Thursday, March 31, 2011

Farley Granger – R.I.P.

Farley Granger never considered himself a movie star or even a Hollywood player. He even bought himself out of a strait-jacket, star-making contract in order to pursue his love of acting in the theatre. While he never really found his niche on the stage, he did consider himself an actor first (someone who professes to love the theatre over moviemaking) while earning a healthy and seemingly happy living as a character actor on television.

Farley Granger died on Sunday, July 27, at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.

Like Elizabeth Taylor, who died to great fanfare only a week before, Farley Granger was one of the last of the old Hollywood stars: beautiful and glamorous and always rumored to be seeing Hollywood’s hottest. He made movies that made people pay attention (at least at first) and he was paired with some of movieland’s best directors.

He was also one of the most interesting people in Hollywood, dating some of the biggest celebrities of both sexes. The tabloids talked about the women in his life like (mostly) Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner. But his male conquests included Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurants, both of whom created West Side Story.

While his greatest successes came early on, Farley Granger became sort of an early “has been,” seemingly abandoning Hollywood for television theatre (Ford Television Theatre, Playhouse 90, Kraft Theatre, Chrysler Theatre) and episodic TV (Ironside, Get Smart, The Name of the Game, Hawaii Five-O). He worked steadily through the early 1990s, more or less retiring altogether in Manhattan with Robert Calhoun, his companion of many years.

Calhoun, who died in 2008, also helped Granger write his autobiography Include Me Out, which was published in 2007. The book, as fascinating a name-dropping Hollywood tell-all as one could want from a guy like Farley Granger, was a little disappointing in the unflinchingly unapologetic and inexplicably unexplained tone of many of the strange, career-killing choices the actor made throughout his career.

I was immediately struck by Farley Granger the first time I saw him as Guy in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), with Robert Walker, a film based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel of the same name. Strangers launched me into my great love of Patricia Highsmith (who I would probably consider my favorite writer), a deeper obsession with Alfred Hitchcock (probably my favorite director, who made a film here that neither Jimmy Stewart nor Cary Grant could ever have played properly) and a great fascination with the hunky Farley Granger.

Farley Granger is cast as such an object of admiration in this film, it’s hard not to sympathize and swoon over him, despite all the stupid things he does throughout. His innocent idiocy makes him even more attractive. Plus, he’s so devilishly handsome in such an angelic way. Granger brings Highsmith/Hitchcock’s Guy so forcefully to life, that it’s no wonder Robert Walker’s Bruno is smitten and crazed with his own ideas of ideal whatever.

Hitchcock’s film is quite different than Highsmith’s book, though the conceit remains the same. Yes, Hitchcock changes the story for the better. But Highsmith’s story would be nearly ludicrous were it not for the performance Farley Granger brings to Guy. He’s no sissie. He’s just a dumb (but beautiful) innocent. Very few actors could have conveyed such horrible confusion so horrifically convincingly.

The Leopold-Loeb conundrum of Rope, filmed with innovation some three years previous to Strangers, casts Granger as another hopeless innocent. Here, this babe in the woods is even more fragile. Stupid and superior, yes; but impressionable and vulnerable too. Again, Farley Granger reaches for something deep and disturbing inside that makes the multitudinous multisyllabic dialogue of others meaningless and the acidic erosion of his soul so powerfully meaningful.

He explores this further with far more angst in such great noirs as Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1949 – probably Granger’s sexist performance and surely his sexiest presentation) and Anthony Mann’s terrific Side Street (1950 – featuring great location shots in New York City).

Granger ventured to Italy to make the film he said he was most proud of, Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954). Perhaps despairing of the film‘s lack of international success and his struggle to be accepted on his own terms, Granger began to rebel against the film-making system. Hereafter, he never found the sort of success that these early, starry associations brought to him.

I recall Farley Granger impressing me again as an Ambassador in the mid-80s thriller The Imagemaker, more for his star turn and the fact that he looked so good for his age (he was 61 at the time). The man aged extraordinarily gracefully, maintaining his youthful good looks right up to the end of his career.

I’ve since enjoyed Farley Granger as the baddie friend of Oscar Goldman on 1974’s “The Midas Touch” episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, the drunken nephew on the first episode of 1975’s brief but brilliant series Ellery Queen and for the roles he played in such Gialli as Something is Creeping in the Dark, Amuck and so Sweet, So Dead while living in Italy during the 1970s.

Despite his reluctance to accept or even achieve Hollywood stardom, Farley Granger was one of Hollywood’s greats and one of the last of its stars to pass into legend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis vs. JXL

Always great: a song written for Elvis Presley by Mac Davis (!) and Billy Strange for the 1968 film Live a Little, Love a Little and one that memorably found new life in the 2001 film Ocean's Eleven.

The song was eventually remixed tremendously well by Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg, the guy in the red shirt at the mixing boards) for a Nike commercial. This version, credited to "Elvis vs. JXL," went on to become an even bigger hit than it was in Elvis' day.

It makes for a great video too. Love the great Laugh-In style set - and the scenes with the two gospel singers, the preacher and the two male dancers. Lyrics here, for those who - like me - are captivated by this song and its great remix:

A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me
A little more bite, a little less bark
A little less fight, a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me
Satisfy me baby

Baby close your eyes and listen to the music
Drifting through a summer breeze
Its a groovy night and I can show you how to use it
Come along with me and put your mind at ease

A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me
A little more bite, a little less bark
A little less fight, a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me
Satisfy me baby

Come on baby Im tired of talking
Grab your coat and lets start walking
Come on, come on
Come on, come on
Come on, come on
Don't procrastinate, don't articulate
Girl it's getting late, gettin upset waitin around

A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me
A little more bite, a little less bark
A little less fight, a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me
Satisfy me

The original:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bill Laswell “Aspiration”

Spiritualism has long been a significant characteristic of Bill Laswell’s work, particularly as the moniker applies to jazz. Laswell has not only worked with many of the avatars of Spiritual Jazz over the years, he has often reflected on this music and its largely unheralded influence in his many guises as bassist, producer, re-mixer, musical conceptualist and, for lack of a more appropriate appellation suitable to the range of work he’s been responsible for over the years, master of ceremonies.

Laswell has also involved himself in many forms of music that some might easily call (or deride) as “new age” but which encompass musical forms of Zen, Sanskrit, Indian philosophies, meditation, yoga and all sorts of divination.

It would be difficult, if not entirely impossible, to read any religious or philosophical meaning or significance into any of this. But it’s fair to say that the spiritual, in all its guises, holds a meaningful role in Bill Laswell’s musical universe and is a place he chooses to go to more than a little.

Aspiration is a tremendously well-conceived compilation of the spiritual jazz that Bill Laswell has either created or contributed to over the years. The disc collects several masterfully intriguing journeys to the spiritual that have been extended, re-mixed, re-considered or re-made completely. And it’s considerably more on the jazz-y side of Bill Laswell’s capacious repertoire, with notable performances by Laswell himself - primarily on bass, but other (untold) instruments as well.

Laswell, like Teo Macero before him, is a mad scientist who must spend hours and hours, days and nights on end, in the studio tweaking a performance one way or another – and then again in a different way - to suit the sound he hears in his head at that moment. One performance of a song could come out one way on one disc and appear in a completely different guise (and sometimes even under a different title) on another disc. This is why you never see recording dates on Laswell projects. Probably no one other than Bill Laswell knows how much work goes into any one Bill Laswell recording.

