August 31, 2009

Bruce Banner is The Hulk

I saw the news today that the Walt Disney Co. bought Marvel Entertainment, Inc. for FOUR BILLION DOLLARS.

Like I said, I don’t collect comic books anymore, but I do retain a fondness for the form and the characters. Marvel revolutionized comics in the 1960s by making their characters more psychologically well-defined and (sort of) three-dimensional. Take, for instance, The Hulk. Mild mannered (repressed) physicist Bruce Banner gets blasted with gamma rays, resulting in the ultimate split personality: the slightest emotional provocation causes him morph into the raging, rampaging, remorseless Hulk. Has there ever been a more blatantly Freudian comic book anti-hero? The Hulk is pure Id. Of course, there’s only so much that can be done with such a conceit, and after forty years, bad TV shows, and even worse movies, I suppose there is not a whole lot more damage Disney could inflict on the franchise. Still, there’s something just wrong about Snow White’s Disney owning The Hulk. FOUR BILLION DOLLARS is a ridiculously huge amount of money, and Disney will do whatever it takes to turn that investment into a hefty profit. Whatever happens going forward, today marks the end of an era.

The Road After Dark

This was an fun experiment. I waited until I could hear a car coming up the hill and tried to time this long exposure so it would pass in front of the lens. It worked! (8:03 p.m., August 28, 2009; 10 seconds@F4.2, auto/no-flash, ISO 1600)

August 30, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

I need some more time to work up the next installment of our chronological slog through the discography; so this week, I hereby present two scenes from Space is the Place (1974):

August 29, 2009

Playlist 8-29-09

* Biber: Unam Ceylum (Holloway/Assenbaum/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* Biber/Muffat: Der Türken Anmarsch (Holloway/Assenbaum/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.7 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Violoncello (Japp ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Christine Plubeau/Arnaud Pumir: Église Saint Nicolas, La Hulpe 3-20-09 (FM CDR)
* Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (d.1+2) (Atlantic 8CD)
* Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Years: 1973-1974 (Impulse! 5CD)
* Matthew Shipp & Mat Maneri: Gravitational Systems (HatOLOGY CD)
* Mary Halovorson & Jessica Pavone: Thin Air (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Herbie Hancock Sextet: Barbican Centre, London 11-19-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Bill Laswell: Dub Chamber 3 (ROIR CD)
* Bill Laswell: Sacred System: Book of Exit/Dub Chamber 4 (ROIR CD)
* Santana: Santana (III) (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.1, No.2: “October ‘77” (GD 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.1, No.4: “From Egypt with Love” (GD 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.2, No.4: “Cal Expo ‘93” (GD 3CD)
* Jerry Garcia: After Midnight: Kean College, 2-28-80 (Rhino 3CD)
* Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (Anti- 3CD)
* Wilco: Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Boston Spaceships: Planets are Blasted (GBV, Inc. CD)


As the weeks go by, a pattern emerges: baroque music (in the mornings), usually some jazz, perhaps some “out” jazz, but almost always some Grateful Dead and/or Jerry Garcia, and, of course, Robert Pollard’s brand of rocking out…pretty boring, ultimately. I suppose I am getting old and ossified in my tastes. The topic of music came up at work yesterday (as it often does), and I was gently chided for my lack of knowledge about current pop music. It’s true, I never listen to the radio or watch TV and my record-collecting dollar is usually allocated towards things that I know I will like. And when I have taken a chance with recent pop music, I have been left feeling particularly underwhelmed (e.g. Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes) (sorry). In my estimation, the best band in the land is Wilco (so sue me). Frankly, I’m much more interested in young musicians such as Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone, who integrate a folk-rock sensibility with avant-jazz musicianship to create a genuinely new kind of music that, unfortunately, most folks will never hear. No doubt I am missing out on some great pop music, but I can live with that. Heck, I could never buy another record in my life and still have plenty of wonderful music to listen to.

Like for instance the Keith Jarrett box set – and I really did listen to all five discs this week! – comprising expanded reissues of the albums Fort Yawuh, Treasure Island, Death and the Flower, and Backhand. These records were out of step with the times and ultimately overshadowed by Jarrett’s prior tenure with the electric Miles Davis band and his later fame as the romantically rhapsodic, proto-New Age solo pianist. That’s too bad. The so-called “American Quartet” consisted of Jarrett, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, an all-star band that executed the post-Ornette free-bop and gospel-ish material with sensitive but high-spirited aplomb. Jarrett equitably shares the sometimes crowded musical space with these three strong personalities, but the friction is palpable and sometimes sparks flashes of uniquely brilliant music. (I plan to delve into Mysteries: The Impulse Years: 1975-1976 next week.) Or how about the complete Charlie Parker on Savoy & Dial? Eight CDs documenting the birth of Bebop, complete with every extant false start, incomplete and alternate take – and not just the Savoy and Dial material, but concomitant sideman dates with Tiny Grimes, Slim Gaillard, and Red Norvo on the Guild, Musicraft, Bel-Tone, and Comet labels. I could spend a lifetime studying this music and the accompanying literature and still not be able to digest it all. Who needs to keep up with the latest fads when there is this vast wealth of masterpieces worthy of my time and attention? Heh-heh. Spoken like a true fogey, an out-of-it fuddy-duddy. Oh well. Getting old sure beats the alternative. Thankfully, music makes life worth living.

