Sunday, September 18, 2005
MARY LOU WILLIAMS - Mary Lou's Mass; Black Christ of the Andes CDs (Smithsonian Folkways)
Just when you think the well has run dry, you accidentally stumble across an artist you've never even heard of before, and quietly, steadily but surely become obsessed with their work. For myself, lately, that figure has been the jazz pianist known as Mary Lou Williams. Her recorded debut stretches all the way back to the year 1930, she played or wrote with everyone from Duke Ellington to Cecil Taylor (even recording a disastrous album with the latter in 1977, a messy, completely unrehearsed live set which I must hear... anyone land me a copy?), spent almost 20 years in the semi-wilderness whilst she dedicated nearly all her time to working with the Catholic church, and then passed away in 1981. Her style, which encompassed everything from gospel to modal to hard-bop to borderline avant-garde, reads like a history of 20th century jazz. Her recordings for the Folkways label are an incredible grab-bag of all of the above, a truly eccentric mix of funkified gospel, Monk-ish piano trio opuses, bluesy dirges and occasional flurries of cluttered, abstract solos which clash glaringly with the bulk of her work, but paint a complete picture of a really unique artist.
Mary Lou's Mass, from 1974, is (obviously) the most outright religious offering and more of a gospel disc than anything resembling "jazz". I have no beef with God-botherers of any stripe (though I remain an unconvinced non-believer), so the religious angle is something which doesn't bother me at all, though the occasional cheeseball choral singing brings in the cringe factor at times. Nevertheless, this is simply such a strange and wonderful mix of funky rhythms, stomping hymns and rollicking piano strides that, if you're going to go on a MLW binge, you might as well throw it in the pile.
The pick of the litter is her Black Christ of the Andes opus from 1964. Dig those song titles: "Anima Christi", "Dirge Blues", "A Fungus A Mungus". The opening track, "St. Martin de Porres", sits somewhere between a barbershop quartet, doo-wop and the kind of ridiculous vocal histrionics you'd expect from a Magma disc, before things settle down to a series of quieter piano pieces, only to be broken up by a couple of soulful R & B numbers. I'm way past the stage now where my diet of "jazz" listening has to equal nothing more than a giant headache. Yes, I willingly own and love a rather large collection of albums by the likes of Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and others like them. Their music is a room-clearing world of joy I shall ever bask in, but there comes a time when even noise idiots like myself come around to enjoying jazz of the non-screech variety. That day, at least for me, hit home roughly five years back after the purchase of a Thelonious Monk box set, and I've been making a steady headway ever since (recently even exploring the hinterlands of goddamn ragtime! Ghostworld, here we come!). The point? MLW's reputation as a vaguely "avant garde" jazz artist is right on the money, though her music is, for the most part, not likely to upset your parents to any great extent. "A Fungus..." is the strangest thing here, a solo piano piece which aimlessly clunks around the keys to jarring effect (that's a good thing, by the way), though for me, what makes the music of MLW work so beautifully is her completely unconscious mix of styles. MLW's music must be listened to as a whole, and as a concept, as opposed to the typical track-by-track basis. Or, to make a short story short: her music is conceptual, or at least her albums on Folkways are, and these two platters, as well as her Zoning and Zodiac Suite LPs, are well worth investigating.
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Back from the dead... a few good things I've managed to land my hands on of late. Perhaps I should tell you about them.
I owned Scrabbling At the Lock and And The Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders, both by The Ex and Tom Cora, back in the early '90s when they first came out. At the time, The Ex were near the top of the pile for moi. The '90s dragged on, they slipped down the ladder of priorities and next thing you knew I traded the fucking things in. That was a mistake. I re-bought these again a little while back and, nostalgia trips aside, they hold up as some of the finer, if not finest, recordings of the day. I wrote a spiel on The Ex earlier in the year after giving the band a spin for the first time in, well, what must've been almost a decade, and my reaction was decidedly non-plussed. Mr. John Righter set me straight pronto, and I've made it my mission ever since to wrap my ears around everything of theirs I can find. That ain't so easy, since much of it is near impossible to find (barring their recent albums on Touch & Go), but the stuff I've aquired has set the record straight: The Ex are, were, and likely will be for some time, a band to be reckoned with. The discs w/ Cora - that's the NY avant-garde cello player, by the way (y' know... part of the "downtown" set) - are some of their more sparse recordings, and thus their strongest. The songs have room to breathe, the melodies come to the fore, the exotic percussion rattles and chimes and the political polemic is kept to a minimum. The Ex are their own genre now. There's elements of The Fall and Sonic Youth in their music, if you wanna call the obvious shots, but in this case, The Ex stole some from the former and have been often shamelessly ripped off by the latter. Scrabbling At The Lock, And The Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders: 5/5 for each, they'd make a believer out of the greatest of cynic, myself included.
