February 27, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Flushing Meadow Park, Queens, NY, July 4, 1973 (CDR)

As it turns out, I was mistaken in my review of What Planet Is This?: Not only did a copy of the July 6, 1973 Carnegie Hall concert circulate amongst collectors prior to its release by Leo Records, but this “bootleg” edition also included Sun Ra’s appearance at the memorial tribute to Louis Armstrong held in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, New York on the afternoon of July 4. In fact, I used to have a copy, but threw it away after purchasing What Planet Is This?, not realizing this track was missing on the official release. Oh well—just goes to show I should never get rid of anything without more careful consideration! Big thank you to the Sun Ra fans who pointed out my error and kindly provided me with a copy.

Like the Carnegie Hall concert, this was recorded by Voice of America but never broadcast, the tapes deposited into the Library of Congress and promptly forgotten (see Campbell & Trent p.199). It’s a curious fragment, about six minutes of music played by a small band consisting of Ra on electric piano, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass and Beaver Harris on drums, in his only known appearance with the Arkestra. The whole thing has a very impromptu, ad hoc feel to it, as if it had been organized at the last possible minute. The announcer is harried and clueless, first introducing the bassist as Reggie Workman and then, after the band corrects him, calling him “Ronnie Barkin” (and, later, “Ronnie Bodkin”) Sheesh! Sonny gingerly fingers a Fender Rhodes piano, an instrument he was not associated with at this time, and its politely chiming, bell-like tone clearly displeases him. So, he starts to work it, cranking up the gain, making it distort, adding skittering, polyphonic voices while Boykins and Harris set up a churning, free-jazz groove. Now Ra is really going for it, attacking the keyboard with two-fisted fury—but the engineer freaks out and turns down Sonny’s volume, greatly reducing the effect. Argh! Gilmore enters with what sounds like a pre-composed, modal theme and a set of full-throated, late-Coltrane-style variations. Despite the wonky sound, this is pretty exciting stuff! Harris gets maybe a little too excited and starts to overplay while Boykins tries his best to rein him in. Suddenly, Harris gets the message and drops out altogether, leaving Gilmore to solo a cappella, continuing in an atonal, post-bop vein, peppered with bluesy call and response effects and concluding with a dramatic flourish. Although brief, this is yet another incredible Gilmore solo!

In the aftermath of Gilmore's stunning display, piano filigrees float up from the stillness and Boykins picks up the bow, accompanied by softly tinkling cymbals. Ra sets the mood with celeste-like chording to surround the pleading, arco bass solo while Harris starts to turn up the heat. Then Boykins plays alone for a minute before the full band returns with a bashing storm of dissonant wailing. Sadly, the mix is horribly unbalanced by this point, with Ra’s dense figurations appearing way off in the distance while the tumultuous drums and squealing saxophone are way up front. The intended texture is obviously thick and rich, but is rendered thin and incoherent on tape (maybe it sounded better in person). Eventually, even Gilmore wanders off-mic, leaving Ra to bring it all to an end with a huge, harsh tone cluster. Our hapless M.C. rushes back to the microphone to defend this outburst of avant-garde mayhem to an audience that was perhaps expecting to hear a more traditional-sounding tribute to “Satchmo”: “I know a lot of you are thinking…well, you know...but it’s the energy that Louis had and all musicians have which comes out in a little bit different form, and yet a very valid thing as far as these men are concerned.” Well, he gets that right!

Too bad Leo declined to include this track on What Planet Is This? since it would have easily fit (and dodgy sound quality has never prevented them from releasing stuff in the past). It’s an interesting if not altogether successful piece, marred somewhat by Harris, who while a fine drummer, does not quite fit into Sun Ra’s cosmic equation here. And it’s really a shame Sun Ra’s Fender Rhodes assault is mixed so far back, as a more balanced recording would have made this a much more powerful and effective listening experience. Even so, the diminutive, four-piece Arkestra packs a lot of music into a short amount of time, Boykins holding it all together with his sure-footed bass playing while Gilmore is his typically brilliant self. Not essential by any means, but if you’re a Sun Ra fan, this little artifact is definitely worth seeking out—and holding onto.

