August 29, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: “The Mystery Board” (Thumbs Up! (boot) 2CD)

A bootleg CD entitled "The Mystery Board" appeared on the mythic Thumbs Up! label some time ago purporting to have been recorded November 2nd or 3rd 1972 “for a possible Saturn release.” As with any bootleg, all this needs to be taken with an enormous grain of salt. Yet the 1972 date seems reasonable considering the repertoire and personnel and, given Sun Ra’s aptitude with a razor blade and splicing tape, it’s certainly possible he could have crafted a satisfactory LP out of this mess, had he so desired. Such as it is, "The Mystery Board" is a rough listen with the mix suffering from the usual deficiencies of a soundboard tape made in a small venue: the vocals and soloists are way up front, with the drums and everything else (with the notable exception of Ra himself) almost entirely inaudible. Accordingly, all the ensemble sections are woefully unbalanced, but some of the less instrumentally dense material actually sounds pretty decent, believe it or not.

Disc one begins with an intensely confrontational “Cosmo Drama” regarding “The First Man.” Ra viciously hectors the audience about their “black ignorance” for wanting “to be number one” and implores them to “go home and read your Bible – ‘cuz the Second Man is you!” With the June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices echoing his every threatening word, at times it sounds like a riot is about to break out. Sometimes the Arkestra plays some halting swing but for the most part Sonny is just furiously preaching it. Thankfully, after about five minutes, Ra segues into a brief, previously unheard composition with a descending minor key melody over a gentle swing groove. What is this??! I swear, if I were really serious about this project, I’d create a spreadsheet to try and keep track of all these fleeting, unknown titles just in case they turn up again elsewhere. This composition is a great little bluesy number that ends before it even begins. Sonny then plays a spacey organ interlude to introduce “Neptune.” Tyson and Ebah share vocal duties while the band intermittently erupts into bouts of free-jazz skronk. Gilmore takes a typically brilliant tenor sax solo, but as he wanders on and off mic, the effect is considerably lessened. In fact, the mix is so murky that the remainder of this track is hardly worth bothering with.

The next thirty-minute segment, on the other hand, is quite interesting, featuring three somewhat rarely heard compositions. “Spontaneous Simplicity” finds Sun Ra on acoustic piano for a change, accompanying Marshall Allen on this relaxed, dreamy tune. Allen’s airy flute sounds quite lovely and Sonny even takes a gently floating solo of his own. The mix is much clearer on this quiet chamber piece and it sure sounds like the inimitable Ronnie Boykins on bass during this entire sequence. Danny Davis joins Allen for “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” a minor mode waltz led by the piano, bass and drums with the flute choir playing long-breathed, dissonant melodies above and around a moderately propulsive rhythm. Again, Ra takes sweetly singing solo, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a decent piano. Just gorgeous! “Intergalactic Universe” follows with its modal groove in five providing a backdrop for an extended John Gilmore outing, wherein he shows off his mastery of post-bop saxophone techniques, moving from small motivic figures to complex “sheets of sound” and culminating in a squalling climax of piercing multiphonics and rapid-fire glissandos. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi gamely follows with his typically fluent articulation in all registers, but when the Neptunian libflecto enters (Thompson?), the tape abruptly cuts off. Too bad; things were really starting to cook.

Disc two opens with a percussive and atonal piano to introduce “Angels and Demons at Play,” which is taken at leisurely tempo. Boykins’s (?) bass and Pat Patrick’s baritone saxophone double the enervating 5/4 ostinato while Allen plays the lead on alto saxophone rather than the usual flute. This provides a relatively rare opportunity to appreciate Allen’s brilliance on that instrument as he takes a long, labyrinthine solo exhibiting a vast range of timbral variety and expressionistic melodic invention—so good it elicits a round of polite applause from the audience. Next up is the usual group improvisation, featuring a set piece for John Gilmore’s pyrotechnics, long experimental keyboard outings from Ra, and tightly controlled moments of screaming free jazz mayhem. Unfortunately, the tape cuts in and out with the mix utterly atrocious in parts: drums and bass completely buried and the solo instruments over-mic’d and horrifically distorted. Nevertheless, Ra’s extended solo segments are a delight, with kaleidoscopic tone colors courtesy of his “space organ,” Moog synthesizer and a battery of electronic effects, including repeaters, tremolos, phasers and some deliberately nasty distortion. Excellent. “Space Is the Place” arises from the ashes with Akh Tal Ebah joining June Tyson and the Ethnic Space Voices on this signature anthem. Sadly, the mix is again abysmal with the histrionic singing much too prominent and the rhythm section almost non-existent. Interestingly, what sounds like electric bass is clearly audible, casting some doubt on whether or not Boykins is really present on this recording, or if this segment is possibly from a different concert altogether. After about seven minutes of carrying on, the track quickly fades.

