October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals & Crystal Spears (Evidence 2CD)

The deal with ABC/Impulse! was slowly bearing fruit: Astro Black (AS-9255) was finally released in early 1973, along with a batch of Saturn reissues, pushing Sun Ra’s music into the mainstream marketplace for the first time ever. And there were even bigger plans in store: as many as thirty reissues, and a sampler LP to be entitled, Welcome to Saturn. Then there was a proposed trilogy of new recordings made at Variety Recorders in New York and prepared for release in the then-trendy (and now horribly obsolete) Sansui QS-encoded Quadrophonic LP format: Cymbals (AS-9296), Crystal Spears (AS-9297), and Pathways to Unknown Worlds (AS-9298). Of these, only Pathways was ever released, in a vanishingly small pressing, just before the label pulled the plug in 1975. (See, Campbell & Trent pp.193-196; and Szwed pp.333-334.) The remaining titles remained the subject of intense conjecture until Evidence finally reissued them in 2000 (remixed to stereo from the original four-track masters) as The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums.

While Ra expressed some bitterness when the deal with Impulse! went sour (see Szwed p.333), according to producer Ed Michel’s liner notes, it turned out to be fairly lucrative for the Arkestra, at least in the short term. Furthermore, Michel points out that the contract was the result of some highly unorthodox negotiation techniques on the part of Alton Abraham:

A standard Artist’s Contract (“Everything You Have Is Ours…,” spelled out in some detail over seven pages) was presented. Alton put it in his briefcase, shook hands all around and said, “We’ll look it over and get back to you,” and they were gone. The following day, Alton was back with a retyped contract (no small stuff—this was well before personal computers—every single bit had to be typed by hand, overnight) in which the Saturnians—rather than engage in the point-by-point wrestling and mud-slinging match that constitutes most recording-industry contractual discussions—simply retyped the contract, turning everything on its head, with ABC, rather than Saturn, at the short end of the stick.

[…] The Head Lawyer called me (naturally, I was in the studio), and tried to explain The Inexplicable Behavior Of These People, and why it was Impossible To Try To Do Business With Them. I sort of suggested that maybe a counter-offer was in order (“Ridiculous! They’d probably want to turn that around, too”), and then, alarmed at the thought of my not being able to get in on any of the fun, I pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to make a New Recording Artist Deal, perhaps it might be possible to make a Licensing Deal for some of the already-issued Saturn “product.” Amazingly, it worked, although I still don’t know why or how.

[…] I never saw a copy of the original contract (I do have some deal memo notes, but recall that the contract proffered turned out to be a whole lot different), but I know it could have been drawn up rather succinctly: “Sun Ra and Alton will give ABC twenty-one masters, which ABC will clean up as well as possible, provide new cover designs, sit on for a while, then return to Sun Ra and Alton, in return for which ABC will give The Saturn Guys a bunch of money, including a nice payoff to terminate the original agreement.” Would have saved a lot of extra typing.

Newly made recordings were also subject to this licensing agreement, with ownership reverting to Sun Ra and Alton Abraham after the deal went south. This was actually fairly shrewd (and, at the time, extremely rare) although Sonny was unable to really capitalize on this cache of intellectual property during his lifetime. This was exacerbated by a dispute with Abraham over ownership of the masters that briefly split Saturn into two opposing companies (see, Szwed pp.338-339). Meanwhile, Sun Ra continued on his own way and would not make another record for a major label until 1988, when A&M offered him a two-record deal. Similarly, those records also went out of print almost immediately after their initial release. The Arkestra would remain an underground phenomenon, for the most part, right up to the end.

Curiously, three tracks meant for Cymbals were later issued on an obscure, hodgepodge LP entitled, Deep Purple (Saturn 485), but their connection to the unreleased Impulse! albums was unknown until Prof. Robert Campbell began his research for his monumental discography, The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (Cadence Books) (see p.194). As originally conceived, Cymbals was to have been another in a line of great blues-based records a la My Brother The Wind, Vol.II and Universe In Blue, with Ra leading a small-group Arkestra from his patented “space-age barbeque” organ. Significantly, Ronnie Boykins is back in the band with his huge-toned bass adding heft to these five loosely structured pieces. “The World of the Invisible” opens the album with some portentous spookiness, ghostly organ chords and a herky-jerky rhythm section supporting a serpentine bass clarinet solo by Eloe Omoe. Sun Ra hints at a descending figure on MiniMoog which is then taken up by Boykins in an extended bass solo, accompanied by Ra’s skittering organ. “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” is a slow-burning blues, with a simple harmonized horn riff setting things in motion across its seventeen-minute duration. John Gilmore starts off with some authentically soulful roadhouse wailing on tenor saxophone, slowly building up to an astonishing climax of blurred multiphonics and low-register honks, before effortlessly returning with a bluesy coda. Yes, it’s another incredible John Gilmore solo! Ra then turns in some typically hermetic organ while Boykins steadily walks and drummer, Harry Richards, and conga-player, Derek Morris lackadaisically shuffle alongside. Alone in the trumpet chair for a change, Akh Tal Ebah delivers a long and thoughtful solo, his warm tone and smeared articulation offering a nice contrast to Kwami Hadi’s usual showy virtuosity. Sadly, the track fades out before being allowed to finish.

“The Order of Pharaonic Jesters” (sic) is another mid-tempo blues, dominated by Sun Ra’s multihued electronic keyboards, alternating between sweet-and-sour organ tones, shimmering vibraphone sounds, and the reedy Rocksichord. Really just a meandering jam, Ra keeps things interesting with his restlessly shifting timbres and sophisticated harmonic sensibility, Boykins following him every step of the way. The tempo picks up a bit for “The Mystery of Two,” a minor-key bebop confection that once again lets the spotlight shine on the underappreciated Ebah, whose introverted, melancholy sound and careful note choices yields an understated elegance. The album closes with “Land of the Day Star,” a quirky, stutter-step groove supported by Boykins’s awkward, bowed bass, Ra’s burbling keyboards and some herky-jerky drums. This time, Danny Davis gets a rare solo spot on alto saxophone, coming out from behind the shadow of Marshall Allen, who was apparently absent at this session. Again, the track fades just as the soloist starts to get going, which is a little frustrating. Nonetheless, this track—and the album as a whole—is really all about Sun Ra’s interaction with the masterful bass playing of Boykins and the almost amateurish drumming of Richards. It is this dynamic but unstable rhythm section that provides the cool, elusive mood of this fine record.

Crystal Spears (originally titled Crystal Clear) is something else altogether. If Cymbals is relatively earthbound, Crystal Spears is a rocketship ride to the planet Saturn, showcasing Sun Ra’s more experimental compositional techniques and radical orchestral strategies. A full contingent of Arkestrans is present, although Boykins is notably absent and no one steps in to play bass. It doesn’t really matter as Sonny is by now well used to this arrangement and fills out the space with his electronic keyboards and the addition of marimbas and multiple percussionists, while Clifford Jarvis’s return to the drum stool allows for a steadier, more intuitive rhythm section. The title track opens with piercing blasts of distorted wah-wah organ, indicating from the first moment that this is going to be one of those Sun Ra records that will fry your tweeters and blow your mind. Oh yeah. After sketching out a quasi-twelve-tone row, drums and congas enter with complex, overlapping rhythms while Marshall Allen plaintively reiterates the theme. Prof. Campbell states in his liner notes that Sun Ra subsequently moves to marimba at this point, but I believe it must be someone else, as, moments later, Sonny can plainly be heard playing MiniMoog and organ while marimbas continue to skitter in the background. In any event, a rich texture is created and sustained, similar to what was heard back in 1965 on the Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.1, thickened by an enlarged arsenal of electric keyboards.