The perfectly titled and uniquely unattributed Aspiration begins with “Pattabhi Jois,” named for the Indian yoga teacher K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). The song, which may be a remix of one or more of Laswell’s Asana yoga songs or an entirely new creation altogether, certainly qualifies as an asana (a spiritual type of yoga that seeks to achieve the divinity of devotion).

Here, Laswell engages in spectacular fashion with the tremendous Norwegian trumpet maestro Nils Petter Molvaer (who has been heard on Laswell projects like Method of Definance’s Inamorata, Gigi’s Gold and Wax and Laswell’s Dub Chamber 3) and Indian tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain (with Laswell on albums by Material, Nikki Skopelitis, Sacred System, Pharoah Sanders and Laswell’s own Lo Def Pressure). Both the trumpeter and the tabla player have featured on the Asana programs as well. The three make for a mesmerizing unit when divining upon the spiritual, something that all three must come at from very different perspectives.

Alice Coltrane’s “Bliss: The Eternal Now” originally comes from the 1974 Alice Coltrane/Carlos Santana album Illuminations. In 1997, Laswell provided a terrific and carefully crafted remix of tunes from this album and the 1972 Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin masterpiece Love Devotion Surrender for the Carlos Santana headed album Divine Light (Columbia). Laswell’s reconsideration beautifully highlights Mrs. Coltrane’s piano, harp and string arrangements and Mr. Santana’s searching (as opposed to his usually searing) guitar. Here, the mix is gorgeously extended.

The original version of “The Hidden Garden/Naima” appeared on the 1994 Material album Hallucination Engine and features both Bootsy Collins and Jonas Hellborg on bass (in addition to Laswell) as well as Bernie Worrell and Jeff Bova on keyboards. Here, Laswell extends Coltrane’s now standard jazz melody (written for his first wife) exquisitely with his bass to more or less dominate the song.

“Searching For You” originally appeared (nearly as is) on composer, vocalist and performance artist Sussan Deyhim’s recent album City of Leaves (Venus Rising). Ms. Deyhim, who has also appeared with Laswell’s Sacred System, is famed for her wordless incantations and has collaborated with Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, Peter Gabriel, Briano Eno and Bobby McFerrin and can be heard on many film soundtracks like The Last Temptation of Christ, Any Given Sunday, Unfaithful, The Kite Runner and her own award-winning soundtrack (in collaboration with Richard Horowitz) for the Czech film Tubruk. The “you” of this search is anybody’s guess. But this ranks as one of Aspiration’s highest achievements.

“Time” is a complete reconsideration of “Life” from the excellent 2001 disc Life Space Death, credited to his holiness The Dalai Lama, with music by Toshinori Konda and Bill Laswell. Here, Konda’s horn is removed (though he provides other musical effects – as well as the interview which elicts the Dalai Lama’s voice) and a brief snippet of the Dalai Lama’s text is used to highlight one of Laswell’s finest showcases of bass prowess on recent record.

The set closes with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ beautiful tribute to guitarist Sonny Sharrock, “Peace in Essaouira (For Sonny Sharrock),” which first appeared on the 1994 Laswell-produced album The Trance of Seven Colors by Moroccan master musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania.

Both Sanders and Sharrock (1940-96) were fathers of the Spiritual Jazz movement and Laswell had, of course, worked with both on separate occasions: Laswell featured Sharrock in his free-form jazz ensemble Last Exit as well as producing the guitarist’s last several albums and Sanders has continued to work with Laswell since the saxophonist’s remarkable 1996 disc Save Our Children.

Aspiration achieves much that is great. It is a superb tribute to Spiritual Jazz, a type of music that until very recently hasn’t even had a name or a proper place at the table. It is also notable for reminding listeners who may have forgotten (or had never known in the first place) just how essential Bill Laswell’s contribution to jazz – and music in general – is. Aspiration is certainly one of the best places to hear Bill Laswell play, something that a Laswell production doesn’t often provide.

At 48 minutes, though, the disc doesn’t feel like enough. But what Aspiration achieves in three quarters of an hour outranks many collections that nearly double that playing time. A positive spirit would say that such music says all it needs to say. And if there’s more to say, a second volume is forthcoming.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Peter Schärli Trio featuring Ithamara Koorax “O Grande Amor”

In their second recording together, Swiss trumpeter Peter Schärli and Brazilian singer Ithamara Koorax have come up with a beautiful reflection on Brazilian music that goes far above and beyond expectation.

Schärli, whose attractive sound and complimentary interjections suggest the influence of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, and Koorax were first brought together in 2006 by the legendary Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romão (1925-2005), who had previously worked with both musicians on separate occasions, to record Obrigado Dom Um Romão.

Here, Peter Schärli teams his remarkably sensitive trio with Hans-Peter Pfammatter on piano and Thomas Dürst on bass with the ethereal and lovely voice of Ithamara Koorax in a way that’s most unusual. They never give the impression of a trio backing a singer. This is a superbly well integrated quartet of musicians who play with each other, not for the benefit of making one soloist sound better.

The sound of the Schärli trio with Ms. Koorax is also one that never falls into patterns of predictable. Theirs is a cohesive jazz logic that belies the standard bossa-nova pretense. These imaginative creatives rethink their melodies, many of which are not the typical Brazilian standards. The absence of percussion also requires the melodists to think and react rhythmically, which makes for a more compelling listen.

The program starts beautifully with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s romantic “Fotographia” (first heard on 1965’s The Astrud Gilberto Album and then on the composer’s 1967 A Certain Mr. Jobim, which featured Dom Um Romão) before alternating to the spirited consideration of “Sandalia Dela,” Luiz Claudio’s little-known sprite from Duke Pearson’s 1969 How Insensitive (with Flora Purim).

Launching into Ivan Lins’ “Setembro,” best known from its appearance on Quincy Jones’ 1990 album Back on the Block (with vocals by Sarah Vaughan and Take 6), the quartet falters a bit here. Each player’s performance is assured and attractive. But together the group isn’t as sure of the tune’s highly reverential tone. This is corrected by the pianist’s own “Wedileto,” a gorgeous piece of wordless celebration that engages Schärli in a lovely duet with the singer and elicits several noteworthy solos.

A certain sort of climax is reached with the quartet’s uncannily elegant consideration of Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ “O Grand Amor,” which first appeared on the 1963 classic Getz/Gilberto, as did the most well-known version of Ary Barroso’s 1943 song “Para Machucar Meu Coraçao,” which the quartet regards here with especially loving consideration.

Never distancing themselves too far from Brazil’s melodically intoxicating rhythms, the quartet delivers surprisingly danceable versions of Baden Powell’s memorable “Deixa” (first heard as “Let Me” on the Wanda de Sah / Sergio Mendes Trio recording Brasil ‘65) and Edu Lobo’s “Zum-Zum” (originally from the composer’s 1970 album Cantiga De Longe), introduced by some of Schärli’s most unexpected and open-minded explorations.

O Grande Amor is, ultimately, a superb jazz-like exploration of Brazilian music made by musicians who not only understand the music thoroughly, but deliver it more beautifully than expected.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross “The Social Network”

One of my recent Facebook rants involved my stupefaction for the surprising nomination and even more shocking Academy Award win of the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score to the David Fincher film The Social Network. I was surprised that something like this could have stood alongside any of the great musical masterpieces that came before it.

Great composers who made memorable film music have achieved this award. Such winners include Herbert Stothart (The Wizard of Oz), Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon), Ernest Gold (Exodus), Henry Mancini (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Maurice Jarre (Doctor Zhivago), John Barry (Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves) and John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Schindler’s List).