The disc closes with an unknown number in the “Discipline” series, the one which was tragically mis-titled “Discipline 33” on the soundtrack to Space Is the Place. This misnomer has caused all kinds of consternation because this piece (whatever its proper title) was played fairly regularly during this period—and it is definitely not “Discipline 33!” It is hard enough to try and keep up with all these unknown “Discipline” pieces without having to contend with further discographical confusion! (Like I said, I really need to create that spreadsheet.) This version is incomplete, picking up at the beginning of the “Cosmo Drama” segment. Ebah provides some tasty flugelhorn obbligato over the easy swing of the piece, but when Ra announces, “It’s after the end world, don’t you know that yet?” the band drops out for some full-throated declamations: “A cosmic equation was sent to you, men of Earth, and you couldn’t solve the problem! Therefore, the universe sent me to converse with you!” Wow. The Arkestra later revives the repeatedly descending theme behind the declamations, but it’s all rather distant-sounding and hard to hear. And again, it is clearly an electric bass anchoring things a bit too proficiently to be Pat Patrick and I’m not sure Boykins ever played the instrument at all. So who is playing? No idea. After a little over seventeen minutes, the tape abruptly cuts off, leaving us pretty much in the dark.

Sam Byrd (who knows way more about Sun Ra’s music than I do) has suggested that the order of the discs in this set is reversed: that is to say, disc two is actually disc one and vice versa. After listening to them in this order, I think he might be right: the music seems to flow better with the “Cosmo Drama” dividing the two discs. Then again, I also suspect this material might actually be from two different concerts, with Boykins on some of it and an unknown electric bass player on the rest. But who knows? This is truly a “Mystery Board” and while much of it borders on the unlistenable, there’s enough compelling music here to make it worth seeking out. Caveat emptor!

August 28, 2010

Playlist Week of 8-28-10

* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD†
* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.2 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)†
* Buxtehude: Seven Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Magnificat, etc. (Collegium Vocale, et al./Herreweghe) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations and Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21, etc. (Ens. InterContemporain/Shäfer/Boulez) (DG CD)
* Schoenberg: Suite, Op.29, etc. (Ens. InterContemporain/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Schoenberg: The Piano Music (Pollini) (DG CD)
* Oliver Nelson: The Blues and The Abstract Truth (Impulse! CD)
* Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings (d.1-5) (Columbia 6CD)
* John Coltrane: Live at Birdland (Impulse! CD)
* Roy Haynes Quartet: Out of the Afternoon (Impulse! CD)
* Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison Sextet: Illumination! (Impulse! CD)
* Sun Ra: The Mystery Board (11-2 or 3-1972) (SBD/boot 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.8) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Mary Halvorson, et al.: Calling All Portraits (Skycap CD)
* Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear CD)
* The Blue Series Continuum: GoodandEvil Sessions (Thirsty Ear CD)
* The Blue Series Continuum: The Sorcerer Sessions (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Antipop Consortium: Antipop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear CD)
* El-P Featuring the Blue Series Continuum: High Water (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Quartet (Geffen CD)†
* Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Blonde On Blonde (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed 2LP)
* The Beatles: Beatles for Sale (stereo) (2009 remaster) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (stereo) (2009 remaster) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Revolver (stereo) (2009 remaster) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Rolling Stones: “Handsome Girls” (live July 1978) (d.1-3) (SBD/boot 4CDR)‡
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 3-31-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.3, No.3 (Fillmore East 5-05-70) (d.1) (GD/Rhino 3+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks, Vol.14 (Boston 11-30 and 12-02-73) (GD 4 CD)‡
* Soft Machine: The Soft Machine (ABC/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Volume Two (ABC/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Third (Columbia 2LP)
* Genesis: Foxtrot (Charisma – UK LP)
* Genesis: Selling England By the Pound (Charisma LP)
* The Flaming Lips, et al.: Play The Dark Side of the Moon (Warner Bros. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)



Your letter gave me great pleasure indeed, above all because you are one of the extremely rare kind of people who are of such importance to our musical culture. I mean: it is not the professional musician, the musician who lives by his art, who is needed to keep musical culture going; it is the amateur, and it always has been the amateur who has really promoted and encouraged art. This is all the more gratifying since your profession is one that claims much of your time; and what is astonishing is the way you have come to know my music—I am thinking of piano pieces and scores that are really very difficult to grasp, difficult to read, difficult to decipher, and which demand great knowledge of various aspects of music. I am extremely delighted at having discovered such as musician as you.

It makes me extremely proud to have received such a letter particularly from you, and for me it will remain one of a few letters that have given me the greatest pleasure in my musical career.

-- Arnold Schoenberg: Letter to Jacques Martet, 6 January 1950 (Letters (ed. by Erwin Stein), University of California Press, 1987, p.279).


I planned to tell you what painting meant—means—to me. In fact, it was the same to me as making music. To me it was a way of expressing myself, of presenting emotions, ideas, and then other feelings, and this is perhaps the way to understand these paintings—or not to understand them. … I expressed myself in the same manner as I did in music…[A]s a painter I was absolutely an amateur. I had no theoretical training and only a little esthetic training—this only from general education but not from an education which pertained to painting. In music, it was different [NB: Schoenberg was an autodidact]…They would probably have suffered the same fate as I have suffered. They would have been attacked and scolded, and I don’t know what else I should say: I mean the same would happen to them what happened to my music. They would have been understood or not understood.

-- Arnold Schoenberg: Interview with Halsey Stevens (1949) (quoted in The Visions of Arnold Schönberg: The Painting Years, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2002, pp.91, 185).


We see that in every painting of Schönberg, the inner wish of the artist speaks in the form which best befits it. Just as with his music (inasmuch as I a layman may affirm), Schönberg also in his painting renounces the superfluous (therefore the harmful) and proceeds along a direct path to the essential (therefore to the necessary). He leaves alone, unnoticed, all embellishments and artistic detail…I should most like to call Schönberg’s art the painting of essence.