Having reached a sub-orbital plateau, the Arkestra relaxes the tension a bit with “The Eternal Sphynx” (sic). Prof. Campbell suggests in his liner notes that this piece “continues the interlocking riff constructions found in Ra’s numbered ‘Discipline’ series of compositions” and the theme sounds vaguely familiar. Is it possible we’ve heard this before on one the many poorly documented tapes from this period? Perhaps (I really should create that spreadsheet—someone want to give me a grant?). In any event, it is similar to the “Discipline” series in its stately demeanor and expressive orchestration, the instruments playing at their most extreme registers, trumpets flatulently low, saxophones squealingly high, creating a lush yet unsettled ensemble sound. Danny Davis steps out once again with a soulful alto sax solo, followed by Ra on organ before a brief reprise, this time with Marshall Allen doubling on flute. Things start to get strange again with “The Embassy of the Living God.” Sun Ra’s woozy organ chords and Moog bass notes establish a creepy, dissonant soundworld, while the entire horn section, led by Danny Thompson’s honking baritone sax, execute the tricky composition, with both trumpets (distressingly off-mic), playing complex counter-melodies. The piece evolves organically from there, with solos, duos and trios from Allen on oboe, Omoe on bass clarinet, Gilmore on falsetto tenor sax, and Hadi in his usual highwire fashion. Percussion comes and goes along with Ra’s sea-sick organ, which takes the lead unaccompanied just before the horns return. Foregoing a restatement of the theme, the track fades out on some full-on group improvisation. Very interesting.

“Sunrise in the Western Sky” was intended to take up all of side B and essentially consists of a twenty-minute tenor saxophone solo by John Gilmore over the kind of gently floating, Afro-exotica percussion jam that Sun Ra was so fond of. That description makes it sound like it would be boring and self-indulgent, but in actuality, it is a monument to Sun Ra’s genius as a composer and Gilmore’s unheralded greatness as soloist. Opening with a magisterial statement from Allen’s yearning oboe, Ra’s chiming keyboards, mumbling marimbas, and burbling percussion establish an unsettled environment for Gilmore’s entrance. It appears that the saxophone part is at least partly written out as Sonny’s organ follows closely along the tonally ambiguous melodies. At about the eight-minute mark, Ra’s shapeshifting organ begins to coax the rhythm section into a duple-meter reverie while Gilmore follows along with more written material intermingled with extemporaneous improvisation. At the eleven-minute mark, Marshall Allen’s flute enters with a counter-melody and the texture subsequently thins out, leaving only percussion and saxophone. At this point, Gilmore loosens his grip on the theme(s) and begins to elaborate, weaving inquisitive lines, concluding with question marks rather than periods and finally disappearing into the hypnotic percussion ensemble. A crash cymbal is ceremonially struck seven times to end the album with a solemn finality.

Cymbals and Crystal Spears are indeed The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums and we should grateful to the folks at Evidence for locating the tapes and finally issuing them on CD. The Evidence label also rescued Pathways to Unknown Worlds from the dustbin of history and we’ll have a listen to that one next time. It's a doozy!

Playlist Week of 10-30-10

* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV 386, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Sony Classical CD)
* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV 331, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations/14 Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse! CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus Plays Piano (Impulse! CD)
* Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964 (Blue Note 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals/Crystal Spears (Evidence 2CD)
* Lowell Davidson Trio: Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Joe Morris: Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (d.2) (Clean Feed 4CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet: Mannheim, Germany 10-05-10 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Mirror Mirror House Septet: Strasbourg, France 10-07-10 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 CD)
* MAP (Halvorson/Nakatani/Thomas): Six Improvisations for Guitar, Bass & Drums (H&H Prod. CD)
* MAP (Halvorson/Nakatani/Radding): Fever Dream (Taiga 2½ LP)
* Ches Smith & These Arches: Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl CD)
* Tom Rainey Trio (w/Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock): Pool School (Clean Feed CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House: Anti-House (Intakt CD)
* Scanner with The Post Modern Jazz Quartet: Blink of an Eye (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Isotope 217°: The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Isotope 217°: untonian_automatic (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly the Warlocks (Hampton, VA October 1989)(d.2-¬4) (GDP/Rhino 6CD)†/‡
* Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic 2LP)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Friday Music LP)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (d.2) (selections) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD)†/‡
* Cocteau Twins: Lullabies to Violaine (d.1-2) (4AD 4CD) †/‡
* Circus Devils: Ataxia (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Circus Devils: Gringo (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Animal Collective: Feels (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: “Grass” (Fat Cat CDEP/DVD)

†/‡=iPod in the car


After working myself up into a fanboy frenzy last week, I ordered a whole bunch of Mary Halvorson-related records from Squid Co., one of the few places in the world you can find this stuff. They arrived on Wednesday, and I’ve been listening to them intently ever since.

When I say that Mary Halvorson “is the most complete guitarist around” what I am talking about is a virtuosity that goes beyond the fretboard. Sure, she has mastered the technique of guitar playing, but playing a million notes per second is not what she’s about (although she can play the fast stuff with astonishing precision when the music requires it). What makes her a “complete” guitarist is that she is in total control of the infinite tonal varieties made possible by the electric guitar and her willingness to exploit every acoustical/electrical phenomenon available to her with her big ol’ Gretsch archtop and simple, low-watt amplification—along with a modest array of modern digital effects (and a deliberately shorted out “crackleknob”). She can sound like the pure-toned Charlie Christian one minute and the scumbling expressionist, Derek Bailey, the next—but she can also rock out like Jimi Hendrix or throw up screaming walls of noise a la Thurston Moore. But Mary Halvorson sounds like none of these people. She has synthesized her own utterly unique approach to the electric guitar that unifies all these seemingly disparate styles. Moreover, she listens. Her contribution is always appropriate to the musical setting she finds herself in. You will never hear Mary Halvorson engage in easy showboating. Her prodigious virtuosity is always tastefully deployed in the service of group expression. Her appearances as a “sideman” consistently reveal her wide-ranging versatility and big-eared improvisational approach whether executing the thorny scores of Anthony Braxton or helping to realize the visionary work of her peers, such as Taylor Ho Bynum, Tom Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock.

With Saturn Sings, her second album on Firehouse 12, Halvorson further demonstrates that she is not only a first-rate bandleader but also a formidable composer in her own right. With the first notes of “Leak Over Six Five (No.14)”, we seem to be picking up where she left off with Dragon’s Head: her usual trio (with John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums) stating an irregular, interlocking set of themes. Then two horns enter (Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone and Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet) with a sweetly harmonized counter-melody, blowing across the musical landscape like a cool breeze on a hot afternoon. Exquisite! And then the music takes off from there, culminating in a triumphant, unison fanfare. Halvorson has mentioned interviews that she was listening to a lot of Art Blakey when writing these compositions. If she’s referring to Wayne Shorter’s tenure in the band, then yeah, I can sort of hear it (not that I am any expert on Blakey’s massive discography). But these quintet pieces remind me of Andrew Hill more than anyone else from that golden era, with their sophisticated metrical schemes and angular lyricism. But make no mistake: this is not some retro-be-bop nostalgia trip. Saturn Sings is very much up-to-the-minute, yet still comfortably residing within the rich, living tradition of jazz, that well-spring of all the avant-free-improv-noise-rock that followed—like it or not. Halvorson brings these strains and dialects together into a uniquely personal language fit for our Twenty-first Century hyperworld. This music feels inevitable, timeless—perfect.

Interspersed with the six quintet compositions, each with their own quicksilver rhythmic feel, are four trio constructions which allow Halvorson to really stretch out. “Sea Seizure (No.19)” combines metallic dissonance with spidery, cleanly articulated arpeggios a la King Crimson, while “Right Size Too Little (No.12)” sets Canterbury-ian folk-art themes into a multi-sectioned opus which allows both Hébert and Smith a chance to solo. But, as with every other track on the album, it is Halvorson’s intriguing note choices, pointillist phrasing and blurry whammy-pedal effects that keep things interesting. I’m not particularly taken by the horn players as soloists, who seem unsure of themselves amidst the complex structures. Nevertheless, their contributions to the ensembles are immeasurable: “Crack the Sky (No.11)” is a gorgeously orchestrated ballad even your grandma could love. And the album concludes with “Saturn Sings (No.18)”, a moody, mid-tempo romp combining serpentine unison lines with crackling group improvisation that miraculously stops on a dime. Very tasty!

To say that Saturn Sings is “accessible” might seem to cheapen it, to make it seem like some sort of sell-out. But this album could change a lot of people’s minds about the viability of “free jazz” in the Twenty-First Century, if only they could hear it. Fortunately, Halvorson has been attracting semi-high-profile media attention from the likes of NPR and New Music Box. But this album needs to be heard in toto, in situ, and with the concentration generally allowed for a novel or movie, to really appreciate its charms. The rewards are commensurate with the effort expended. Only twenty-nine years old, Mary Halvorson is a mere youngster and I can’t wait to hear what she does next. A record like Saturn Sings gives me hope for the future.

October 24, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


The cosmic roles
Are written on sundry parchments
Tinted with fire
Blue vibrations of pulsating flame
Energies…G-Force dimensions
Abstract planes of sound and sight.

--Sun Ra

October 23, 2010

Playlist Week of 10-23-10

* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.2 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Buxtehude: Six Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Biber: The Rosary Sonatas (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Vivaldi: Late Violin Concertos, RV 177, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Sony Classical CD)
* Duke Ellington: Money Jungle (Blue Note CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus Dynasty (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Charles Mingus: Alternate Takes (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Charles Mingus: Presents Charles Mingus (Candid CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus (Candid CD)
* Charles Mingus: Passions of a Man: Atlantic Recordings 1956-1961 (d.4-5) (Rhino 6CD)
* Sun Ra: Unknown venue, circa.1972 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals/Crystal Spears (Evidence 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love (Evidence CD)
* Archie Shepp: Four for Trane (Impulse! CD)
* Marion Brown: Three for Shepp (Impulse! CD)
* Marion Brown: Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM—W. Germany LP)
* Anthony Braxton & Joe Morris: Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (d.1) (Clean Feed 4CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Creative Orchestra (Guelph) 2007 (AIMToronto Orchestra) (Spool CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Music for Brass: St. Mark’s Church, New York, NY 9-23-07 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Septet: Algebra delle emozioni, Chiasso, Switzerland 1-26-08 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Falling Water Music (Wesleyan University 5-07-08) (AUD 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton/William Parker/Milford Graves: Beyond Quantum (Tzadik CD)
* Cecil Taylor Quartet with Anthony Braxton: Teatro Valli, Reggio Emilia, Italy 10-13-07 (FM 2CDR)
* Mary Halvorson & Weasel Walter: Opulence (ugEXPLODE CD)
* Mary Halvorson/Reuben Radding/Nate Wooley: Crackleknob (hatOLOGY CD)
* MAP (Halvorson/Radding/Nakatani): The Stone, New York, NY 5-21-09 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson Trio & Quintet: Joe’s Pub, New York, NY 6-28-09 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: (thin air) (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.29 (May 19 & 22, 1977) (d.1-3) (GDP 6CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Melk Weg, Amsterdam, Holland 10-16-81 (selections) (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Greek Theatre, University of California, Berkeley, CA 5-21-82 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly the Warlocks (Hampton, VA 10-08/09-89) (d.1) (GDP/Rhino 6CD)†/‡
* Van Morrison: Hard Nose The Highway (Polydor CD)
* Van Morrison: Wavelength (Polydor CD)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (d.1) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD) †/‡
* Wilco: Palladium Ballroom, Dallas, TX 10-09-09 (SBD 2CDR)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Boredoms: Vision Creation Newsun (Birdman CD)
* The Orb Featuring David Gilmour: Metallic Spheres (Columbia CD)

†/‡=iPod in car


Mary Halvorson has new record out on Firehouse 12 entitled, Saturn Sings. I do not have it yet, but I’m pleased to see it has garnered plenty of good press. Lars Gotrich gushed on National Public Radio: “Mary Halvorson is the most future-seeking guitarist working right now, thinking out the instrument on a level most couldn’t comprehend” and the Washington City Paper anointed Halvorson “the most original jazz guitarist in a generation.” In our jaded and cynical world of disposable culture, such words appear to be just so much empty hype; but, believe me, Mary Halvorson is the real deal. As I wrote in my review of last year’s brilliant Dragon’s Head, Mary Halvorson is “the most ‘complete’ guitarist around” who can “do everything that can be done with an electric guitar.” With her usual trio expanded to a quintet, Halvorson’s new compositions luxuriate in the rich harmonic vocabularies made possible by the addition of horns, further demonstrating that her musical aspirations transcend the boundaries of being a mere “guitar player,” no matter how gifted and inventive. She is also an adept composer for improvisers, summoning a miraculously fresh take on the post-bop jazz tradition.

Halvorson has been busy this past year, appearing on albums by such luminaries as Ingrid Laubrock, Ches Smith, Tom Rainey, and Tomas Fujiwara while also releasing a second album by her free-improv trio, MAP, on a limited edition 2-LP set. Sadly, I don’t have any of these (admittedly obscure and hard to find) records either! Well, my birthday is coming up and I am hoping to plug these holes in my collection. Everything I have heard from Mary Halvorson has knocked my sox off and I can’t wait to hear these no doubt amazing records and share my enthusiasm with you here on my humble blog. In the meantime, see and hear for yourself! This is a fascinating 14-minute video from RouletteTV featuring an interview and live performances with her quintet, debuting some of the material that would appear on Saturn Sings:

Roulette TV: MARY HALVORSON from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.

October 17, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: [Unknown Venue, Circa. 1972] (AUD CDR)

Here's another mysterious concert fragment recorded (in mono) from the audience at an unknown location sometime in 1972. The sound quality is typically awful: warbly, hissy, and distorted. Only about thirty-seven minutes long, there’s hardly enough here to even consider. What’s remarkable is how many more audience recordings were being made during this period. Portable recording devices were still primitive, bulky and very expensive in the early-seventies, requiring serious devotion on the part of the intrepid recordist. So, we should be thankful for their work, even if the results are sometimes, as here, virtually unlistenable. There are, as usual, some moments of brilliance buried in the noise.

The tape picks up in the middle of the set, cutting in on an improvisation already in progress, Eloe Omoe squealing and squawking on the bass clarinet. After some group skronk, John Gilmore takes off a cappella; it’s the usual tour de force, but the sound is so distorted it’s hard to appreciate. But then some eerie, otherworldly vocalizing follows, similar to what was heard at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in September. Presumably one of the Space Ethnic Voices, this is singing so extreme it makes Yoko Ono’s screech seem like a lullaby. At times sounding like a Theremin’s electric whine, or at other times spitting out guttural woofs, whoever this is, she has a superhumanly extended vocal technique. Despite the poor sound quality, this brief segment is still quite impressive. A jaunty “Enlightenment” emerges from stunned applause with “Space Is the Place” right behind. It’s the usual stuff with Akh Tal Ebah sharing the vocal duties with June Tyson and Marshall Allen delivering a tasteful solo on alto. “Love In Outer Space” quickly descends into an extended percussion workout which is rendered as an impenetrable wall of noise on tape. As the audience starts to get restless, you can hear people talking in the background—and when a man close to the microphone says, “Hey, what’s happening brother?” it’s startling and funny like some kind of homemade musique concrète. As the Arkestra settles into the heavenly quietude of “Lights on a Satellite,” the sound quality improves considerably. After an organ intro, Ra moves to acoustic piano to support the delicate arrangement of flutes and trumpets, with Gilmore taking the lead on low-register tenor sax. “Lights on a Satellite” is one of my favorite Ra compositions and this performance is nearly perfect, the interlaced ensemble floating peacefully above a gentle space-rhumba groove. The audience likes it and responds with a sincere round of applause. “The Shadow World” starts up from a dead stop with Sonny banging out the angular rhythmic figure on piano and it sounds like it’s going to be a good one as the ensemble begins to execute the hocketed melodies with terrific precision. Sadly, the tape cuts off after only a minute and a half. Oh well.

While this is a typically fine performance by the Arkestra, the tape doesn’t really have a whole lot to recommend it considering the bad sound quality and constricted running time. The outrageous glossolalia segment and the always beatific “Lights On a Satellite” are worth hearing, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek this one out. Nevertheless, I thank our anonymous recordist for making the effort.

October 16, 2010

Playlist Week of 10-16-10

* Biber: Mensa Sonora (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Produktion CD)†
* Buxtehude: Six Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden: Garrison Church, Copenhagen, Denmark 4/08/08 (FM 2CDR)
* Vivaldi: Flute Concertos (Arte dei Suonatori/Kossenko): Warszawa 6-26-09 (FM 2CDR)
* C.F. Bach, et al.: Orchestral Music (Concerto Köln), Brussels Conservatory 2-22-10 (FM CDR)
* Mozart: Night Music (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Charles Mingus: Passions of a Man: Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.1-2) (Rhino 6CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah-Um (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Charles Mingus: Tijuana Moods (Deluxe Edition) (Bluebird/BMG 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Shadows Took Shape (Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3) (Transparency 2CD)
* Sun Ra: unknown venue, circa. 1972 (AUD CDR)
* John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion: The Atlantic Recordings (d.5-6) (Rhino 7CD)
* Anthony Braxton & William Parker: Auditorium Canneti, Vicenza, Italy 5-15-07 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo CD)
* Anthony Braxton: 12+1tet (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo CD)
* Anthony Braxton Sextet+1: Moers Festival, Germany 5-26-07 (FM CDR)
* Cecil Taylor Quartet w/Anthony Braxton: Royal Festival Hall, London, England 6-08-07 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy 5-04-10 (FM 2CDR)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Columbia 2LP)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Legacy Edition) (d.2, DVD) (Copenhagen 11-04-69) (Columbia 2CD+DVD)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Philharmonie, Berlin, W. Germany 11-07-69 (FM CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi (Warner Bros. LP)
* Herbie Hancock: Crossings (Warner Bros. LP)
* Herbie Hancock: Sextant (Columbia CD)
* Eddie Henderson: Realization (Capricorn LP)
* Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia LP)
* Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (Columbia LP)
* Roy Orbison: The All-Time Greatest Hits (Monument/DCC CD)
* Van Morrison: A Sense of Wonder (Mercury/Polygram CD)
* Grateful Dead: University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 5-17-77 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 5-18-77 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.3, No.1: Oakland 12-28-79 (GDP/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Manor Downs, Austin, TX 7-04-81 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Soft Machine: The Soft Machine (ABC/Probe/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Wired (Epic LP)
* The Police: Live (A&M SACD)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. CD)
* The Orb & David Gilmour: Metallic Spheres (Columbia CD)


Aptly subtitled, “Directions in Music,” Miles Davis’s 1969 double-album, Bitches Brew, remains an enigmatic signpost to an unrealized future. Universally heralded as an era-defining record, it has lost none of its edge over the years and, even today, sounds like no other music (including Miles’s own) before or since. Scared me to death the first time I heard it as a kid in the 1970s and it can still give me chills listening to it today. Bitches Brew is a dark and difficult album, especially compared to the proto-ambient tranquility of 1968’s In A Silent Way or the overtly blues-rock jamming heard on Jack Johnson less than a year later. Bitches Brew is sometimes posited to be the first “fusion” album. True or not (it’s not), anyone making such an assertion usually has an accompanying agenda: to retroactively assess blame to Miles Davis for the excesses of his progeny and, moreover, to dismiss the genre out of hand. I have to wonder: have any of these people pushing the common knowledge that Miles “sold out” ever actually sat down and listened to all one hundred minutes of Bitches Brew? This stuff is way out there! No other “fusion” album, even especially those by Miles’s actual progeny, sounds anything like this: an impenetrably thick ensemble consisting of two bassists (acoustic and electric); two drummers; two percussionists; three electric pianos and (sometimes) organ; plus three horns on top. Occasionally, John McLaughlin’s scorching electric guitar is thrown into soup and Miles’s trumpet is often bathed in spacey, psychedelic echoes—and all the while, producer Teo Macero is deftly wielding a razorblade in the manner of Karlheinz Stockhausen, constructing hypnotic tape loops, cinematic edits and dramatically contrasting crossfades. The music is a seething cauldron of sound and every time I listen to it, I hear it differently, a little more clearly. But it never becomes familiar or even remotely comfortable; it always sounds weird, timeless and inspired rather than hopelessly dated and clichéd like so much of the “fusion” music that would follow. Bitches Brew is an emphatic statement of purpose, a genuinely challenging work of art. And yet this imposing slab of avant-jazz actually sold a zillion copies, and continues to sell well enough to merit endless variations of reissue and repackaging. This is puzzling but pleasing.

Columbia Records obviously thinks there are enough folks out there who will spend a hundred and twenty-something dollars on the recently issued Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition box set. But as much as I love the album, I am reticent to drop that kind of dough at the moment. Don’t they realize we’re in the midst of a recession? (Or, excuse me, a “jobless recovery”?) Don’t they know the record business is dying on the vine? Who, exactly, is buying this thing? Admittedly, it’s jam-packed with lots of drool-worthy goodies: two CDs containing the 1998 digital re-mix plus a handful of previously-unreleased tracks; a DVD from Danish TV of the Quintet’s November 4, 1969 performance in Copenhagen; a two-LP reproduction of the original album mastered from the analog tapes; plus an unreleased recording of a Tanglewood concert from August, 1970. Oh, and a 12”x12” 48-page hardbound book. All things considered, the price is not out of line for what you get but, dang, that is still a lot of money. Fortunately for us less affluent, Columbia has also released a two-CD/one-DVD “Legacy Edition” that is more reasonably priced. I did pick this up at the local record store, even though it is probably the fifth or sixth version of this album I’ve purchased over the years. That’s the problem, for me, regarding these lavishly expensive box sets: I still have the original LP I purchased a million years ago. I also bought the wretched-sounding 1980s-era CD which I bitterly held onto until the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions was released in 1998. That seemed to me to be the last word on the subject. So, why buy this “Legacy Edition”?

First of all, the DVD is (almost) worth the twenty bucks all by itself and provides more useful context regarding Miles’s musical thinking circa. 1969 than the all extra tracks on the (mis-titled) Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set combined. It was in concert, with a small working band, that Miles first experimented with a “fusion” of rock rhythms and electric instrumentation with the subtle dynamics and virtuosic musicianship of traditional jazz. The new boogaloos such as “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” are performed alongside some of the older repertoire like “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Agitation,” all in an uninterrupted whirlwind of a set. The conflicting tensions within the band made for magical music, even if it eventually split them apart. Miles plays in his newly aggressive “slash and burn” manner and his pithy solos leave wide open space to his younger musicians, who are chomping at the bit. Chick Corea really shines here, wresting remarkably complex timbres out of the primitive Fender-Rhodes electric piano on his long, exploratory solos. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Dave Holland on acoustic bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums establish propulsive yet elusive grooves which float around a barely implied beat. With Wayne Shorter blowing post-late-Coltrane-style tenor and soprano saxophones, this group is about as close to “free jazz” as Miles Davis ever got—and it sounds nothing like the music on the album—and nothing like any of the music that would follow. It’s a shame this band was never officially documented by Columbia, leaving behind only a handful of radio and TV broadcasts such as this one. By mid-1970, Shorter would be gone and Holland would soon be replaced by the eighteen-year-old electric bassist, Michael Henderson, and that “floating” rhythm would be for the most part replaced by the four-square pulse of pure funk. The DVD’s audio and video quality is excellent for the period and provides an extraordinary opportunity to watch the inner workings of Miles’s “lost quintet.” A most welcome addition to the discography.

Then there are the unreleased tracks, including alternate takes of “Spanish Key” and “John McLaughlin.” These appear to be unedited session tapes or rough mixes which, while enjoyable enough, only highlight the revolutionary cut-and-paste techniques employed on the finished album. Why this stuff was left off the so-called Complete Bitches Brew Sessions is something of a mystery, but these seventeen minutes of alternate versions are of definite interest to the dedicated Milesian. To round out the disc, single edits of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Spanish Key,” and the later tracks, “Great Expectations” and “Little Blue Frog,” are also included. The whole idea of condensing these sprawling, album-side-long cuts into three-minute singles is absurd, yet, somehow, they kind of work. Manufactured in miniscule quantities, these seven-inch singles were sent to radio stations and jukebox operators and are extremely rare so it’s nice to have them all in one place.

As for the remastering of the album itself, it sounds almost identical to the 1998 CD, but a bit louder, as in the current fashion. It’s not the worst remaster I’ve ever heard by any means, but it was wholly unnecessary. The other night, I listened to the original LP again for the first time in years and, indeed, it sounds very different from Mark Wilder’s remix, most noticeably the warm, analog echo effects and the vaguely menacing ambience of the sonic murk, which had been digitally neutered in the remixing process. That said, I generally prefer the remix. It was a revelation to hear it for the first time, to finally be able to discern each individual instrument with such startling clarity. There is even more going on in this music than I had ever even imagined! Of course, an argument could be made that the original mix is what Miles Davis intended and Wilder’s remix was a defacement of that work. But in 1999, Wilder told writer Paul Tingen that the original two-track analog masters “had not aged well” and a remix was therefore necessary. He insisted: “we could either work with inferior tape copies from other countries, or go back to the original eight tracks and re-mix them, and so save ourselves a generation.” Curiously, those two-track masters were supposedly used for the new 40th Anniversary vinyl and, according to noted audiophile, Michael Fremer, it sounds even better than a 1969 first pressing. I’d be interested in hearing it and if Columbia chooses to release the LP edition separately, I would likely replace my old beat-up copy, which has a nasty scratch on side three. Given the importance of this album, I think the original mix in its original format should once again be made widely available.

Columbia’s 1970 advertising campaign for Bitches Brew creatively pitched it as “A Novel By Miles Davis”:

Bitches Brew is an incredible journey of pain, joy, sorrow, hate, passion and love.
Bitches Brew is a new direction in music by Miles Davis.
Bitches Brew is a novel without words.

And in his original liner notes, Ralph J. Gleason wrote:

it’s all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant.

In almost any another instance, all this could be dismissed as so much hype. But Bitches Brew really is more than just good music: it is an expansive artificial environment, a portal to singular experiences. It evokes complex moods and powerful feelings, resists easy interpretation and endlessly rewards repeated listening. It is a masterpiece of 20th Century Art—in whatever format—and belongs in everyone’s music library. Like a classic piece of literature, Bitches Brew will likely remain in print forever and that makes me very happy and hopeful for the future. Perhaps, like other monumental tomes, it will merely sit on a shelf as a totem of good taste and cultural sophistication. But some people will actually sit and listen and have their minds suitably blown. Yes, they will.

October 10, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Shadows Took Shape (Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3) (Transparency 2CD)

Volume three of Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection is another stumper. Although the liner notes (such as they are) posit 1972 as the approximate date of this live concert, close listening suggests it was recorded much earlier. For one thing, none of the “Discipline” pieces appear in the setlist, and they were constants by the beginning of 1972. Secondly, Ra does not play the MiniMoog synthesizer, highly unlikely during this period. On the other hand, the presence of June Tyson’s vocal on “Strange Worlds” implies a post-1970 date. So, my best guess is this was recorded in late-1970/early-1971, prior to the European tour in the fall. But who knows? It’s another one of those Mysteries of Mr. Ra. Sound quality is rough—at times barely listenable—but there is a surprisingly wide stereo image suggesting on-stage microphones and reminding me at times of some of Tommy Hunter’s recordings. But to be sure, we’re a long way away from the master (presumably lost) and there is plenty of generational distortion, including wow and flutter, oversaturation and noise. Be forewarned, this is only for a hardcore Sun Ra nut like me.

The first thing that hits you (besides the horrific sound) is the presence of trombone on the opening “Outer Space,” a rare instrument in the Arkestra during this period and providing another cryptic clue as to the possible date. Further, a distinctively hyperactive bass drum confirms Jarvis is on the drum stool. After a bit of skronk, Ra embarks on a long organ/Rocksichord solo buoyed by murmuring percussion. But after about nine minutes, Jarvis can hardly contain himself and comes charging out of the gate. Ra counters with some dark funk before bringing things around to a mellow space-rhumba. The vocalists proceed to sing a wordless three-note figure while oboes and flutes play a long-toned counter-melody. Who knows what the name of this piece is or whether it was ever played again? While it doesn’t really go anywhere, it establishes a pleasant mood and the instrumental texture is delightfully lush. Interesting. The old-timey “Stardust of Tomorrow” follows, appearing in its full-vocal arrangement. Unfortunately, the words are impossible to discern. Yet Sonny turns in an insistently nattering solo atop the medium swing before the big reprise, which sounds suspiciously under-rehearsed. Too bad this version never got a proper recording.

The hypnotic polyrhythms of “Exotic Forest” are taken at a brisk tempo and two drumsets are clearly audible. With the addition of congas and other hand-percussion a dense, churning groove in six is set in motion while a trombone lays down a repetitive, wide-interval riff. Marshall Allen leads off with some wailing oboe and Kwami Hadi follows with a long, thoughtful solo on trumpet as the rhythm section keeps the soup at a low boil. After some tricky lick-trading between Allen and Hadi, nothing much happens until Ra enters with a quietly contemplative clavinet solo that eventually segues to organ to introduce “The Shadow World.” After a ragged ensemble section, John Gilmore enters with another one of his typically hair-raising tenor solos, with his super-humanly precise articulation of impossibly difficult multiphonic and altissimo effects. Yes, it’s another incredible John Gilmore solo, this time even getting a rise out of the otherwise subdued audience. After some dissonant organ chords, Danny Davis takes over with some similarly adventuresome alto, but just as a slinky, slow groove is established (featuring what sounds like acoustic bass – could it be the great Ronnie Boykins?), the tape cuts off. Oh well.

Disc two opens in the middle of some fearsomely intense avant-jazz mayhem with atrociously bad sound. Ugh. You can still hear Ra throwing out some two-fisted organ blasts, but the pounding drums overwhelm just about everything. And when the horns return, some seem to intimate a reprise of “The Shadow World,” but the headstrong drummers insist on their own frenetic freedom before finally coming to a full stop (no doubt at Ra’s friendly but firm direction: there will be no twenty-minute Jarvis solo this evening, at least not yet). After some stunned applause, Sonny plays a pretty interlude on an acoustic piano way, way off in the distance while June Tyson starts chanting about those “Strange Worlds” in another room. He then moves to clavinet for an expansive, spidery etude on clavinet, supplemented with thick washes of organ color. Beautiful. A jaunty chord sequences announces “Enlightenment,” sung by Tyson and the boys, with a ticking hi-hat and clonking cowbells keeping easy time. Nothing too unusual. Next up is the ecstastic chanting of “Outer Spaceways, Incororporated” and “Prepare for the Journey to Outer Space” but the recording is woefully unbalanced with the vocals buried by the pummeling drumline. Even so, our unknown trombonist delivers a high-spirited, bluesy solo, exhibiting a huge tone that easily cuts through the din. Who is this guy?

Ra’s spooky organ accompanies Tyson’s recitation of “The Shadows Took Shape” and Gilmore paints a pointillist picture with a delicate concertino. Perfect. Suddenly, the motoric ostinato of “Friendly Galaxy” arises and the Arkestra launches into the work with gusto, the trombonist adding warmth to the cool flutes and trumpets. As the groove gets settled in, someone takes an extremely curious solo—but what instrument is this?? At times it sounds like Ra’s MiniMoog, but other times it sounds like Gilmore’s saxophone amplified through an overdriven Twin Reverb; there's a soulful vibrato that seems to preclude a purely electronic source (circa. early-Seventies). Whatever instrument, it’s a fascinating solo, with tasteful note choices and endlessly evolving timbres that defy description. I think it’s probably Sun Ra making these sounds, but I have no idea how he’s doing it. After that, it’s just the usual overlong dancing and percussion fest, interrupted by a quick spin through “Watusi” before the tape brutally cuts off.

The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3 is a frustrating listen: the fatally unbalanced and distorted sound quality requires a lot of work to penetrate—yet there are moments (however fleeting) of rare and sublime music that (sort of) reward the effort. As a historical document, it poses more questions than it answers, only adding to the overall sense of frustration. Accordingly, I cannot recommend this to anyone but the specialist or truly obsessive. For them, it is a tantalizingly inscrutable text worthy of monastic study. Most anyone else might be understandably repulsed. Caveat emptor.

October 9, 2010

Playlist Week of 10-09-10

* Biber: Mensa Sonora (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Produktion CD)†
* Biber: Harmonia Artificiosa (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Produktion 2CD)†
* Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (+) (Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon/Carmignola) (Sony Classical CD)
* John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion: Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.1-4) (Rhino 7CD)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Legacy Edition) (Columbia/Legacy 2CD+DVD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (d.2-4) (Columbia 4CD)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Village Gate, New York, NY May/June 1969 (AUD CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, France 7-26-69 (Pre-FM CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: “Paraphernalia” (Salle Pleyel, Paris, France 11-3-69) (JMY (FM/boot) CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Trio: Casino Modern, Genk, Belgium 11-16-06 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Student Ensembles: Wesleyan University 12-06/08-06 (AUD CDR)
* A. Braxton/Wm. Parker/M. Graves: Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy 3-16-07 (AUD 2CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Flood (Sony—Japan CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Travels (ECM 2LP)
* Funkadelic: Funkadelic (Westbound CD)
* Funkadelic: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (Westbound CD)
* Elvis Presley: Elvis Is Back! (RCA-Victor/DCC LP)
* John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy (Geffen LP)
* John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Milk and Honey (Polydor LP)
* Grateful Dead: Felt Forum, New York, NY 12-04-71 (SBD 2CDR)(‡)
* Grateful Dead: The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA 8-30-80 (d.2) (SBD 3CDR)
* The Jerry Garcia Collection Vol.1: Legion of Mary (1974-75) (Rhino 2+1CD)†/‡
* Van Morrison: Live at The Grand Opera House Belfast (1983) (Mercury/Polygram CD)
* Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Rhino Handmade 2CD)
* Robert Pollard: Normal Happiness (Merge LP)
* Robert Pollard: Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love (Merge LP)
* Robert Pollard: Standard Gargoyle Decisions (Merge LP)
* Robert Pollard: Silverfish Trivia (Prom Is Coming EP)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. CD)†/‡
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)

†/‡=iPod in car


John Lennon would have been seventy years old today and the occasion has been marked by the re-re-issue of his solo catalog on CD. I haven’t heard these yet, but apparently the big news is that the original LP mixes have been used, rather than the digital re-mixes Yoko Ono created in the 1990s. Whatever you think about Yoko as an artist or singer—or even if you think she single-handedly broke up The Beatles—you have to admit that John and Yoko loved each other deeply. You can hear it on the 1980 comeback album, Double Fantasy, as they sing to each other about domestic bliss (and strife) and you can see it in their kissing faces on the (now) iconic album cover. And one must concede that Yoko has managed John’s legacy with respectful restraint, aside from those re-mixes, which sound crisp and clear, if a little cold and sterile.

Certainly, John was the heart of The Beatles, and his tortured soul drove the band to dizzying heights of artistic success. And it is also apparent that the happiness Yoko brought him eventually dulled his edge and dampened his creative fires. But that seems a small price to pay when he had already accomplished so much in life. What more did he have to prove? Why not be happy? And yet Double Fantasy really did seem to be a middle-aged return to form and it is a tantalizing glimpse what might have been had he not been gunned down by a deranged fan. Today it is hard to imagine a seventy-year-old John Lennon or what he might be doing, but I am certain he and Yoko would still be happily married, whether he ever made music again or not. “Grow Old With Me” is perhaps John’s most moving love song to Yoko: a homemade recording of impossible tenderness, perhaps the best track on the posthumous, unfinished Milk and Honey album. Listening to it, I am on the one hand profoundly saddened that he was unable to realize his seemingly simple desire to live to a ripe old age with Yoko always at his side.On the other hand, the simple, plaintive song poignantly expresses the pure desire for the sanctity of love and marriage and it sums up my feelings for my own beautiful wife:

Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
When our time has come
We will be as one
God bless our love
God bless our love

Grow old along with me
Two branches of one tree
Face the setting sun
When the day is done
God bless our love
God bless our love

Spending our lives together
Man and wife together
World without end
World without end

Grow old along with me
Whatever fate decrees
We will see it through
For our love is true
God bless our love
God bless our love
Personally, I always dug Yoko Ono. After all, she had already established herself as a radical Fluxus artist long before John Lennon came barging onto her scene with his rock'n'roll flash. Sure, these definitive reissues of Lennon’s solo albums are nice and the Signature box set, containing two discs of previously unreleased home recordings is awfully tempting (if overpriced). But I might be even more interested in deluxe facsimile editions of the weird musique concrete records the young lovers made in the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, like Two Virgins and The Wedding Album. Not to listen to, necessarily—just to have on the shelf as a token of their affection for each other and because they are part The Beatles canon, like it or not. Now that I think about it, Yoko’s harrowing response to John’s murder, Season of Glass (1981), is an underappreciated masterpiece and deserves a fresh hearing. Yeah, Yoko Ono is cool. No wonder John fell in love with her.

Happy Birthday, John Lennon! Wish you were still here to celebrate with us!

October 2-3: Wedding Bells Are Ringing

The Church, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

SAT OCT 2: We awoke to a gorgeous morning, brilliant sunshine in a cloudless sky, a slight nip in the air and wispy veils of mist rising off the swollen river. The flooding had turned the water into chocolate milk, kicking up whitecaps as it raged around the bend. The water level was at least ten feet above normal, The Lothian House’s owner, Bill, informed me: “It’s all the way up to the edge of the Bocce court, making for an added hazard for the players!” Indeed, a ball would eventually be lost to the rushing waters.

Being outsiders, it was enormously gratifying to be so heartily welcomed by Scott and Rose’s family and friends. It seemed we represented those mysterious years when Scott lived in Nashville, going to school and working at Vanderbilt, where I met him. We became friends over our similar tastes in music (especially “out jazz”) and when it slowly became revealed that we were both Deadheads to boot, well, we became brothers for life. Scott was instrumental in convincing me to go back to school and his sister’s example inspired me to get my paralegal degree (“It’s all your fault!” I told her, half-jokingly). After graduating from Lipscomb University, Scott moved to New York City—“The City”—but we have remained in close touch. When we visited last spring, we met Rose, whom he had recently met at The Jazz Gallery of all auspicious places. Lizzy and I liked her instantly and Scott had never looked happier. I promptly started teasing him about setting a date and to be sure and invite us to the wedding. His obvious discomfort at this ribbing indicated it was only a matter of time, so I laid off a bit while still expressing our enthusiasm for the idea. When the call came this summer, we were so happy about the news we immediately confirmed we would be there (wherever there was going to be—the location was still in flux). It was incredibly generous of them to put us up in The Lothian House (a thoroughly charming Victorian house cum B&B) along with their families and closest friends. We truly felt honored to be there.

At 11:30 AM, the wedding party walked across the ancient, one-lane bridge across the Delaware River to the old (now non-denominational) church in the town of Milanville, Pennsylvania (photograph). The ceremony was lovely, if maybe not exactly what the couple had planned, with some unexpected sermonizing from the minister. When they were pronounced “man and wife,” the assembled crowd burst into wild cheers and applause while the clanging church bell tolled their happy union. The program, beautifully designed by Rose, featured a number of inspirational quotations, this one from Krishnamurti being my favorite:

When there is love in your heart—
in your eyes, in your blood, in your face,
you are different human being.

Back at The Lothian House, the celebrating began in earnest with a tasty vegan lunch and happy Sun Ra music playing in the background all afternoon. The party continued well into the night, with Bocce on the lawn and, as the light faded, cards at the kitchen table, enlivened with sparkling conversation and joyful camaraderie. What a fun day! Scott and Rose looked so radiantly happy together and everyone agrees they are the perfect couple. Hooray! Here’s to the newlyweds! Here’s to a long life together! Thank you so much for sharing this happy day with us!


SUN OCT 3: On Sunday, we said our goodbyes and Ms. Garmin deftly navigated the back country roads and the highways and boulevards of the megalopolis back to Newark airport—not an easy drive, let me tell you! It was another bright, sunny day and when the skyline of Manhattan appeared on the horizon, our heart-strings were pulled: how nice it would be to spend a day in “The City.” Oh well, we will be back at some point, hopefully next spring. The pleasant weather made for an uneventful flight to Nashville, where the summer heat had finally broken: fall was in the air and the leaves were beginning to turn. What a difference a few days can make! When we arrived back at our home on the hill, Lizzy remarked that it was amazing the distances we had traveled and all the things we had done in such a short time. It was a great trip and I’m glad we didn’t wimp out because of a little inclement weather. But it was, as always, good to be home.

Gleason W. Coleman (February 20, 1928—October 9, 2005)

It is hard to believe five years has passed since Dad died. So much has happened since then and events continue to unfold. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him and there have been many times I dearly wished I could call him up and ask his advice about one thing or another. I didn’t always agree with him, but he always had an answer.

Here he is in this photograph providing counsel and encouragement on my wedding day, June 5, 1994. While our history had been marked by bitter contention for many years, we had by this time fully reconciled and he warmly embraced Elizabeth as a member of our family. As I get older, I find myself becoming more and more like him in the things I say and do. That is not an altogether bad thing.

I miss him so much.

(photo by Justin Wood)

October 8, 2010

October 1: Storm King to Cochecton

Storm King 02, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

FRI OCT 1: We managed to sleep through the thunderstorms that ravaged the area overnight. The blinking alarm clock indicated power outage and rain was pounding on the windows. We turned on The Weather Channel to see what was going on: flash flooding all up the coast with the New York/Newark airports shut down and thousands of people stranded. That could have been us! We were grateful to be safe and sound, but the weather outside of our comfy hotel room was exceptionally grim: dark, windy and inclemently warm and muggy. Tropical, indeed. Were we really going to go wander around Storm King in this?? We examined the hotel handout regarding area attractions and contemplated our options. FDR’s Hyde Park mansion was not too far away and there are a number of other historic houses around there, but it’s not really our thing to tromp around someone else’s home. What we came here to do was look at art before heading out to Cochecton for the wedding festivities. Instead of making a decision, we went out for breakfast at the good old I-84 Diner for a real stick-to-the-ribs meal. It was going to be an adventure, no matter what; better bulk up.

I sat staring out the window of the diner at the plumes of water spraying off the I-84 overpass as oversize speeding vehicles traversed the obviously sizable and dangerous puddles above. My flood-related PTSD kicked in with my coffee and I panicked about having to drive in such hazardous conditions. We glumly ate our eggs and potatoes. Meanwhile, it did seem as if it maybe wasn’t raining so hard. “It’s getting brighter,” I said (alluding to an old family joke I don’t have the time to go into here). Lizzy smiled at me and I began to feel better. She reassured me the worst of the storm was supposed to be rapidly moving up the coast to Boston and they were merely predicting “showers” for this area in the afternoon—and, besides, we were headed west, away from the storm.

“We both have umbrellas, why don’t we just go and make the best of it?” she suggested.

Lizzy had a point. And she looked so beautiful making it.

“OK. Let’s go.”

We programed the GPS for the street address in Mountainville we obtained from Mr. Google and hit the road.

Despite a misunderstanding between me and Ms. Garmin, she got us to Storm King about an hour later. In fact, I’m not sure I could have found it without her. The appropriately named Storm King really is out in the middle of nowhere, in stunningly beautiful countryside: surrounded by mountains, the stormclouds created a dramatic backdrop to the colorful, monumental art. Miraculously, it was not raining when we arrived. As we wandered towards the visitor’s center, admiring the David Smith sculptures, we immediately encountered a super-friendly and enthusiastic docent:

“Oh, you’ve come at the perfect time! It’s not raining, and there’s nobody here and this place is so amazing and you’re going to love it!” she exclaimed.

Well, alright! I asked if she knew where the “sound sculpture” was, being the only particular piece I vaguely wanted to see.

“Oh, the Mark Di Suvero ‘Quartet’! Yes, that’s right down here in the South Fields. I’m not sure if the mallet is still there; last I heard it was missing. But that would be a wonderful route for you to take, out to the Maya Lin and back around up Museum Hill and the North Fields. You could have lunch at the café—it will be great! Now, come look at this new acquisition…!”

After such a warm welcome, we eagerly embarked on our journey. Now (again) I have to admit my almost-philistine aversion (this time) to a lot of modern sculpture. Like ballet or opera or poetry, sculpture is one of those artistic realms that simply feel alien to me. I lack the vocabulary to discriminate. I can appreciate it, but I have a hard time loving it. But on this day, as we gazed across the South Fields, freshly mowed with the enshrouded mountains in the distance, dappled with green, yellow and organge foliage, the monumental sculptures scattered across the landscape, some rusted and dark, others painted a vivid red, all of creation, God and Man's, seemed engaged in deep dialog. It was a stunningly beautiful tableau and the distant sculptures beckoned, made me want to look, to see. I thought back to my experience of the massive Richard Serra pieces crammed into seemingly tiny rooms at Dia:Beacon and had a tiny epiphany. Ah, yes, sculpture is in three dimensions! Duh! Maybe I was having a breakthrough on the sculpture front. The experience was truly awesome, and I don’t say that in the glib and flippant way the word is usually tossed around these days. Art is my religion and Storm King is High Church.

As we descended into the South Fields, we really felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. It was like our own personal dreamworld. It was damp and warm to be sure, but not soggy and unpleasant, even on the grass. The mallet was indeed neatly placed inside Di Suvero’s “Beethoven’s Quartet” and I duly but cautiously struck the silvery metal structure. It emitted rich, gong-like tones which echoed across the valley. Wow! I took numerous photographs (many of which can be seen on my Flickr Photostream) and savored every minute of our leisurely stroll around the grounds. It was one of the most sublime art experiences I’ve ever been privileged to enjoy. While many of the sculptures would have left me scratching my head in the rarified atmosphere of an institutionalized museum, here, amidst the wild and rural background, they seemed poignantly dignified, defiant of the elements, and proudly modern: humanism at its best.

Just as I remarked, “Hey, not a drop of rain,” it started to sprinkle. And by the time we got to the café, it was really coming down. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There was much more to be seen, but it had become decidedly unpleasant. Other tourists sought shelter with us and commiserated. As we made our way back to the museum building, I continued trying to take photographs one-handed under my umbrella. It was not very much fun, but I’m glad I did as it really brings it back, the works themselves unperturbed by the elements, indifferent to my greedy presence. We toured the museum building (a converted 1930s Norman chateau), with its fascinating historical exhibit supplemented with some of the more fragile works by David Smith and Louise Bourgeois that had to be removed from the grounds due to the elements and vandalism. There was another room on the third floor devoted to the unique preservation challenges posed by this rural sculpture park: some works have to be periodically disassembled and restored or else they would disintegrate altogether. These modernist masterpieces may appear forbiddingly autonomous, but they depend of the loving care of humble curators to retain their mysterious power. As we drove away, we felt sated, having experienced a substantial part of Storm King despite the most adverse circumstances.

As we continued west, we could see the clouds parting on the horizon and by the time we got to Yasgur’s Farm, the sun was shining brightly in a clear, blue sky. Ms. Garmin had become cryptically silent, but the screen still seemed to register every time State Route This became County Road That, which was at least reassuring. She woke up just in time to tell us to turn right on Skinner’s Falls Road and guided us to the quaint Lothian House, a Victorian B&B where we would spend the rest of the weekend, along with the bride and groom’s family and friends. After the rehearsal, we all had pizza and beer and got to know each other, more guests arriving as the night wore on. It was a lot of fun, culminating in a trivia contest about the happy couple (handily won by the mothers, of course). Our room was nicknamed “The Governor’s Room,” after the furniture, which was formerly owned by the governor of Tennessee, circa. 1890. How appropriate!

Tomorrow was the big day! We are so happy for Scott and Rose and we were so glad to get to share in their wedding celebration. More on that tomorrow.

October 7, 2010

September 30: Dia:Beacon

Dia - Beacon 04, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

THU SEP 30: We had to get up at the ungodly hour of 3:00 AM to catch our six o’clock flight from Nashville to Newark. We had checked the weather reports for New York the night before and it looked particularly grim. Tropical Storm Nicole was crawling up the coast, dumping ridiculous amounts of rain along the way. After the flood we experienced here in May, I am extremely skittish about heavy rains and I have to admit we seriously contemplated canceling our trip. But we really wanted to attend Scott and Rose’s wedding, especially because we had been advocating this union ever since we met her! Besides, it would seem grievously wimpy to let a little rain get in the way: it’s not like they were predicting snow and ice, fer crissakes. So we forged ahead.

Despite the agony of getting up in the middle of the night, it was a good thing we left when we did. Our flight was on time and although the descent into Newark was extremely bumpy (it felt at times like were were going to fall out of the sky!), we arrived around 9:00 AM EST. It was dark and rainy, but not the kind of torrential downpour I was expecting. So far so good. We decided to rent a GPS with the car (a decent little Hyundai) and thank goodness we did. While “Ms. Garmin” inexplicably took us on a tour of downtown Newark, she always got us to our various destinations, including some very out of the way places that would have been difficult to find with just a map. Well worth the ten bucks she cost. The rain was steady but not too heavy all the way to Beacon, New York, where we stopped at Dia:Beacon, a museum of contemporary art housed in a reclaimed Nabisco box-printing plant on the Hudson River that opened in 2003. We made decent time and arrived a little before 11:00 AM EST.

To be honest, a lot of this kind of art leaves me cold. I like to think of myself as radically open-minded and committedly avant garde, but a lot of “conceptual” art fails to impress me. Nevertheless, Lizzy’s enthusiasm for Dan Flavin’s fluorescent lighting sculptures (for instance) makes me question my own biases. In any event, the space is magnificent, with vast open spaces, exposed red brick, beautifully battered wood floors and angled skylights filling the rooms with the soft natural light of a cloudy day. Each set of galleries is devoted to a single artist, so one is immersed an oeuvre and allowed to dive deep into their psyches and obessions. The monumental Sol Lewitt wall drawings and the numerous “white paintings” of Robert Ryman were especially revelatory (and aesthetically pleasing to me). Additionally, the several massive Richard Serra sculptures created an oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere, as if they had been rudely shoved into space several sizes too small (but otherwise enormous), eliciting an intensely visceral response that would otherwise (for me) dissipate in the open air, where his torqued steel works are usually displayed. Sadly, the rain was really coming down and we were unable to explore the grounds and gardens (designed by Robert Irwin). Instead, we had a remarkably delicious lunch at the museum café. We were stunned to realize that we had traveled all the way from Nashville and pretty thoroughly experienced Dia:Beacon—and it was only 12:30 our time! For a couple of homebodies, this seemed completely insane.

We made our way in the rain to our hotel in Fishkill, where we took a much-needed nap before dinner. The hotel was conveniently located right next to the I-84 Diner, a genuine 1950s diner, all chrome, glass and neon. I really wanted to take a photograph of it glittering in the rain, but it was just too miserable out and I didn’t want to risk wrecking my camera. Dumb. It would have made for a great picture! The ambience and food were everything you could hope from such a place and it left us sated and sleepy. However, the weather was only getting worse and worse. We were glad we made it thus far, but what was tomorrow going to bring? Storm King is an outdoor sculpture park, after all. Plus we had a two-hour drive into the Catskills ahead of us either way. We turned on the TV to distract us from any such worries and drifted off to sleep.

October 3, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

The wedding was lovely and I was glad that the three-CD compilation of Sun Ra music I made turned out to be a delightful accompaniment to the luncheon/reception at the beautiful Lothian House on the Delaware River (photograph). There was no dancing (except for the happy couple’s first dance to “Love In Outer Space”), but I did learn how to play Bocce. I'll be back with a real Sun Ra Sunday post next week, I promise!

Playlist Week of 10-03-10

* Handel: Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Mozart: Violin Sonatas, 1781 (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Mozart: Three Violin Concertos (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD) †/‡
* Miles Davis Quintet: Newport Jazz Festival 7-04-66 + 7-02-67 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Koningin Elizabeth-zaal Zoo, Antwerp, Belgium 10-28-67 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: De Doelen, Rotterdam, Netherlands 10-30-67 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Stockholm, Sweden 10-31-67 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Paris, France 11-06-67 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Karlsruhe, W. Germany 11-07-67 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis: The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Columbia 3CD)
* Sun Ra: “Happy Ra (for Scott & Rose)” (mix 3CDR)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: Willisau, Switzerland 8-25-10 (complete) (FM CDR)
* George Harrison: Somewhere in England (Dark Horse/Capitol CD)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros. LP>CDR)
* Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros. LP>CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.18 (Feb. ’78) (selections) (GDP 3CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.25 (May 1978) (d.3) (GDP 4CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks (Hampton 10-1989) (GDP/Rhino 6CD)†/‡
* Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy (Atlantic CD)
* Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream of Trains (Yep Roc CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD) †/‡



Just got back from a lovely trip up to upstate New York for our friends’ wedding and it was so much fun! Despite the presence of Tropical Storm Nicole, we managed to avoid the worst of the weather, even making a delightful side trip to Dia-Beacon and Storm King Art Center for a little art-overload. Dia-Beacon is a wonderful converted industrial space on the Hudson River filled with contemporary art by the likes of Sol Lewitt, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Richard Serra. Amazingly enough, on Friday morning we even got to enjoy about two-hours of rain-free time strolling around the 500-acre Storm King, an outdoor sculpture park in nearby Mountainville. Pictured above is Mark Di Suvero’s “Beethoven’s Quartet” (2003), a monumental sculpture which can be struck with a rubber mallet to produce ominous metallic tones. (In the background is his “Pyramidian” (1987/1998)). What an awe-inspiring place! Even though it eventually started to rain, the inclement weather added to the grandeur of the massive works of art. Still, I hope we can make it back there sometime when the weather is nice so we can see the whole thing. I hope to blog some more about our trip as the week goes on.