Saturday, July 10, 2010

Let's see if I can knock out 5 quick reviews of platters that matter in the Lang household of late...

SHELLY MANNE AND HIS MEN - Complete Live At The Blackhawk 4CD (American Jazz Classics/2010)
The phenomenon known as "West Coast Jazz", or at least the allure thereof, had, until roughly 6 months ago, always escaped me. It struck me as too white, uptight and square. If there was one collection of tunes which I can lay to blame for converting me to its wares, it's this set. And as for being "square", let's not forget that half of these LA habituates (especially Chet Baker and Art Pepper) were raging drug fiends, hell raisers and skirt chasers in their personal lives, but also that certain key elements of said scene also provided a bridging gap between the trad jazz of yore and the avant/free jazz explosion of the mid-to-late 1950s. Certainly some of Jimmy Guiffre's output pointed in that direction, and drummer Shelly Manne dabbled in all manner of music, from the "out" jazz of Ornette Coleman to cheesy Hollywood soundtracks (done for the benefits of a regular paycheck) to session work w/ Tom Waits in the early '70s. This 4CD set combines all four volumes of live recordings from 1959 recorded at the Nighthawk which were originally issued as separate LPs. If your jazz diet requires that your head be blown through the roof which sheer energy with each and every listen, then this won't float your boat. But if proof be made that five white man can swing 'n' honk in a composed-yet-loose setting, and in such a manner which doesn't tear your head off nor send it to sleep, then the evidence is here. I'm now converted to the possibilities of white-man LA jazz from the '50s, and also managed to make it nearly to the end of this review w/out even mentioning Ossie Cadena's name!

KRYSZTOF PENDERECKI - Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima CD (EMI/1994)
I was surprised to just learn that this CD remains in print. Given the easy-come-easy-go nature of Best Ofs in the classical world, I figured this would've been superceded by some newly-packaged cheapie covering pretty much the same ground. But I guess it stands as a testament to its greatness that it remains in print over 15 years later. In short, if you're going to buy only one Krysztof Penderecki CD in this lifetime, this one's a pretty good choice. Polish composer Penderecki made a big splash in 1961 w/ his piece, "Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima", so much so that UNESCO officially selected it as one of the finest works of that year. The piece itself is a doom-laden, crushing piece of music, cacophonous and dense with sheets of percussion and screeching strings, yet utterly compelling and listenable. It comprises the centrepiece of this CD, though the rest is equally as strong. '60s "heads" such as Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley (and likely many more: they were simply the most vocal in their Penderecki fandom) were big admirers of the man's work, and certainly Buckley's decidedly avant-garde Starsailor LP from 1970 shows such an influence. Other pieces on the CD fill out what is essentially a "Best Of" compilation, w/ several tracks used by Stanley Kubrick (including "Threnody...") to excellent effect in The Shining: a suitable choice, given the frightening and cinematic nature of the music. I used to be a major sucker back in the mid- to late-'90s for all this "modern composer" scene - Gyorgi Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Karkleinz Stockhausen, etc. - though I've given it little notice in the 21st century. The first listen to this in a decade has demonstrated to me that it's a keeper.

MILES DAVIS - Big Fun 2CD (Sony Japan/1995)
Much like the recordings of the Stooges and the Minutemen, the music of Miles Davis is so permanently imbedded in my psych - a process which slowly but surely occured due to many repeat listenings throughout the late 20th century - that I would likely rate him as my favourite musician of all time, yet I just about never listen to his music these days, or indeed for the last decade. Since just about every note he played, particularly throughout the years 1969-'75, is scorched into my brain, there appears to be little need to actually listen to his music anymore. I'm sure you know the feeling. That said, it's not like I never listen to his music these days: the annual revisit of a few old faves still does the trick, and then it's filed away again. Big Fun was originally released in 1974, the same year as my fave Miles set, Get Up With It, and as w/ GUWI, it's a collection of studio outtakes culled over various years, cut and spliced by producer Teo Macero. The material is from 1969-'72, some of it featuring the line-up from Bitches Brew. The album itself is comprised of four side-long tracks, and it's the two which make up the first disc which kill it for me (I mean that in a good way). "Great Expectations" is a 28-minute shuffle with a ghostly horn over the top and electric sitar giving it a decidedly psychedelic touch. The closest approximation I could make would be Can ca. Future Days: a drifting, ethno-psych epic which never gets "heavy", but simply floats along for nearly half an hour. Perhaps even better is the second number, "Ife", which shares a similar instrumentation and approach, but is provided with a Jaki Leibeziet-style metronomic-funk drum rhythm to coax it along. Again, if anything it once again resembles Can more than anyone I can think, though it's more along the lines of Tago Mago's "Halleluhwah": a beat which sounds like it'll never quit. These same recording sessions also bore fruit with the Bitches Brew and On The Corner sets, so that'll give you a good idea of its breadth: a clash of the former's musical loosesness and the tight, claustrophobic funk of the latter. Essential (and my second-fave Miles album of them all), but you already knew that.

DAVID SYLVIAN - Manafon CD (Samadhi Sound/2009)
This one's a surprise, perhaps most of all to me. Prior to my conversion via this very album, I had always pegged David Sylvian as being an artist who squarely and firmly fell under the banner I like to call Boring English Music: deathly-dull Limey musicians whom the critics love, but also ones whom I cannot for the life of me see what the fuss is all about. Those latter-day Talk Talk albums also fall under that banner. But then there is my day-to-day work to consider. Part of that involves me listening to lots of different new releases to assess what can be done to sell them (well, that's a dumbed-down explanation, though the real answer is way too boring to go into here). One such release, some six months ago, was David Sylvian's 2009 album, Manafon, released on his own Samadhi Sound imprint, a label also responsible for some pretty cool discs by Harold Budd and Derek Bailey. I'd heard of, and was well aware of, his career trajectory over the last 30 years: from misfit 'Dollsy glam-rocker in late '70s punk England w/ Japan, to Japan's eventual transformation into a mincing, art-damaged New Romantic approximation of early Roxy Music, right on through to his eclectic solo career, one which in recent years has seen him collaborating w/ some big-league avant heavyweights: Derek Bailey, AMM's Keith Rowe, Evan Parker, Japanese turntablist Otomo Yoshihide and Austrian electronic wunderkind, Christian Fennesz. It struck me as a vaguely interesting story - one which paralleled Scott Walker's in its deliberate retreat from the mainstream into a near-career-destroying journey into musical esoterica. But that didn't mean I wanted to hear his music; for me, my reaction was based on an open hostility and prejudice borne from the fact that 99% of UK music made after 1982 - be it "underground" or mainstream - is of zilch interest to me. My first listen to Manafon had me convinced it was perhaps the worst, most unlistenable album I had ever heard. It consisted of Sylvian moaning in a Bryan Ferryesque baritone over a minimal - and I mean minimal - backing consisting of Fennesz's electronic bips, Bailey and Rowe's abstract guitar plucks, Evan Parker's sax wails and whatever it is that Yoshihide does on this album. The accompanying music was so minimal, so light in its touch, that I announced it as at least the worst near-a capella album I'd ever heard. And like a masochist, I listened to it again the next day. Nope, it's still terrible. And yet I listened to it a few more times over the subsequent weeks, because something kept drawing me to it. I concluded it was at least "interesting" and left it at that. And then roughly two months ago I gave it another listen. It had surpassed the point of being merely "interesting" and had started to tip over into the "good" side of things. I'm now, at this stage, convinced it to be a unique mini-masterpiece of a record. For most people it'll be impossible to listen to - almost a form of audio torture - but like other truly "difficult" albums by renowned artists (I'm thinking Scott Walker's Tilt, Neil Young's Ark, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music or even Bad Religion's Into The Unknown [that last one was a joke]), it presents the listener w/ something so personal, so stark, so unique and something which someone absolutely has to be in the right frame of mind to listen to, that I can not only admire it, but, unlike the other examples just mentioned, I can also listen to it for pure musical enjoyment. More and more, the presence of songs start to shine through what at first sounds like an impenetrable wall of silence. I can't speak for the rest of Sylvian's discography, but six months later, I can now attest that Manafon is quite brilliant in its own way.

IVO PERELMAN - Brazilian Watercolour CD (Leo/1999)
The Brazilian saxophonist known by the name of Ivo Perelman probably doesn't register the same bells of recognition as the likes of William Parker or David S. Ware when it comes to contemporary avant-jazz, and more's the pity, as this 1999 effort shows him to be a player who, whilst perhaps not capable of the blasting, expressive tones of Ware, is at least up there w/ the better post-Coltrane tenor players still active today. In fact, Perelman has been very active since the tail-end of the 1980s. His discography is large, varied, released on about a dozen different labels and I remain unfortunately ignorant of it all except this blast of a CD. The line-up is the biz: Matthew Shipp on piano, the great Rashied Ali on drums, and John Zorn sideman Cyro Baptista and the unknown-to-me Guilherme Franco on wood flutes and assorted percussive instruments. What makes this work, obviously, is the slightly exotic nature of the instrumentation. Franco and Baptista don't play on every track, but the ones they do stand out strongly, filling out a basic free-jazz trio sound - mind you, that's a hell of a trio - w/ something outside of the ordinary. Not that this hits the heights of Don Cherry/Pharoah Sanders exotica ca. 40 years ago, though it remains a nice item to pull out for a spin when all other jazz options appear exhausted.


Xmorula said...

What's difficult about Metal Machine Music? Anyway it's Otomo Yoshihide not Yoshide...

Dave said...

Yoshihide's name has been duly noted, but as for the question you pose... sheesh! I don't think I need to answer that one!