November 27, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Ronnie Boykins: The Will Come, Is Now (ESP-Disk’ CD)

Ronnie Boykins was one of the first members of Sun Ra’s fledgling Arkestra, joining the band in early 1958 and his innovative yet rock-solid bass playing was a key element in the music’s rapid development up through the mid-1960s (it was also Boykins’s car that carried the band from Chicago to Montreal in 1961 and, thence, to New York City). Boykins had been classmates with John Gilmore and Pat Patrick at Du Sable High School (where he played sousaphone in the band) but he had already established himself as an in-demand bassist prior to joining the Arkestra, having played with such diverse figures as Muddy Waters, Johnny Griffin and Jimmy Witherspoon. In 1966, Boykins left the Arkestra to pursue other opportunities, (notably including work with Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and, as we’ve seen, Sonny had a hard time finding his replacement, opting on many occasions for doing without the bass altogether. Boykins intermittently performed with Arkestra thereafter with his last known appearance being at Hunter College on June 16, 1974 (portions of which were released as Out Beyond The Kingdom Of ). While Prof. Campbell suggests he might been a part of the two-week stand at The “New” Five Spot in June, 1975, he is not present on the bootleg tape which circulates (Campbell & Trent p.220). According to Szwed, growing animosity between Boykins and Ra over money and lack of composer credit for some of the Arkestra’s recordings caused him to quit the band for good sometime during this period (Szwed p.119).

But ESP-Disk’s Bernard Stollman recognized Boykins’s genius early on:

I first met Sun Ra during the October Revolution festival in the Cellar Café (in 1964), and he invited me to hear the Arkestra perform in a loft in Newark, New Jersey. It was there that I singled out Ronnie Boykins, and invited him to record for ESP. He told me he would let me know when he felt he was ready. During the decade that followed, I heard his work in the Arkestra, and late night sessions with Sam Rivers in Studio Rivbea on Bond Street, and in Ornette Coleman’s Prince Street loft. Ronnie called me in 1975, to announce he was ready to record his first album as a leader (liner notes).

As it turned out, Boykins waited too long and The Will Come, Is Now is the only record Boykins ever made under his own name—he died suddenly of heart attack in 1980 at the age of 45. And ESP-Disk’ was in serious decline by 1975, this being one of the last few recordings the label released before finally going under. Accordingly, it was cheaply made, pressed in miniscule quantities and poorly distributed, resulting in one of the rarest ESP discs of all. Fortunately, the resurrection of the label at the turn of the century has brought nearly the entire catalog back in print on CD, including Boykins’s one and only solo album, nicely remastered from the original tapes. Although neither Sonny nor any of the Arkestra appear on it, Boykins’s importance to the Sun Ra saga is undisputed and, therefore, The Will Come, Is Now merits a mention here.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I found this album to be something of a disappointment. It certainly looks promising: Boykins composed six ambitious pieces for the album, featuring a septet of himself on bass and sousaphone; Joe Ferguson, Monty Waters and James Cass on saxophones and flutes; Daoud Haroom on trombone; Art Lewis on drums; and George Avaloz on congas. And, to be sure, each of the pieces showcases Boykins’s unique compositional voice and his flair for rich orchestration but the album suffers from a basic lack of rehearsal and slip-shod recording technique. The title track is typical: a loping ostinato in 7/4 with a twisty, complex head arrangement followed by a series of modal solos—but the sound is boxy and indistinct and the off-center groove never quite solidifies, almost dissolving completely during Boykins’s bowed bass solo. “Starlight At The Wonder Inn” appears to be an evocation of the early days in Chicago: a slightly old-fashioned ballad form with sweet ‘n’ sour horns and Boykins carrying the melody on arco bass—but, this time, intonation problems undermine the piece’s nostalgic beauty.

On the other hand, the three-minute “Demon’s Dance” works a bit better, a riffing post-bop number with everyone soloing at once, Dixieland-style. Even more intriguing is “Dawn Is Evening, Afternoon,” which sets yearning, unresolved harmonies and dissonant counter-melodies against a swinging solo section. The humorously titled, “Tipping On Heels,” is an appropriately tipsy, stop-start, big-band type number where, after stating the theme, soloists pair up for duo improvisations. At least here the ensemble sounds like they’re in their element but the abrupt ending appears to be a clumsy splice rather than a planned conclusion. The last track, “The Third I” could have been a real masterpiece: it begins with a ritualized percussion segment with everyone clanking on cowbells, shaking rattles and jangling tambourines before Boykins starts rumbling away on the giant sousaphone. Unfortunately, the blast of low frequencies caused the recordist to panic (Marzette Watts as it happens), resulting in disconcerting volume fluctuations throughout the rest of the track. Oh well. This eventually gives way to a genially meandering jam for flutes and horns which finally coalesces into a 15/8 ostinato laid down by Boykins on the bass. Finally, at around the ten-minute mark, the full band comes in with stabbing horn tattoos and a weirdly harmonized melody—exciting!—but then the track fades out just as they get going. Argh! Obviously, this piece continued for quite a while longer but was cut down to save space for other works on the album. That is really frustrating since "The Third I" might be the most compelling thing on the album. And so it goes…

