of something like Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968) from the Small Faces. It is a great cut.

The guys had pretty hip taste back then as well. The one cover song they chose was by “New Day,” by Jackie Lomax. It was the first single released from his lone (excellent) Apple Records recording, Is This What You Want?

As the sixties turned into the seventies, the idea of the extended jam became much more prevalent in music, and the final two cuts on Finjarn & Jensen reflect the trend. “Grey Skies” contains a much longer drum solo than “What Else Can We Do?” had. But it is in the seven and a half minute finale, titled “Sorry Girl, But Now I Know Things Will Be Much Better Now That You’ve Gone.” With this track, it is safe to assume that the haze of hashish smoke blanketing Northern Europe had broached the studio walls. Still, the song is nowhere near as self-indulgent as it could have been. It seems pretty clear that both Finjarn and Jensen had learned a great deal from their previous music business experiences. The track contains a number of solos, but none overstay their welcome. In fact, Finjarn’s guitar playing here is his best on the album.

I will admit that part of the appeal of Finjarn & Jensen is its total obscurity, that is something that just adds to the myth but it is certainly not everything. This is a really good record for fans of that late sixties psychedelic flower-power trip. Although nobody really heard it at the time, Finjarn & Jensen stands up with much of what was released in 1970 and it still sounds good today

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Music Review: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section

The sessions for what would become Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section took place on January 19, 1957. It was a period that saw saxophone great Art Pepper facing down some serious demons. He had just been released from federal prison on drug charges, and had not picked up his horn in ages. To top it all off, his girlfriend did not inform him of the scheduled date until that very morning. In Pepper’s autobiography Straight Life he claims to have prepared for the recording “by shooting a huge amount of heroin.” The resulting album should have been an unmitigated disaster. Instead, Pepper emerged that evening with one of the finest albums of his career.

Having one of the strongest rhythm sections in jazz behind him certainly did not hurt. Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums) were moonlighting from their regular gig with Miles Davis. To call them The Rhythm Section was no idle boast; they were probably the best in the business at the time. There were dichotomies between Art and the trio that should have worked against them. He was white; they were black. He was West Coast; they were East Coast. But what emerges on this album is four incredibly talented musicians playing together at the top of their game.

Pepper had never even played the opening cut, “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” before. He knew the Cole Porter song, and after a quick run through, they rolled tape. The tasteful lyrical lines he states through the body of the tune make it his own. Next up is a Red Garland composition, “Red Pepper Blues.” On this one, the whole band swing together, each taking flight in turn.

Art Pepper had a number of different voices on his instrument, and in the ballad, “Imagination,” he fully explores the depth of sound his alto sax has to offer. It also features an inspired bass solo from Chambers. The song that became something of a theme for Pepper, “Straight Life,” is presented here for the first time. This is a wild tune, with the saxist blowing furiously in a post-Bop style that was completely anathema to West Coast cool jazz. The Rhythm Section responds in a big way, with each player rotating solos throughout the track.

Another side of Pepper that emerges is his love of Dixieland. The quartet attack the old standby, “Jazz Me Blues,” with notable passion. Over the course of the seven minute “Tin Tin Deo,” the foursome seem to metamorphose. This extended track gives the impression that they had all been playing together for years. The interaction between the various soloists is remarkable.

Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section is part of the Original Jazz Classics 24-bit remaster program, and sounds spectacular. In addition to the LP's original nine cuts, there is a bonus track. “The Man I Love” was recorded at the same sessions as the rest, but was left off the album. It must have been for time constraints, because the side itself is a killer. The solos are on a par with those of anything else here.

Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section is a classic jazz album, one of those rare collaborations where the sum really is greater than the parts.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Music Review: Finger- Still In Boxes 1990-1994

Finger were a little known early nineties band out of Raleigh, NC. It is fitting that their first single was also one of Merge Records’ first releases, as they both were spawned from this lively scene. As it happened, the record label managed to break out of the “indie ghetto” in a pretty big way later on, while Finger’s great music was left behind. I think the title of their just-released compilation Still In Boxes is perfect, because many of those great tunes they performed probably remain sealed in unopened LP and CD cartons.

Still In Boxes collects 18 tunes recorded between the years 1990 and 1994. The songs are presented chronologically, which is a tremendous service to someone like myself who is just now being introduced to the group. The early material owes a huge debt to two of the finest bands of the eighties: Hüsker Dü and The Replacements.

“One Light Shinin” is the first track, and it has the polish of something from the last great Dü album, Candy Apple Grey. “Another State” is the best song The Replacements never recorded. I wish I had heard this back in the day, because even 20years later, it is still a killer track.

The next development in Finger’s music was an embrace of tighter song structures, such as “Vessel.” Like late period ‘Mats, or contemporaries such as Nirvana and Teenage Fanclub, the group sharpened their hooks a bit, while retaining a punky edge. “Still In Boxes” is the first real departure for them, a lament that nodded in the direction of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.

The Merge single “Everywhere” is a bid for airplay with jangly REM-inspired guitars all over the place. It’s a great song, another one of those gems that just slipped through the cracks. I actually like the B-side “The Awful Truth” even better. The guitars still dominate, but the pace is slowed down a bit, which works well in this context.

Having opened for bands such as Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine, not to mention being avowed Neil Young fans, it is no surprise that the feedback gets cranked up at some point. “Queen Of The Blues” is the first, and best example of Finger turning everything up to 11.

The latter part of the set goes even further in homage to Neil. While Finger‘s “Drive By” has nothing at all to do with Young’s, it does channel some of the crazed pyrotechnics of obscure guitar romps like “T-Bone.” Even more explicit is “The Horse.” I swear this is the long lost brother of “Cowgirl In The Sand.” Of the many highlights on Still In Boxes, this seven-minute extravaganza is the most compelling.

Finally we come to “No Solution,” which explicitly points the band in a country direction. In fact, guitarist Brad Rice would eventually go country all the way, as he is currently the guitar player in Keith Urban’s band.

Well, that’s all folks…but wait. The CD has not ended yet, there is a hidden track on here. It turns out to be a cover of The Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t.” It’s done with appropriately punk irreverence, and just makes me all the sadder I missed this band the first time around.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Music Review: Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane

The pairing of Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane was an inspired one. Both were to have a profound impact on jazz, yet when these recordings were made, neither artist was considered particularly “major.” Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane was recorded in 1957, during the time of their legendary residence at New York’s Five Spot Café. Due to record company politics, the tracks sat in the can until 1961.

The majority of the album consists of four quartet sides recorded in summer 1957, with Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson drumming. The ballad “Ruby, My Dear,” opens the record, and is a fine showcase for the deep tone John Coltrane used on slower numbers. Monk takes a short solo towards the end, but this is mainly ‘Trane.

“Trinkle Tinkle,” and “Nutty,” are both examples of what it must have been like at the Five Spot that year. The upbeat tunes see all four men playing with a unique fire. While Coltrane has not yet moved into his famous “sheets of sound” approach, his solos are fast and furious. You can tell Monk is a fan just by the way his piano comments on what ‘Trane is doing. This is joyous music.

There are also leftover tracks from the Monk’s Music sessions included. “Off Minor,” and “Epistrophy,” add Coleman Hawkins on tenor, in addition to ‘Trane, as well as the trumpet of Ray Coleman. The great Art Blakey is present on drums, which keeps things very lively. In fact, Blakey is almost the star of both cuts, as his drums are all over the place. Hawkins is the featured soloist on “Off Minor,” which is a pretty swinging tune. After Blakey’s rollicking opening, John Coltrane gets a chance to let loose on “Epistrophe.” Ray Coleman displays his trumpet chops pretty powerfully on this one as well.

The original LP concluded with the indescribable “Functional.” This is Thelonious Monk improvising completely solo on his piano, for nearly ten minutes. The man had a remarkable mind, and I defy anyone to listen to this piece and argue differently. The song is simply spectacular, I could listen to him like this all day long.

There is a bonus track available for the first time on this 24-bit remastered edition of the album. “Monk’s Mood,” was recorded by the main quartet of Monk, Coltrane, Ware, and Wilson for the Thelonious Himself record. This is an alternate take of the song. It is another ballad, and performed exquisitely. The way John Coltrane and Monk weave around each other during the course of the piece is something to hear.

More often than not the pairing of two "legends" results in disappointment for everyone. Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane is a wonderful exception. And the remastering job Original Jazz Classics has done with it is superb. I consider this one a must for the discerning jazz fan.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Music Review: Robin Trower - Twice Removed From Yesterday

When Robin Trower left Procol Harum in 1972, his future was anything but certain. As the guitar player in a keyboard-dominated band, his name was virtually unknown outside of a very limited audience. That all changed dramatically in 1974, with the release of Bridge Of Sighs. But Bridge was Trower’s second album. His often overlooked debut, Twice Removed From Yesterday, came in 1973 and served as something of a blueprint for what was to follow. After being out of print for years, a new reissue label calling themselves Iconoclassic Records are releasing a remastered version of Twice Removed From Yesterday, which adds a rare non-LP track as a bonus.

