Archive for December, 2007

Cool vibes, transcendent sax

December 19, 2007

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Milt Jackson & John Coltrane: Bags & Trane

The first live ballet performance I ever saw was by the American Ballet Theatre. Watching the dancers in the corps de ballet, I thought it was pretty good, pretty impressive. Then 6’3″ blond defector from the Bolshoi, Alexander Godunov, took the stage. Once described as “a Pre-Raphaelite angel posing as a punk-rock idol,” he took it to a whole new level. Now I was truly impressed. Until Mikhail Baryshnikov came out. His unmatched grace and sheer athletic power were apparent even to my woefully untrained eye. From that moment on, the performance was electrifying.

That’s how John Coltrane is to me. And the more I listen to jazz, the more apparent his genius becomes. Recently I talked about his final recording, Interstellar Space. That was an out and out envelope-pushing avant garde tour de force, an aggressive, challenging, but ultimately thrilling album. Bags & Trane is an earlier work, much more melodic and straight ahead, but every bit as rewarding.

The pairing of bebop giant vibraphonist Milt Jackson [“Bags”] and avant garde proponent Coltrane [“Trane”] isn’t an immediately obvious choice. But it succeeds beautifully. Jackson is perhaps best known as a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet; they were as fine a group of players as you’ll find anywhere, but the relentlessly stately pace of pretty much all their music leaves me cold. I feel guilty saying that, like I should like their music because they’re such giants of jazz. But I just don’t. We own a couple MJQ albums, in fact, that I never play.

On this album, first released in 195X, Jackson gets to swing on a few medium- and up-tempo tracks. And swing he does. The energy and invention on these tunes in particular is breathtaking. He does a lot of the heavy lifting melodywise too. Many of the tracks are old standards, and Jackson lays down the melody on most of them.

Then Coltrane steps in and takes off from there. His playing is, in turn, muscular and delicate, often densely packed with many notes dancing around the melody, only hinting at it, if at all. Of the two, Coltrane colors outside the lines a lot more than Jackson does. But together they create beautiful conversations.

And the sidemen are no slouches. Pianist Hank Jones, Jackson’s MJQ colleague drummer Connie Kay and longtime Trane collaborator bassist Paul Chambers are all amazing performers in their on right, adding great depth and subtlety to this extremely listenable album. But Coltrane is just Coltrane. When he starts playing on Bags & Trane, I find myself listening harder.

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With friends like these, who needs amplifiers?

December 12, 2007

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Delaney & Bonnie and Friends: Motel Shot

We know a number of musicians, and pretty much all of them share the view of bassist Mike Prokopf, that bands are paid to haul equipment and they play for free.

It’s a common complaint among musicians, especially when they’re on the road. You spend so much time hauling equipment, driving hundreds of miles from one gig to the next, hanging out in cheap motel rooms waiting to play or winding down after, and so little time actually making music.

That’s the concept behind this brilliant gem of an album. First released on vinyl in 1971 and rereleased on CD at least four different times [yes, it’s that good], Motel Shot is the kind of music a band plays after the gig, when they’re back at the motel and not ready to sleep or stop playing. All the instruments are acoustic—can’t make too much noise and everything’s packed away anyway. The drummer just beats on an emptied suitcase for the same reasons. An old upright piano has been found somewhere, maybe in the motel lounge. And everyone is playing for the sheer joy of making music.

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were a husband and wife duo in the 60s and 70s, labeled a “blue-eyed soul” duo, but playing music that ranged from soul to blues, rock and gospel, with a little jam band thrown in for good measure. They’ve been cited as a great influence on Eric Clapton, George Harrison and others, and though her husband got top billing, Bonnie is one of the most soulful singers you’ll ever hear. The friends on this particular Delaney & Bonnie and Friends outing include Gram Parsons, Leon Russell, Dave Mason and Duane Allman.

The dozen tracks on Motel Shot range from a tent revivalesque, stirring Will the Circle Be Unbroken to an over-the-top Rock of Ages, Robert Johnson’s delta classic Come on in My Kitchen and the improbable hit single from the original album, Never Ending Song of Love.

It also includes a stellar showcase for Bonnie’s talent, Don’t Deceive Me [Please Don’t Go]. The YouTube video below will give you a little taste of the band’s sound and Bonnie’s incredible gift. The song isn’t on Motel Shot, but you’ll still get a sense of the amazing music awaiting you on this album, if you’re lucky enough to find it.

Seriously, dude. What’s that you’re you reading?

December 5, 2007

Today the Kitchen Boombox is taking a little break from music and looking at an only somewhat related topic, a new gadget following in the footsteps of digital music and video.

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When it comes to technology, I’m not what you’d call an early adopter. It took a long time to replace my Walkman with a Discman. And longer still to replace that with an iPod. So when I first heard about the latest attempt to take books digital, my eyes rolled so far back in my head I feared they might stick there. When I rolled them back down and read about this new device—in a cover story in Newsweek, no less—it actually sounded like this might be the one to make it happen.

The device in question is the Amazon Kindle. Introduced with considerable fanfare recently by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it solves a lot of the problems that scuttled previous attempts. It’s got decent battery life, can hold hundreds of books and can download them directly, without linking to a computer. It has a built-in dictionary, and book text is searchable. And for you inveterate marker uppers of books, yes, you can highlight text to your heart’s content.

Just as important as what it has gadgetwise, though, is how true it is to that which it emulates. It’s about the size of a paperback, and its tapered shape even resembles the slight bulge along a book’s binding. And a new technology gives its pages pretty much the same clarity of the printed page.

The late adopter in me won’t have me rushing out to plunk down $400 for the Kindle anytime soon—books on paper are just so, well, comfortably bookish to me—but plenty of people are. Already the Kindle is on back order. I haven’t seen them on the el yet, but I’m sure they’ll be there any day now. I’m guessing that, before long, they’ll be nearly as ubiquitous as the iconic white earbuds that announce to the world at large that you don’t merely have an MP3 player—you’ve got an iPod. From that aspect alone, I’m cool with the Kindle. Anything that makes reading hip is okay by me.

The future of print. The title of Newsweek’s article is “The Future of Reading”—pretty portentous. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the printed word’s death have been exaggerated in the past. But newspapers have already seen a major shift of readers from print editions to the Web. It could be that the Kindle is finally the technology that gets it right enough to have a major lasting effect on the printed word. With books downloadable on demand—from the mother of all online booksellers, no less—bricks and mortar bookstores are sure to take a hit.

On the flipside, for better or worse, this could also be the next big step in the democratization of publishing. What MP3s have done for making the making of music affordable and accessible, what the Internet has done for turning us all into information providers and not just consumers, the Kindle could do for the printed word. Besides books, you can already subscribe to newspapers and select blogs through it. If Mr. Bezos has a lick of sense—and the fact that he became a billionaire selling books would seem to indicate he does—he will license his technology to one and all to produce content.

Freed from the monstrous costs of printing and distribution and the gatekeeping of agents and publishing houses, more writers will be able to create, market and sell longform text, one reader at a time. Granted, that will undoubtedly unleash a torrent of real crap that would have been winnowed out by publishers or polished and improved by editors trained to do just that. On the other hand, there will be some amazing gems born this way. And besides, the current system continues to assault us with Danielle Steele year after year—obviously it is less than perfect.

So while you won’t see me on the el with my nose stuck in a Kindle anytime soon, I have to admit, the idea of a Blue Kitchen cookbook some day is suddenly sounding a little less farfetched.