Saturday, July 09, 2011

The presence of this Ran Blake CD in my midst, released by the New York-based label Tompkins Square in 2009, recently had me madly scurrying for information on the guy. After all, how could a jazz veteran with 50 years of recordings behind him, including a 1966 LP on ESP-Disk' and collaborations w/ Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, have totally escaped my radar, even if it's only just name-recognition, until now? Obviously such a feat is easy and I should stop over-estimating myself. Born and bred in Boston, and ensconsed in the world of music academia for the past 40 years, he's released more than three-dozen albums since 1962, yet his name is almost entirely unknown. A pianist, and one who prefers to play either solo or in trios, his music is a blend of form and composition and heady improvisations. At times he can sound like a young Bill Evans or even the cinematic, ambient tones of Harold Budd, and at others he abruptly bangs the ivories like Cecil Taylor. Stylistically, I'd put him in the same basket as Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton and Andrew Hill, three players whose sounds have always bordered the worlds of jazz tradition and the avant-garde. Driftwoods sees him covering some familiar standards from an eclectic listing of songs and performers: Billie Holiday ("Strange Fruit"), Mingus, George & Ira Gershwin ("I Loves You, Porgy"), Mahalia Jackson and Hank Williams. The version of "Lonesome Highway", completely reworked into a stunning and sparse piano rendition, is what first turned my ears towards the man known as Ran Blake. I can't speak for his other recordings, but sooner or later you know I will.

I reviewed David Sylvian's Manafon CD from 2009 here early last year. I think I explained myself adequately. Prior to my recent conversion, I had the man pegged as a standard-bearer for what I considered to be the canon of Boring English Music. Mincing avant-garde nonsense from a former New Waver only of interest to those who thought The Wire magazine to be the gospel of truth. Again, I was wrong. His recent output is so much more than that, and for me Manafon remains a musical highlight of the last couple of years, a near reworking of sound as we know it, one which is so sparse and at first so alienating to the listener - it borders on a capella - that most people on planet earth would find it remarkable that anyone would want to listen to it once, let alone repeatedly. At first, I was one such listener (I'm repeating myself: read that original review I linked to). Died In The Wool, again released on Sylvian's Samadhi Sound label) reworks 5 songs from Manafon, as well as adding 6 new tracks and a bonus disc of material (actually, it's one 20-minute track by Sylvian's sidekick here, Dai Fujikura). The "reworkings" are, what sounds to me, the original vocal tracks by Sylvian augmented by slightly more instrumentation: a string quartet, electronics and clarinet to accompany Sylvian's pithy musings. This works quite seamlessly when put together w/ the new material, and if you're not of the opinion that Sylvian is pretentious enough for you, there's also two Emily Dickinson poems read by the man, again w/ sparse instrumental accompaniment by Fujikura and co. That might do the trick. I'm not criticising Sylvian by any means; for me, he's on the right musical path. This is fringe music which is way out on the margins, one which bears little resemblance to many from years past (both Eno's ambient works from the '70s and Scott Walker ca. Tilt are the only two I can think of), and one which has few contemporaries. For myself, Manafon remains his definitive statement and to make it slightly more palatable via these reworkings possibly negates what made it so brilliant in the first place, but I can't fault him for his efforts. If Manafon made you want to climb the walls in frustration, then Died In The Wool might do half the job. Totally swish mini-box/digipak/fold-out packaging, too, for those still interested in objects one can hold.

This CD, Groovy by Charles Brown, has been one of my most heavily rotated in the past 12 months. Released via Rev-Ola Bandstand (a subsidiary of the great UK Rev-Ola label dedicated to reissuing old jump-blues, R & B and rockabilly), it puts together 30 tracks ca. 1945 - 1956 of Charles Brown tracks, both solo and w/ Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, the three-piece cool-blues outfit he sang w/ but split from in 1947 to go solo. He scored big hits at the time w/ "Drifting Blues" and "Merry Christmas Baby" - both tracks you may know - though they're not included here; instead this comp' details his lesser known but more rockin' material. Johnny Moore's Three Blazers based their entire schtick on the Nat King Cole Trio. Prior to his pop fame and conversion to the white market, Nat King Cole was all the rage in the LA blues clubs w/ his own brand of sophisticated, bar-room/cocktail-styled cool blues which would prove to be of great influence on subsequent performers of note (not just Brown, but Percy Mayfield, Amos Milburn and especially Ray Charles). Brown took the piano/bass/guitar/vocals set-up of Cole and defined it better than his mentor (not to knock NKC: his early trio stuff is great), but he also cut a whole bunch of killer cuts on labels such as Aladdin and Modern which demonstrated his proto-rock & roll chops. His approach was way more mannered than the lewd 'n' crude stylings of, say, Wynonie Harris - man whose mighty wail and filthy, entendre-laden lyrics virtually defined rock & roll as we know it - and his lyrical concerns more, shall we say, sensitive to the needs of the ladies than Wynonie's bang-'em-and-brag methods, but it doesn't make it any the lesser. Like I said: this is sophisticated. Perhaps you could argue that if there's one thing on this earth that R & B/rock & roll should never be is sophisticated, but Charles Brown punctures that argument. He was one handsome fuck and was one of the few who survived the white rock boom of the '50s w/ a second career in the blues clubs of the '60s and '70s, apparently still making great albums well into the '80s (according to Nick Tosches, at least) before passing away in 1999. Something about the music he created stirs my head and loins, combining the right levels of abandon and restraint in the idiom he was working in - post-war big-city blues - and this comp', which gets wilder as it progresses, is one of the best on the market.

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