Ultimately, The Will Come, Is Now is all unrealized potential and it is tempting to fantasize about what the Arkestra could have brought to this material, even with limited rehearsal time and amateurish sound quality (which was, after all, the norm for them). It is also reasonable to speculate on what sort of music Sonny would have made with Boykins continuously at his side. Well, for whatever reason, it was not meant to be and, sadly, Boykins has never achieved the acclaim he deserves. Even though he played with several luminaries of the loft-jazz scene in the 1970s, very little of it was recorded, leaving this as his only solo statement. As such, The Will Come, Is Now is an important document of Boykins’s wide-ranging musical conception and inimitable instrumental prowess. But it is less than completely satisfying on a musical level, if only because it could have been so much better. Then again, my expectations might be too high.

November 26, 2011

Playlist Week of 11-26-11

Rolling Stones - Some Girls Live in Texas '78

* Purcell: Fantasias For The Viols 1680 (Savall, et al.) (Alia Vox SACD)
* J.S. Bach: The Works for Lute (Kirchhof) (Sony Classical 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, etc. (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Carter: Piano Concerto, etc. (Nashville Symphony/Schermerhorn/Wait) (Naxos CD)
* Sun Ra: Live At Montreux (Inner City/Universe 2CD)
* Ronnie Boykins: The Will Come, Is Now (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Jazz Advance (Transition/Blue Note CD)
* David S. Ware String Ensemble: Threads (Thirsty Ear CD)
* John Abercrombie: Cat ’n’ Mouse (ECM CD)
* John Abercrombie: Class Trip (ECM CD)
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her (ECM CD)
* Gary Burton/Chick Corea/Pat Metheny/Roy Haynes/ Dave Holland: Like Minds (Concord CD)
* Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul/Aretha Now (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* William S. Burroughs: Dead City Radio (selections) (Island CD)
* The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. (Deluxe Edition) (Promotone/Universal 2CD)
* The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) (Promotone/Universal 2CD)
* The Rolling Stones: Some Girls Live In Texas ’78 (Promotone/Eagle Rock DVD+CD)
* The Rolling Stones: Some Girls Sessions (fan/boot 2CDR)
* Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Jeff Beck: Truth (mono) (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Beck-Ola (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Blow By Blow (Epic LP)
* Grateful Dead: Fairgrounds, Lille, France 5/13/72 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: La Grande Salle du Grand Theatre, Luxembourg 5/16/72 (GDP/Rhino 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Kongressaal, Munich, W. Germany 5/18/72 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Park West Ski Area, Park City, UT 9-04-83 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Jerry Garcia Band: After Midnight: Kean College 2/28/80 (JGE, LLC/Rhino 3CD)
* David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name… (Atlantic DVD-A)
* Jean-Luc Ponty: King Kong: Plays The Music of Frank Zappa (Blue Note/Friday Music LP)
* Frank Zappa & The Mothers: Fillmore East June 1971 (Bizarre/Reprise LP)
* Frank Zappa: Wazoo (Vaulter Native/ 2CD)
* Frank Zappa: Imaginary Diseases (Zappa Records CD)
* Yes: Yesshows – Expanded (Atlantic/Friday Music 2CD)
* Alan Parsons Project: I Robot (Arista LP)
* ELO: Greatest Hits (Columbia LP)
* The Doobie Brothers: Greatest Hits (Warner Bros. LP)
* Los Lobos: Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros. CD)†/‡
* U2: Achtung, Baby (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Island/Universal 2CD)†
* Anton Fier: Dreamspeed/Blindlight (Tzadik 2CD)†
* Guided By Voices: “We Won’t Apologize […]”/”The Unsinkable Fats Domino” (Matador 7”)
* Boston Spaceships: Let It Beard (GBV, Inc. 2LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: The Visitor (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise CD)(†)
* Mastodon: The Hunter (Reprise CD)(†)



I’m not the hugest Rolling Stones fan, but I do have a fondness for their 1978 album, Some Girls, which has recently received the “deluxe edition” treatment. Of course, I picked up a copy—even though I knew I was in for a let-down.