-- Wassily Kandinsky: “Die Bilder” (1912) (Id., p.182).


Once, in the army, I was asked if I was really the composer Arnold Schoenberg. “Somebody has to be,” I said, “and nobody else wanted to, so I took it on, myself.”

-- Arnold Schoenberg: Letter of Thanks to Those Who Sent Their Good Wishes on the Occasion of Schoenberg’s 75th Birthday, 16 September 1949 (Letters, p.290).


Image: Arnold Schoenberg: Green Self-Portrait, 1910. Oil on wood 33 x 24 cm. (from The Visions of Arnold Schoenberg, p.100).

August 22, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


Metamorphosis Vision
Transmolecular light
Transcendent darkness rule/measure of the outerness
Black, chromatic
Synthesis on
It is yon diamond project differential
Sapphire beam ruby
Plane transcendent / visions out.

-- Sun Ra

August 21, 2010

Playlist Week of 8-21-10

* J.S. Bach: Motets (Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* J.S. Bach: Solo & Double Violin Concertos (AAM/Manze/Podger) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.2 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Handel: Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2 & 5 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)†
* Les Basses Reunies: Prokys Hall, Cesky Krumlov, Czechoslovakia 7-12-07 (FM CDR
* Christine Plubeau/Arnaud Pumir: Église Saint Nikolas, La Hulpe, Belgium 3-20-09 (FM CDR)
* Schoenberg: Die Jakobsleiter, etc. (Chor/Orch. Berlin/Nagano) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Revueltas: Night of the Mayas, etc. (var.) (Catalyst CD)
* Miles Davis: Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige/DCC CD)
* Miles Davis: Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige/DCC CD)
* John Coltrane: Side Steps (d.2-5) (Prestige 5CD)
* John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (Impulse! CD)
* Andrew Hill: The Complete Blue Note Sessions 1963-66 (d.5-6) (Blue Note/Mosaic 10LP)
* Sun Ra: Discipline 27-II (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: The Mystery Board [unknown venue 11-1972] (SBD/boot 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: unknown location, circa. 1972 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.7) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Matthew Shipp: Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Spring Heel Jack: Songs and Themes (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Weather Report: Heavy Weather (Columbia/Legacy SACD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Still Life (Talking) (Geffen CD)†
* Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home (Geffen CD)†
* Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages (Axiom/Island CD)
* Last Exit: Iron Path (Venture/WEA CD)
* Material: Hallucination Engine (Axiom/Island CD)
* LTJ Bukem: Journey Inwards (Kinetic 2CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 3-30-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks, Vol.1 (Lakeland, FL 12-19-73) (GD 2CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: View from the Vault IV (Oakland/Anaheim 7-87) (selections) (GD 4CD)‡
* Chicago: VIII (Columbia LP)
* Chicago: X (Columbia LP)
* Big Star: Third (a/k/a Sister Lovers) (Ardent/4 Men With Beards LP)
* Rickie Lee Jones: Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Soft Machine: The Soft Machine (ABC/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Volume Two (ABC/Sundazed LP)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Friday Music LP)
* Peter Gabriel: [3] (a/k/a "Melt") (Mercury LP)
* Genesis: Three Sides Live (Atlantic 2LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: Eureka (Drag City LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: Half Way to a Three Way (Drag City EP)
* Jim O’Rourke: Insignificance (Drag City LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: The Visitor (Drag City LP)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino (CD)



I finally replaced the stylus on my Sumiko Oyster cartridge and, let me tell you, this is the cheapest, most effective tweak imaginable! Twenty-five bucks and my turntable sounds thousand percent better. Plus I oiled the bearing and carefully re-leveled the plinth and re-calibrated the tracking force. What a massive improvement! At the moment, I have no complaints at all with LP playback. Of course, as I mentioned last week, the new amp is quite revealing, so garbage in, garbage out, as they say. But when it’s good, it’s very, very good.


Speaking of good sound, you may not know that Chicago X (1975) was mastered by a young Doug Sax and the nearly ubiquitous standard pressing (which I picked up recently for like four bucks) easily sounds as good as any modern thirty-dollar “audiophile” LP I’ve ever heard (after a thorough cleaning, anyway). Of course, this is far from Chicago’s best effort and the hit single, “If You Leave Me Now,” signaled an irreversible turn towards syrupy, maudlin balladry which was a far cry from the jazz/rock/r&b hybrid of their earlier records. Even so, there is no denying that this song is an excellent example of pure pop craftsmanship: Terry Kath’s nimble acoustic guitar combines with the strings and horns (led by James Pankow’s mellow trombone) to provide a rich backdrop for bassist Peter Cetera’s earnest crooning. It really does sound great and it’s no wonder the song was a massive hit. I don’t have Chicago XI, their last album before Kath’s death, but I’ve been looking for a clean copy. I know they’re out there…

August 19, 2010

Tree Frog

Tree Frog 2010-08-18b, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

We can hear the tree frogs constantly, but it's quite rare to see one up close. This one hopped onto our kitchen door as we were eating dinner. I grabbed my camera and got a few shots. Amazing, primordial creatures!

August 15, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Discipline 27-II (Saturn LP>CDR)

Another album was hurriedly compiled for the newly re-constituted Saturn Records from the sessions produced by Ed Michel at Streeterville Studios in Chicago on October 19-20, 1972. Discipline 27-II was released as Saturn LP 538 in 1973 and, in a sign of the times, it is the only quadraphonic Saturn LP ever released (Campbell & Trent, p.191). The album was ultimately obscured by a deluge of records that came to market that year, including the Blue Thumb movie tie-in, Space Is the Place (also recorded at these sessions), the magisterial Astro Black, and a slew of classic Saturn LPs re-issued en masse as a part of Sun Ra’s recent deal with Impulse!. Unsurprisingly, Discipline 27-II remains out of print and nearly impossible to find, although bootlegs and fan-created “needle-drops” are readily available to the intrepid fan. Apparently, enough material was recorded at these marathon sessions to produce four full albums: a second Blue Thumb release was planned but never issued and another Saturn LP was proposed to Impulse! for distribution but ultimately rejected. Prof. Campbell lists a number of tantalizing titles in his discography, including “East” parts 1-3 (!) and “Piano of Never” but the master tapes have supposedly disappeared (see Id. pp.190-192). What remains are a pair of uneven yet utterly revelatory records that belong in every Sun Ra collection.

Side one is just about perfect, opening with a casual one-off composition entitled, “Pan Afro,” serving up one of those quintessentially off-kilter, modal grooves in six that only Sun Ra could come up with. John Gilmore delivers a sure-footed and soulful solo with the kind of deeply penetrating tone that rivals Coltrane at his most intensely spiritual. Of course, Coltrane acknowledged his debt to Gilmore (see Szwed pp.189-190) and it is safe to say that Coltrane would likely not have become the iconic figure he did if not for Gilmore’s early example and the oracular influence of Sun Ra’s presence in New York in the early 1960s (see Id. pp.76-78). While Gilmore briefly flirted with a solo career, he returned to the Arkestra full-time by 1966 and willingly allowed his talents to be subsumed (some might say constricted) by Sun Ra’s peculiar vision. Accordingly, his reputation as a superlative saxophonist has been greatly diminished if not completely overshadowed by Coltrane and others much less gifted who went on to make a name for themselves playing “The New Thing” the early 1970s. Gilmore’s all-too brief solo on the otherwise unremarkable “Pan Afro” is just one example among many of his staggering brilliance. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi, Sun Ra and Eloe Omoe take turns on trumpet, Rocksichord, and bass clarinet respectively, but they are unable to top Gilmore’s tour de force opening. That’s OK, no one could. The band sounds relieved to return to the head although Sonny wants to keep on going. The track ends with a long fade out on Ra’s smoky comping.

“Discipline 8” is given a definitive reading by the Arkestra: the heaving and moaning harmonies flow through various instrumental combinations while soloists, duos and trios flitter around in the wide open spaces. This is a fine example of Ra’s genius as a composer and orchestrator. “Discipline 8” is not built on the usual soloist with accompaniment model, but rather seeks a new synthesis: “free” improvisation seamlessly interwoven through a tightly arranged composition, conducted by Ra at the keyboards. Good stuff. “Neptune” closes the side with another nice medium swing number with plenty of Sonny’s tasty space-age barbeque sauce ladled on with his crude electric organ. A wild group improv erupts in the reeds section over some super-funky dual-bari-sax riffage and when June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices enter, Gilmore starts really wailing. Holy moly! Then Danny Ray Thompson’s window-rattling libflecto takes over amidst the pealing trumpets of Hadi and Ebah and all hell breaks loose in the rhythm section. But Sonny deftly reins it all in with some expectant vamping before Tyson alone chants: “Have you heard the latest news from Neptune?” Yes, we have—and it is good news indeed.

Side two, on the other hand, suffers from the same kind of aimless self-indulgence that mars the title track to Space Is the Place. Consisting of a side-long rendition of “Discipline 27-II,” with a full complement of the usual space-chants and hortatory declamations, it further lacks the adventurous mix-down techniques of the latter (probably due to time constraints) that might have added some much needed auditory interest—or at least made the densely layered recording sound marginally coherent. It is a sprawling, twenty-five-minute mess with the dream-like, subtly shape-shifting ensembles buried under innumerable wacked-out vocal tracks, which are also murkily mixed and hard to understand, making for an agonizingly frustrating listen (maybe it sounds better in quad!). A lost opportunity, perhaps; or maybe this kind of thing only worked well in a live setting (and even then, it can get a little tedious). Maybe I’m being too harsh and project-fatigue is no doubt starting to set in, but this recording of “Discipline 27-II” is assuredly one of Sun Ra’s least successful studio efforts. Whatever; the magnificence of side one more than compensates for the obvious deficiencies of side two and makes this half-great album well worth seeking out. One can also hope that the lost masters from these October 1972 sessions will someday resurface so as to provide some additional insight into these erratically fascinating records. You never know with Sun Ra…

August 14, 2010

Playlist Week of 8-14-10

* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)*
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations/Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)*
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)*
* Vivaldi: “Manchester” Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)*
* Veracini: Sonatas (Hollowar/Mortensen/ter Linden) (ECM CD)
* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV331, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.4 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Debussy: Orchestral Works (New Philharmonia/Chicago/Boulez) (d.2) (Sony Classical 2CD)
* Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Etoiles (Orch. Phil. Radio France/Chung) (DG 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Interplay (d.2-5) (Prestige 5CD)
* John Coltrane: Side Steps (d.1) (Prestige 5CD)
* Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch (Blue Note/Music Matters 2-45RPM)
* Andrew Hill: The Complete Blue Note Sessions 1963-1966 (d.1-4) (Mosaic 10LP)
* Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (Blue Thumb/Impulse! CD)
* Sun Ra: Discipline 27-II (Saturn LP>CDR)
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Class Trip (ECM CD)*
* John Abercrombie Quartet: The Third Quartet (ECM CD)*
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her (ECM CD)*
* Pat Metheny Group: We Live Here (Geffen CD)*
* David Torn: Prezens (ECM CD)
* The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Paul McCartney & Wings: Band On the Run (Capitol LP)
* Grateful Dead: McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, CO 12-12-90 (SBD 3CDR)**
* Grateful Dead: McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, CO 12-13-90 (SBD 3CDR)**
* Grateful Dead: Dean Smith Dome, UNC 3-24-93 (SBD 3CDR)**
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 10-01-94 (SBD 3CDR)
* Tom Petty: Wildflowers (Warner Bros. 2LP)
* Soft Machine: The Soft Machine (ABC/Probe/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Volume Two (ABC/Probe/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Third (Columbia 2LP)
* Yes: Tales of Topographic Oceans (Atlantic 2LP)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Friday Music LP)
* ProjeKct X: Heaven and Hell (DGM CD)**
* Can: Rite Time (Spoon SACD)
* Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)



After living with the new integrated amplifier for a week now, the word I would use to describe it is “revealing.” It is revealing of every little flaw in the source material, from the surface noise and inner groove distortion of well-loved but slightly worn LPs to the ear-bleeding brightness and annoying over-compression of most modern CDs. Indeed, badly made records sound bad; well-made records sound good. That is just the way it is, I guess. Then again, I am also confronted with the limitations of my other gear. Big orchestral music at "realistic" volume drives my poor old speakers to the brink: they are simply unable to cope with the huge dynamic swings and sharp transients required by, say, Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Etoiles. Moreover, my almost-three-year-old stylus needs to be replaced…then again, I should probably upgrade the cartridge itself…Maybe I need a whole new turntable?…Furthermore, the electrical problems are still not completely solved as we learned one night when we switched on the microwave and the horrible hum reared its ugly head again. Perhaps I should call an electrician…And on it goes. I knew it be like this when I chose to dip my toe into the temperamental waters of high end audio equipment. I am satisfied with what I have (for the time being) and will not bankrupt the household in search of (unattainable) perfection.

I’d rather buy records anyway…


I've added some footnotes to the playlist to indicate the environment in which I’m listening to each selection. One asterisk indicates I’m listening on my iPod (an 8G Nano), usually at work and currently through an uncomfortable pair of Sony earbuds. Less than ideal, I know, but I’m still contemplating how to go about upgrading. My job requires the utmost focus and concentration (it involves a lot of close reading) and I find baroque music (and cheesy jazz/fusion) to be the perfect accompaniment because I can pay attention or not; the music is beautiful but not so distracting that I can’t do my work. By the way, I’m not a big fan of headphones to begin with because the sound seems to come from the middle of my head instead from vibration of air in real space. But I have noticed that listening to harpsichord music is a much more intimate and enjoyable experience on headphones than on speakers, where it can often sound thin and clangorous. Richard Egarr’s recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Canons has been a real favorite these past weeks at the office.

Two asterisks indicate I’m listening in the car during my 30-50 minute commute. Lately, it’s been Grateful Dead shows on CDR. What can I say? It’s good summertime driving music. If I listen to the iPod in the car, I will mark the entry */**. Everything else has been listened to at home on the big hi-fi. Music is almost always on while I’m at home and, of course, I’m not always actively listening to it. But I try to make some time to really listen—especially on weekends. And the sound coming out of the new amplifier is sometimes so compelling that I find myself absent-mindedly enraptured by the music when I really should be doing something else.

If you wonder why my playlist is sometimes rather banal and repetitious, it is because music is, for me, utilitarian to a degree. Adorno would frown but I’m not ashamed. Despite all the obvious negative consequences, I feel blessed to live in this high-tech world that allows this cornucopia of music to be so readily available and easily portable. Music gives life dignity—whether its high art or trashy pop noise, music makes life bearable. Let us embrace this plenitude and rejoice!

August 9, 2010

Jerry Garcia (1942-1995)

It is hard to believe it was fifteen years ago today that Jerry Garcia died. It still makes me profoundly sad to think about that awful day and I will always miss him.

As a memorial to one of the greatest musicians ever, the above is a two-part clip of Garcia singing one of his finest late-period songs at the very last Grateful Dead concert at Soldier Field, Chicago, IL on July 9, 1995. Of course, the “road song” is a hoary old rock-n-roll cliché, but “So Many Roads” is one of the more eloquent examples of the genre and this final performance’s ragged, nearly exhausted delivery only enhances the heart-rending tone of the song. One of the things that made Garcia so special was the way he could so vividly convey the deepest, most conflicted and complex emotional qualities of any given song. When Garcia sings in his raspy, wizened voice, you believe him. His musical setting transforms Robert Hunter’s bluesy borrowings into a stately, country-soul ballad and this performance of “So Many Roads” is utterly gut-wrenching. By the end, I always wind up sobbing like a baby. Thanks for all the music, Jer! There will never be another like you.


Thought I heard a blackbird singin’ up on Bluebird Hill
Call me a whinin’ boy if you will
Born where the sun don’t shine and I don’t deny my name
Got no place to go, ain’t that a shame?

Thought I heard that KC whistle moanin’ sweet and low
Thought I heard that KC when she blow
Down where the sun don’t shine underneath the Kokomo
Whinin’ boy—got no place else to go.

So many roads I tell you, so many roads I know
So many roads, so many roads
Mountain high, river wide, so many roads to ride
So many roads, so many roads

Thought I heard a jug band playin’ “If you don’t—who else will?”
From over on the far side of the hill
All I know the sun don’t shine and the rain refuse to fall
And you don’t seem to hear me when I call

Wind inside and the wind outside tangled in the window blind
Tell me why you treat me so unkind
Down where the sun don’t shine, lonely and I call your name
No place left to go, ain’t that a shame?

So many roads I tell you, New York to San Francisco
All I want is one to take me home
From the high road to the low, so many roads I know
So many roads, so many roads

From the land of the midnight sun where the ice blue roses glow
‘long those roads of gold and silver snow
Howlin’ wide or moanin’ low, so many roads I know
So many roads to ease my soul.

--Robert Hunter

August 8, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (Blue Thumb/Impulse! CD)

Hoping to capitalize on the impending release of the movie, Space Is the Place, producer Ed Michel brought the Sun Ra and his Arkestra to Chicago’s Streeterville studios to record an eponymous album for the Blue Thumb label on October 19 & 20, 1972. In all, enough material for four albums was cut on these dates although only two were ever issued (see Campbell & Trent pp.189-192). Blue Thumb LP BTS 41 was released in 1973 and reissued on CD by Impulse! in February 1998. Why Impulse! chose to release this instead of their own (arguably superior) Astro Black remains a mystery to this day. Still, Space Is the Place is an (almost) great album, cunningly compiled to represent the panoply of Sun Ra’s music from swing to bop to free-jazz to outer-space chanting and beyond.

By 1972, sixteen-track recording was becoming more common and it is apparent from the side-long title track that Ra (and/or producer Michel) was keen to take advantage of this new technology by the use of overdubbing and elaborate stereo mixing strategies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work as the whole album was no doubt hastily completed during these two marathon sessions. One can picture Sun Ra and his crew manning the board, turning the mix into another performance, track faders flying. Sonny wields an array of electronic keyboards, including squiggly organ, buzzing Rocksichord and uncharacteristically cheesy Moog portamentos. Danny Ray Thompson holds down the bari-sax riff while Pat Patrick dons the electric bass to support June Tyson and a full complement of Space Ethnic Voices on this signature anthem. To keep things interesting, the rhythm section brings things to an intermittent boil and the horns occasionally wail with wild abandon. But after about fourteen minutes, the mix begins to lose focus and the incessantly weird vocalizing just gets annoying, finally coming to an end with some inconclusive keyboard noises. Sure, it’s fun in that sort-of-psychedelic way, but not altogether satisfying compared to other iterations in the discography.

Side two is more compelling, beginning with the revival of “Images,” a Sun Ra original dating back to 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette (Saturn/Evidence). This joyful swing number (with Ra on acoustic piano!) provides an opportunity for Kwami Hadi and John Gilmore to show off their fluent dexterity navigating the highly chromatic chord changes. Ra himself even turns in a tastefully understated chorus at the end. The reappearance of this tune signals the broadening of the Arkestra’s stylistic palette that was beginning to occur to encompass pre-war jazz amidst all the trappings of pan-African-futurism. “Images” would thenceforth become a regular feature of the live set. “Discipline 33” follows in an intricate arrangement for low reeds, flutes and trumpets with a meandering melody that floats above the tonally ambiguous harmonies and languid rhythm. It’s just lovely—and a perfect example of Ra’s sophisticated and adventurous approach to structure and orchestration.

“Sea of Sounds” is one of those frantically hare-brained big-band rave-ups taken at an impossibly fast tempo that a well-oiled Arkestra manages to nail with unflagging energy and precision. As the rhythm section continues to cook, Akh Tal Ebah contributes a mellifluous flugelhorn solo surrounded by rude libflecto grunts and crazy alto saxophone scribbles. Meanwhile, Ra’s gurgling and wheezing organ drives the band into super-intense, out-jazz territory. All this chaos gives way to a neatly choreographed saxophone battle, with Gilmore emerging on top of the start-stop rhythm section. A somewhat awkward edit cuts into Ra’s patented “mad-scientist-style” organ solo before Hadi’s high-register fireworks heralds the reprise of the taut and twisted theme. A splash of smeared harmonies brings things to a decisive close. Awesome. The album concludes with a quick romp through an old standby, “Rocket Number Nine.” Sonny obviously saw some latent commercial potential in this song as he recorded it several times, first back in 1960 and even releasing a small-group version on a Saturn single around 1967 or 68. Now presented with the opportunity to reach a (potentially) large audience, Ra was sure to end the album with a tight rendition of this enervating space-chant. Taking advantage of the multi-track environment, this version is densely layered with overdubbed vocalizing, clattering percussion and swooping synthesizers. Much too strange for radio play, it is still an appropriately entertaining conclusion to a typically quirky Sun Ra album.

Ultimately, Space Is the Place is a mixed bag with the overlong title track unable to sustain interest across its twenty-one and a half minutes. But side two contains outstanding performances of some of Sun Ra’s more interesting compositions, which, combined with the hi-fi stereo sonics of the recording, make this is a must-have album for the hardcore fan. Others who are curious about what this Sun Ra obsession is all about may find it a useful and easily obtainable introduction and a pathway to unknown worlds. Space is, indeed, the place—and Sun Ra can take you there.

August 7, 2010

Playlist Week of 8-07-10

* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations/Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.2 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden: Garrison Church, Copenhagen 4-08-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Les Muffatti: Eglise Saint-Remacle, Brussels, Belgium 7-19-08 (FM CDR)
* Ensemble Pierre Robert: Les Couperin: Tyska kyran, Stockholm 6-08-07 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia SACD)
* Miles Davis & John Coltrane: Complete Columbia Recordings (selections) (Columbia 6CD)
* John Coltrane: Interplay (d.1) (Prestige 6CD)
* Stan Getz: Focus (Verve CD)
* Stan Getz: “Mickey One” (Original Soundtrack) (MGM/Verve CD)
* Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (Blue Thumb/Impulse! CD)
* Sun Ra: Discipline 27-II (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Sun Plaza, Tokyo, Japan 9-28-78 (FM/boot CDR)
* Pat Metheny Group: Still Life (Talking) (Geffen CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home (Geffen CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: We Live Here (Geffen CD)
* Pat Metheny: Secret Story (Geffen CD)
* Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond the Missouri Sky (Verve CD)
* Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977 (selections) (MCA 2CD)
* The Spinners: One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (selections) (Atlantic 2CD)
* Roberta Flack: Softly with these Songs: The Best of (selections) (Atlantic CD)
* Bob Marley & the Wailers: Catch a Fire (Island/MFSL CD)
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum CD)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9/21/82 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-26-91 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN 6-23-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Love: Forever Changes (Elektra/Rhino CD)
* Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros. LP>CDR)
* Joni Mitchell: Congresgebouw, The Hague, Netherlands 4-27-83 (FM CDR)
* Chicago: VII (Columbia 2LP)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Yes: Close to the Edge (Expanded Edition) (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Genesis: Nursery Cryme (Charisma – UK LP)
* Can: Can (Spoon SACD)
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Steely Dan: Aja (MCA/Cisco LP)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Wilco: Kicking Television (Nonesuch 2CD)
* The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/MFSL 2LP)
* Stereolab: Dots and Loops (Drag City 2LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Animal Collective: Campfire Songs (Paw Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: Feels (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: “Grass” (Fat Cat CDEP+DVD)
* Animal Collective (with Vashti Bunyan): Prospect Hummer (Fat Cat CDEP)
* Animal Collective: “People” (Fat Cat CDEP)


My sixteen-year-old Sony receiver finally passed away after a long and painful illness. To be honest, I had been eagerly anticipating its demise for some time, anxious to finally have a legitimate excuse to replace it with something better—a lot better. When I bought the thing back in 1994, I knew nothing and went to Circuit City or some other Big Box store and purchased the most powerful receiver I could afford, even though I rarely listened to the radio and would never take advantage of the multi-speaker surround-sound modes which were, at that time, touted as “the future of hi-fi.” Rather, all that was an excuse for Sony to add expense and degrade sound quality. What a deal! It was, in truth, a piece of commoditized consumer junk. It did the job, but it always sounded brittle and overly bright and, at loud volumes, fatally congested. I chose to live with it since I’ve always been more interested in software than hardware. The problem is: software is worse than useless when the hardware malfunctions.

I should also admit that my loudspeakers were also purchased at some other Big Box store back in 1994 but they are JBL L5 6-ohm floor-standers that are perhaps less than ideal but are at least full-range speakers. I like them well enough and I am not so anxious to replace them. So any new amplifier would have to be powerful enough to drive these big and somewhat inefficient speakers. This has always been a concern. As it turned out, Music Direct was (still is) having a ½-off sale on two well-respected integrated amplifiers: the Marantz PM8003 and the Music Hall A50.2, each boasting around one hundred watts of power and include a phonograph input, which is, of course, essential for my purposes. The Marantz was tempting with its plentiful inputs, bypassable tone controls and big-name credibility. But the Music Hall offered slightly more power and an elegantly simple design that was very appealing. On its sleek, brushed steel faceplate are a mere two buttons (on/off and record monitor) and two knobs (input selector and volume). Nice. Here was truly “high-end” $1200 amp on sale for $599, too good a deal to pass up. I placed my order and nervously awaited its safe delivery.

It finally arrived on Tuesday. I hurriedly unpacked the box and set about re-wiring the system. The first thing I noticed is this thing is heavy for its modest size—almost thirty pounds! I also admired the massive, widely-spaced binding posts for the speaker connections. Very impressive. I plugged everything in and threw on The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin DVD-A, one of my favorite albums of all time presented in a super-high-resolution digital format. I swooned as I spun the delectably viscous, silky smooth volume knob. Sounded great too, the louder the better with deeper bass, smoother highs than I had ever before experienced. I was excited and pleased. But then I decided to put on an LP. After turning the selector knob to “phono,” I encountered an annoying buzzzzzzz! When I increased the volume, the hum became completely overwhelming. WTF?! I changed the input back to “CD” and discovered that the noise was there too; quieter, but still noticeably present. Oh, no…was my fancy new amplifier defective?