We Jam Econo, the film documenting the story of The Greatest Band There Ever Was, the Minutemen, has been doing the rounds in the film festival circuits of Europe and the US, and I've been lucky enough to land myself a copy of it on DVD, c/o the producer, Keith Schieron (don't ask me how... long story, but thanks, Keith). Other folks have given this the praise it deserves; I'll add little to the argument. Suffice to say, I didn't budge from the couch for 90 minutes, and my wife has become so fucking sick of me playing the thing she noted the other night - after another viewing - that she feels like she's now stuck in Minutemenland. The makers of this fine pic should take that as a grand compliment: it brings you right into their world. Amongst the myriad footage of the group - and I had no idea they were ever documented this much in their lifetime (why didn't more people bring video cameras along to 'Flag gigs?!) - you also get every underground celeb you can name joining the chorus of approval and waving the flag for the band. It's a hoot seeing the talking heads of folks I've only imagined for too long: Byron Coley (in a room cluttered w/ books; Thurston is buried in a sea of vinyl... you get the picture), Richard Meltzer (who kinda sounds like he just took some heavy sedatives, or perhaps that's just the way he talks), some Slovenly folks, some Saccharine Trust folks, Dez Cadena, Joe Carducci, etc. There's also a heavy serving from the likes of Hank Rollins and Ian MacKaye, not to mention Jello Biafra (never knew he was a fan) and even Flea, for fuck's sake, though no-one trips up with a stupid comment or idiotic statement of enthusiasm (including Flea, who comes across well, like his music or not). I was surprised by the lack of a Mould or Kirkwood in the picture, though the real DVD, when it comes out, promises a wealth of extra footage, so maybe there'll be more to chew on there. One ommision: no mention of the gruelling tours they embarked on, surely a central crux of the legendary work ethic of all the SST bands of the day. Never mind, watching Boon hop around on stage like a 150kg jumping bean to "Corona" is enough to keep me happy for months on end. Worth all the hype and then some.
Don Cherry is a name which has floated around my head like a myth for a good dozen years. Ornette Coleman sidekick, collaborator with Coltrane, maker of some fine discs in the late '60s/early '70s... I filed it away until mid 2005. Now the can of worms is open. It took my exposure to the incredible trio of discs he recorded from 1978-'81 on the ECM label under the trio named Codona to spark the flame of purchases. Codona? That's Cherry, Colin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos. With a wealth of instruments from every corner of the globe, their three platters - that's 1, 2 and 3 - are a glorious blend of exotic, Fourth World sounds (think prime-era Jon Hassell, Eno's On Land and Pharoah Sanders' early '70s Impulse offerings) and Cherry's tempered, muted trumpet howls bringing the focus back to earth. It's not jazz, it ain't "world music", and I promise not to use the term "Fourth World" ever again, if I can help it. If, like me, your musical pallate likes to indulge in Indian ragas, gamelan, sufi chants and African tribal rhythms, and you're not scared for those sounds to mix it with "jazz", of the loosest form, then the three Codona albums will start a party in your neck of the woods. Scorching.
But really, maybe you should start with Cherry's Orient double LP from 1971, which sees him teaming up w/ Euro avant-jazz stalwart percussionist Han Bennink (he's done time w/ The Ex, too, by the way) and indulging in a form of "exotic" "jazz" of a far more free-form nature. With his mind set on bringing the worlds of traditional Oriental music and improvised jazz together, you'd be forgiven for thinking Cherry's records from this period are a "bit of everything for everyone" fusionoid mess. That is, of course, until you hear them. With a bevy of worldly instruments on hand and a penchant for eccentric vocalese and chants, Cherry created a bong-hit late-night masterpiece of stoned, barely together trumpet blowouts, low-register throat drones and percussion-based, near Amon Duul-like jams. You'll hit the fucking roof! One of my fave discoveries of 2005.
If you wanna go even further out, try his Blue Lake double LP from the same period, a glorious, sprawling mess which sounds like the template for the last 15 years of Sun City Girls recordings (I ain't drawing a long bow there; play this side to side and check the comparisons), and if you wish to go for a tighter, slicker, but no less monumentous sound, dig your heels into 1975's Brown Rice: the best Can or Miles Davis disc not made by either artist. There's a wealth of Cherry discs from the same period hailed by folks I can trust which are said to equal or better the above-mentioned albums, and before I leave this mortal coil, I will have heard them. Every goddamn one of them!
I've just finished reading Bret Easton Ellis' latest book, Lunar Park. You think I'm an asshole for even mentioning the guy? That's an understandable response. Ellis is, after all, a flaming asshole of the nth degree. However, much to his credit, he's only too willling to describe, in glorious detail, what a complete and total a-hole he is. Given that, I can't recommend Lunar Park highly enough. My exposure to Ellis has been minimal. I, like you and all your friends, read American Psycho when it came out. It left no great impression except one of nausea and a sense of relief that the '80s were finally buried. Skip to 2005 and Ellis has penned a book which is one fucking weird blend of autobiography (though I suspect much of this is in fact complete fiction), paranoid family drama (as Ellis attempts to settle down, live a normal life and be a father to his kids... in between banging his students and snorting half of Peru up his nose) and supernatural horror novel. Things start getting real strange halfway through, and when the "supernatural" element comes in, you may be wondering where the hell Ellis is taking the storyline, but as things get stranger, and you realise that Ellis is dragging you into a world of horseshit as a grand metaphor or simply to fuck with your head, the ghosts and mythical creatures sit far more comfortably in your mind. As you can tell by the above paragraph, I am certainly no literary critic, but like Montgomery Burns once said, "I know what I hate, and I don't hate this". I did not hate Lunar Park. I read it with an enthusiasm I usually reserve only for punk-rock history books, and since it's a contemporary piece of fiction, which is something I just about never read, I couldn't think of a higher compliment. Bret Easton Ellis: an A-grade asshole with a mountain of talent I will no longer deny.
I will get off my ass and contribute to this non-entity known as a blog more often. Í'm making that as a promise to myself, if no-one else. When I get a minute, I'll be putting finger to keyboard on such topics as Washington Phillips, the spate of Roky Erickson reissues on Rykodisc, Mary Lou Williams, Led Zeppelin(!!) and the brand, spanking new issue of Ugly Things. Really.