Friday, March 13, 2015

FUSION HECK: MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA




There's plenty of footage of Mahavishnu Orchestra in their prime on Youtube, but I thought I'd share this one because I dig the rawness of both the footage and the performance itself. Jazz-fusion, much like prog-rock, has become a four-letter word in the post-punk universe, and perhaps for very good reason, but one should also take into account that both terms denote a rather broad frame of sound, and both, at least in this writer's opinion, started off as great ideas (with some exciting original practitioners) which ran amok - and down the musical toilet - within a couple of years due to the self-indulgence of many involved. More or less, there are similar stories regarding '50s rock & roll, R & B, psychedelia, prog, glam, punk rock, hardcore, post-rock, etc.: the great works of the early pioneers, the decline of said pioneers, the imitators and the dross which followed. The point: there is gold to be had in the pioneering early days of jazz-fusion.

I have spoken of the electric works of Miles Davis in this blog many times (his albums from 1969 - 1975 remains possibly my favourite catalogue of music ever released), and, despite my descriptive terms for these recordings handily avoiding the 'F' word (psychedelic astro-funk, acid/voodoo-funk, et al), they remain a collision between the worlds of jazz and rock: FUSION. And there is also the great early works of Tony Williams' Lifetime to consider - and once you've finished considering, you should give them a listen: 1969's Emergency! and 1970's Turn It Over are brain-bending clumps of organic, free-form sound (augmented with handy work from Larry Young, John McLaughlin and Jack Bruce) which fit in perfectly w/ the better soundscapes of their era (think Ornette/Beefheart/Soft Machine). And of course there's John McLaughlin's first two ensemble recordings under his own name, also from 1969 and '70: Extrapolation and Devotion, both molten slabs of high-energy guitar-driven mania. Fusion.

Herbie Hancock did a series of highly listenable hard-bop discs on Blue Note in the '60s before spending time in Miles' Quintet and then releasing a trio of terrific, abstract fusion discs in the early '70s: Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant (that's '70 - '73). The last platter to matter there is particularly the one to get: Sextant is a mass of outer-space gonzo psych-tinged avant-funk on a par w/ Miles' On The Corner. After that Hancock made it big w/ Headhunters and a series of jazz-funk albums which went off the musical rails for me, but whatever musical pitfalls followed, those discs are worth the time. You could also throw in Weather Report's second LP, I Sing The Body Electric, from 1972, in there, too. Their self-titled debut from the year previous is a fairly limp snoozefest, although the follow-up is a suprisingly intense fare w/ some distinctly angular avant-jazz/rock moves which stands in distinct contrast to the dull, noodling chopsfest they would soon devolve into. There are, of course, many other examples to divulge, but I guess the point has been made. As with just about any codified genre (barring hard trance: I haven't found anything there I could yet tolerate in this lifetime), 'fusion' has its gold. It was a good idea which simply went sour quickly. Let's finally cut to the chase and discuss McLaughlin's post-Lifetime ensemble, Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Mahavishnu hit it big w/ the college/'head' scene in the early '70s, and w/ Columbia's backing became a mainstay on the more progressive FM stations across the globe (they even made a dent in hillbilly Australia at the time, influencing the likes of Melbourne's MacKenzie Theory, whose 1973 debut longplayer, Out Of The Blue, is an essential slab of antipodean jazz/prog weirdness) - but really, the first two albums, 1971's The Inner Mounting Flame and '73's Birds Of Fire, are the only two you need. After that, the group's ouvre became lighter and less interesting and, by mid-decade, as dull as many of their fusion contemporaries. However, those first two offerings present the listener with - as I'm prone to utter to disbelievers - some HVY FKN JMZ. Sure, the presence of the likes of Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer (both names which would soon be uttered in fusion purgatory) meant there was musical flash galore, but the energy and intensity of the music being made meant the result added up to more than a day out at a drum clinic. It was a genuine fusion of rock instrumentation combined w/ the looseness of jazz arrangements and the exploratory nature of psychedelic rock. And need I mention that these discs remain Ground Zero for any admirer of the estimable guitar talents of Greg Ginn and Joe Baiza? Of course not. Do it.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

RY COODER


Much to the horror of some of my contemporaries who witnessed The Great Ry Cooder Tangent of 2014, my love for his work remains undiminished. Of course, there is the theory that one starts 'getting into' the likes of Ry Cooder once a certain middle-aged banality takes hold and one starts wearing earth-coloured hiking outfits and/or yoga pants and attending 'roots' festivals. Au contraire, you young bucks: Ry Cooder's finest work - and it ebbs and flows over 4+ decades - is fine work indeed, and anyone interested in great music of many a stripe are missing out if your nose is turned up at his great body of work.

Cooder, of course, was a child prodigy who, as a 19-year-old, played on Captain Beefheart's debut longplayer, Safe As Milk, having already spent time w/ Taj Mahal in The Rising Sons. He then went onto a lifetime of session work w/ the good (lots of the good), the bad and the ugly (yes, a few of those, too), soundtracks (Southern Comfort being my fave: both as a soundtrack and film), million-selling production work on the likes of the Buena Vista Social Club, an excellent collaboration w/ Malian great, Ali Farka Toure and a lot more besides. But really, let's keep this brief...

The first Cooder LP which turned my head, surprisingly, was a more recent recording: 2012's Election Special, given to me by a friend from the label. Highly political and left of the dial, this was Cooder's ode to the US election of that year, and it's a terrific collection of mainly raw & short roots/blues songs and ballads, reconfigured a la Tom Waits but played simply and to the point (try here and here) which took me by surprise, turning into one of my fave discs of that year. In turn and in time, I went backwards and explored his best '70s recordings - discs I would see vinyl copies clogging up secondhand bins en masse in the 1990s for a ha'penny a shot, but ones which are now, thanks to the fucking 'vinyl revolution', often going for more than I can be arsed doling out for.

Anyway, I have them now, and in the unfashionable compact disc format, since such future landfill can be purchased at but a ha'penny a piece: Ry Cooder, Into The Purple Valley, Boomer's Story, Paradise & Lunch, Chicken Skin Music and Jazz. These are the goods. There are many reinterpretations of standard tunes - from Blind Willie Johnson to Woody Guthrie, Joseph Spence, Sleepy John Estes and Skip James - to covers of more recent songwriters (at the time), such as Randy Newman and Dan Penn's 'The Dark End Of The Street' (one of my favourites tunes ever); and 1978's Jazz is Cooder's tribute to/history of JAZZ as a music, covering the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Bex Beiderbecke. And a white guy pulls this all off with aplomb. Cooder is a master slidesman - such an observations seems trite - but his approach to the material, particularly on this great run of discs, is inspired.

I have been delving into, for the lack of a better term, Great American Music, the past 12+ months - and that's encompassed the likes of The Band (covered here in this blog before), Little Feat (first 2 - 3 LPs make perfect sense now), and even Los Lobos (a belated appreciation; some of those SST gents liked 'em a lot, and the one to get is 1992 'experimental' album, Kiko), but Cooder's '70s output is at the top of the pile. The self-titled debut from 1970, 1972's Boomer's Story and the aformentioned Jazz get my Hit Picks. If you've ever flipped a wig over the Meat Puppets' II - and if you haven't, you're reading the wrong blog - then particularly the former two remain essential purchases. They are desert-fried meisterwerks which deserve a home on your shelf.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

MAGAZINE




I have never once bandied around the name MAGAZINE with any kind of enthusiasm in the decade-plus existence of this blog - a blog, fer chrissakes, how antiquated is that? - and there's no time like now. My brother has owned an LP edition of the band's 1978 debut, Real Life, since the early '90s. Back in the day - the early '90s, that is - I would occasionally borrow it to spin, mainly because I wanted to hear 'The Light Pours Out Of Me' (ably covered by Trotsky Icepick on their El Kabong LP, of course) and 'Shot By Both Sides' - both bona fide post-punque classiques. But the rest of the album never made much of an impact on me. Compared to the likes of The Pop Group or PiL's more righteous moments (or indeed the great works of the Buzzcocks), it all sounded a little tres boringue to my short/fast/loud ears. Now that I've entered middle age and am willing to give just about anything a shot, Real Life has become a fixture. This reignition of interest was borne from a mere Facebook sharing c/o a friend of the above track: a blindingly good slab of angular punkified rock, one which Mr. Howard Devoto would probably take great pains in explaining it not to be 'punk rock' (and not to split hairs, but it really isn't.



 Magazine are/were an odd entity: Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks - one of the finest Brit '77 punker outfits, w/ or w/out Devoto at the helm - just when they were about to break big, claiming that 'punk' had become a bogus entity and wanted nothing to do w/ it. Given the tabloid nature of the yoof movement in Ol' Blighty by that point, he may have been right. A gutsy move which showed such integrity it bordered on career suicide. He held such sway as a burgeoning cult figure that Virgin Records pretty much signed his new outfit w/out having heard a note of their music (they were certainly signed prior to their first live show). Eschewing the visceral snarl of his contemporaries, Magazine were a very deliberate and even mannered take on 'art-rock', but one with enough rock energy under its individual players' belts to not wind up a snoozefest.

Firstly, there's guitarist John McGeogh (since deceased), who later spent time w/ Siouxsie & The Banshees (on their best discs) and PiL (on some of their worst, but don't blame him for that) - one of Limey post-punk's finest string-hitters; bass player, Barry Adamson, who later made a name for himself w/ the Bad Seeds and as a solo artist, whose nimble fingers really do add to the rhythms in Magazine's tuneage; and skinsman, Martin Jackson, a flashy player with more mounted toms than the average '77 punker (almost bordering on 'flash'), but one whose dexterity really added to their sound.



The 'sound' of '70s Magazine is one w/ obvious roots: early '70s Eno, specifically Here Come The Warm Jets/Taking Tiger Mountain (Devoto looked a whole lot like his hero, too) and the Berlin recordings of Mr. Bowie (primarily Low). In lesser hands, such allegiances to that kind of musical foppery (foppery I do indeed like a lot) might result in a decidely non-rocking affair not worth my time or yours, but 'rock' they did. Much like Wire's 2nd and 3rd LPs - which Magazine resemble in no small part - Real Life (and its follow-up, 1979's Secondhand Daylight: also well worth your time) show a sense of 'composition' and musicianship which appear above their station, but the musical sophistication never becomes a bore, the dynamic rhythms and textures of the songs, combined with the inherit energy of the material, making for a thrilling listen. Devoto is one odd duck, but he made some of the most exciting English music of the era. Solid.