Before succumbing to a full-blown panic attack, I decided to ask Mr. Google about my problem. Mr. Google knows everything. Sure enough, he provided answers: that 60-cycle hum was the result of what’s called a ground loop. Huh. I pored over myriad websites and learned about how they occur. (Hint: the new amp has a grounded three-prong plug while my old receiver had regular old ungrounded two-prong plug. This (combined with my cable-TV box) is the sure-fire recipe for ground loops.). Not being an electrician, a lot of what I was looking at was wholly unintelligible. What I wanted to know was this: how the hell do I fix it?

Well, one solution is to use a “cheater plug” which converts a three-prong plug into a two-prong plug by “lifting” (circumventing) the ground. Of course, this creates a serious fire hazard and can potentially damage the equipment with long-term use (whether or not actually being engulfed in flames). This was obviously not the right answer. Another solution is to completely unplug everything and carefully separate all the power cables from all the unbalanced RCA audio cables, taking special care with whichever component is causing the noise to appear. This would be a big job since I have a number of components (including the notoriously recalcitrant cable-TV box). Another solution is a so-called “ground-loop isolator” which can be attached to the audio cables to “break the ground” between the components that are causing the noise. These are apparently effective at reducing hum (or can be) but they necessitate the filtering the audio signal itself which would inevitably affect sound quality. Seems to me this would defeat the purpose of investing in a high-quality amplifier. Then I read about The Hum Exterminator (or “Hum X”) manufactured right here in the U.S.A. by a little boutique audio company called Ebtech. This small (but expensive) device purported to eliminate ground loop hum at the electrical outlet. Essentially, it does the same thing as a “cheater plug” while maintaining the safety of a fully grounded outlet. Online reviews were mixed, but many people reported positive results. It seemed worth investigating.

The next day I popped over to Guitar Center on my lunch hour and discussed my problem with Justin, the friendly and helpful manager of the pro-audio department (I love Nashville!). He suggested that because I did not have a ground loop problem prior to the introduction of the new amp, plugging it into the Hum X could be the simplest solution. “It might work,” he said. But he grinned at me and added, “then again, it might not.” At his suggestion I also picked up some cable straps in case I needed to do a full-blown re-installation (I passed on the fifteen-dollar roll of gaffer’s tape). “If the Hum X doesn’t work, you can return it and we can try some more ‘exotic’ solutions,” said Justin. I laughed uneasily and paid for the gear. Seventy dollars for a souped-up wall-wart seemed a bit steep; but if it did the job it would be more than worth it.

I was skeptical. Indeed I was convinced I had a long night ahead trying to finagle a tangle of wires into a ground-loop-free zone and would still fail to solve the problem. Even so, as soon as I got home from work I eagerly plugged the A50.2 into the Hum X and plugged it into the wall socket. The LED indicated power was present. OK, so far, so good. I held my breath as I turned on the amp. I heard…nothing! Barely the faintest hiss when pressing my ear against a tweeter! I turned the selector knob to “phono.” No buzzing!—even at full volume! It was a miracle! I grabbed the Mobile Fidelity LP of Beck’s luscious-sounding Sea Change album, slapped it on the turntable and cranked it up. It was glorious! I slumped on the sofa and bathed in the marvelous sound. Ahhh. My trusty Thorens TD 280 MK IV had never sounded better. After spinning a bunch of LPs, I decided to see how a plain-vanilla CD would sound. John Coltrane’s Prestige recordings were simply but superbly recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and are as smooth and tasty as sweet cream butter. I put on disc one of Interplay, a collection of sideman dates and jam sessions. The sound through the A50.2 was warm, three-dimensional and utterly lacking in the kind of glassy glaze I was used to with my old receiver, even in its better days. At “realistic” volume, the music really seemed to come alive and at way-too-loud levels, the music still sounded clean and dynamic. Wow! Lovely Lizzy (who was already smitten with the A50.2’s aesthetic beauty) commented that “the sound is more cohesive, less like hearing it coming from two separate speakers.” Yes, exactly!

Well, there you have it. The Music Hall A50.2 has produced an obvious and significant improvement in the sound quality of our humble stereo system. One day I’ll take the time to organize the mess of cables in order to reduce the noise floor even further; in the meantime, I am completely captivated by the exquisite sound coming out of the old JBLs. It’s like having a whole new record collection! Moreover, I’m blown away by the ingenious effectiveness of the Hum X. I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves confronted with that gnarly and unpredictable phenomenon called the ground loop. It’s not cheap, but it works!

August 1, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


I have nothing
How really is I am….
Nothing is mine.
How treasured rich am I
I have the treasure of nothing….
Vast endless nothing
That branches out into realm beyond realm.
This and these are mine
Together they are nothing.

The idea of nothing
The notion of nations

I have the treasure of nothing
All of it is mine.
He who would build a magic world
Must seek my exchange bar
In order to partake of my endless
Treasure from my endless realm of nothing.

—Sun Ra