February 26, 2011

Playlist Week of 2-26-11

Vinyl Obsession

* Collegium Vocale Gent (Herreweghe): Église des Minimes, Brussels, Belgium 6-09-09 (FM CDR)
* Collegium Vocale Gent (Herreweghe): Église des Minimes, Brussels, Belgium 2-09-10 (FM CDR)
* Cage: Complete Piano Music Vol.8: Hommage à Satie (Schleiermacher) (MDG CD)
* Jimmy Giuffre 3: 1961 (Fusion/Thesis) (Verve/ECM 2CD)
* Matthew Shipp: The Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear 2CD)
* John Lee Hooker: Chill Out (Pointblank CD)
* Parliament: Mothership Connection (Casablanca CD)
* Parliament: Funkytelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome (Casablanca CD)
* Parliament: The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (Casablanca CD)
* Elvis Presley: Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special (RCA 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Dream Bowl, Vallejo, CA 2-21-69 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY 2-18-71 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Hofheinz Pavilion, Houston, TX 10-14-77 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)‡
* The Band: Music From Big Pink (Capitol/MoFi SACD)
* Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Weld (Reprise 2CD)
* Chicago: Chicago Transit Authority (Rhino 2LP)
* Chicago: Chicago [a/k/a II] (Rhino 2LP)
* Chicago: III (Columbia 2LP)
* Chicago: V (Columbia LP)
* Chicago: VI (Columbia LP)
* Chicago: VII (Columbia 2LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Steely Dan: Gaucho (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Tom Waits: The Heart Of A Saturday Night (Asylum LP)
* Lucinda Williams: West (Lost Highway CD)†/‡
* The Police: Ghost In The Machine (A&M SACD)
* Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador CD)
* Yo La Tengo: Danelectro (Matador CDEP)
* Spiritualized: Lazer Guided Melodies (RCA/BMG CD)
* Robert Pollard: Space City Kicks (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Lifeguards: Waving At Astronauts (Serious Business LP/CD)
* Beck: Mellow Gold (Geffen CD)
* Tool: Ænima (Zoo/Volcano CD)†/‡
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: “Peace Bone” (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)



I told a friend recently that I no longer feel so guilty about my guilty pleasures. That’s right: I’m proud to admit I still enjoy Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, no matter how many billions of times I’ve heard it. And I’m not ashamed to have listened to Chicago’s first six studio albums this week, indulging in an orgy of nostalgic, feel-good music. Heck, I threw in some Elvis Presley to boot, just ‘cuz The King always cheers me up. And then Lizzy and I danced around the house to some Parliament/Funkadelic last night. And the Police are cranking as I write. What can I say? I love super-modern, hyper-intense music as much as the next guy, but I also like pop music of all kinds—I always have. It moves me.

Sure, music can be “Art” but it can also be utilitarian, simultaneously. One of the most amazing things about music is that it can make us feel better—physically and emotionally better—just by listening to it. Over the years, I’ve continually discovered that being a snob only serves to deny me access to the most fundamental thing music does. Music makes you feel something profound and ineffable, impossible to explain. But it’s real. And it doesn’t really matter how or why it happens; as long as you’re moved then, wow! Isn’t that amazing? I love literature, movies, painting and sculpture and the other arts, but let’s face it: they don’t do what music does. Music is primal, you know what I mean? Who am I to say what’s good or bad music? As the kids say, it’s all good.

I’ve always considered the connoisseur more interesting and useful than the critic. I might have strong opinions about what I personally think is better or worse music, but except for some obvious and extreme examples, I cannot say with absolute certainty that any particular iteration is objectively “bad.” What’s interesting is that it exists at all! A connoisseur is more interested in knowledge for its own sake. Of course, the more you know, the better equipped you will be to distinguish good from bad—but the connoisseur will quickly notice that technique alone does not guarantee artistic greatness. Connoisseurs acknowledge that some of the finer things in life are an “acquired taste” which requires effort to appreciate and will revel in that work rather than glibly disparage what they don’t understand. Unlike the critic, the connoisseur seeks to gather and share information rather than issue dubious commandments. I like to think of myself as a connoisseur, not a critic.