August 28, 2009


I used to think Elvis was a pathetic joke: bad movies and cheesy songs like “Do the Clam”; fat and sweaty in a ridiculous jumpsuit, dying on the toilet. Oh sure, the Sun stuff was pretty cool, but everything after was a sell-out. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. Yep. I was such a fool.

It wasn’t until 1995, when we first went to Graceland that I learned to love Elvis. We went on a lark, while on our way back from a road trip to see my parents who had retired to Arkansas of all places. I wanted to come back through Tennessee, since I had never been there before. I wanted to see Beale Street and Graceland in Memphis, and head north to Nashville before making our way back to Boston. I wanted to visit the birthplace of rock’n’roll and country music. Lizzy thought I was crazy, but she is a great traveling companion and always game for new adventures. Memphis was just as I expected: the Mississippi River River is indeed black and muddy; there is drinking in the streets, blues in the parks and bars, and tasty gumbo and barbeque in the restaurants. Graceland was, however, not at all what I expected. I expected to snicker at the hopeless fans, smirk at the relentless kitsch, and sneer condescendingly at mainstream Middle-American culture. I did not expect it to be so expensive – we’re talking Disneyland-level pricing here! But, what the heck, we splurged for the Platinum Tour of the whole shebang, including Elvis’s two (2) airplanes. Moreover, I did not expect that it would wind up being worth every penny.

Tourists arrive across the street from the mansion itself where there are acres of parking next to the cavernous ticketing area which is attached to the many, many gift shops. A shuttle ferries ticketholders across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the front door of Graceland, where a friendly but no-nonsense tourguide escorts you through the residence. From the outside, the house seemed surprisingly small and downright tasteful, certainly not the imposing edifice I expected. As we made our way through the entryway and modestly-sized dining room, I was struck by how normal it all seemed – normal circa. 1976, that is. As we entered the kitchen, I noticed a set of “Apple Pottery” dishes proudly displayed in a cherrywood cabinet – just like the dishes of my own, 1970s suburban childhood. I was touched somehow, finding this humble dishware displayed like fine china in Elvis Presley’s house. I could feel my unfair caricature of Elvis quickly dissolving. Yes, the basement playroom with its bar and three TV sets conjured up visions of the “Memphis Mafia” and drugged-out gunplay and the “Jungle Room” was every bit as tacky as I expected. But these were the tastes of an ordinary man, from a dirt poor background, who happened to be Elvis Presley. Instead of seeming larger than life, he seemed simpler, guileless, more like a real human being. But what was truly impressive was an outbuilding containing a long corridor packed with hundreds of gold and platinum records, exiting into another room with a three-story wall of yet more gold and platinum records belatedly awarded after his death. It was… stunning. There is simply no arguing with the fact that Elvis sold (and continues to sell) A LOT of records. From there we were led out to the small courtyard where Elvis is buried. The gravesite was festooned with fan-made homages, oddly, deeply moving in their innocent earnestness. I could feel myself getting teary. What was going on with me? I was becoming a fan…

In Nashville, we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and saw Elvis’s gold-plated Cadillac, complete with fold-down backseat turntable. We also toured RCA’s Studio B over on Music Row, which is still preserved, complete with Elvis’s footprint in a wall where he kicked in it anger at a frustrating recording session. By now we were utterly smitten…After returning to Boston, we started collecting Elvis CDs and we love it all, from the fifties through the seventies – yes, we even love the movies and fat Elvis in a jumpsuit (bless his heart). The guy could sing!

A couple of years later, we picked up and moved from Boston to Nashville on nothing but a wing and a prayer. We had no jobs waiting for us, only a fondness for the city, some meager savings, and a hope for a better life. When things seemed the most precarious, only Elvis could raise our spirits and he was a permanent fixture of our personal soundtrack in those first couple years. We made it through, in part thanks to the eternal optimism of Elvis’s music. It is impossible to feel sad when Elvis is on the stereo. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that we would not be here in Tennessee if it weren’t for our first sojourn to Graceland in 1995.

August 27, 2009

Batman & Robin

You might be wondering, “What’s with the superheroes?” Well, at one time, I was very into comic books. Of course, I loved comics when I was a child, but I didn’t really collect them. It wasn't until the late-eighties and early-nineties that I got turned on to the work of Frank Miller, Allen Moore, Neil Gaiman, and many others who have now become legendary figures in the transformation of “comic books” into what are now known as “graphic novels.” It was a heady time and there were some really cool comic book stores in Boston which made the whole experience loads of fun. Later on, however, things got out of hand. Cover prices kept increasing and publishers were milking fans for all they were worth with “special,” limited-edition, multi-variation “collector’s editions” and shoddy workmanship. The whole enterprise nearly collapsed under its own weight and around that time, I pretty much stopped buying them. Five bucks for a twenty-four page comic book is almost as ridiculous as the twenty-dollar CD – neither comes close to justifying its exorbitant cost except to unhealthily obsessed fans. It’s a shame because, like records, comic books have been priced out of the very market that most enjoys them, juveniles.

ANYWAY…I still have my comic book collection and, as you can see, various action figures and toys from that era. Lately, I had been considering boxing it all up and perhaps even getting rid of them altogether, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. But since getting the new camera, I noticed on the weekends that we get this really lovely mid-morning sunlight through the windows, which moves slowly across the west wall of the living room. Looking for subjects, I resorted to the toy box and started messing around with the camera settings and snapping pictures. While I have still not quite figured out the optimum exposure, the photos I’ve posted this week consist of the best shots of the bunch and I think, with some tweaking in Photoshop, they look pretty darn nifty. So, that’s why all the superheroes!

August 23, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: My Brother the Wind Vol. II (Evidence CD)

In early 1970, Sun Ra returned to Variety Recording Studio with an enlarged Arkestra, including vocalist June Tyson. Tyson (b. 1936) had begun working with the band in 1968 at the recommendation of Sonny’s part-time manager, Lem Roebuck, but this is her first appearance on record. While Tyson was an integral feature of the Arkestra’s live concerts, with her lush singing voice and flowing dance movements, a woman’s full-time presence in the band posed some problems. Sonny considered her family since she was married to the Arkestra’s lighting designer, Richard Wilkinson, but Ra was patriarchal, if not downright chauvinistic in his attitudes: “I can’t create with women in my environment” (quoted in Szwed, p.250). Nevertheless, Tyson became a close confidant to Ra and remained a steadfast member of the Arkestra until her death in 1992.

She sings beautifully on the lilting space chant, “Somebody Else’s World” and on the slinky, jazz-funk number, “Walking on the Moon,” obviously written in response to Apollo moon landing in July, 1969. Ra also has another new keyboard in tow, a mellow-toned Farfisa organ (not a Hammond as I previously thought) which gives these tracks that “space-age barbeque” sound. “Otherness Blue” is another mid-tempo, off-kilter blues, featuring some tasty trumpet work from Kwame Hadi. “Pleasant Twilight” starts out as bright, swinging big-band tune, but a rubato section opens up space for Gilmore to blow sweetly on tenor saxophone before the melody returns at half-tempo to end. “Somewhere Else” begins with a fat, lurching riff over a stiff rhythm section, which eventually launches into some medium swing. Short solos come and go while the Arkestra tosses around variations on the opening riff. “Contrast” opens with some squeaking, honking baritone saxophone from Pat Patrick with Alejandro Blake jumping in with furiously plucked bass. Then Ra enters with some sustained, suspended chords and Marshall Allen wails away on oboe, the sound wrapped in think reverb (was Tommy Hunter present?) until fading out.

The remainder of the album is taken up with five brief synthesizer experiments, Ra having purchased a brand new Minimoog of his own. “The Wind Speaks” explores white noise and fluttering filter effects while “Sun Thoughts” focuses on sour intervals and swooping, sea-sick portamentos. “Journey to the Stars” uses the ADSR envelope filter to create wah-wah-ing attacks and swelling sustained notes while “World of Myth ‘I’” consists of knob-turning pitch-shifting. Finally, “The Design – Cosmos II” conjures up some resonant, bell-tone sounds, with increasingly busy atonal melodies scattered over a repeating bass note. While these tracks may sound a bit tentative, the Minimoog would become a fixture of Ra’s keyboard arsenal in the nineteen-seventies and most concerts would feature a lengthy synthesizer solo full of apocalyptic bombast. Unfortunately, My Brother the Wind, Vol. II comes across as kind of schizophrenic: some of this material is the most toe-tappingly accessible in all of the discography, but the Moog experiments are tough-going for even the most committed fan. Even so, this is an essential album and a necessary companion to Vol. I.


UPDATE: I neglected to mention another track found on Out There a Minute (Blast First CD) which was likely recorded at this session (or shortly thereafter). Entitled, “Jazz and Romantic Sounds,” it fits right in, with Ra’s bluesy, juke-joint organ, Marshall Allen’s impassioned solo and Patrick interjecting a honking riff here and there. It unexpectedly ends with a weird cadence and minute or so of spaced-out bliss before fading out. Nice.

Bart & Lisa Simpson

August 22, 2009

Skies of Wonder

Playlist 8-22-09

* Carl Smith: Tudor Organ Music (Naxos CD)
* Uccellini: Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Schmelzer: Unaram Fidium (Holloway/Assenbaum/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* Biber/Muffat: Der Türken Anmarsch (Holloway/Assenbaum/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* Holloway/ter Linden/Mortensen: Garrison Church, Copenhagen 4-8-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Pachelbel: Canon & Gigue: Chamber Works (London Baroque) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* J.S. Bach: Motets (La Chapelle Royale/Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Boulez: Repons (Ensemble InterContemporain/Boulez) (DG CD)
* Feldman: Piano and Orchestra (RSS/Zender/Woodward) (CPO CD)
* AMM: BBC Studios 4-23-79 (FM CDR)
* AMM: Ravensberger Spinnerei, Bielefeld, Germany 5-16-94 (FM 2CDR)
* AMM: International House, Chicago, IL 4-15-01 (AUD CDR)
* Evan Parker Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Boustrophedon (in Six Furrows) (ECM CD)
* Bill Evans: Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside/JVC XRCD)
* Cecil Taylor: Silent Tongues (1201 Music CD)
* Anthony Braxton Quartet: (Birmingham) 1985 (Leo 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic CD)
* The AACM Great Black Music Ensemble: Umbria Jazz Festival 7-14-09 (FM 2CDR)
* Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Antipop Consortium: Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Fela Anikũlapo-Kuti: Original Sufferhead (Capitol LP)
* Bob Dylan: A Tree with Roots (Complete Basement Tapes) Vol.2 (fan/boot 2CDR)
* The Band: Music from Big Pink (MFSL SACD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.2, No.3: Wall of Sound (June 1974) (GD 3CD)
* Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.’s Desert Origins (Matador 2CD)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador CD)
* Wilco: Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Guided By Voices: Alien Lanes (Matador LP)
* Robert Pollard: Elephant Jokes (GBV, Inc. LP)


I only recently heard the baroque violinist John Holloway thanks to the lovely Garrison Church 4-8-08 broadcast (which lives permanently on my iPod). I subsequently obtained his ECM recordings and they are ravishingly beautiful. The organ/harpsichord continuo may or may not be historically accurate, but it’s a luscious texture nonetheless. At the other extreme, AMM is capable for producing some bone-chillingly terrifying music, so I’m often scared to listen to them. How silly! These particular live performances were very enjoyable – especially the Bielefeld concert which features compositions by Cardew, Wolff, Cage, and Skempton as well as a thirty-minute, typically non-idiomatic improvisation. More AMMusic is on my to-do list.

Wagner Conducts

(Thanks, Stan!)

Jim Woodring's Crazy Newts

(Thanks, Keith!)

Ben Grimm is The Thing

August 16, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro-Solar Infinity Arkestra: My Brother the Wind (Saturn 521)

The advent of the transistor enabled Robert Moog (1934-2005) to develop the first modular synthesizer in the early nineteen-sixties and by late-1969, a truly portable synthesizer, the now legendary Minimoog, was already in development. Sun Ra was naturally intrigued by the instrument, with its cutting edge technology and ability to make truly otherworldly sounds. But in a 1970 Down Beat interview, Ra emphasized that synthesizers were not just weird noise machines or souped-up organs:

The Moog synthesizer in its potential and application to and for the future is tremendous in scope, particularly for those who are creative naturals. It most certainly is worthy of a place in music. There are many effects on it which at present are not upon any other instrument. On one of my compositions, “My Brother the Wind,” the Moog is a perfect projective voice. Of course, like other electronic keyboard instruments, it will require a different technical approach, touch and otherwise in most efforts of behavior. It is a challenge to the music scene…The main point concerning the synthesizer is the same as in all other instruments, that is, its capacity for the projection of feeling. This will not be determined in a large degree just by the instrument itself, but as always in music, by the musician who plays the instrument (quoted in Szwed, p.277)
Indeed, Ra’s approach to the Moog synthesizer was altogether different than the instrument’s later popularizers. In late 1969, and with the financial support of T.S. Mims, Jr., Ra obtained two prototype models (in order to achieve two-voice polyphony from the monophonic instruments) and booked time at Variety Recording Studio in New York City. He brought along only Gilmore (who mostly plays drums), Marshall Allen, and Danny Davis for the occasion. In addition, pianist/synthesist, Gershon Kingsley, was hired to program the synthesizer according to Ra’s wishes. According to Mims, “It was a duel between Kingsley programming and Sun Ra playing” (quoted in Campbell, 2nd ed., p.152).

The title track consists of two wildly contrasting Moog voices: a breathy whistle in the high register and a thick, reedy interval in the bass with Gilmore supplying some credible free drums. Ra’s two-hand independence and control of the highly differentiated textures is really quite remarkable. “Intergalactic II” pits the boing-boing-ing Moogs against braying horns. Gilmore turns in another typically riveting solo before hopping back on the drums to propel a dual alto sax extravaganza. Hypnotic synthesizer interludes set up some misty textures for the horns at the end. “To Nature’s God” features resonant, bell-like sounds on one Moog while the other rumbles around with a rounded, woody bass tone. Meanwhile, Allen and Davis twirl around on piccolo and flute and Gilmore lays down lurching, asymmetrical funk beats.

While the preceding pieces sound a bit like interesting but tentative experiments, “The Code of Interdependence” is more fully realized; a well-considered, conducted improvisation. Clocking in at a near-epic sixteen minutes, Ra explores the outer limits of the Moogs’ expressive ability while Gilmore’s drumming provides a remarkably supple, shape-shifting drive. Gilmore is not only a tenor saxophone colossus but a better-than-serviceable drummer as well! Davis sounds great on the rarely heard alto clarinet as he interweaves the sinewy horn with Ra’s spiraling synthesizers. Later on, Davis takes up the alto saxophone and again duets with Allen. Amazingly, Ra’s Moog textures subtly evolve over the course of the piece – whether by his own knob twiddling or Kingsley’s, who knows? He builds up the variegated intensities until Allen breaks through with a taut but assertive solo on alto sax. As the pressure subsides, Ra spins delicate webs of unearthly tones to end. According to Campbell, this piece was deliberately speeded up and mastered out of phase, lending it a sort of humanly-impossible quality that only adds to its considerable mystique. My Brother the Wind is essential Sun Ra and a great example of his innovative artistry on early electronic keyboards. The Minimoog would remain a staple of Ra’s arsenal for the next decade and beyond.

August 15, 2009

Front Porch @Night

This is what I'm talking about: a full one-second exposure at f3.5, ISO 800. Better than film!

Playlist 8-15-09

* Hesperion XXI: Orient – Occident: 1200-1700 (Alia Vox SACD)
* J.S. Bach: The Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin (John Holloway) (ECM 2CD)
* Corelli: 12 Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 (English Concert/Pinnock) (Arkiv Produktion 2CD)
* Veracini: Sonatas (Holloway/ter Linden/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* LeClair: Sonatas (Holloway/ter Linden/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/ter Linden/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* John Coltrane: Coltrane Time (Blue Note CD)
* John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: Transition (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: Crescent (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse! SACD)
* John Coltrane: First Meditations (for quartet) (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse! 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Living Space (Impulse! CD)
* Sun Ra: Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic CD)
* The Brothers Johnson: Look Out For #1 (A&M CD)
* Grateful Dead: Veterans Memorial Coliseum, New Haven, CT 10-25-79 II (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 10-1-94 (SBD 3 CDR)
* Bob Dylan & The Band: A Tree with Roots: Complete Basement Tapes, v.1 (Fan/boot 2CDR)
* Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti (Zappa Records 2LP)
* The Cars: Heartbeat City (Elektra LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP)
* Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe (Matador 2 CD)
* Boston Spaceships: Brown Submarine (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Elephant Jokes (GBV, Inc. LP/CD)
* Circus Devils: Gringo (HJRR CD)
* Helios Creed: Boxing the Clown (Amphetamine Reptile LP)
* Boredoms: Onanie Bomb Meets the Sex Pistols (Reprise CD)


As you can see, I’ve been on a Coltrane binge this week. Not sure why exactly, but as much as I love Coltrane’s music, his sound is so intense, so emotionally heavy, that I have to be in the right mood to listen to him. I guess this was one of those weeks. Incidentally, Coltrane Time was originally released under Cecil Taylor’s name as Stereo Drive. While it’s not the sort of spectacular “clash of the titans” you might expect (after all, it was recorded fairly early in Taylor’s career, and several years prior to Coltrane’s own “New Thing”-styled recordings on Impulse!), it is a wonderfully inventive album for the period (1958).

Update: I only just learned that drummer Rashied Ali died on August 12th. While he does not play on any of the selections listed, he was an integral part of Coltrane's final, most aggressively avant garde band. No wonder I had Coltrane on the brain! R.I.P. Rashied Ali.


Oh, boy. I hadn’t listened to Sheik Yerbouti all the way through in very, very long time. By 1979, Zappa was, in many ways, at the height of his powers. Yet he insisted on deploying them in the service of utterly puerile material which was, admittedly, titillating and uproariously funny back when I was a pimply teenager but now seems downright offensive (e.g. “Bobby Brown,” etc.). It’s not so much that I’ve become more conservative (hardly!); it just seems a shame that Zappa would squander his gifts for cheap, hurtful laughs. Well, ‘twas ever thus with Frank. Be that as it may, this album contains some of Zappa’s strongest guitar playing on record: the closing “Wild Love”>”Yo’ Mama” sequence is a stunning tour de force of guitar heroism (and deft editing). It remains pretty darn impressive even all these years later.

About the photograph:

After three years of semi-frustration with our Nikon Coolpix L3 point-and-shoot camera, we decided to take the plunge and upgrade to a digital SLR. After doing a little research (which we probably should have done prior to purchasing a point-and-shoot), we went with the venerable Nikon D40 for its light weight; ease of use; Nikkor’s super-high-quality lenses; and, of course, its (relatively) low price. Right out of the box, in automatic mode, the D40 took photographs that were impossible for me to capture with the L3, such as this full-body portrait of our beloved “rocking kangaroo.” I’ve been spending the weekend experimenting with it and I’m really looking forward to having some fun with photography again. We’ll probably hang on to the L3 since its pocket-size dimensions make it so convenient, but it will be really nice to have the flexibility of a full-function SLR with all the advantages of digital technology. And those advantages are huge! The ability to see the effect of various settings immediately after taking the picture is extremely useful! Back in the days of 35mm film, I could only take a rudimentarily educated guess at what the final result might look like but would have to wait for developing the film and printing -- which could be days (or months) later. With the D40’s big, bright LCD, I know right away whether any particular adjustment improves or degrades the image. Cool! Look for more amateur photography on the blog.

August 9, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro-Infinity Arkestra: Continuation (Saturn ESR 520)

Originally released in 1970, Continuation contains a handful of experimental small group tracks recorded at the Sun Studio in 1968 along with two tracks with the full Arkestra recorded live at The East in Brooklyn, New York in 1969.

Side A begins with “Biosphere Blues,” a typically spaced-out blues, taken at a relaxed, almost somnambulant tempo. Interestingly, John Gilmore is probably playing drums on this home recording. After Ra’s piano introduction, Wayne Harris takes a nice solo on trumpet, his tone is warm and mellow, his note choices exquisite. Next up, Ali Hassan takes a single tasteful chorus on trombone. Then, Pat Patrick jumps in with an incongruously aggressive solo on baritone saxophone before giving way to Ra’s jaunty piano. A swelling space chord ends the piece with an odd dissonance. “Intergalaxtic Research” sounds as every bit as alien and forbidding as its title. Robert Barry plays the booming “lightning drum” with James Jacson on log drum and other unidentified percussionists who construct throbbing, asymmetrical cross-rhythms while Art Jenkins does his bit on space voice. Ra twiddles with his space organ and clavinet like a mad scientist, emitting random blasts of noisy timbres, dense, lurching chords, or rapidly spinning constellations of notes. This is a wonderfully strange piece.

The presence of Tommy Hunter and his echo-echo-echo machine on “Earth Primitive Earth” and “New Planet” makes me think these tracks were recorded prior to 1968. In fact, the overall ambience (and massively increased hiss) sounds like some of the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings (but this might just be wishful thinking). Both pieces pit Ra’s echoing piano against a skittering flute choir. On “Earth Primitive Earth,” Hunter plays some kind of metal scraper quite near the microphone, making for an unsettling, spooky atmosphere. “New Planet” takes the echo thing to a whole other level and Robert Cummings turns in another spectacular solo on bass clarinet (I am really starting to appreciate what a great player Cummings is on that most difficult and unwieldy instrument). Incidentally, both of these tracks appeared on the 1989 compilation CD, Out There a Minute (Blast First), although “Earth Primitive Earth” was slightly edited and re-titled “Cosmo Enticement” and “New Planet” was re-titled “Song of Tree and Forest,” presumably at the request of Sun Ra himself.

Side B contains the nearly continuous nineteen-minute live concert segment from 1969, and it’s a corker. “Continuation To” opens with the Arkestra already in full flight over sultry African percussion but Ra soon takes over with a roiling piano solo, full of booming left hand chords and scampering right hand clusters. After bringing things back down a bit, Akh Tal Ebah extemporizes on trumpet while Ra hints at ballad forms and hand percussion gurgles nervously in the background. Suddenly Ra produces a bouncy, repetitive figure and bass and drums join in for some good, old fashioned swinging. Ebah, a newcomer to the band since Sun Ra’s relocation to Philadelphia in the fall of 1968, manages to hold his own amidst the shifting musical landscapes and things really start to heat up when the Arkestra enters with big angular space chords, full of wiry clarinets and blatting trombones. But just as Boykins begins to solo, the track cuts off. “Jupiter Festival” picks up with the end of Boykins’s bass solo and he quickly moves to the fast walking to introduce “Second Stop is Jupiter.” Ra joins in and the Arkestra chants, climaxing with “all out for Jupiter!” A massive space chord erupts which melts into manic group improvisation. Gilmore emerges from the din with a lengthy, super-intense tenor saxophone solo, full of “sheets-of-sound” flurries of notes, heroically over-blown honks and squeals, and impossible multi-register leaps. Sun Ra prods things along with more furious piano, conducting brief entrances and exits of musicians while Gilmore continues to wail. The music finally simmers down a bit with the various horns exhaustedly sighing and moaning but with Boykins agitatedly scraping away with the bow. At one point, there is a tense, held note before the return of the busy piano figures after which screaming clarinets provide contrast against some sweetly melodious alto sax and rippling brass, with Jarvis propulsively pounding away in free rhythm. This deliciously complex texture continues on for some minutes before abruptly cutting off. Argh!

Nevertheless, Continuation is another fascinating album from a fertile, if spottily documented, period in Ra’s career and well worth hearing.


Good news! According to Amazon, Atavistic will be reissuing Continuation on October 6, 2009 as part of John Corbett’s Unheard Music Series. Rejoice!

Jerry Garcia (August 1, 1942-August 9, 1995)

Jerry Garcia died fourteen years ago today.

I was at work when I heard the news. A friend called me on the phone and told me she heard it on the radio. I was stunned but incredulous. After all, there had been rumors and scares in the past, notably the coma of 1986 and, more recently, the cancelled fall tour in 1992, but Garcia always pulled through. I logged onto the Usenet, but there was no word. Only minutes later, there were hundreds of messages piling up. TV news reports in San Francisco were confirming Garcia’s death by heart failure at the Serenity Knolls rehab clinic in Forest Knolls, California. Oh, no…it was true…

I went outside to the courtyard and wept. Just the day before, I had received mail-ordered tickets to the first three Boston Garden shows scheduled for September of 1995, including a second row seat for the 17th. The following day, like a one-two punch, I received my tickets to the following three nights.

I had been in deep denial about Garcia’s obvious morbidity. In retrospect, I had simply gotten lucky; several of the shows I saw in the later years were especially good ones, leading me to believe that the music would never stop. They’d written a batch of strong new songs in 1993 and, while 1994 was mostly uneven, 10/1 was one of the best top-to bottom concerts I ever witnessed. The March 1995, shows at The Spectrum in Philadelphia were also pretty spectacular with the breakout of “Unbroken Chain” on 3/19. Sure, the performance of the ridiculously complicated tune was shaky at best, but the rush of elation that surged through the crowd as they recognized the never-before-played-live song was a hyper-extraordinary event, perhaps the highest moment in my circa. one hundred show “career” as a Deadhead. Heck, even the Albany shows on that otherwise disastrous 1995 summer tour were surprisingly good. But now that heartfelt performance of “Black Peter” on 6/22 felt eerily prophetic.

I was devastated. Thinking about that day still makes me sad. Yet the widespread period of public mourning was surprising and touching at the time -- even president Bill Clinton made an official statement. Deadheads were no longer a fringe subculture; they were everywhere, even heads of state. But with Garcia’s death, the Grateful Dead were, um, dead and an era had ended. Like many other Deadheads, I had planned my life around Grateful Dead concerts for years. Spring tour, Summer tour, Fall tour – Liz and I even spent three days of our honeymoon at Cal Expo in not-so-lovely Sacramento, California in 1994. It may sound pretty pathetic to say this, but The Grateful Dead was something to live for. Jerry’s absence on this god-forsaken planet leaves an unfillable void that only grows larger by the day. As might be expected, Bob Dylan summed it up best:

There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player.
I don’t think eulogizing will do him justice. He was that great – much more than
a superb musician with an uncanny ear and dexterity. He is the very spirit
personified of whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up to the
spheres. He really had no equal. To me he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he
was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know. There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without
being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated,
hypnotic and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really

Well, yes. By way of example, here is a heart-wrenchingly poignant performance of “So Many Roads” from the very last Grateful Dead concert at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 9, 1995:

August 8, 2009

Playlist 8-8-09

* Handel: 12 Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.7 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Trio Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Christine Plubeau/Arnaud Pumir: Église Saint Nicolas, La Hulpe 3-20-09 (FM CDR)
* Boulez: Pli Selon Pli (Ensemble Intercontemporain/Schäfer) (DG CD)
* Andrew Hill: Mosaic Select 16 (Mosaic 3CD)
* Cecil Taylor: The World of Cecil Taylor (Candid CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Jumpin’ Punkins (Candid CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Coventry) 1985 (Leo 2CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quintet (London) 2004 (Leo CD)
* Anthony Braxton/William Parker/Milford Graves: Beyond Quantum (Tzadik CD)
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Bimhuis, Amsterdam 10-2-08 (FM 2CDR)
* John Abercrombie Organ Trio: Congress Centrum, Bremen 4-25-09 (FM CDR)
* Olu Dara: In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic CD)
* Olu Dara: Neighborhoods (Atlantic CD)
* Prince & The Revolution: Around the World in a Day (Paisley Park/Warner Bros. LP)
* Grateful Dead: Go to Nassau (GD/Arista 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA 5-27-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Jerry Garcia Band: The Keystone, Palo Alto, CA 2-5-82 IIx (SBD CDR)
* Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire/Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Minutemen: Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat (SST 12”EP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP/CD)
* Helios Creed: The Last Laugh (Amphetamine Reptile LP)
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD CD)


Christopher Miller: Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
N.B: This book was retitled for paperback as Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects: A Novel in Liner Notes. The first time I read this, I thought it was uproariously funny. I lent it to a friend, and, after a long interval, I re-read upon its return. This time through, it just seemed unbearably sad. The conceit of “a novel in liner notes” is actually very clever and Miller viciously skewers the vacuous pretentions of the classical music establishment. But his merciless evisceration of the ambitious yet utterly talentless Simon Silber (and his equally oblivious biographer) is hard to take a second time around. Still worth reading…once.

August 2, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Amiri Baraka/Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: A Black Mass (Son Boy 1 CD)

The controversial writer/activist LeRoi Jones was a fellow denizen of Greenwich Village and an early, influential supporter of Sun Ra’s music in New York. After the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, Jones changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS). Sun Ra remained downtown, but he was intensely active in the short-lived institution, making the trip to the Harlem office “almost daily” (Szwed, p. 210). However, BARTS quickly disintegrated and Baraka decamped to his hometown in Newark, New Jersey where he established The Spirit House in a rented one-family dwelling. The first floor’s interior walls were removed to create performance/work space that would also come to house a book store and a record label, provocatively named Jihad.

A Black Mass was written in 1965 and published in Four Black Revolutionary Plays (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966). It was first performed at Procter’s Theater in Newark in May, 1966 with Sun Ra’s Myth Science Arkestra supplying incidental music. The Arkestra shared the stage with the actors and improvised its parts by following cues in the script such as “Sun-Ra music of shattering dimension” or by interjecting music or percussion amidst the actors’ speaking lines. For Jihad’s first LP in 1968, Baraka enlisted members of the Black Arts troupe and the Arkestra to record the play, loosely based upon the Muslim myth of Yacub, wherein an evil white monster is accidentally created by an overly curious black magician. Despite the overt (reverse) racism inherent in the work, Szwed helpfully points out that, “in Baraka’s re-telling, it is the aesthetic impulse gone astray which is at center, … a violation of the spirit of the black aesthetic” (p. 211). Baraka reinforces this message in the liner notes to this CD reissue: “Art is creation and … we must oppose the ‘creation of what does not need to be created.’” Even so, the play presents a number of problems for white listeners such as me!

The work begins with a brief guided improvisation by the Arkestra which introduces the actors, who enter humming and singing the melody to “Satellites Are Spinning,” a theme which runs throughout the play as a kind of leitmotiv. Unfortunately, the recording is crude and the acting is stagy and way melodramatic. Here is a representative declamation: “What we do not know does not exist. We know beyond knowing. Knowing there is nothing to know. Everything is everything.” A chorus of women screeches and screams when the while devil is unleashed. Meanwhile, the Arkestra keeps a running commentary varying from splattery percussion and the plinking of “strange strings” to alternatively aggressive and spacey organ/clavinet workouts or dissonant, massed space chords. Occasionally, horns make succinct solo statements or engage in vocalized call and response with the actors. Despite the ponderous, heavy-handed rhetoric, Baraka’s play surely appealed to Sun Ra’s own black sci-fi mythology, even if Ra’s musico-philosophy was more ecumenical than insurgent. Interestingly, Szwed takes pains to demonstrate Ra’s influence on Baraka’s thinking during this period: “[Ra] is there in [Baraka’s] historical allusions, in the tone and pitches of his reading, in his sense of the importance of language, and in his consciousness of the possibilities of playing the spoken word against the written, unleashing the phonetics buried in the printed word” (p. 209). Baraka would continue to be an important advocate for Sun Ra and his music. In Eulogies (1996), Baraka wrote: “Ra was so far out because he had the true self consciousness of the Afro American intellectual artist revolutionary…” (quoted in Szwed, p. 209). Yes, but A Black Mass seems to me a dangerously incendiary piece of sixties countercultural history and a difficult, painful listen, despite the sometimes interesting music.

August 1, 2009

Playlist 8-1-09

* La Ciaccona: Chateau de Grandson, Neufchatel 2-3-09 (FM CDR)
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Viola da Gamba (Pandolfo/Alessandrini) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op.3 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.4 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Boulez: Le Marteau sans Maître/Dérive 1 & 2 (Ensemble Intercontemporain) (DG CD)
* Andrew Hill: Black Fire (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Smokestack (Blue Note CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Speak Like a Child (Blue Note CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Thrust (Columbia CD)
* Miles Davis: Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) It’s About That Time (Columbia 2CD)
* David Torn’s Prezens: Saalfelden, Austria 8-24-07 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Stadtgarten, Köln 11-4-08 (FM CDR)
* Tortoise: A Lazarus Taxon (Thrill Jockey 3CD+DVD)
* Bill Laswell: Sacred System: Chapter Two (ROIR CD)
* Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros. 2LP)
* Nona Hendryx: The Art of Defense (RCA LP)
* Steve Winwood: Arc of a Diver (Island LP)
* Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C. 3-18-78 (Pure Jerry 2CD)
* Garcia & Kahn: Marin Veteran’s Memorial Aud., San Rafael, CA 2-28-86 (Pure Jerry CD)
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA 5-26-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Television: Marquee Moon (Rhino CD)
* Minutemen: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (SST LP)
* Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Geffen CD)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador CD)
* The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi vs. the Pink Robots (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch CD)
* Guided By Voices: Bee Thousand (Scat LP)
* Robert Pollard: Elephant Jokes (GBV, Inc. LP)

About the photograph(s):

Grateful Dead: Boston Garden 9-29-94, photographed by me from the third row (!) with a Nikon FG. I glued the 4”x 6” prints to Bristol board in a “joiner” a la David Hockney. Wow. That was a long time ago! Jerry Garcia would have been 67 years old today. Happy Birthday, Jerry! Here are a couple more photographs from that concert: