Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sun Ra and His Arkestra - To Those Of Earth... And Other Worlds (Strut Records, 2015)

Last year there was a two disc compilation of Sun Ra’s music called In the Orbit of Ra, curated by the Arkestra saxophonist turned bandleader Marshall Allen. This time the baton is handed to British DJ and crate digger Gilles Peterson for a journey through familiar Ra music and some surprises as well. Peterson is partial to music in the Ra canon that has chanting or singing, often incantations evoking space, Egyptology or Afrofuturism. With this in mind he opens the music with a Ra standard “Calling Planet Earth” then delving into his early music from the 1950’s culminating in the beautiful “India.” Peterson turns over some very interesting stones like the exotic “Brazilian Sun” and the synth driven “My Brother the Wind.” “Watusa” was seemingly made for dancing (Sun Ra had to play for dancers when he first moved from Birmingham to Chicago.) Peterson ends each disc in the digital version with a DJ set of his own favorite moments of the Ra catalog, in this case “To Those Of Earth... And Other Worlds (Continuous Mix 1).” Disc two moves into the later period of Ra’s career, presenting a patient and airy song called “Sleeping Beauty” along with the beautiful meditation “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of).” A studio reading of “We Travel the Spaceways” leads into two very powerful live recordings, “Astro Black” from Zurich and then “Somebody Else’s Idea” from Paris. The brilliant vocalist June Tyson never got her due as a jazz singer, but she had great emotional range and depth and really drives these songs with part chanting and part singing which spearheaded Ra’s search for the meaning of life in the universe and freedom from the race hatred that black men and women faced every day. The album proper ends appropriately with a righteous version of the Ra classic “Space is the Space” before we move into seventy plus minutes of another DJ set, “To Those Of Earth... And Other Worlds (Continuous Mix 2).” The highlight of this mix is Ra ranting about putting the White house on the moon! Overall this is a very interesting collection of Sun Ra material. Perhaps not for the newbie, but fans and dabblers should have a ball picking through the tracks and critiquing Peterson’s DJ mixes. To Those of Earth & Other Worlds -

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein (Riverbed Books, 2015)

Carrie Brownstein is a musician best known for her work in the legendary punk rock band Sleater-Kinney, but she has worn many hats from student to animal shelter activist and now writer. The book begins with a recollection of her adolescence, and like many people (myself included) she was able to find solace and freedom in the transformative power of music. Her mother was chronically ill and eventually split the families and she began going to shows, learning guitar and forming a band. The northwest was a hotbed not only of music with Nirvana leading the way, but also had courageous and groundbreaking female bands lumped under the "riot grrll" tag like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Meeting her future bandmate Corin Tucker at a show was a revelation and led her to move to Olympia, Washington and the formation of Sleater-Kinney. They made their first album in Australia all places and then then returned to the US using a number of different drummers before finding Janet Weiss who completed the trio. The rest of the book is a whirlwind tour of each album the band made from the recording in the studio through touring and personal issues every musician must face during long and grinding tours. Brownstein had it worse than most, suffering from a serious back ailment, shingles, depression and self-harm. She is a very sensitive person and the music clearly drained her until things finally came to a halt after touring for their 2006 album The Woods. This book is solely devoted to her upbringing and musical career so their is no coverage of her popular sketch comedy television show Portlandia. It is devoted to Sleater-Kinney as well, no there is no mention of the short lived supergroup Wild Flag she formed with Mary Timony. The book ends just as their reunion is getting started and the recording session begin in full with everybody trying to keeping things a secret. There turned out to be no need as their reunion brought forth one of their finest LPs and superb live shows. This was a very well written book and it lifts the curtain on the rock 'n' roll lifestyle - not as glamorous as it may seem, practicing in dingy basements, sleeping on peoples floors all in the name of their extraordinary music.Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl -

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Monday, November 23, 2015

William Parker / Raining on the Moon - Great Spirit (AUM Fidelity, 2015)

Of all of bassist and composer William Parker’s many ensembles, Raining on the Moon may be his most melodic and accessible. He is joined by longtime collaborators Hamid Drake on drums, Rob Brown on alto saxophone, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Eri Yamamoto on piano and Leena Conquest singing. If any comparison can be drawn it would be with the music that Sun Ra played with June Tyson’s powerful vocals, and this band is a spiritual descendent of that group. Parker writes thought provoking lyrics and music that leaves ample room for the instrumentalists to make their statements, like Rob Brown’s ripe solo on the opening track “Bowl Of Stone Around The Sun” in which space is also left open for Conquest’s soulful singing of Parker’s affecting and inspiring lyrics. “Feet Music” is simply staggering, with the words recounting the life of a slave, working in the crops and then cooking and cleaning only to be raped by the bossman. The music is urgent and powerful with the piano, bass and drums unit driving forward with passionate dignity, as the lyrics recount the pain of infanticide to keep the character’s child from becoming yet another slave. Conquest’s vocals are defiant and filled with the great power and dignity. From the haunting despair of that song, the music moves into the spiritual realm with Conquest beckoning hope, joy and the possibilities of love on “Great Spirit.” The music evolves into some excellent trumpet and saxophone interplay as Brown and Barnes swirl ever higher, with great support from below. “Prayer-Improv” fades into a free and unfettered improvisation by the instrumentalists, before Conquest enters intoning haunting tones that float above the music. The bands really flies free here and it is exhilarating to hear, even as it slowly fades out. “Song (for Whitney)” is a soulful ballad for voice and piano and “Potpourri” ends the album on a very high note with a snippet of joyous jamming. This may be a bold statement, but I think that this may stand as one of the finest albums in William Parker’s discography. The music flows freely and effortlessly and Parker’s lyrics are some of the best he has ever writing sing with grace and passion by Leena Conquest. Great Spirit -

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters [3 CD Super Deluxe Edition] (Verve/Impulse, 2015)

John Coltrane’s towering masterpiece A Love Supreme has been issued and re-issued in many formats and configurations since its release fifty years ago. This most recent reissue comes as a three disc “Super-Deluxe Edition” with the album itself occupying the first disc, followed by a disc of alternate takes and studio ephemera from the recording session and then concluding with a disc that has the well known concert from Juan Les Pins where the band played the A Love Supreme suite in full. This period was the peak of John Coltrane’s so called classic quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. One of the foremost bands in the history of jazz, their level of empathy and togetherness was extraordinary. The album itself is a four-part offering to God, where Part One "Acknowledgment" opens the album with a slow building and reverent statement of purpose, culminating with the chanting of the incantation "A Love Supreme... A Love Supreme..." building to a transcendent state. Part Two, "Resolution," has one of the most searing solos in the Coltrane canon, and his entrance in the beginning of the song is hair-raising in its emotional intensity. His saxophone cuts through like a beacon in the night, with Elvin Jones' rolling and storming percussion at his heels. Jones leads off Part Three "Pursuance" with a beautiful drum solo, showing all of the rhythmic possibilities of the music, then Coltrane comes in with another short solo that burns from within, before allowing McCoy Tyner a rippling and fleet fingered solo. Coltrane's re-entry is amazingly powerful and his interaction with Jones is like two forces of nature coming together. Garrison is granted a deeply grounded bass interlude that serves as a connecting piece between the two final movements of the suite. After the power and vision of the first three parts of the album, Part four "Psalm" represents the hard fought victory of Coltrane's spiritual and musical triumph. The music is slow and haunted, but possessed by a sense of grace and vision that few musicians have possessed. The second disc containing the alternate takes does offer a peek behind the scenes, showing that this wasn’t just something that was beamed from heaven, but an album that Coltrane meticulously put together, from overdubbing the invocation to moving through many takes of “Acknowledgement,” looking for the right opening. These alternates and breakdowns show a master craftsman carefully and patiently putting the pieces together to build a unified whole. Finally, the live album was widely bootlegged before its official release in a previous reissue of A Love Supreme. It is unique and powerful music and the band is vibrant in its performance. The yearning melody of “Resolution” is heart rending, and the band uses it as a springboard for an epic performance with Coltrane’s saxophone moving more deeply into the raw and scouring tone that he would develop for the remainder of his life. “Pursuance” is twice the length of the original, opening with an epic Elvin Jones solo, followed by the whole band reaching for the urgent theme of the piece. Garrison is given ample space to solo at length, which leads into the finale, a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Psalm” with Coltrane stretching himself and his instrument to near the breaking point in search of spiritual grace. The liner notes contain some nice photographs and interesting handwritten notes, discographical information and an essay from Ashley Kahn. A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters (3 CD Super Deluxe Edition) -

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bob Dylan - The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965 - 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (Legacy, 2015)

Bob Dylan was arguably at his most potent during 1965-66, releasing classic after classic and rewriting the rulebook for folk music and rock and roll. During this period he shifted firmly from the former to the latter with the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, which are landmarks in the history of rock and roll. This particular collection brings together the alternate and discarded takes from the studio sessions from which these albums were culled. It is available in three configurations: a two disc highlights set (this is what I purchased), a six disc boxed set that contains many more alternates, and then finally a limited edition eighteen disc monstrosity. The highlights set works quite nicely and shows the very high level that he was working at during this period, changing lyrics, tempos and formats looking for the best available configuration. There is some very funny banter between Dylan and his producer about whether to call a song “Alcatraz to the 9th Power” or “Bank Account Blues” before he then launches into a nearly complete version of the fantasia that would become “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” There is an interesting stab at “Mr. Tambourine Man” with a full band along with rehearsal and alternates of the epochal song “Like a Rolling Stone.” If you go with the six disc version, one entire disc is taken up by all of the takes and breakdowns of this song. It is also fascinating to hear him looking for the right order and setting to complete his narrative songs, like on “Tombstone Blues” where the characters are in alternate settings than they would be in the final version. He’s searching for order and meaning in “Desolation Row” too, starting on piano and then discarding it then moving to guitar as things drop into place and the epic begins to take its final form. These sessions could be quite grueling as an example the version of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) is take nineteen and counting. The latter half of the second disc moves into the material from Blonde on Blonde, with rehearsal takes of “Visions of Johanna” and alternates of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Just Like A Woman.” Dylan was writing furiously in the studio at this stage fleshing out the music while Nashville studio musicians played cards and waited while he would alter the music, sometimes radically. This was a very interesting collection, a peek behind the curtain at one of the most prolific periods of one of America’s greatest musicians. There is a also a well done booklet with essays, photographs and session information. The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965 - 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 -

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Expanded and Remastered (Rhino/Warner Brothers, 2015)

The first full solo album by Van Morrison may not have sold too many copies but it would grow to have a pervasive influence on music and culture in general. It is interesting that it is often sited as one of the finest rock albums of all time when it is hardly rock and roll at all. The album was recorded in unusual circumstances: the shy and extremely introverted Morrison in a booth singing and playing acoustic guitar while a heavy hitting crew of jazz musicians provided accompaniment. That really isn’t the right word, since the “accompanying” musicians were Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet on drums, Jay Berliner who played on Charles Mingus’s masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady on guitar, and most importantly bassist Richard Davis. Davis is a bassist of awesome talent, the lynchpin of modern jazz landmarks Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy and Point of Departure by Andrew Hill. His performance here is equal to those; he is a virtuoso, but not a showoff. He dominates the music, but supports it with all his heart. The third layer would be the strings and brass which would be added later on, making for a three layer cake of music that could have fallen apart at any point, but instead works perfectly in on of the rarest of things: an album without fault. The lyrics and singing are perhaps the finest of Van Morrison’s career, whether he sings of the abstract joy and wonderment of life and the universe of the title track or barrels through the blistering jazz “The Way That Young Lovers Do,” he is in complete control of his extraordinary talents. The songs that he has written are like short stories, character studies and vignettes of people that are lost, haunted or who have a sense of spiritual abandonment. One of his most famous songs “Cyprus Avenue” sees the character paralyzed with love for something that can never be – his passionate desire for a fourteen year old girl. The character is lost, stumbling along railroad tracks drinking cheap wine trying to forget, yet he still finds himself hiding in his car watching her walk home from school while fantasizing that she is a princess being pulled by and elegant horse and carriage. It’s an uncomfortable song, but one that is utterly compelling and Morrison sings of his character’s torment with great compassion and seems to challenge us: what is this? Love? Stalking? Pedophilia? Like his greatest songs, the question remains unanswered. “Madame George” is another of his most memorable characters. A transsexual playing “dominoes in drag” who is hounded by the police and the children in the street and admired from afar by one who has taken the train south to see her. Repeating the phrase “the love that loves” over and over builds an extraordinary momentum that makes the story of the drag queen and her admirer all the more compelling. The album ends with he haunted “Slim Slow Slider” with the title character dying presumably of the final stages of drug addiction, and the narrator at a loss about what to do, and then the album fades like waking from a very intense dream. Well, now it is not quite the end with the added expanded tracks, although a respectful silence is added between the album proper and the bonus material. Full takes of “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider” without the fade are interesting to hear and there are also rejected takes of “Madame George” and “Beside You.” All of these are interesting in a behind the scenes way and do nothing to detract from the album itself. The new remastering sounds very good and there is a short essay detailing the making of the album. This is one of the most thoughtful albums ever made. From the arrangement of the music to the extraordinary lyrical content and singing, this is an album that simply cannot be missed. Astral Weeks (Expanded and Remastered) -

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