But even more forgotten films and surprisingly more forgotten musical scores have achieved an Oscar. I won’t even bother naming the hall-of-shame, who-cares-about scores that won this prestigious award for no reason that ever kept the music alive for anybody. And it’s beneath everybody’s dignity to name exceptional scores that were nominated but did not win Academy Awards. The point is not about good music. It’s about who can publicize their crap the most.

My rant involved an initial disgust for such industry-sponsored award ceremonies to award to the most popular choice – something I just thought happened recently. But, no. This has been going on forever.

Why does anybody care about garbage like the Academy Awards? Because they think that a movie-industry sponsored thing such as the Oscars will help sell more movie tickets? Unfortunately, it does. To me this is like your boss telling you to break the law and you do it because you're told to then you tell people you were just following orders (sound like something else?).

Fortunately, electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder also won an Oscar for his 1978 score to Midnight Express, featuring the awesome dance classic "The Chase" and, interestingly, a voiceover from the film that was used on the Nine Inch Nails song "Sanctified." As an aside, Moroder also won Oscars for songs featured in 1983's Flashdance and 1986's Top Gun.

I would just like to end this particular rant with an apology to Messers Reznor and Ross for dissing their wonderfully intoxicating electronic score to The Social Network - with a particularly inspired take on Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." It reminds me why I was so damned attracted to the awesome (and erotic) Nine Inch Nails album Pretty Hate Machine way back in 1989. I still don’t think The Social Network is one for the ages…but it’s one of the better scores I’ve heard in a little while – and also one of the most economically priced soundtracks I’ve ever bought.

While I was initially disappointed to hear that Reznor and Ross were chosen by Fincher to score the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I now feel that no one else could do the score justice like these two.

Melvin Sparks – R.I.P.

Guitarist Melvin Sparks, a soul-jazz legend and acid-jazz pioneer, died yesterday at his Mt. Vernon, New York, home from heart failure. He would have turned 65 next week. Reports indicate he died from complications associated with diabetes.

Sparks made his name in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as a soulful guitar player – or “gittar” player, as he called himself – accompanying Jack McDuff, Lonnie Smith, Lou Donaldson, Charles Earland, Jimmy McGriff and countless other soul-jazz stars.

"But for the last two decades," wrote Sparks' friend Annabel Lukins on, "it was the jam-band scene that cherished him as a hidden treasure. As the Acid Jazz style he helped pioneer enjoyed a revival in the ‘90s, its new generation reached out to Sparks with heartfelt reverence and the guitarist found appreciative new fans in the audiences of Galactic, The Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson's Tiny Univers, Derek Trucks and Robert Walter's 20th Congress."

After becoming an essential part of New York’s then thriving soul-jazz scene of the late 1960s, the guitarist began recording his own records, including Sparks (1970), Spark Plug (1971) and Akilah (1973) for Prestige (the home of soulful jazz that later became famed as “acid jazz”), Texas Twister (Eastbound, 1974), Melvin Sparks ‘75 (Westbound, 1975) and Sparkling (Muse, 1981).

At the height of the Acid Jazz craze in the mid ‘90s, listeners rediscovered Sparks’ rapid-fire soulful boogaloo-styled guitar at the heart of most all of their favorite pieces, reviving the guitarist’s career. Sparks waxed the groove-laden I’m A Gittar Player (Cannonball, 1997) and four discs for the Savant label including What You Hear Is What You Get (2003) and This Is It! (2005).

Melvin Sparks-Hassan was born March 22, 1946, in Houston, Texas. His mother ran a café popular with area musicians and Melvin recalled folks like Don Wilkerson, Billy Harper, Cal Green and Stix Hooper hanging out there. Melvin began to play guitar at age 11 and credits Cal Green, guitarist with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters for many years, providing a good deal of his inspiration.

While still in school, Melvin played in a combo with Hammond B-3 great Leon Spencer, Jr., who would go onto record often with the guitarist later in New York. Melvin left school in 1963 to play professionally. His first major gig was with the Upsetters, the famous R&B show band. He spent three years with this band, backing everyone from Little Willie John to Little Richard and Sam Cooke. He left the band in 1967 to join Brother Jack McDuff.

After leaving McDuff, Melvin spent a year with organist Lonnie Smith then formed a working trio with another organist, Reuben Wilson. Sparks can be heard on Wilson’s brilliant 1970 album Blue Mode, the 1973 The Cisco Kid and 1998’s Down With It. The guitarist also waxed organist Charles Earland’s hit album Black Talk! (1969), featuring the wildly popular “More Today Than Yesterday.” Earland and Sparks performed and recorded frequently together throughout the years, right up until the organist’s 1999 death.

During the 1970s, Sparks got his highest-profile gig to that point backing saxophonist Lou Donaldson on the funk-jazz classics "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky," "Hot Dog," “Donkey Walk” and “The Caterpillar.”

Melvin Sparks’ very first album, titled with his appropriately apt surname and an exclamation point only, yielded a radio hit with his cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Again)” but was later rediscovered for the dance-floor covers of The Coasters’ “Charlie Brown” and Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine.”

Two of my very favorite Melvin Sparks performances of all time include Rusty Bryant’s “Soul Liberation,” from the great Ohio tenor player’s 1970 Prestige album Soul Liberation (included on the Legends of Acid Jazz - Rusty Bryant CD), and the guitarist’s own “Conjunction Mars,” from the 1971 album Spark Plug (included on the Legends of Acid Jazz - Melvin Sparks CD).

These two songs alone are worth hearing over and over again to hear the inspired contagiousness Sparks could generate. He was a tremendously focused player, never losing sight of a solo’s need to engage or its power to enrapture a listener, body and soul.

Melvin Sparks’ contribution to the funky sound of jazz is immeasurable.

So many recordings went from soulful to memorable with the addition of Melvin Sparks’ guitar, a signature sound and a fluid rustle that gave groove to everything he touched – from all the major organists to saxists Houston Person, Hank Crawford, Plas Johnson and Red Holloway and vocalists Jimmy Scott, Etta Jones, Leon Thomas, Dakota Staton and Arthur Prysock.

Melvin Sparks, who had a large extended family, reunited with drummer Alvin Queen (who recorded with the guitarist in the mid-1980s) and organist Leon Spencer, who had long since before moved back to Houston, in New York City last October to play a successful week at the Jazz Standard. Hopefully someone recorded the event for posterity.

"I just love to see people have a good time," Melvin Sparks once said. "They don't have to dance if they don't want to as long as they leave happy and long as it helps them get through whatever it is they're trying to get through."

Melvin Sparks helped many of us get through.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Joe Morello – R.I.P.

Drummer Joe Morello, one of jazz’s under-sung heroes, has died. Best known as the rhythmic timekeeper of multiple times in Dave Brubeck’s famed quartet, when the quartet made some of its best-known recordings, Morello had lately become an in-demand clinician, teacher and bandleader whose former students numbered Danny Gottlieb, Max Weinberg, Gary Feldman and Jerry Granelli.

Joe Morello, born July 17, 1928, in Springfield, Massachusetts, died on March 12, 2011, at his home in New Jersey. He was 82 years old.

Morello suffered from impaired vision from birth, and devoted himself to indoor activities. At six years old he began studying the violin, going on to feature three years later as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and again three years later.

At the of age 15 Morello met the violinist Jascha Heifetz and decided that he would never be able to equal Heifetz's "sound," so switched to drumming, first studying with a show drummer named Joe Sefcik and then George Lawrence Stone, author of the noted drum textbook Stick Control for the Snare Drummer.

Stone was so impressed with Morello's ideas that he incorporated them into his next book, Accents & Rebounds, which is dedicated to Morello. Later, Morello studied with Radio City Music Hall percussionist Billy Gladstone.

After moving to New York City, Morello worked with numerous notable jazz musicians including Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Stan Kenton, Phil Woods, Sal Salvador, Marian McPartland, Jay McShann, Art Pepper, Howard McGhee, and others.

After a period playing in McPartland's trio, Morello declined invitations to join both Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey's band, favoring a temporary two-month tour with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1955.

However, Morello remained to play with Brubeck for well over a decade – helping the Brubeck quartet score its biggest hits, including the well-known “Take Five” from the 1959 album Time Out - only departing in 1968.

Friday, March 11, 2011

“Then The Morning Comes” by Smash Mouth

While working on a project, I happened to stumble across a cool little tune performed by pianist David Benoit on his 2002 album Fuzzy Logic. The song is “Then The Morning Comes” and it turns out it was originally performed by Smash Mouth from its hit 1999 album Astro Lounge, the one that has the big hit “All Star” (which I know best from the film Rat Race).

”Then The Morning Comes” was the group’s first hit single, later eclipsed by the even more popular “All Star,” and it also became famed for its use in a Nissan commercial. But one of the most interesting things about the song is that it’s co-written by the group’s Greg Camp (who left Smash Mouth in 2008) and the late great composer John Barry - yes, that John Barry - the man behind the music of James Bond (and Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves etc.).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jack Lee/Bob James “Botero”

The evolution of pianist/composer Bob James from accompanist/arranger and producer/label owner to successful solo artist and popular bandleader has been fascinating. His music has changed quite a bit during this period too, running the gauntlet of genres and generations.

Indeed, fans of Bob James’ group Fourplay are unlikely to know or appreciate his great Tappan Zee records of the late 1970s and early eighties and, likewise, anyone who digs the fabled “Nautilus” sample is not likely to find much to sample since Bob James helped define the revered as reviled “smooth jazz” sound back when Double Vision was a hit in the mid 1980s.

Now in his seventies, Bob James has also slowed the pace of his recording schedule, even guesting on far fewer records than he ever did during his New York City heyday (he currently resides in rural Michigan). But to the man’s credit, he maintains a fairly active touring calendar all over the world with Fourplay, old comrades like guitarist Earl Klugh, BJ Swift (his band with turntable artist Rob Swift, a group which has not yet put out its own record) and Angels of Shanghai.

One of Bob James’ collaborators in Angels of Shanghai is South Korean guitarist Jack Lee. Born in Seoul on September 2, 1966, Jack Lee was influenced by rock guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck before discovering the jazzier sounds of Pat Metheny, Larry Coryell and Miles Davis. He ventured to the United States at 17, where he studied with such guitar luminaries as Larry Coryell, Emily Remler, Bill Connors and John Scofield.

Lee eventually recorded with Chico Freeman, Bob Belden, Toninho Horta, Billy Kilson, Harvey Mason and Dave Grusin (Lee also performed recently live with Lee Ritenour in Seoul). He launched his own series of recordings with 1991’s Winds and Clouds, maintaining roots in his Asian heritage while dedicating himself to the jazz which continues to influence and inspire him.

Jack Lee first recorded with Bob James on the pianist’s Urban Flamingo (Koch, 2006), providing guitar and co-production to the Bob James/Nathan East song “Endless Time.” Jack Lee next helped Bob James coordinate the Angels of Shanghai recording, providing guitar and production for the 2007 CD, which includes another version of “Endless Time,” the terrific “Dialogues: The Universal Language” and a remarkable variation of one of Bob James’ biggest hits, “Angela (Theme from ‘Taxi’)” called “Angela With Purple Bamboo.”

Botero might be the most significant album Bob James has made in quite some time. Jack Lee has a way of inspiring the pianist in a way that very few have outside of such guitarists as Eric Gale, Earl Klugh – who waxed three memorable albums with James, One on One (1979), Two of a Kind (1982) and Cool (1993) – and Lee Ritenour (heard on James’ Grand Piano Canyon and a co-founder of Fourplay on the quartet’s first three discs). Lee and James are accompanied here by American bassists Nathan East – like Bob James, a founding member of Fourplay – and Melvin Davis and Asian drummer Lewis Pragasam.

The program, recorded in Seoul and Los Angeles between April and September 2009, is a heady mix of Lee originals (“Botero,” “April” and “Dream with You”), James compositions (“Sphere,” “Lovers in the Moonlight”), Melvin Davis’ “The Wind Comes,” and offbeat and surprisingly effective covers (Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Luiza” and the semi-standard “Love Me As Though There Were No Tomorrow”).

Opening with James’ curiously provocative “Sphere” (also the name of the quasi-Botero cover painting, credited to both Bob James and Katie Ko, presumably Lee’s wife), this finds James crafting a jazzier take on one of his more distinctive One on One compositions. Both James and Lee solo on acoustic instruments, impassioned with a certain flair that is unusual in much of James’ recent discography.

Lee is right on board, providing a Klugh-like basis that transforms into something even more inspired. The same is true of James’ beguiling “Lovers in Moonlight,” the romantic sort of stuff you would expect by the title, but something that offers some thoroughly intoxicating chord changes and some of James’ more beguiling pianisms on record. Neither track provides the strong melodic statements of yore. But both have plenty of goose-pimple inducing creativity to engage the listener on a repeated basis.

The album’s strongest track is Lee’s mildly funky “April,” where the guitarist provides a catchy melody and some riffs right out of former Fourplay guitarist Larry Carlton’s bag of tricks. Lee gets James to solo wonderfully on Fender Rhodes here, which by itself makes this CD a worthy investment.

Lee’s “Botero,” presumably named for the Columbian painter, comes close to suggesting Pat Metheny in style and substance but adds James, who briefly dusts off his Fender Rhodes (and various other Lyle Mays-like accompaniments), for melodic significant counterpoint. Even though Lee plugs in for “Dream With You,” he still suggests Pat Metheny. But again it provokes James into a luscious solo worthy of one of his strongest jazz statements.

It’s terrifically gratifying to hear Bob James expounding upon such unexpected gems as Astor Piazzolla’s haunting and sumptuously moody 1982 composition “Oblivion” (used in the 1984 film version of Henry IV) and Jobim’s gorgeous late-period waltz “Luiza,” offering the best performances from the leaders and the band (particularly Nathan East) on the disc – not to mention the extraordinarily lovely piano-bass duet of “Love Me As Though There Were No Tomorrow,” best known by its 1957 interpretation by Nat King Cole (Johnny Mathis waxed the tune in 1962 and Glen Campbell performed it in 1967).

James has rarely had his pianistic chops challenged on other people’s material outside of the fusion covers he did years back and the occasional “straight ahead” music he engages in on such discs as (the great) Straight Up (1996) and Take It From The Top (2004).

The only negative thing that comes to mind about Botero is that it doesn’t “feel” like a collaborative project as much as it presents a Jack Lee outing with special guest Bob James. Even on the few tracks where Bob James dominates, it feels like Jack Lee is just a guest.

What makes it all work particularly well, though, is that Jack Lee and Bob James, two musicians of differing generations from completely different cultural backgrounds, play exceptionally well together (no star tripping here) and it’s worth hearing the beautiful noise they make together.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Savoring the Perfect Mystique of MPS

Over the last couple of years, the great German label Promising Music has issued some of the more eclectic and iconoclastic releases of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer’s legendary MPS label. The releases are beautifully packaged in gatefold LP-like sleeves, fully reproducing the album’s original cover graphics (encased in a wrap-around utilizing oddly Japanese text, suggesting that the it’s the Japanese who are known for issuing this music so lovingly) and even providing new notes which reflect on the importance of the original music.

Two of Promising Music’s latest releases include violinist Jean Luc Ponty’s Open Strings (1972) and Don Sugarcane Harris’ Cup Full of Dreams (1973) – both sets by jazz violinists who, coincidentally, both appeared on Frank Zappa’s monumental Hot Rats (1969). Obviously, this boutique label cares more about the music – and presenting it properly – than its probably limited sales potential.

Universal Music, the owner of the MPS catalog, on the other hand, has been reluctant to issue more of MPS’s music over the last few years or so, investing instead in multi-disc sets covering the MPS outings of Monty Alexander, Eugen Cicero, George Duke, George Shearing, Art Van Damme, Peter Herbolzheimer and Albert Mangelsdorff.

All of these sets, compiled with great care and attention, contained at least three or four complete MPS albums in total. But, unfortunately, there was even more on the diverse MPS label that still remained unissued, hard to get, or not available on CD in any other way.

Fortunately, though, Universal Music, has gone back to the MPS catalog and recently released the first of several batches of rare MPS classics on CD, many of which appear on CD for the first time. Beautifully re-mastered and perfectly produced by MPS specialist Matthias Künnecke in Universal’s state-of-the-art “Most Perfect Sound” edition, these feel, look and sound as perfect as can be.

It's the first wave of a round of rare and gorgeous MPS titles to be released - and promises much great music to come.

Music For 4 Soloists And Band No. 1 - Friedrich Gulda: A brilliant and beautiful outing featuring Friedrich Gulda – piano and arrangements / J.J. Johnson – trombone / Freddie Hubbard – trumpet / Sahib Shihab – baritone sax and flute / The incredibly staffed “Eurojazz Orchestra” with Stan Roderick – trumpet / Robert Politzer – flugelhorn / Kenny Wheeler – trumpet and mellophone / Erich Kleinschuster, Harry Roche – trombone / Rudolf Josi – bass trombone / Alfie Reece – bass tuba / Herb Geller – alto sax / Rolf Kühn = clarinet and tenor sax / Tubby Hayes – tenor sax and flute / Pierre Cavalli = guitar / Ron Carter – bass / Mel Lewis – drums recorded July 20, 1965, performing “Music For 4 Soloists And Band No. 1,” “Minuet” (the music used by director Jess Franco for the opening credits of the 1968 film Succubus) and “Prelude and Fugue.”

As You Like It - Friedrich Gulda: Fredrich Gulda – piano / J.A. Rettenbacher – bass / Klaus Weiss – drums recorded February 1970 performing “Blues for H.G.,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “All Blues,” “Light My Fire,” “’Round Midnight” and “East of the Sun.”

Scenes – Live at Ronnie Scott’s Club - Peter Herbolzheimer Rhythm Combination & Brass: Following the beautiful MPS box set of Peter Herbolzheimer’s studio sets, this is the first of two discs, one on Polydor and this one on MPS, issued here that the star-studded Rhythm Combination & Brass recorded live. Kenny Wheeler, Art Farmer, Palle Mikkelborg, Ronnie Simmonds, Ack van Rooyen – trumpet / Ferdinand Povel – flute and soprano sax / Ake Persson, Jiggs Whigham, Rudi Fuessers, Peter Herbolzheimer – trombone / Horst Mühlbradt – electric piano / Dieter Reith – organ, synthesizer and electric piano / Philip Catherine – guitar / Günter Lenz, Jean Warland – bass and electric bass / Kenny Clare – drums / Sabu Martinez – congas and percussion recorded live May 1974 performing “Mr. Clean,” “Con Alma,” “Sideways,” “Hoops,” “Scenes,” “Don’t Speak Now” and “Blues In My Shoes.”

The Catfish - Peter Herbolzheimer Rhythm Combination & Brass: The second – and even better – of two Rhythm Combination & Brass sets recorded live is actually a Polydor album and is issued here for the first time on CD. Truly some of the best electric big-band music ever waxed. Peter Herbolzheimer – trombone / Benny Bailey, Ron Simmonds, Ack van Rooyen, Palle Mikkelborg – trumpet / Otto Bredl, Jiggs Whigham, Vincent Nilsson, Rudi Fuessers – trombone / James Towsey – baritone and soprano sax / Dieter Reith – organ, synthesizer and electric piano / Horst Mühlbradt – electric piano, Hohner clavinet and percussion / Bo Stief – double bass / Todd Canedy – drums / Sabu Martinez – congas and percussion recorded live 1975 performing “Corean Chick,” “P.M.,” “That’s Live,” “The Catfish,” “Head Egg” and “Peyotl.”

Inside: Missing Link - Volker Kriegel: The great German guitarist’s second MPS set, originally a double album and now a two-disc CD (and occasionally sounding like an edgy Crusaders recording), with Volker Kriegel – acoustic and electric guitars, sitar / John Taylor – electric piano / Cees See – flute, percussion, voice and effects / Alan Skidmore – soprano and tenor sax / Heinz Sauer – tenor sax / Albert Mangelsdorff – trombone / Eberhard Weber – bass / John Marshall, Peter Baumeister – drums recorded March 20-23, 1972, performing “Slums on Wheels,” “The ‘E’ Again,” “Zanzibar,” “Missing Link,” “Für Hector,” “Remis,” “Tarang,” “Lastic Plemon,” “Janellas Abertas,” “Plonk Whenever,” “Definitely Suspicious” and “Finale.”

Lift! - Volker Kriegel: The guitarist’s third MPS set, Volker Kriegel – acoustic and electric guitars / Stan Sulzman – soprano sax and flute / Zbigniew Seifert – electric violin / John Taylor – electric piano / Eberhard Weber - bass, cello, electric bass and bass guitar / Cees See – percussion / John Marshall – drums recorded March 5-10, 1973, performing “Lift!,” “Three Or Two In One,” “Forty Colours,” “A Piece With A Chord From A Yorkshire Terrier,” “Electric Blue,” “The Lame Donkey,” “Between The Seasons” and “Blue Titmouse.” Given the titles, it’s obvious that Kriegel (1943-2003) had quite a sense of humor if not a completely droll sense of ironic wordplay. He masters and re-masters music in just about the same way.

Noisy Silence – Gentle Noise - The Dave Pike Set: Dave Pike – vibes and tambourine / Volker Kriegel – guitars / J.A. Rettenbacher – bass / Peter Baumeister – drums recorded January 21, 1969, perhaps the one essential Dave Pike recording featuring “I’m On My Way,” “Regards From Freddie Horowitz,” “Somewhat, Somewhere, Somehow,” “Noisy Silence – Gentle Noise,” “Mother People,” the brilliant and well-sampled “Mathar,” “Vian-De,” “Teaming Up” and the great “Walkin’ Down The Highway In A Red Raw Egg.”

Infra-Red - Dave Pike Set: Dave Pike – vibes, percussion and vocals / Volker Kriegel – guitar, sitar, percussion and vocals / J.A. Rettenbacher – bass and e-bass, percussion and vocals / Peter Baumeister – drums, percussion and vocals recorded June 15 and 16, 1970, performing “Suspicious Child, Growing Up,” “Attack of the Green Misers,” the superb “But Anyway,” “Rabbi Mogen’s Hideout,” “Raga Jeeva Swara,” “Send Me The Yellow Guys,” “Soul Eggs” and “Infra-Red.”

ZOKOMA - Atilla Zoller / Lee Konitz / Albert Mangelsdorff: Atilla Zoller - guitar / Lee Konitz – alto sax / Albert Mangelsdorff – trombone / Barre Phillips – bass / Stu Martin drums recorded March 13 and 14, 1968, performing “Zores Mores,” “Feeling-in And Filling-in In Villingen,” “Ach! Tavia / Skertzo / Alicia's Lullaby,” “At Twighlite,” “Struwwelpeter,” “Alat's Mood,” ”Freeline Fräulein,” “Danke For The Memory” and “Rumpelstilzchen.” ZOKOMA was one of five albums included in the 2009 box set Albert Mangelsdorff Originals Vol. 1 along with Never Let It End (1970), Birds of Underground (1973), which have also been issued separately in this series. Two of the five albums included on the box set Albert Mangelsdorff Originals Vol. 2 - A Jazz Tune I Hope (1978) and The Wide Point (1975) - have also been issued separately for the first time on CD with this outing of MPS CDs.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Method of Defiance "Incunabula"

Method of Defiance (MOD) is one of bassist / producer / conceptualist Bill Laswell’s most recent – and perhaps most significant – musical projects. Apparently Method of Defiance is a “musical, sonic, aesthetic, mind and body experience, at once structured, spontaneous, precise, random, brash, beautiful and above all unforgivable.”

This could be Bill Laswell’s entire musical aesthetic: a no-bounds, no-holds barred assault that – like the best in jazz (electric and otherwise) – goes where his heart and spirit take us. Sometimes it falls within some sort of genre classification. But if it does, it sure doesn’t stay there long. Sometimes there’s a melody. Sometimes there’s a groove. But life isn’t always melodious and it isn’t always groovy. Neither is Bill Laswell’s music.

MOD is structured to be a conspiracy, an antidote to the “business of music” that locates trends and manufactures the most lucrative product. It’s crafted to be malleable and never easily pegged as one thing or another, at least not for long. The obvious reference point is the dub music that Laswell has long expressed a fondness (and a signature) for. But there’s enough jazz, funk, rock, avant garde and any number of other easily marked genres to keep listeners alert and occupied.

Method of Defiance is a Bill Laswell collective that started with Inamorata (OHM Resistance, 2007), a Laswell concept that teamed such drum n bass superstars as Submerged, Paradox, Fanu and Evil Intent with jazzers John Zorn, Byard Lancaster, Craig Taborn, Dave Liebman, Pete Cosey, Graham Haynes and Nils Petter Molvaer.

By the time of MOD’s next disc, the little-known Nihon (RareNoise, 2009), Laswell solidified the concept into a group project featuring himself on bass, former P-Funk man Bernie Worrell on keyboards, the remarkably interesting Toshinori Kondo on electric trumpet, Guy Licata on drums and Doctor Israel on vocals, electronics and dub.

While Worrell and Kondo had appeared on the earlier Inamorata, MOD seemed to be a solidified version of Laswell’s inspired Tokyo Rotation, also occasionally featuring Kondo, and a grouping (in its many forms) that – at least as far as I am aware – has not yet recorded as Tokyo Rotation (though plenty of videos of the group in performance can be seen on YouTube).

In October 2010, MOD issued Jahbulon, the first recording on Laswell’s recently launched MOD Technologies label. The album consists of ten tracks, led by vocalists Dr. Israel and Hawkman, combining Laswell’s trademark penchant mix of rock, dub, reggae and electronica. A month later, MOD Technologies issued Incunabula, said to be an instrumental version of Jahbulon, but really an album unto itself and far superior to its more-strongly oriented dub brother.

Amazingly, Incunabula reunites the MOD of Nihon, enhanced only by adding the turntables of DJ Krush, and comes up with something just as good, if not better (Nihon featured a seven-song studio set enhanced by an even better live performance of the group on DVD).

Opening with Bernie Worrell’s “Code Woo – Condensed Fiction/Volunteered Slavery,” a solo piece for organ and electronic keyboard effects, there is a strong sense of the way Elton John began his epic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road with the powerful opus “Funeral for a Friend.” It’s a magnificent way to announce what’s to come.

(As an aside, “woo,” which is enticing someone to get what you want, has long been a Worrell theme, developed on his first album, the 1978 P-Funk production All The Woo in the World, and even used as part of Worrell’s “Woo Warriors” touring band. Also, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s uncredited “Volunteered Slavery” dates back to Worrell’s 1990 Funk of Ages album, coincidentally produced by Bill Laswell, and can also be heard briefly on Nihon.)

What comes next is the explosive and decadently hard-edged “Anachronizer (Asteroid B449),” a rip roaring, kick-ass jam credited to Laswell, Kondo and Worell. Seemingly an updated variant of the Miles Davis/Joe Zawinul classic “Great Expectations,” “Anachronizer (Asteroid B449)” finds this group at its best with each of the players providing worthy electric and fetchingly electrified commentary.

A pleasant surprise on this track (only) is hearing the gorgeous electric piano improvisations of Herbie Hancock, who with Chick Corea was one of the two electric pianists on the original 1969 recording of “Great Expectations” (issued on the Miles Davis album Big Fun and included as part of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions).

Herbie Hancock, of course, also crafted the 1983 hit “Rockit” with Bill Laswell’s assistance and Laswell went on to oversee many of Hancock’s records (Future Shock, Sound-System, Village Life, Perfect Machine and Future 2 Future), feature Hancock on productions for Manu Dibango, Sly & Robbie, Mick Jagger and Mandingo and even spotlight the pianist on Last Exit’s The Noise of Trouble (“Blind Willie”) and MOD’s Inamorata (“Panepha”).

“Quantum Echo” returns MOD to its dub heritage with a strong lead right out of an Ennio Morricone western and a fairly intoxicating trumpet solo from Kondo that again suggests Morricone’s plaintive trumpet work on Un uomo da rispettare (1972) and even Frantic (1988). “Codeplan Armoured (Stimulation Assassination)” isn’t terribly dissimilar, funking up what sounds like an outtake from a dub remix of a Morricone theme. But MOD give a weighty significance to the music with some inspired and interesting interplay, proving these guys are a good working unit – not just some cover band or a bunch of guys that exploit other people’s talents to cover a lack of their own.

“Umi No Soko” is a quiet reminisce of Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ 1960 classic Sketches on Spain imaginatively reimagined, not entirely unlike Miles Davis and Marcus Miller’s 1987 soundtrack to Siesta. The moody instrumentation here even closely resembles Siesta. But it should be said that Kondo, Laswell and Worrell bring something to this re-envisioning that make it worthwhile and, perhaps, even more of a notable contender for a sketch on Sketches than Davis himself provided on his own Siesta.

Bernie Worrell’s closing “Shadows of Woo (Re-Entering)” features the keyboardist alone again, naturally, on electric piano providing a surprisingly sweet melody that is as soulful as it is bluesy, but ends just as it seems to turn into something for the band to do something with. And surely at 40 minutes, Incunabula seems to end far sooner than a typical CD today would. It certainly finishes well before any listener would think this band had said everything it had to say.

It’s a little uneven, suggesting whole separate discs of “Anachronizer” styled jams, another of “Quantum Echo” or “Codepkan Armoured” dub and another of “Umi No Soko” jazz. And it’s surprisingly short for a band with such talent and great ideas. But Incunabula is certainly worth tracking down, even if it feels like it’s just not enough of any one thing.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnics featuring Nona Hendryx “It’s Time”

Chicago-based percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar, a leading member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) since the 1970s, has become well-known for the huge and fascinating body of work crafted in his groups Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and the Ritual Trio.

In addition to aligning himself with edgier jazz lights Wadada Leo Smith, David Murray and Archie Shepp, he has also played with Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie, toured with (and designed outfits for) Nina Simone and even worked in such rock bands as Poi Dog Pondering.

With It’s Time (Katalyst Entertainment), Kahil El’Zabar convenes a new outlet for his restlessly creative spirit with Ethnics, an “electric improvising dance band” offshoot of the acoustic improvisational unit that is the still thriving Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. It’s an inspired mix that finds the leader indulging in a soulful brand of house music that far too many jazz leaders dismiss out of pocket.

El’Zabar insists he’s been playing this sort of music since the early days when it was known as disco. But It’s Time is hardly the first time he’s lodged a good groove. It’s just the first time it was all about the groove. He’s got a true feel for crafting fine dance music. And why shouldn’t he? Many a great jazz percussionist from Candido and Willie Bobo to Ray Barretto and King Errisson, dabbled in disco to dazzling effect.

Here, Kahil El’Zabar expands upon the groove with the help of Chicago-based trumpeter Corey Wilkes, who filled Lester Bowie’s seat in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and recorded with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on Mama’s House Live (2008); Chicago tenor man Kevin Nabors, who is also in Wilke’s Abstrakt Pulse band; the keyboards of Robert “Baabe” Irving III - who is best known for his work with Miles Davis from 1980 to 1990 and has also appeared with the percussionist on David Murray’s The Tip (1994) and Jug-a-Lug (1995); and the propulsive synth bass and percussion enhancements of Shannon Harris. Interestingly, Irving and Nabors are also heard with Wilkes on the trumpeter’s 2008 album Drop It (Delmark).

The leader raises the bar several notches here by adding the spectacular vocal talents of Nona Hendryx, veteran of Labelle, Talking Heads, Material and a sensational series of solo records issued between 1977 and 1992, the best of which remains the superb Nona (RCA, 1983). Hendryx apparently first met up with the percussionist on an unissued date from the 1990s that also included Jamaaladeen Tacuma and David Murray – and the two vowed they would work together one day.

Nona Hendryx makes this project sound like something different and rather better-than-average special, lending a surprising soulfulness to the proceedings that just about any other vocalist would be hard pressed to come up with.

It’s not the typically drippy ballad work of the faded guest star or the trying-to-prove-something screeching that so many divas think means soul. Like any other instrument in the ensemble, Nona Hendryx provides another “voice” in the group in her wondrously signature timbre, working with her collaborators to come up with something that ultimately delivers a good groove. Her interplay is sensational. It’s not a jazz singer keying off changes or scaling off bebop riffs. She provides something different, but something you want to hear and something that makes Ethnics click.

The program features five Kahil El’Zabar originals and three Nona Hendryx originals (“It’s Time,” “Love is a Flame” and “Same River Twice”), but it’s not so easy to tell whose pieces are whose. Each sounds like a work of group collaboration. The emphasis is on the groove, which is solid throughout. But, sadly, there is little up-front prominence on improvisation or the group dynamics that define so much jazz. Still, jazz is not the point here. There is improvisation…just not enough of it.

The set’s opener, “It’s Time,” is a spiritual groover in the Pharoah Sanders mold, mixing the saxophonist’s Impulse-era acoustic sounds (complete with Kahil El’Zabar’s Leon Thomas-like vocalisms, which also appear on this set’s “Dance in the Spirit”) with his later Verve-era electronic grooves. Interestingly – and not surprisingly - Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio recorded with Pharoah Sanders in 2000 for the Katalyst album Oooh Live!.

“I Follow the Sun” slows things down a bit more than expected and practically borders on that brand of romantic music now dubbed Northern Soul, with Irving’s organ bouncing around in provocative ways, suggesting some of Lonnie Liston Smith’s great space jazz of the mid 1970s on Flying Dutchman.

The set picks up with the out-and-out house groove of “Love is a Flame,” the first evidence of a real “song” here (one that could be as easily appreciated on radio as on the dance floor), offering some of Irving’s great keyboard virtuosity. From here, we traverse to the gospel groove of “Same River Twice,” another of the disc’s two or three highlights with Nona Hendryx channeling Mavis Staples and Robert Irving laying down some of the best piano he’s ever played (he rocks on “It’s A Good Day” too). The set closes with the band’s signature tune, “Paradise,” a strong tune that could be even better if it was turned into more of a song but one that offers some classically-styled horn work and good soloing from Irving and Wilkes.

The disc’s only real weakness is the quasi-rap of “Giant Steps,” which riffs on the legend of John Coltrane and is the one piece that Nona Hendryx is not even heard on. It’s sort of like that unbearable thing that Miles Davis experimented with on the terrible “Doo Bop,” which I always wondered whether Miles would have ever issued had he lived long enough. Kahil El’Zabar’s percussion is most prominent on “Giant Steps,” which makes it interesting. But it’s hard not to be bothered by the tune’s rather unnecessary vocals, which celebrates Coltrane’s legacy in words rather than song.

However, squabbles aside, It’s Time offers a mostly exciting program that one hopes promises even more great things from Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnics featuring Nona Hendryx.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Tom Scott “The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat”

The 1974 sequel to Ralph Bakshi’s bizarre 1972 animated film Fritz the Cat is this equally wacky film, confusingly dubbed The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat. Directed by Robert Taylor – a storyboard artist who has since gone onto things like The Flintstone Kids, Ducktales (1988) and The Rugrats Movie (1998) – this sequel is a trip, both as a story and as a film. And like many trips, it depends whether you consider it a good one or bad.

Substance abuse can certainly help give this supposed message – “this is about the worst life I’ve ever had” – some sort of significance.

The characters and the peculiar characterizations come from Bakshi’s original – a raunchy animated tone poem to the era’s more permissive mores – but are actually based on the creations of Robert Crumb, who was so infuriated by Bakshi’s film that he killed the cat off in his comic books. No nine lives for this Fritz.

Here the sex-crazed, too cool for his own good Fritz the cat is married and has a son. He survives by living off welfare and getting high all day long. While his infant son masturbates, his wife screams at him about how much of a loser he is. Oddly, it’s hard to see how she’s wrong. But since we’re supposed to side with Fritz, we journey with him as he tunes out her screaming in trippy daydreams and sexually, racially, socially and politically-oriented fantasies/flashbacks/delusions/what have you.

The score to The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat was provided by Tom Scott, son of film and TV composer Nathan Scott (Twilight Zone, Lassie), in his fourth outing for a theatrical film and delivered by the saxophonist’s fusion group of the time, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. It’s an excellent score, filled with some of Scott’s funkiest blues and some great playing not only from Scott but from everyone involved. Anyone who likes Scott’s two L.A. Express albums from the mid-1970s will certainly dig this film’s music.

The film is actually packed with music. Indeed, entire sequences unfold without dialogue, allowing Scott’s funk to add zest to the rather bland visuals. But while the film’s main title credits indicate that a soundtrack was available on Ode Records, no soundtrack album for The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat was ever released.

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of really good, funky music in the film, including bits this listener recognized as “Keep on Doin’ It’,” “Dirty Old Man,” "Backfence Cattin’,” and possibly even the great “Sneakin’ in the Back.”

A single was, however, issued in July 1974 – presumably for “promotion only,” so copies of the record are probably exceedingly scarce – featuring “Jump Back” (aka “Jumpback”), with Merry Clayton on vocals, backed with the dazzling Max Bennett instrumental “T.C.B. in E.”

Tom Scott and the L.A. Express performing “Jump Back,” written by Tom Scott and Dave Palmer, with lead vocals from Merry Clayton.

“Jump Back,” which is much longer in the film than on the 45 (and even starts off with a riff that Scott later worked into his 1995 tune “Night Creatures”), accompanies a scene of Fritz, dressed in top hat and tails, sporting a cane, walking through many real images from the 1930s. The song’s lyrics are by Dave Palmer, a former vocalist with Steely Dan who contributed lyrics to Carole King’s 1974 Ode album Wrap Around Joy and its huge hit, “Jazzman,” featuring none other than Tom Scott.

The tremendous Merry Clayton, a former Raelette and the one who duets with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter,” helms “Jump Back” with assured aplomb: cool like the best of the jazz singers and funky like the best of the soul divas (she also was heard much on the radio in 1974 singing background vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”). The song hovered at the low end of Billboard's Soul chart for about five weeks, disappearing from lack of interest (or, most likely, lack of proper promotion) completely from the radar in August 1974.

“T.C.B. in E” is the film’s terrific main theme, heard during the main titles sequence and each time Fritz drifts back to his nagging-wife reality. “T.C.B” could stand for “Takin’ Care of Business” or “Tom Cat Blues” – who knows.

Tom Scott and the L.A. Express performing “T.C.B. in E,” written by Max Bennett.

Considering Tom Scott wrote the film’s score, it’s surprising that L.A. Express bassist Max Bennett, an old-school player who came out of the Stan Kenton band and the thriving L.A. studio scene and a talented player/composer who could do any kind of music admirably well, pens the main theme. But “T.C.B. in E” is an exceptional piece of electric improvisation and something that deserves even better than its high-cult reputation. Scott himself waxed a live remake of the tune for his 1999 album Smokin’ Section - curiously without Bennett, though.

Dave Palmer added lyrics to “T.C.B. in E” and came up with the film’s end titles sequence, “In My Next Life.” Presumably, Merry Clayton sings this too.

The vocal version of “TCB in E,” called “In My Next Life,” which was not issued on record.

It’s unlikely any of this music will ever see the light of day on CD. While the promotional 45 – and, presumably, the unissued LP – were the property of Lou Adler’s Ode Records, owned at the time by A&M Records, Ode was acquired several years later by Sony Music. So it’s probably unclear who even owns the rights to the music (my guess is Sony). But Tom Scott has neither the historic place in jazz – or film music, for that matter – today that he deserves nor one that would ensure anyone doing something to rescue this music for public appreciation.

Thanks to Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat has far more value as an audible pleasure than a visual one.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Kermit Driscoll "Reveille"

Bassist Kermit Driscoll is best known for his work in the 1990s behind such downtown luminaries as Bill Frisell (1987-96) and John Zorn (1988-94). He was also co-founder of the Knitting Factory collective New and Used, featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas, which waxed several records in the nineties.

But the bassist, who studied under Jaco Pastorius, has also performed with a wide swath of musicians from jazz greats Chet Baker and Toots Thielmans and pop stars Ben E. King and The Pointer Sisters to classical ensembles such as The New York Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra. He’s also a veteran of more than two dozen Broadway plays and spends much time in academia as well.

Driscoll (b. 1956) began by playing piano and only took up the bass when he was 13. He offers an approach that is not only uncommon to his instrument, but something that is remarkably refreshing. Kermit Driscoll is among the most supportive of bass catalysts – almost to a fault as he sometimes barely registers in the mix – but he has a minimalist sense of decorative spirit that is in turns lively and inspired as it is humorous and fun.

This is not to say he’s not a serious player or a player not to be taken seriously. On the contrary, he manages to convey a real love of what he’s doing with a sense of adventure that shows how much he really loves his work. There have long been too many bassists in jazz who want to scream their own importance as to dominate the music and thereby create something that is not at all musical. Kermit Driscoll is not one of them. He’s all about being part of the ensemble. He doesn’t rely on shopworn standards to prove it.

On the “better late than never” debut under his own name, Reveille (19/8 Records), Kermit Driscoll immerses himself in the utterly unique company of fellow Berklee College of Music grad, former boss and his acknowledged influence Bill Frisell on guitar, pianist Kris Davis (who, like Driscoll, often performs in drummer John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble) and the ubiquitous drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and many GRP dates).

It’s a surprisingly cohesive unit that waxes and wanes on eight Driscoll originals, the questionably traditional “Chicken Reel” and a remarkably electric (in all senses of the word) take on Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul’s heady “Great Expectations,” credited here only to Zawinul and known from the 1969 recording heard on Miles Davis’ 1974 album Big Fun.

Driscoll’s compositions, such as they are, function more as sketches for improvisation than memorable melodies. The inspiration is often taken up most remarkably – and most predictably – by the guitarist, who sounds spectacular throughout, notably on the swampy blues swagger of “Boomstatz,” the straight blues of “For Hearts,” the lyrical “Farm Life,” the near melodic “Martin Sklar” (presumably named for the head of Walt Disney Imagineering) and the title track.

“Reveille,” the set’s closer, offers what is perhaps the group’s most effective interchange and surely some of Frisell’s loveliest playing. There is a nice sense throughout much of this 2009 recording of the creative improvisation that only happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It’s a willingness to embrace the wild freedoms of what rock promised in the context of the exploratory improvisation jazz offered: no sound is out of bounds and no note can be misplaced. There’s also an understanding of a world outside of jazz and the cliché quotes of standard tunes and, thankfully, a sphere of listening that goes well beyond pop radio.

While Bill Frisell never recreates the sounds or styles he made on his own records with Kermit Driscoll, which ended some 15 years ago, it is interesting to note just how different Frisell sounds here compared to his appearances on other bassist/leader’s records like Marc Johnson (Bass Desires, Second Sight and The Sound of Summer Running), Viktor Krauss (Far From Enough), Gary Peacock (Just So Happens) and Ron Carter (Orfeu) – or even earlier recordings by Eberhard Weber, Arild Andersen and Gavin Bryars.

It is probably a warmer sound; almost bluesy at times. So fans of the guitarist’s storied appearances on drummers Jerry Granelli (A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing) and Joey Baron’s (Down Home, We’ll Find Out Soon) albums will certainly want to check this out.

Sadly, pianist Kris Davis often seems either buried deep down in the mix or not featured near as much as she should be. Her dynamic lyricism strikes a fanciful meeting between what Steve Kuhn and Paul Bley were reaching for many years ago in their attempts to merge their thing with rock (peppered with Marilyn Crispell’s free-thinking romanticism thrown in for good measure) and is heard to prominently good effect on the marvelous “Hekete” and “Martin Sklar” only. One senses that pianist probably dominates the live performances of these tunes more than she does here.

Reveille may not be the call to arise that it was intended to be. But it certainly is cause to take note of Kermit Driscoll, who seems to have more to say on his first disc than its late appearance might suggest. More, Kermit, more.