So I tend to write about music I like rather than music I don’t like. But that doesn’t mean I’m some sort of Pollyanna. Sometimes, I think about trying to generate blog traffic by being intentionally controversial and writing about my own personal musical antipathies. Well, let’s see…here’s one: (ahem) Wynton Marsalis has assumed an overlarge and extremely pernicious influence on the culture of jazz, doing more damage to the art form than any of the myriad “heretics” he condemns in his revisionist history (as canonized in Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary and institutionalized by Jazz At Lincoln Center). How’s that for a strong opinion? Then again, I think, well, maybe someone might hear the music for themselves, be moved by it, learn more—and rightly conclude his opinions are just so much egomaniacal blather. Wynton is an OK trumpet player, but a terrible musicologist. Does this make his music “bad” music? Maybe. But so what? There was a time, long ago, when all this seemed to matter but now I just want to enjoy music rather than criticize it. Unless someone starts paying me to do so, I’m not going to waste my time listening to and writing about music I actively dislike. For the right price, I would gleefully crank out heated rants by the yard. But on my personal blog, I’ll continue to write about what I like, what I love—even if it’s cheesy pop music. Perhaps that makes my blog boring to read; I don’t care.

February 21, 2011

Has Spring Arrived?

Dandelion 2011-02-21

It's been unseasonably warm the past few days here in Middle Tennessee and the first dandelions have popped up out of the ground. Does this mean spring is here? Or does it just mean my lawn has weeds?

February 19, 2011

Playlist Week of 2-19-11

Mom's Hand

* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew Live (Columbia CD)
* Roscoe Mitchell Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM CD)
* Charles Lloyd New Quartet: Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY 1-29-11 (FM 2CDR)
* David S. Ware String Ensemble: Threads (Thirsty Ear CD)
* William Parker Quartet w/Leena Conquest: Raining On The Moon (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Myra Melford’s Be Bread: Image of the Body (CryptoGramophone CD)
* Grateful Dead: Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ 6-17-76 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO 8-30-78 (set 2) (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Manor Downs, Austin, TX 7-04-81 (selections) (SBD/AUD 3CDR)‡
* Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series Vol.7: No Direction Home (soundtrack) (Columbia 2CD)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Neil Young: Silver & Gold (Reprise CD)†/‡
* The Wipers: Is This Real? (Zeno CD)
* Sonic Youth: The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities (Goofin’ 2LP)
* Sonic Youth: Simon Werner a Disparu (soundtrack) (SYR9 LP)
* Sonic Youth + I.C.P. + The Ex: In the Fishtank 9 (Konkurrent EP)
* Dirty Three: Ocean Songs (Touch & Go 2LP)
* Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch CD)†/‡
* Guided By Voices: Live in Daytron ?6° (Rockathon 3LP/FLAC>WAV>CDR)
* Lifeguards: Mist King Urth (Fading Captain Series LP)
* Lifeguards: Waving at Astronauts (Serious Business LP)



It’s been a hard week.

After a long series of hospitalizations, my mom has finally been released into hospice care. So last weekend, Lizzy and I flew out to Kansas City to see her, where she has been living near my sister’s family in Olathe, Kansas. It was so awful to see my mother—who was once “The Iron Lady” of our family—looking so frail and she seemed more and more diminished every day we were there. Nevertheless, she was lucid and in remarkably good spirits and we had a nice visit. Thank goodness Lizzy was there to keep the conversation going and brighten the room with her innate warmth and genuine cheerfulness. As for me, I tended to get sad and quiet or distract myself by playing with the camera and taking photographs. Looking at the pictures now just makes me want to cry.

You see, I’m not handling it very well. I’m doing my best, but nothing in life has really prepared me for this moment. The range and intensity of emotion is overwhelming: not just the expected sadness and self-pity at her impending death but also guilt and shame and anger and bitterness—and also a deepened love and affection for my extended family and an impossible desire to make everything OK for everyone. But mostly I just feel helpless. Nashville is not as far away as Boston, but it might as well be. And nowhere is really “home.”

I try not to write about personal stuff on the blog and I am not mentioning this in order to elicit any kind of sympathy from the handful of people who bother to come here to read my drivel. But perhaps you will understand why I do not really feel like writing record reviews right now, at least not today. Instead, I just want to honor my mom and acknowledge these feelings, painful as they are. Please bear with me.

February 13, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday


Truth is bad
Or truth is good
It depends upon where
And how and who you are.
The word truth must be considered carefully
And the precepts of that which is called truth
Must be equationized and balanced
And understood.
Or else, it must be abandoned
And another truth placed in its place.
This is the idea of the greater age
The outer worlds of etherness
This is the word from the Cosmic-Cosmo-Tomorrow.

--Sun Ra

February 12, 2011

Playlist Week of 2-12-11

Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory - Far Side

* J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV12, etc. (Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe): Brussels 11-03-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Concerto Madrigalesco (Gugliemi): Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna 1-21-10 (FM CDR)
* Carter: Chamber Music (Oppens/Arditti Quartet) (Montaigne/Naïve CD)
* Lennie Tristano & Warne Marsh: Intuition (Capitol/Blue Note CD)
* Jeanne Lee & Ran Blake: The Legendary Duets (RCA/Bluebird CD)
* Sun Ra: Concert For Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Sun Ra: The Paris Tapes 1971 (Art Yard/Kindred Spirits 2CD)
* Andrew Hill: Dusk (Palmetto CD)
* Andrew Hill: Time Lines (Blue Note CD)
* Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Nine To Get Ready (ECM CD)
* Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Song For My Sister (Pi CD)
* Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Far Side (ECM CD)
* James Blood Ulmer: Odyssey (Columbia LP)
* Matthew Shipp: 4D (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Otomo Yoshide/Bill Laswell/Yoshigaki Yasuhiro: Soup (P-Vine CD)
* Otomo Yoshide/Bill Laswell/Yoshigaki Yasuhiro, et al.: Soup Live (P-Vine 2CD)
* Manu Dibango: Electric Africa (Celluloid LP)
* George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (d.1-2)(Capitol 3CD)†/‡
* Grateful Dead: Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ 6-19-76 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ 6-18-76 (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.1 No.2: October ’77 (GDP/Rhino 2+1CD)‡
* Bob Dylan: Shot of Love (Columbia CD)
* Neil Young: Harvest Moon (Reprise CD)†/‡
* Patti Smith: Radio Ethiopia (Arista CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)†
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)†



As I was idly browsing around Amazon.com, I was surprised to discover that a new CD by Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory had been released last November on the ECM label, entitled Far Side. How did I miss this?! Of course, I immediately ordered a copy and have listened to it quite a bit this week. This long-standing group has gone through several personnel changes over the years, although the unique, two-piano format has remained consistent. Moreover, Mitchell’s compositional approach has become steadily more abstract, moving steadily away from jazz idioms and scoring into more ambitious “contemporary classical” realms. In that sense, Far Side sounds a lot more like Mitchell’s Transatlantic Art Ensemble than any of The Note Factory’s earlier releases and may disappoint fans of the kinds of fun and funky vocal numbers featured on those previous discs. However, the rewards are great for the intrepid listener.

Recorded live by Bayerischer Rundfunk at Stadtsaal in Burghausen, Germany on March 17, 2007, the disc opens with the lengthy title track (actually entitled, “Far Side/Cards/Far Side”), which develops slowly and deliberately across its thirty minutes, beginning with barely audible scrapes and scribbles and culminating in a ferocious group improvisation. Remarkably compelling from beginning to end, the piece demonstrates Mitchell’s fine-tuned control of his material and the band’s sympathetic and inspired responses. Pianists Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer manage to stay out of each other’s way, while still generating densely intricate webs of sound at just the right moments. The same can be said of the double rhythm section (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead on bass; Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis on drums), who provide supple, sensitive support while also raising the temperature where appropriate. Corey Wilkes’s beautiful trumpet playing incorporates expressive extended techniques with full-bodied blowing and he continues to be the most perfect foil to Mitchell’s reed outings since Lester Bowie’s untimely passing in 1999. This track is a tour de force of dynamic group interplay and consistently rewards repeated listenings.

The remainder of the disc is given over to shorter pieces, each of which subdivides the largish band into smaller, subtly shifting ensembles. While none are as overwhelmingly powerful as the opening track, they do explore a variety of interesting harmonic and rhythmic territories, perhaps hinting at possibilities more than fully realizing them. However, they provide further evidence of Mitchell’s compositional prowess and the band’s superlative interpretative abilities.

Recorded and mixed with ECM’s usual meticulous attention to detail and bathed in the kind of warm, reverberant ambience that has become their trademark, this is an outstanding release. Surely one of the best records of 2010—wish I’d known about it sooner!

February 10, 2011

More Snow

Our Scary Road

Yesterday afternoon, another snowstorm moved in and dumped three-to-five inches in a couple of hours, quickly icing over the roadways and turning these hills and hollers of Kingston Springs into treacherous toboggan courses. I was able to make it home, but poor Lizzy got stuck on bus for four (!) hours in downtown Nashville, which had become completely gridlocked. Thankfully, she was able to escape and stay in town overnight with a kind friend. Good grief!

I am so ready for spring! Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go yet.

February 6, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Concert for the Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk’ CD)

It’s unclear when exactly the Arkestra returned to the states, or what they did (if anything) until the end of the year, when ESP-Disk’ mounted an ambitious Concert for Comet Kohoutek at New York City’s prestigious Town Hall on December 22, 1973. Given the supposedly cosmic significance of this astronomical event, Sun Ra was asked to headline a marathon concert featuring other ESP-affiliated artists such as the Miamis, Randy Burns, Amanda, Buddy Hughes, Donald Raphael Garrett and Paul Thornton (of the Godz). Like the eponymous comet, the concert was something of a bust. I’m old enough to remember the hype surrounding Kohoutek and the deep sense of disappointment that followed its weak display. In retrospect, the deflation of naïve idealism that accompanied Kohoutek’s passage by our planet seems to fittingly symbolize the end of “The Age of Aquarius.” It’s not surprising to learn the Town Hall concert was “rather poorly attended” (Campbell & Trent p.204) or that the tapes of Sun Ra’s set would become a source of bitter contention, unreleased until 1993, a year after Sonny’s death and twenty years after its recording. The times had indeed a-changed—but not for the better.

Originally released via the licensing deal with German ZYX label, that disc was marred by poor sound, random indexing and woefully incorrect titling. Concert For Comet Kohoutek was eventually reissued in a slightly expanded and remastered edition by the re-formed ESP-Disk’ in 2006, although the graphics are noticeably fuzzier and it dispenses with the thick booklet of text and photographs which accompanied the ZYX version. Instead, we get a bizarre, two-page essay by ESP-Disk’ founder, Bernard Stollman, wherein he accuses Sun Ra of stealing the original (presumably stereo) master tapes from his apartment, which necessitated the use of a mono reference copy for the CD (contra. Campbell & Trent p.204-205, both editions are mono). Stollman further insinuates Sun Ra extorted a royalty advance from him shortly after this concert and, later, breached a contract regarding concert recordings to be made on the upcoming Mexican tour. Well, whatever the veracity of these allegations, the tone of cynicism and bad faith is certainly in keeping with the post-‘Sixties malaise the Comet Kohoutek seemed to auger. Indeed, this posthumously released album presents the end of an era in Sun Ra’s music: the outrageous experimentalism would thereafter be tempered by an increasingly regimented formalism and the space-age cosmo-philosophy would be subsumed into more a more calculated sense of showmanship. Sure, he continued to make interesting music, but it inevitably changed with the times.

A profound sense of anticlimax pervades the opening remarks by the hapless M.C., who earnestly attempts to narrate a slideshow of NASA space photographs. The Arkestra can be heard noodling around and tuning up in the background and as he begins to expound upon the drug-addled fantasies of Timothy Leary, the audience becomes audibly restless. “Somebody has asked me to get the f*** off [the stage],” he announces with a nervous chuckle. “Is there anybody here that wants to hear more about [Leary’s] Terra 2? Otherwise, I’ll get the f*** off.” The audience responds with resounding cheers. “By popular demand, I will get the f*** off.” This little exchange (omitted on the ZYX CD) neatly summarizes the cultural zeitgeist of the mid-'Seventies.

Then the Arkestra goes at it, opening with a earth-shattering space chord and “Astro Black.” June Tyson sings a cappella, then with quiet accompaniment from bass and drums, ringing cymbals and cowbell. Beautiful! Then John Gilmore leads some assaultive group improvisation which quickly melts into the melodious strains of “Discipline 27,” but the tempo is oddly plodding and off-centered. After a brief but intriguingly out-there solo from Gilmore, they lurch into what Prof. Campbell calls “Journey Through the Outer Darkness” (p.204) but I believe is another “Discipline” piece, a heaving minor key vamp in five. But again, while Boykins tries to anchor the rhythm section, the multiple drummers and percussionists fail to coalesce, even during Hadi’s otherwise fluid trumpet solo. As if sensing defeat, Sonny starts interjecting weird synthesizer squiggles, eventually taking over with a long keyboard solo, occasionally punctuated with conducted blasts of high-energy group improvisation, climaxing with a typically mind-blowing tenor solo from Gilmore. Good stuff! After some more scary electronics, Sonny launches into “Enlightenment” and it’s the usual, with Tyson and Gilmore singing in harmony along with the Space Ethnic Voices and host of clanking percussion. Unfortunately, Marshall Allen’s flute obbligato is off-mic and hard to hear, but it’s still a nice version of this concert staple.

“Love in Outer Space” is one of those wonderfully heavy, organ-driven versions with Danny Davis joining Allen in a dual alto saxophone display towards the end. This elicits some hearty applause after which Ra begins playing “Discipline 15” (mistitled “Kohoutek” on this CD). A mournful, rubato ballad, this composition was rarely performed yet the Arkestra sounds remarkably well-rehearsed, unfazed by Ra’s weird and increasingly frenetic organ plinking. After its solemn conclusion, Sonny takes charge with another display of electric pyrotechnics, full of thunderous, low-register rumbling; two-handed, staccato runs; and dissonant organ clusters. A cued space chord signals the entrance of bass and drums and then things get really crazy, with Ra building up forbidding walls of synthesizer/organ noise while horns chirp and squeal in the background. Just as the texture becomes impossibly dense, a trombone makes a dramatic entrance (probably Dick Griffin or Charles Stephens) (Id.) and more mayhem arises in its wake. Wow!

Finally, Sonny guides the band into “Discipline 27-II,” taken at a moderately fast clip, and the keyboard attack continues for several minutes before he takes to the microphone to ask “What planet is this?” The usual series of declamations follow, echoed by Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices while the ensemble arranges and re-arranges the endlessly malleable composition, all held together by Boykins’s endlessly creative bass playing. Thankfully, it doesn’t go on too long and everyone quiets down for some of that post-Yoko screeching and screaming from one of the Space Ethnic Voices. Nice! Then Tyson announces, “We’re openin’ up the doors of the Outer Space Employment Agency!” and short but super-funky version follows. Only forty-seven seconds long, I would have liked to hear a bit more of this killer groove, but before things are allowed to get going, it's interrupted by Ra’s insistence on “Space Is The Place.” After an over-amped organ introduction, the singing, dancing and chanting begins in earnest, with Akh Tal Ebah doing his soul-man thing along with Tyson’s more reserved crooning. Eventually, the percussion drops out leaving the vocalists supported only by Boykins, who is riding the wave, in the pocket and he doesn’t want to stop! Sun Ra steps up to say, “There’s no place for you to go except for in or out…try the out!” This gets a big hand from the audience. Saxophones scribble, the Space Ethnic Voice shrieks and screams, while Boykins just keeps on rockin’ until finally bringing it to a close with big cadence. The small but enthusiastic audience claps and hollers its appreciation while the musicians exit the stage.

The actual Concert For Comet Kohoutek was, like its namesake, something of a letdown for its promoters. But the music preserved on this CD is a stunning reminder of Sun Ra’s prowess as instrumentalist and bandleader during this period. His keyboard solos are some of the most hair-raisingly intense to be found on record and his control over the Arkestra’s resources is complete, deftly steering the music in contrasting directions as it unfolds. Despite the acrimonious history surrounding the tapes and the less-than-perfect sound quality, this is still a worthy addition to the official canon. If the original stereo masters still exist somewhere, let’s hear ‘em! Until then, Concert For Comet Kohoutek (particularly the expanded and remastered edition) is highly recommended.

February 5, 2011

Playlist Week of 2-05-11

Road Trips Vol.4 No.2
* Andrea Marcon (organ): St. Gumbertus Church, Ansbach, Germany 8-01-09 (FM CDR)
* Nieuw Ensemble (Spanjaard): Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, Amsterdam 1-20-11 (FM CDR)
* Jelly Roll Morton: Volume 1 (1926-1927) (JSP CD)
* Modern Jazz Quartet: Modern Jazz Quartet (Prestige 2LP)
* John Coltrane: Meditations (Impulse! CD)
* Ornette Coleman: Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.5-6) (Rhino 6CD)
* Larry Young: Into Somethin’ (Blue Note CD)
* Larry Young: Unity (Blue Note CD)
* Jackie McLean: One Step Beyond (Blue Note CD)
* Grachan Moncur III: Some Other Stuff (Blue Note LP)
* Grachan Moncur III: Evolution (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: Lost Reel Collection, Vol.6 (Transparency CD)
* Sun Ra: Concert for Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Sun Ra: “Treasure Hunt” (selections) (misc. unreleased CDR)
* Sun Ra: Flushing Meadow Park, Queens, NY 7-4-73 (Pre-FM CDR)
* Sun Ra: Out Beyond The Kingdom Of (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Quartet: Teatro Uomo, Milan, Italy 4-22-79 (AUD 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Quintet: Rainbow Gallery, Minneapolis, MN 9-79 (AUD CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Speak Like a Child (Blue Note CD)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Musikladen, Bremen, W. Germany 11-74 (TV>DVD-R)
* John Abercrombie: Class Trip (ECM CD)
* John Abercrombie: The Third Quartet (ECM CD)
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her (ECM CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.1 No.1: Fall ’79 (GDP/Rhino 2+1CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, IN 12-05-81 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.4 No.2: April Fools’ ’88 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Bob Dylan: “Rock Solid” (unreleased live album 1980) (fan/boot CDR)
* Joni Mitchell: Max Yasgur’s Farm, Bethel, NY 8-15-98 (SBD CDR)
* Chicago: Budokan, Tokyo, Japan 1972 (TV>DVD-R)
* Mekons: New York… (ROIR CD)
* Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians: Gotta Let This Hen Out! (Yep Roc CD)
* Echo & The Bunnymen: Heaven Up Here (Warner Bros./MFSL LP)
* Robert Pollard: Space City Kicks (GBV, Inc. CD)‡
* Wilco: Circus Krone, Munich, Germany 9-24-10x (FM CDR)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)†



Like a harbinger of spring, the new Grateful Dead Road Trips arrived in the mail box this morning. Consisting of the entire April 1, 1988 concert from The Meadowlands in New Jersey (along with a good bit from the night before), listening brings back fond memories of hitting the road and going to see shows back in the day. Spring Tour had its own feel: the weather in the northeast could still be dreadful, making driving to out of the way venues sometimes treacherous and the band was usually a bit rusty from a couple months off. But Deadheads are hardy, resourceful and forgiving to a fault—and the band’s energy and excitement to be playing music again would usually make up for any gaffes in execution. Such is the case here: it might be rough and ready, but it’s also a heck of lot of fun.

For those keeping score at home, this is the first official release from 1988, a decidedly transitional year for the Dead. Barely two years after a near-death experience, Jerry Garcia was by then just starting to regain his pre-coma facility on guitar. While he would never be quite the same, it was nothing short of a miracle that he came back at all, sounding remotely like his old self. His love of music and general joy de’vivre is readily apparent here, singing with a soulful passion and clearly relishing in his renewed ability to execute rippling scalar runs, huge, chunking chords, bluesy bent note wailing and delicate, banjo-esque fingerpicking. Garcia’s rebirth clearly inspired the rest of the band and they are with him every step of the way, their manic enthusiasm sometimes threatening to overturn the applecart. There are forgotten lyrics, blown transitions, and shaky tempos here and there—but so what? The Dead were never about note-perfect renditions anyway. Instead, they sought to achieve fleeting moments of transcendence—and there are more than a few of them here.

It being April Fools’ Day, the band starts out with typically goofy, self-deprecating prank. I won’t give the joke away, but the fact that they never took themselves too seriously was definitely part of their quirky charm. The highlight of the first set is the rarely-performed “To Lay Me Down,” a touching ballad sung superbly by Garcia in his ragged but wizened voice, his crystalline guitar leads plumbing the depths of emotion Robert Hunter’s words only hint at. The second set keeps the aimless noodling in check, with taut yet compelling performances of such old jamming stalwarts as “China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider,” “Estimated Prophet” and “The Other One,” while also providing focused and powerful improvisations during the obligatory “drums” and “space” segments. Yet the second set from 3/31 might be even better, opening with an intricately embroidered “Scarlet Begonias>Fire On The Mountain” sequence followed a fiery “Samson and Delilah” and a stately, elegiac “Terrapin Station.” The only real blemish is the set-ending “All Along the Watchtower” which never quite settles on a tempo—or even a common meter—and lurches fitfully to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Thankfully, the heart-rending “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” encore makes suitable enough restitution to Mr. Dylan, whose songs they were perhaps overplaying during the period following their joint stadium tour in the summer of 1987—no fewer than four different Dylan covers can be found on these three CDs!

The sound quality on this volume of Road Trips is exceptionally good for a two-track source. Recorded by front-of-house sound genius, Dan Healy, it utilizes his experimental “Ultramatrix” system to blend the soundboard feed with a stereo microphone in the middle of the audience. The custom-made computer program could be programed to correct the severe time/phase alignment problems inherent in the process and sometimes it didn’t work so well. But here it’s just about exactly perfect, providing a realistically spacious ambience and a pleasing balance between vocals and instruments often sorely lacking on straight soundboard tapes. It sounds like they’re playing in a hockey rink yet everything is clearly defined and the interplay between the band and audience is thrillingly audible. The window-rattling bass, ultra-wide dynamic range and complete absence of hiss (combined with the grainy and slightly recessed high-end) makes me think these were taken from PCM masters, an early digital recording medium utilizing Sony’s Beta video tape. With a word-length of only 14-bits, there are still obvious sonic limitations, certainly as compared with today’s high-resolution digital formats, but, at the time, it was way better than the lowly and unreliable compact cassette. This sounds great cranked up loud!

Picky Deadheads are always complaining, but the folks at GDP and Rhino seem to be listening their customers. The Road Trips series has finally (for the most part) abandoned the annoying limited edition “bonus disc” marketing approach and expanded each release to a more sensible and accommodating three-CD format. Even better, this year they’ve begun offering an annual subscription with a decent discount, free shipping and, yes, for a limited time (now passed) a “bonus disc.” OK, I can get with that. Of course, the really big news in Deadheadland is the upcoming Europe ’72 box set: 60+ CDs, all twenty-something concerts from that legendary tour, mixed from the original 16-track analog tapes (time-aligned by Plangent Processes!), packaged in a mini-replica steamer trunk with a hardbound book, memorabilia and other ephemera and, for the first 3000 pre-orders, a personalized “luggage tag.” Now, this is something every fanatical fan has wanted ever since the advent of CDs. But no one—least of all I—ever expected they would actually do it! Unfortunately, they announced this in mid-January as a strictly limited edition of 7200 (get it?), requiring 3000 pre-orders to even go forward with production—as if they would have trouble selling it! This triggered such a purchasing frenzy from both fans (and, obviously, pure speculators) that Dead.net’s servers crashed for several days. Potential buyers were instructed to provide an email address and, eventually, a “personalized code” would be sent enabling purchase. It was, as they say, a total cluster-f*** and the entire edition was “sold out” within a couple days. Realizing that demand for this set would be stronger than they originally imagined, a “music-only” edition is now available for the same price—but only through April 1. Needless to say, I did manage to successfully pre-order a personalized box. Are you kidding me?! I used to spend this kind of money to go see them back when Garcia was still alive. All we have now are the recordings so, how can I resist? Yes, I am crazy! I am a Deadhead! I can’t wait ‘til September! In the meantime, we’ll have more Road Trips in May and August. Stay tuned.

February 4, 2011

Book Art Video

If you love books (or book arts or just cool stop-frame animation), you need to see this short film made for the New Zealand Book Council. Animated by Andersen M Studio. Via Lizzy, the librarian.