The power trio of Trower (guitar), James Dewar (vocals, bass) and Reg Isidore (drums) came together rather quickly, and proved to be the most commercially successful incarnation of the group. Before the massive sales of Bridge, Twice Removed From Yesterday was seen as something of a surprise hit. In the beginning, expectations were pretty low on the part of Chrysalis Records. To boost their profile, the trio were given prime spots on tours with Jethro Tull and Ten Years After. But all the exposure in the world wouldn't have helped if the music wasn‘t there. Fortunately, Robin Trower delivered the goods with Twice Removed From Yesterday.

The original nine-track album opened up with “I Can’t Wait Much Longer.” This slow blues contains the patented heavy chording that would later gain fame as the basis of “Bridge Of Sighs.” As with all of the songs, Trower also gets off a furious extended solo midway through. One of the criticisms leveled at the guitarist over the years is his overt reverence for Jimi Hendrix. Frankly, I could think of worse crimes. Be that as it may, however, “Daydream” nods in the direction of one of Jimi’s most delicate tunes, “Little Wing.” “I Can’t Stand It” is a much more pronounced Hendrix acknowledgment, sort of the Trower band’s “Purple Haze.”

The funkiness the trio were to pursue later on songs such as “Day Of The Eagle” is also foreshadowed here with “Man Of The World.” This was the lone single from the album, with the non-LP B-Side “Take A Fast Train.” The single sank like a stone, but the rare “Take A Fast Train” is included on this reissue. The lone cover version is “Rock Me Baby,” from blues master B.B. King. The grit these Brits bring to the song is amazing. Dewar’s voice is as authentic as it comes, and Trower’s guitar smokes.

There was still a bit of hippie-hangover in 1973, as the title cut proves. It is an interesting track, and Dewar really tries to sell it, but this is not one of Trower’s finest moments. “Sinners Song” makes up for it though. This is my favorite on the record, and features what the band did best: heavy blues rock, with some truly lyrical soloing from their namesake. Another notable element of “Sinners Song” is how Dewar and Isidore get their moments in the sun as well.

Twice Removed closes with a ballad titled “Ballerina,” which is one of Trower’s finest songs. It has remained in his repertoire on and off ever since. In retrospect, the debut of the trio that called themselves Robin Trower is one of the stronger albums released in 1973. It is highly recommended for fans of Bridge Of Sighs particularly, as well as for those who just enjoy the sound of some great electric blues guitar.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Music Review: Fabrizio Sotti - Inner Dance

Italian jazz-guitar hero Fabrizio Sotti may have been better known for his hip-hop productions rather than his own music, but that should change with the release of Inner Dance. Sotti has recorded everyone from Ghostface Killah, to Foxy Brown, to Whitney Houston. But his truest passion in jazz, with a particular nod to the great Wes Montgomery.

The original version of Inner Dance was actually a completely different album. All of the material was recorded in a fairly traditional trio format. Evidently there were gremlins in Sotti’s computer who wanted something different, because the hard drive crashed and burned one day, resulting in a total loss. He started over, and introduced some new elements to the mix.

Inner Dance opens up with “Blue Whisper,” a gently swinging number, featuring some nice interplay between Sotti and Hammond B-3 organist Sam Barsh. The B-3 is a crucial component, for it has a sound unlike any other. Jimmy Smith used the B-3 on his classic LP with Wes Montgomery, Dynamic Duo (1966). The trademark tone of the organ is so far out of date today as to sound positively antique. That is one reason it works so well here. “I Thought So,” and “Last Chance” are a couple of other tracks that hearken back to the classic Smith/Montgomery archetype.

Another facet of Fabrizio Sotti’s playing is his fluency in Spanish-style acoustic guitar. “Kindness In Your Eyes,” is a superb example. It is played in a trio format with Barsh holding down the bass, and Victor Jones with some tasteful drums. One of the more interesting tunes is “Innerdance,” which features the harmonica of Gregoire Maret. The play between Maret and Sotti makes for a distinctive combination on this mid-tempo piece. The only vocal on the album comes courtesy of Claudia Acuna, who wrote and sings the words to “Amanecer.” Sotti’s Spanish guitar complements the Chilean vocalist nicely.

Fabrizio has also taken the opportunity to salute a couple of his mentors. “Brief Talk” was written for sax legend Michael Brecker, shortly after Sotti’s final encounter with him. “For T.M.” is dedicated to Thelonoius Monk, and displays yet another side of his guitar playing. Somehow, Sotti manages a fair replication of Monk’s post-Bop piano style, on the guitar. The basic trio of Sotti, Barsh, and Jones swing hard all the way through.

The finale’ is really just a 1:26 solo acoustic coda, and yet it is essential. “We Are What We Are,” seems to sum up Inner Dance, as if all of the styles and voices on the record were leading up to this conclusion. The song also reminds me of an almost completely unknown acoustic piece by Frank Zappa titled “Sleep Dirt.”

It would be impossible to place Fabrizio Sotti as a big time hip-hop producer based on the music of Inner Dance. His comments on the dichotomy are pretty straight forward, “I agree with Duke Ellington in his assessment that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad,” he says.

I understand the sentiment, and for my money, Inner Dance definitely belongs in the “good” category.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Music Review: Joe Pass - Virtuoso

With the release of Virtuoso in 1974, Joe Pass became an “overnight” sensation, even though his first LP had been released way back in 1961. It was titled The Sounds Of Synanon, for the drug rehab center he was enrolled in at the time. The various other players who made up his band were Synanon patients as well. Synanon attracted widespread acclaim from Pass’ peers, but it took Virtuoso for him to break through to a wide audience.

The thirteen years between the two records were filled with a number of quality albums, including tributes to Django Reinhardt, and even The Rolling Stones. But Pass had never recorded as a solo before Virtuoso, and the sound of him playing unaccompanied was a revelation. Only one of the twelve songs that appear on Virtuoso is a Pass original, the rest are his interpretations of classics.

Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” is the lead track, and contains some of the key elements that make this such a fine record. Pass’ way of accompanying himself by playing melodies off of the chords simultaneously is stunning. And the clear sound of his playing is singular as well. His ability to to engage in furious fret-board runs is spotlighted on the very next track, “Stella By Starlight.”

Joe Pass is often compared to Charlie Parker, and his recording of “Cherokee,” provides ample evidence as to why. His guitar matches the ferocity of the Parker version note for note. A couple of other high octane performances are contained on “Round Midnight,” and “All The Things You Are.”

Joe Pass’ original tune “Blues For Alican” is the only blues cut to appear on the album. It is obvious that Pass was a fan of a contemporary guitar virtuoso, John Fahey. Although it is never explicitly stated, his style of playing on the song is clearly a tribute to a talented peer. “Blues For Alican” could have easily been a lost track from Blind Joe Death, or The Voice Of The Turtle.

Virtuoso concludes with Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.” On it, Joe Pass shows off all the qualities that made him such a legend. Changing keys on the fly, furious picking, and the patented chord and melody played-in-tandem style add up to a truly virtuoso performance.

Virtuoso is part of the latest Original Jazz Classic 24-Bit Remasters series, and has never sounded better. No matter what the quality of your stereo is though, the guitar playing of Joe Pass is virtually unmatched. I could not think of a better title than Virtuoso for this one.

DVD Review: Superjail! - Season One

Superjail! may be the single weirdest cartoon I have ever seen. The ten-episode first season originally ran on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim during the 2008 season. Superjail! - Season One has just been released on DVD, and contains all of the original shows plus some bonus material. For anyone who enjoys truly twisted animation, this set is a must.

The setting is a maximum security prison called Superjail, which is housed on an island, inside of a volcano. Presiding over the huge inmate population are The Warden, who is like a brutal Willy Wonka; transgendered prison guard Alice; and their trusty robot, Jailbot. Other characters who make regular appearances are accountant Jared, who is a recovering alcoholic, and is abused mercilessly, and The Twins, a Teutonic duo with supernatural powers and a flair for mischief and techno music.

Like many of the features shown on Adult Swim, the episodes are short--each clocking in at around ten minutes. But they pack a lot into those ten minutes. Each story begins with some sort of basic premise, which is then subjected to all sorts of bizarre permutations (usually via The Twins or The Warden), building up to the inevitable ultra-violent conclusion.

“Superbar” is a good example of the all-out weirdness of Superjail! The Warden decides to open a bar inside the prison, so that he can romance Alice. Alice is hot for a tattooed inmate though, and rejects The Warden, while Jared falls off the wagon in a big way. Meanwhile, the drunken inmates try to escape through the unused Ladies room. When they drill through the wall, the surrounding ocean engulfs Superjail, leading to a psychedelic extravaganza of brutality. The sea creatures attack everyone in sight, for a thoroughly gory denouement.

There is something to recommend in every episode of Superjail’s first season, but a few episodes are particularly memorable. “Ladies Night,” introduces Ultraprison, which is the women's version of Superjail. When the cargo plane full of hot, female convicts crash lands at Superjail, everybody has fun. Additionally, the supernatural “Terrorarium” is positively lysergic, as is the season ending “Time-Police” show.

One of the only prisoners to appear in every program is called Jacknife, who gets captured by Jailbot in the opening sequences. His crimes include stealing a carny’s cash-box, stealing a stripper’s tips, stealing medicine from children, and grave robbing. Jailbot always takes him back to Superjail to the strains of theme song “Comin’ Home.” In the bonus section, the full-length video for the tune is included. It is by a band who call themselves Cheeseburger, who rival the prisoners in the looks department. The other notable extra is the pilot episode, “Bunny Love,” which shows that the writers and producers had the concept down cold from the beginning.

I found it a little surprising that the DVD uses the censored dialog that was originally show on TV, rather than allowing the four-letter words to fly. Maybe it is a misguided attempt to capture the kiddie market. Make no mistake, Superjail! is not for kids. It is a graphic, and very warped vision of the world, the likes of which I have never really come across before. Needless to say, I am looking forward to season two in a big way.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music Review: The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz At Oberlin

I hear you're mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes, I like him too
He's an artist, a pioneer
We've got to have some music on the new frontier...

Donald Fagen - "New Frontier" (1982)

Dave Brubeck has enjoyed the status of "legend" for so many years now, it is hard to imagine the impact this concert had in 1953. The Brubeck Quartet’s appearance at Oberlin College in March of that year was something of a breakthrough for a couple of reasons. Until then, jazz was still associated with “gin-joints,” and a pretty unsavory lifestyle. Brubeck’s clean, clear arrangements showed an audience of classical music snobs just how sophisticated his music could be. The fact that Jazz At Oberlin was one of the first commercially released live jazz recordings is of no small import either.

Brubeck’s cohorts that night included bassist Ron Crotty, drummer Lloyd Davis, and longtime collaborator Paul Desmond on saxophone. All four were on fire, and in Davis’ case, it was almost literal as he was suffering from a 103 degree temperature.

“These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)” opens the set up with some fine sax from Desmond. When Brubeck takes a piano solo, the crowd erupts, as it would throughout the night. The classic “Perdido” follows, and while the song is most often linked to Duke Ellington, Brubeck’s quartet gives it an energetic reading. Desmond in particular really stands out, as does the bass of Crotty.

The group’s selection of material was superb, and next up is the beautiful Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Stardust.” Sometimes Dave Brubeck’s piano sounds best when he hangs back a bit, as he does here. Once again, the crowd roars its approval at the end of his solo. Another huge response greets both Brubeck’s and Desmond’s leads in another great tune, “The Way You Look Tonight.”

The longest song is also the final one: “How High The Moon” (9:11). The opening theme is presented elegantly by Brubeck, before Desmond comes blazing in. The two trade furious solos throughout the piece, and reach a searing climax in tandem. The quartet practically tear the roof off Oberlin with this tune, and the audience goes absolutely ballistic.

Jazz At Oberlin is the latest in Fantasy Records Original Jazz Classics series of remastered and reissued classic albums. When it originally appeared on CD back in the eighties, 24-bit remastering technology did not yet exist. Thanks to engineer Joe Tarantino’s utilization of the process, Jazz At Oberlin has never sounded better. As always in the OJC series, the liner notes are outstanding as well.

One of the more interesting tidbits revealed in the notes is the origin of the cover. The photo of the group was not taken at the college, but at an apartment building in Hollywood which somewhat resembled Finney Chapel, where they had performed. The apartment building turned out to be managed by Lenny Bruce’s mother, of all people.

Dave Brubeck would grace the cover of Time magazine the following year (back when such an appearance actually meant something), and his career skyrocketed. But the release of Jazz At Oberlin set everything that was to follow into motion. It is a great milestone in Dave Brubeck’s career.