Some consider this the last great Stones album and it’s easy to agree. The rise of disco and punk was threatening to overturn the complacent hegemony of rockstars like the Rolling Stones and, snapping out of their usual torpor, they responded with their best record in years, one which managed to fuse the rhythms of dance music with the energy and guitar noise of punk while still sounding like the Stones of old. Personal turmoil added an unexpected edge to the songwriting: Keith Richards’s trial over the Canadian heroin bust was impending, resulting in the coy but recondite “Before They Make Me Run” and Bianca Jagger’s bitter divorce proceedings are reflected in positively venomous songs like “Lies” and “Respectable.” They sound like they really mean it and the album has aged well, unlike a lot of the “crossover” attempts that would follow. While the danceable numbers like “Miss You” and “Beast of Burden” were appropriately huge hits, the whole album is strong from start to finish, a rare thing indeed in the Stones discography.

Unfortunately, this re-re-mastering is abysmal: loud, brickwalled and ear-bleedingly bright. Ouch! That kind of approach might have brought some much-needed clarity to the murky Exile on Main St. (reissued in a “deluxe edition” last year) but it totally wrecks this otherwise decent-sounding album. Interestingly, the “bonus disc” of unreleased songs sounds much—much!—better. I have to ask: in this day and age, why couldn’t they have given the album proper that kind of treatment? Oh well; a wasted opportunity—and possibly the last one we’ll get. And, also like the Exile “bonus disc”, Sir Mick has overdubbed new vocals onto old backing tracks and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Fortunately, the unaltered “Petrol Blues” is here, sounding like it was actually taken from my bootleg copy. Taken for it is, the “bonus disc” is a pretty decent Stones record in its own right, with songs like “Claudine” and “No Spare Parts” being worthy of the canon, new vocals and all—but that hardly makes up for the atrocious mastering of Some Girls. Reportedly, the expensive 180-gram vinyl sounds no better—what a shame.

Well, whatever. More pleasing is the DVD/Blue-Ray/CD release of Some Girls Live in Texas ’78. With the new album hitting the charts, the Stones hit the road for a short tour of the U.S., playing a variety of venues from small theaters to enormous stadiums, with several of the shows being recorded for broadcast on "The King Biscuit Flour Hour" (bootlegs of which have circulated widely). In addition, the complete concert from July 18, 1978 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas was professionally filmed but the footage has languished in the Stones vault until now. Too bad, as it shows them diligently making a sincere effort to reclaim their title as the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band. Gone are the horns and back-up singers, elaborate lighting rigs and the giant, inflatable phallus. Instead, it’s just five guys (supplemented by nearly invisible keyboardists) getting back to basics, playing the hits but also delivering the new material with startling vigor. Jagger acts the clown, of course, but he has not quite become the total self-parody of later years, even stopping to sing with soulful conviction now and then and periodically adding his clangorous guitar to the din. It’s the rest of the band that carries the day: newcomer Ronnie Wood is the perfect foil for Keith Richards, their riffing guitars meshing perfectly into a tightly knit wall of rock; meanwhile Charlie Watts mans the backbeat along with Bill Wyman’s stoically inventive bass playing. It’s not punk, it’s not disco—it’s the kind of sublime synthesis the Stones were capable of—but they’re digging in like it still matters. My problem with the Stones has always been their apparent laziness but, here, they’re working hard to remain relevant—and succeeding (at least) one last time. Sound and video quality is excellent and, as an added bonus, the band’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” is included along with a contemporaneous news story hosted by none other than Geraldo Rivera and a brand new interview with Mick Jagger. Highly recommended!

Also of interest to Stones fans is the official (albeit download only) release of The Brussels Affair, one of the most highly-regarded bootlegs of all time. This 1973 concert has been remixed from the original master tapes and the 320k MP3 files are available here for a (comparatively) reasonable $4.99. I have yet to commit (I still have a hard time paying money for lossy computer files), but it sure looks tempting since there are presently no plans to release this on CD. It’s surely one of the great concerts from the Mick Taylor years and I’d love to hear it cleaned up, even if it’s an MP3. So, while the treatment of the “official” catalog continues to be shoddily presented, these archival releases are a surprising treat. But like I said, I’m not the hugest Rolling Stones fan, so I don’t care that much. I’d still like to find a clean, original pressing of Some Girls someday—I stupidly sold mine in a fit of fashion-conscious pique—but they’re hard to find these days. Well, as they say: “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”

November 20, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday


my world is a space away
and that's the way to another dimension
of living
the arial concept of being alive
out on the vibrating planes of outer space

my world is a space away
the broad road that never ends
an endless channel
that connects worlds upon worlds
of cosmic space
there is the doorway of my world
pause at the threshold, think a while
before you enter
but once having entered
there is no turning back

--Sun Ra

November 19, 2011

Playlist Week of 11-19-11

Sleepthief - The Madness of Crowds

* Buxtehude: Seven Sonatas, Op.2 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Biber: Unam Ceylum (Holloway/Mortensen/Assenbaum) (ECM CD)
* Biber/Muffat: Der Türken Anmarsch (Holloway/Mortensen/Assenbaum) (ECM CD)
* Ravel: Piano Works (Queffélec) (Virgin Classics 2CD)
* Debussy: Chamber Music (Athena Ensemble) (Chandos CD)
* Feldman: Rothko Chapel/Why Patterns? (California EAR Unit, et al.) (New Albion CD)
* Lachenmann: String Quartets (Stadler Quartet) (NEOS SACD)
* Dusapin: String Quartets (Arditti Quartet) (æon 2CD)
* Sonny Clark Trio: The 45 Sessions (Blue Note—Japan CD)
* Sun Ra: Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA, Dec, ’75 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: Live At Montreux (Inner City/Universe 2CD)
* Ronnie Boykins: The Will Come, Is Now (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Bill Dixon Orchestra: Intents And Purposes (RCA-Victor/International Phonograph CD)
* Bill Dixon: Bill Dixon In Italy Vol.I (Black Saint/Soul Note CD)
* Bill Dixon: Bill Dixon In Italy Vol.II (Black Saint/Soul Note CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House: Anti-House (Intakt CD)†
* Ingrid Laubrock Sleepthief: The Madness Of Crowds (Intakt CD)
* Muddy Waters: Folk Singer (Chess/MCA/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Sly & The Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Grateful Dead: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland 5/10/72 (GDP/Rhino 4CD)
* Grateful Dead: Grote Zaal De Doelen, Rotterdam, Holland 5/11/72 (GDP/Rhino 4CD)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA 2-24-74 (SBD 4CDR)‡
* Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live At The Fillmore East 1970 (Reprise DVD-A)
* Pink Floyd: Obscured By Clouds (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Pink Floyd: Animals (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Pink Floyd: The Wall (Pinkfloyd/EMI 2CD)†
* Golden Palominos: This Is How It Feels (Restless CD)†
* Golden Palominos: Pure (Restless CD)†
* Guided By Voices: “We Won’t Apologize…”/”The Unsinkable Fats Domino” (Matador 7”)
* Robert Pollard: Space City Kicks (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Circus Devils: Capsized! (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol CD)
* A Perfect Circle: Mer De Noms (Virgin CD)†
* A Perfect Circle: Thirteenth Step (Virgin CD)†
* A Perfect Circle: eMOTIVe (Virgin CD)†
* Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise CD)†(‡)
* Mastodon: The Hunter (Reprise CD)†
* Ray Lamontagne: Trouble (Stone Dwarf/RCA LP)



Of all the weird and wonderful CDs I picked up while in New York, there’s one in particular I keep coming back to: Ingrid Laubrock’s latest Sleepthief record, The Madness of Crowds (Intakt). The trans-national trio of the German-born Laubrock on saxophones, British pianist, Liam Noble, and American drummer, Tom Rainey was formed back when Laubrock was living in London and their eponymous CD, released in 2008, was, in a way, her breakthrough album, garnering near-unanimous critical praise. Shortly thereafter, she moved to New York, to be quickly assimilated into the burgeoning downtown jazz scene and where her unique sound and wide-ranging versatility found a welcoming home. And she keeps getting better and better: last year’s Anti-House (also on Intakt) is one of my very favorite records of all time. But whereas the Anti-House band showcases Laubrock’s knotty, genre-splicing compositional voice, Sleepthief is pure improvisation, non-idiomatic and free. As their first album amply demonstrated, these musicians are masterful improvisers, but The Madness of Crowds takes it to a whole other level, beyond technique and style where the music seems just inevitable and true. This music invites—no, demands—repeated listenings, rewarding the ear with its spirited and boundless creativity.

It helps that the sound quality is astonishingly good. Most modern jazz albums are adequately if indifferently recorded, naturalistic in affect but usually sounding somewhat flat and dry. But The Madness of Crowds sounds shockingly vivid, almost hyperreal. Rainey’s bass drum is HUGE, Noble’s piano occupies a solid, three-dimensional space and when Laubrock comes in, it sounds like she’s standing right there in the room with you. Wow! Recorded by Andrew Taub and Ben Liscio at Brooklyn Recording and mixed and mastered by Andrew Tulloch at The Blue Studio in London, The Madness of Crowds has been given the kind of high-class treatment this music truly deserves. Ultimately, free improvisation is all about sound for its own sake, from the quietest of subtleties (as when Laubrock blows bubbles in a goblet of water on “You Never Know What’s in the Next Room”) to the most aggressive cacophony imaginable and it is accordingly difficult (if not impossible) to capture the magic of live performance on disc. The Madness of Crowds is that rare thing: not only a masterpiece of improvisational music but an audiophile spectacular. Seriously, it needs to be heard to be believed. Record of the year!

November 13, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Jordan Hall, Boston, MA December 1975 (AUD CDR)

Ah, The New England Conservatory of Music, NEC, my alma mater (of sorts), otherwise known by my cohorts at the time as “The Disturbatory” or “Not Exactly College” (among other amusing epithets). It’s frankly hard to imagine Sun Ra and his spaced-out, ragtag Arkestra gracing the stage at Jordan Hall in December 1975. But although NEC was (and always will be) a bastion of stuffed-shirted classical music snobbery, its president at the time was Gunther Schuller, who was hip enough to allow Ran Blake to start the “Third Stream” department (where weirdoes like me were admitted) and encouraged the development of a “jazz” curriculum to compete with the Berklee College of Music down the street. So I guess it’s not so surprising that Sonny was invited to perform in one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the country—not that you would know it from the sound of this primitive audience recording. Gosh, it sounds awful! Hissy, warbly, distorted, unbalanced and, to make matters worse, most tracks cut off with a loud pop. Ugh! Upon close listening, it seems the original master might have sounded decent, but generational loss has obliterated what fidelity there was. Still, you can still hear Ra on his best behavior in this prestigious venue, introducing some well-rehearsed new material and keeping the polemical excesses in check.

The seventy-one minute tape (unlisted in Campbell & Trent) contains almost a complete set, cutting in on the opening improvisation which features Marshall Allen’s keening oboe over ominous percussion. Suddenly, Ra queues “Love In Outer Space” with some blasting organ chords—but the taper apparently didn’t care for this tune (or experienced technical difficulties) as the recording cuts off just as it gets going. Oh well. Eddie Thomas announces “Images” and, after a moody organ introduction, the tune takes off at brisk tempo. Kwami Hadi was out of the band at this point so the high-trumpet part has been assumed by Ahmed Abdullah and he takes a long, winding solo over several choruses. The hotshot bass player we heard at The "New" Five Spot is still present, holding down the swinging rhythm section and closely following Abdullah as he takes it increasingly “out” and deftly leading the band through the reprise of the head. A stellar tour de force from Abdullah and Mr. Anonymous! Not to be outdone, John Gilmore takes over—a cappella at that—doing his best post-Coltrane tenor thing. Without missing a beat, the rhythm section slips in behind him and, supported by Ra’s piano, he really starts to fly! Yep—another incredible Gilmore solo! Get used to it! Ra follows with some impressionistic piano, showing off his underappreciated keyboard skills before the Arkestra returns with the finale. A superb rendition of this classic tune—too bad it sounds so crappy!

Sonny then moves to the Rocksichord, to which he’s attached a whooshing phase-shifter—a sound that would dominate the Cosmos album the following summer (one of my favorite Ra albums of all time). This unknown title would have fit right in on that record, opening with a long introduction from Ra that moves from pretty, modal chords to roiling, industrial dissonances and back again before the band comes in with a stately melody. With its lumbering rhythms and sweet’n’sour harmonies, the piece brings to mind the Discipline series of compositions but with the relaxed, languid feel of Ra’s hypnotically grooving space ballads. A short bass clarinet solo almost sounds like Gilmore but Abdullah soon takes the reins with some more high-wire trumpet. Mostly, though, it’s Sun Ra’s creamy Rocksichording that keeps things interesting. Again, it’s a terrble shame the sound quality on the tape is so poor since the gently floating, interlocking bass and percussion parts are just about impossible to make out. Well, it’s a rare and beautiful composition, badly recorded.

“Space Is The Place” follows but is presented as a hyperactive rhumba, with Eddie Thomas and June Tyson deleriously singing the lead. Predictably, it descends into cheerful chaos soon enough, but the audience gets a big kick out of the spectacle, whooping, hollering and clapping along. “Journey To Saturn” is more of the same, climaxing with a honking alto solo from Danny Davis and ending with weird portamento organ effects from Ra. “Discipline 27-II” slows things down for a series of space chants, Eddie Thomas doing the substitute preaching—interestingly, Sonny keeps his mouth shut throughout and the pontificating is kept mercifully brief. The following “mini-set” of old jazz chestnuts is just two tunes, but they’re perfectly executed: “How Am I to Know” is a maudlin torch song made famous by Billie Holiday (and, later, Frank Sinatra) and here it showcases some of the most goopily romantic playing of Ra’s career, incongruously performed on his swelling, roller-rink organ. Meanwhile, Gilmore plays smoky tenor. It shouldn’t work, but it does—just lovely! Up next is the jump swing standard, “Rose Room, with more full-throated Gilmore and pealing trumpet from Abdullah, all punctuated by Ra’s relentlessly stabbing organ chords. Finally, the concert concludes with a vanishingly quick “Calling Planet Earth” and a fast-paced romp through “We Travel the Spaceways,” as the band marches off the stage to wild cheering and hearty applause. From the sound of it, the swells at NEC were surprisingly welcoming to Ra and his space men! Sun Ra's star was finally starting to rise.

It’s a strong show, but the tempos are generally too fast and there’s no real opportunity for wild improvisation, as if time constraints required Ra to truncate his usual set. Yet, despite the atrocious sound quality, there’s enough interesting music here to make it worthwhile to fanatical collectors. “Images,” “How Am I To Know?” and especially the unidentified Cosmos-like piece are obvious highlights. Ordinary people, however, will be suitably repulsed by the noise and distortion; you are hereby dutifully warned.

November 12, 2011

Playlist Week of 11-12-11

Blue VU

* Marais: Pieces De Viole des Cinq Livres (Savall, et al.) (d.4-5) (Alia Vox 5SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Solo & Double Violin Concertos (AAM/Manze/Podger) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965 (d.3-4) (Columbia/Legacy 8CD)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Legacy Edition) (d.1-2) (Columbia/Legacy 2CD+DVD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Components (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: The “New” Five Spot, New York, NY 6-11-75 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA Dec.’75 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Trio (Wesleyan) 2005 (New Braxton House MP3)†
* Anthony Braxton: Septet (Pittsburgh) 2008 (New Braxton House MP3)†
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Mannheim) 2010 (New Braxton House MP3)†
* Myra Melford Trio M: Bimhuis, Amsterdam, Holland 5-08-11 (FM 2CDR)
* Ingrid Laubrock Sleep Thief: Sleep Thief (Intakt CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock Sleep Thief: The Madness Of Crowds (Intakt CD)
* Spring Heel Jack: Live (Thirsty Ear CD)†
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum CD)
* The Beatles: Abbey Road (2009 remaster) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beach Boys: Smile Sessions (d.1) (Capitol 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Bickershaw Festival, Wigan, England 5/7/72 (GDP/Rhino 4CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.4 No.5: Boston Music Hall 6-9-76 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Pink Floyd: Meddle (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (Experience Edition) (Pinkfloyd/EMI 2CD)
* Steely Dan: Aja (ABC/Geffen/Cisco LP)
* The Smiths: The Sound Of The Smiths (Warner Bros./Rhino 2CD)
* U2: The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Edition) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* Thurston Moore/Talk Normal: Three Songs/Gold Dime (Fast Weapons 7”EP)
* Prick Decay w/Thurston Moore: Electricity vs. Insects (Chocolate Monk Audio Artifacts 7”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Live In Daytron 6°? (GBV, Inc. MP3)†/‡
* Robert Pollard: “Silk Rotor” (Happy Jack Rock Records 7”EP)
* Psycho & The Birds: Check Your Zoo (Fading Captain Series 7”EP)
* Circus Devils: Capsized! (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Beck: Modern Guilt (Geffen CD)†/‡
* Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: Hail To The Thief (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD CD)†
* Radiohead: The King Of Limbs (TBD/XL CD)†
* Radiohead: TKOL RMX 1234567 (Ticker Tape/XL 2CD)†(‡)
* Wilco: The Whole Love (dBpm/Epitaph 2LP)
* Deerhoof w/Jeff Tweedy/The Raccoonists: “Behold…”/”Own It” (Polyvinyl 7”)



I’m mesmerized by the big, blue VU meters in my living room—and too enraptured by the sound to write anything except, “music is the best!”

November 6, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: The “New” Five Spot, New York, NY 6-11-75 (AUD CDR)

Over the past couple of years, Sun Ra had introduced a few Swing-Era jazz standards into the Arkestra’s live sets but, for the most part, they were loosely arranged and casually executed. By 1975, this repertoire would suddenly become an integral part of every live performance, with “mini-sets” of historical big-band numbers, expertly re-orchestrated and performed with astounding authenticity. Szwed suggests that this was a shrewd business maneuver as much as anything:

It was a move both oppositional and prescient: he had seen the limits of the avant-garde, and sensing a shift beginning in American sensibilities, he was unwilling to give up the large audiences he had drawn (p.338).

Indeed, the free jazz scene had virtually disintegrated, at least in the United States. While it might have seemed like a good idea for Impulse! to sign Sun Ra to a multi-album deal back in 1972, by 1975 it was a bust and the records were deleted and sold off as “cut-outs,” thereby depriving Ra of any royalities otherwise due him. Accordingly, Ra’s revival of the standard jazz repertoire might seem to anticipate the rise of 1980s conservatism and the shallow, “well-dressed jazz” of Wynton Marsalis and his ilk. But Sun Ra was deeply affected by the recent deaths of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (Id. p.337) and it must be remembered he was also of that era. Ra was by now in his sixties, much older than most of the members of the Arkestra and his growing audience of college students and urban hipsters. Moreover, I’m not sure this old-timey music had much commercial appeal at the time—it certainly took me a while to come around to liking it, much preferring the wild spacey stuff. Instead, I believe Sun Ra’s intention was mostly pedagogical, to teach his musicians and audience about this beautiful, highly disciplined music that was in danger of disappearing into the past (or coopted and smoothed over for contemporary, postmodern tastes).

This monophonic audience recording from The “New” Five Spot in New York City on June 11, 1975 opens with a fully-developed “mini-set” of Big-Band era classics and, unlike the loosey-goosey renditions previously heard, the Arkestra sounds super-tight and thoroughly well-rehearsed. When they tear through this old repertoire, they sound rough-and-ready and totally into it! This is probably how this stuff actually sounded on roadside bandstands during its glory years of the 1920s and ‘30s—it is more than just “authentic,” it’s real. The recording's primitive sound quality simultaneously enhances and detracts from the listening experience. On the one hand, the hissy mono recording sounds like it’s from a distant time-zone, an intergalactic transmission faintly audible on our humble earthbound receiver units. Nevertheless, it sure would be nice to hear this in high fidelity! Well, we take what can get and this one is a keeper, despite its sonic flaws. Sonny rhapsodizes on “Yesterdays” at the piano for a few minutes before Gilmore solemnly announces: “And now, Duke Ellington’s 'Lightnin’'!”—and they’re totally smoking, with Ra turning in a rollicking piano solo. Ellington’s “Slippery Horn” from 1932 is presented in an unusual arrangement with Robert Northern taking the lead on French horn (!) and Gilmore making a rare appearance on clarinet. Just lovely! Finally, the “mini-set” ends with a romantic piano interlude and a rip-snorting “King Porter Stomp.” Gilmore helpfully informs the crowd it was “composed by Jelly Roll Morton and arranged by Fletcher Henderson.” Taken at a slightly more relaxed tempo than later versions, the performance is confident and assured with newcomer Ahmed Abdullah coming through with a weirdly swinging trumpet solo. In all, a scintillating ten-minute history lesson from the Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

The rest is more typical of the era, but played at an extremely high level. Notable is the presence of a very fine bassist, whose identity is, sadly, unknown. Although Prof. Campbell suggests Ronnie Boykins or John Ore could be present (p. 218), I’m not so sure it’s either one of them. Whoever it is, he confidently holds down the groove on a lengthy jam on “Moonship Journey,” which moves through a series of space chants/songs including “Third Heaven,” “Journey to Saturn” and “Outer Space Employment Agency” without ever losing a beat. A dramatic synthesizer solo leads into “The Shadow World,” always a welcome occurrence. After blazing through the hyper-complicated head, everyone gets a chance to solo—including Northern’s French horn—but Gilmore steals the show with a ferocious outburst of saxophone pyrotechnics. Yes, it’s another amazing Gilmore solo! After a quick reprise, the set concludes with “Space Is The Place,” but cuts off just as it starts to get going. Oh well. Interestingly, my copy tacks on “Space Is The Place/We Roam The Cosmos” from the side-B of What’s New. Aside from a slight change in sound quality and volume level, the ambience and energy of the performance fits right in with the rest of the “New” Five Spot show—the unknown bass player certainly sounds the same. Could this be from the same gig? Is this “bootleg” actually an on-stage recording copied from Sonny’s stash, another “Lost Reel”? Who knows? In any event, this track works better in the context of an entire set than as a stand-alone (and far too brief) album side, making it a satisfying bit of filler.

Despite the less-than-perfect sound quality, this “bootleg” recording is worth hearing, if only for the expertly performed “mini-set” of obscure jazz classics and spectacular version of “The Shadow World.” That it may also contain the missing material from What’s New just makes it all the more tantalizing.

November 5, 2011

Playlist Week of 11-05-11

Tom Waits - Bad As Me

* Marais: Pieces De Viole des Cinq Livres (Savall, et al.) (d.3) (Alia Vox 5SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Motetten (Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe) (PHI/Outhere CD)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Viola da Gamba (Pandolfo/Alessandrini) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Miles Davis: Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel (d.1-2) (Columbia/Legacy 8CD)
* John Coltrane: Live Trane: The European Tours (d.2) (Pablo 7CD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note LP)
* Sun Ra: The “New” Five Spot, New York, NY 6-11-75 (AUD CDR)
* Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley: Papyrus Volume I (Black Saint/Soul Note CD)
* Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley: Papyrus Volume II (Black Saint/Soul Note CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock Sleepthief: Sleepthief (Intakt CD)
* Sylvie Courvoisier: Lonelyville (Intakt CD)
* Mephista: Black Narcissus (Tzadik CD)
* Mark Nauseef/Ikue Mori/Evan Parker/Bill Laswell: Near Nadir (Tzadik CD)
* David Torn: Prezens (ECM CD)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey CD)†
* Tortoise: Beacons Of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Olympia Theatre, Paris, France 5/4/72 (GDP/Rhino 4CD)
* Led Zeppelin: I (Atlantic CD)†
* Led Zeppelin: II (Atlantic CD)†/‡
* Led Zeppelin: III (Atlantic CD)†/‡
* Led Zeppelin: IV (Atlantic CD)†/‡
* Led Zeppelin: Houses Of The Holy (Atlantic CD)†/‡
* Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti (Swan Song/Atlantic 2CD)†/‡
* Led Zeppelin: Presence (Swan Song/Atlantic CD)†/‡
* King Crimson: Heavy ContruKction (d.1-2) (DGM 3CD)†
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. 2-45RPM LP)
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Asylum CD)
* Tom Waits: As Bad As Me (Anti-/Epitaph LP/1+1CD)
* U2: Achtung Baby (Deluxe Edition) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* Phil Collins: Face Value (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* U2: Zooropa (Island CD)
* Tool: Opiate (Zoo/BMG/Volcano CDEP)†
* Tool: Aenima (Zoo/BMG/Volcano CD)†
* Tool: Lateralus (Volcano/Tool Dissectional CD)†
* Tool: 10,000 Days (Volcano/Tool Dissectional CD)†
* The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. CD/DVD-A)
* Robert Pollard: Robert Pollard Is Off To Business (GBV, Inc. CD)†
* Robert Pollard: Moses On A Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)†
* Circus Devils: Capsized! (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/MoFi 2LP)
* Wilco: The Whole Love (dBpm/Epitaph 2LP)
* Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop 2LP)
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia LP)
* Broken Bells: Meyrin Fields EP (Columbia EP)



The release of Tom Waits’s first proper album in seven years is reason enough for celebration for his fans, yet Bad As Me is such a good record that newcomers may well become converts. Waits’ gravelly voice has been described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in a smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over by a car” but, as with Bob Dylan’s distinctive croak, it seems to get more expressive with age. Waits sounds better than ever, even stretching to a sweet falsetto on “Talking At The Same Time” or a crooning tenor on “Pay Me.” In contrast to the clattering, politically-charged Real Gone from 2004, Bad As Me is mostly a collection of semi-conventional love songs like “Back In The Crowd” or “Kiss Me”; lost-love weepers like “Face To The Highway”; and earnest homages to domestic bliss like “Raised Right Men” or “Satisfied.” Shockingly, Waits sounds almost downright happy! However, the penultimate track, “Hell Broke Luce,” is as bracingly avant-garde as anything he’s ever done: Told from the point of view from a war-damaged soldier, Waits barks out the embittered words in a frantic military cadence while the sound of helicopters, bombs and machinegun fire threatens to engulf the roaring electric guitars and pile-driving percussion. Whew! A truly harrowing listening experience! Stylistically, the album surveys the wide range of Waits’s obsessions from pre-War Americana to Tin Pan Alley torch songs; Brechitian theatrics to dissonant industrial noise—all of which he has managed to subsume into his own inimitable musical persona: the bard of Skid Row. And, as usual, he’s accompanied by a stellar line-up of musicians, including Marc Ribot, Keith Richards, David Hidalgo, Charlie Musselwhite, and Gino Robair. “Hell Broke Luce” aside, this is possibly Waits’s most accessible album in years.

The vinyl is beautifully pressed and packaged and seeing as it contains a copy of the CD, it’s definitely the way to go. But true fanatics and record collectors should seek out the limited edition 2-compact disc version which contains three additional songs and a handsome, hardbound book; the touchingly childlike “Tell Me” is well worth the cost of admission. Either way, fans will be pleased and the merely curious will be amply rewarded with the best of what Tom Waits has to offer. Highly recommended! Check out this video for the title track and see for yourself: