Archive for April, 2008

Stay tuned—the delight of discovery on the radio

April 30, 2008

Teddy Edwards & Houston Person: Horn to Horn

I love my iPod. I really do. It’s compact and there’s no need to fumble with—or haul around—CDs. And I admit it, there’s something very cool about wearing those iconic white earbuds. As one technowonk put it, leave it to Steve Jobs to make a hard drive sexy.

But there’s one thing it’s missing. A radio. Yeah, I know you can download podcasts, but that’s not the same. There’s no random element in that—you’re still listening to something you’ve chosen. What the radio gives you is surprises. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something on the radio, usually in the car, and have called the radio station to find out what it was, who did it, what album it was on. I’ve made some amazing discoveries this way. Jack O’ Fire, for instance. Brit punk rockers Wire too.

And this gem of an album, Horn to Horn, with the twin tenor saxophones of Teddy Edwards and Houston Person. The track that caught my ear on the radio [our ears—Marion and I were driving to work] was an inspired rendition of Gene Ammons’ Red Top. It was reason enough for me to buy the disk. Funny thing, though, as much as I still like Red Top, it was immediately supplanted as my favorite by the first cut on the album, Coltrane’s Equinox. They come out swinging hard, and you feel like you’ve walked into a little out of the way jazz club on a very good night indeed.

Released in 1999, the album is a tribute to eight tenor sax legends. There’s a track each for Ammons and Coltrane as well as Ben Webster, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

For me, the album works best on the uptempo tracks, despite the fact that Edwards and Person were both self-professed lovers of ballads [Edwards passed away in 2003]. The ballads just feel a little too consciously pretty to me at times. But after multiple active listenings, I’ve started getting into some of the complexity of the jazz conversation going on in them.

Okay, full disclosure time. I’m listening to the album as I write this and have been discounting the ballads even as that old warhorse of a jazz standard, Hawkins’ Body and Soul, is playing. It is amazing. Disregard the previous paragraph.

As much as I’m excited by the avant garde movement in jazz these days, Horn to Horn makes a strong argument for the pleasures of straightahead jazz. It also makes a very strong argument for listening to the radio for that occasional surprise.

Well-mannered avant garde jazz

April 23, 2008

Dave Holland Quintet: Prime Directive

Prime Directive was the first album I wrote about here on the Kitchen Boombox. Through a technical glitch [or more accurately, human error on this human’s part] the post was lost to posterity. But the disk recently made it back onto the boombox, so I thought it was time I revisit it.

As I said in my original post, I’m always leery of jazz groups fronted by bassists or drummers. When they’re in charge, the mix often ends up a little heavy on drums or bass, surprise, surprise, or the rhythm solos run long and gratuitous.

Not so with Prime Directive. Listening to it, every player is so integrated into the sound, you’d never know that Holland plays bass. What emerges from this great line-up—Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson—is not just a string of impressive solos, but a series of exquisite jazz conversations. And in the spirit of true collaboration, five of the nine tracks are by Holland; the four other band members each contribute one composition to round out the set.

The music is a nice balance of straightahead bebop and avant garde, that sweet spot I find myself seeking out when I listen to jazz these days. It stretches your ear and keeps you paying attention without challenging you with too much dissonance or flatout blowing. Not that I mind that either, but the melodic challenges and surprises are more subtle here. Now that it’s back in the rotation, it’s found its way into the car and onto my iPod.

At home, whether it’s on the kitchen boombox or we’re listening to it with dinner guests in the dining room, Prime Directive can stay nicely in the background without becoming wallpaper. And at some point in the proceedings, it will make its presence known just enough to make someone stop mid-sentence and ask, “What are we listening to?” I know I’ve used this analogy with other music featured here, but isn’t that what you want from perfect dinner music?

Revisiting the man who put me off jazz

April 16, 2008

Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake

The first time I heard Oliver Lake, I wasn’t ready for him. I was a teenager spending as many evenings as possible at the Circle Coffeehouse in St. Louis. Not only was it a way to not be at home, it was my introduction to a whole world outside my own at the time. Weekends were the best. Friday nights were given over to theater, improv and spoken word. Saturdays bands and singer/songwriters took the stage. And Sunday nights it was jazz.

The Oliver Lake Quartet was pretty much the house band for jazz at the Circle. They did not play standards or bebop or hard bop. They played flat out, out there avant garde. At this point I had had pretty much zero exposure to jazz, so for me, this was jazz. And as much as I tried to like it—I spent a good number of Sunday nights at the Circle trying to wrap my head around the often atonal, rhythm-defying honks and squawks and thumps and bangs they put forth—I just couldn’t get there.

So I let go of jazz for a good long time, ten years or so. Oliver Lake, in the meantime, went on to help form the World Saxophone Quartet and become a major figure in the avant garde jazz scene, even without my support.

Eventually, I wandered back into jazz, starting with big band, then moving on to jazz standards, then bebop and hard bop. And finally, I found avant garde again, through the music of Ken Vandermark, Dave Rempis, Tim Daisy and other Chicago musicians. This time around I was ready.

All of which got me thinking about Oliver Lake and those Circle Coffeehouse sessions, wishing I could go back and hear them with new ears. Or at least hear Mr. Lake again. I got my first chance almost two years ago when he played with trumpeter and freebop pioneer Malachi Thompson at the Green Mill. They played a little avant garde music, giving me a tiny taste, but mostly stuck to straightahead jazz.

Then last week at the library [remember me geeking out about libraries recently?] I found this album, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake. At six tracks and just under 50 minutes, it delivers a satisfying mix of laying down solid, melodic structures and then coloring way outside those self-imposed lines.

For me, the music is at its most exciting when they’re pushing the limits, challenging the listener to keep up as one musician after another—Lake on saxophone, bassist Reggie Workman, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Frederick Waits—heads off in one direction or another. Sometimes it’s only as they’re returning to the original melody that you can see where they’ve been. And that’s just how I like it.

Alas, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake is a semi-obscure import album; you won’t find audio samples on Amazon.com. The YouTube clip above will give you a little taste of Oliver Lake’s more melodic side; it’s a solo piece performed in Seattle in 1996. For some more samples, go to his website. If you like what you hear, you can even buy music at the site. I know I’m going to be doing just that. And this time, I’m ready for him.

Edith Piaf: A double helping of “Little Sparrow”

April 9, 2008

A DVD and a 30th anniversary two-CD set illuminate the amazing, self-destructive life of French torch singer Edith Piaf.

A synopsis of Edith Piaf’s life, in 50 words or less: Abandoned as a baby, raised in a brothel. Was blind for four years, had miraculous recovery. Discovered singing in streets of Paris, implicated in a club owner’s murder. Multiple affairs, addictions and near-fatal car crashes. Dead at 47. Her signature song? Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien [No, I Regret Nothing].

And it’s taken the film industry this long to get around to thinking this might make a good film? Not just a good film, in fact—a great one.

La Vie en Rose tells this story beautifully, richly, unflinchingly. And actress Marion Cotillard is Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow as the diminutive singer with the big voice was dubbed [indeed, Piaf was her stage name—in French slang, it means sparrow]. Here is how New York Times critic Stephen Holden describes her performance: “Marion Cotillard’s feral portrait of the French singer Edith Piaf as a captive wild animal hurling herself at the bars of her cage is the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered in a film. Her portrayal of Piaf, plucked from the streets of Paris and molded into a music hall legend, ignites Olivier Dahan’s screen biography.”

Cotillard not only becomes Piaf, she transforms herself utterly convincingly to each stage of it. Again, Holden: “Ms. Cotillard’s Piaf ages shockingly, from a famished alley cat ravenously slurping up life to a stooped, feeble wreck whose dyed red hair is falling out.” You have only to compare Cotillard in the poster above as Edith in her prime with the YouTube clip below to get a small sense of this transformation; Cotillard also plays her much younger—a teenager—and much more ravaged at the end of her life.

The story unfolds chaotically, jumping around in the timeline. At times, it takes a moment to reorder events in your head as you’re watching. But ultimately, I think this captures Piaf’s disorderly life far better than if it were told in a more linear fashion.

My only complaint about the film is that it doesn’t give many glimpses of the happier moments in her life that would cause her to so embrace the notion of “No, I regret nothing.”

La Vie en Rose, 140 minutes, French and English, with subtitles

If the movie clip above has whetted your appetite, this two-disk CD set of Edith herself will be a banquet.

Edith Piaf: 30th Anniversaire

The 44 songs on this beautifully produced double album span Piaf’s 30-year career and show why the French call her “the greatest figure in the history of song.” Music producer Derek Rath says of the recording, “Her voice still rings with a passion for life, something that eventually consumed her.”

30th Anniversaire is a mix of torch songs and lively, even bouncy theatrical numbers performed with great music hall gusto. I think most of us, when we think of Piaf, gravitate to the former. On first listen, I was often tempted to skip past the uptempo songs, seeking out the lonely, vulnerable, three-in-the-morning tunes. But multiple listenings in, I found those upbeat numbers offered a nice balance to the darker ones. It gave a truer sense of Piaf’s own life, I think, too.

This YouTube clip of Piaf singing La Vie en Rose will give you another taste of her amazing talent. It will also show you that understanding French is not necessary to “getting” her music, her gift.

You can listen to samples of 30th Anniversaire at Amazon.com. And, a new feature there that I find most helpful, you can download individual mp3 tracks for 99¢ [hmmm—wonder where they got that idea]. So if you’re not up for an entire banquet of “Little Sparrow,” you can help yourself to just a taste.

More than three chords, but plenty raw.

April 2, 2008

old-time-relijun.jpg

Old Time Relijun: Catharsis In Crisis

relijun-quote.gif

A great live show does not always a great studio album make, though. I’ve been disappointed by more than my share of CDs purchased after an electrifying live performance. For some reason, producers and musicians have a real penchant for producing, polishing and tweaking the life right out of the music.

Happily, such is not the case with Catharsis In Crisis. Granted, I don’t have the live concert experience to compare it with, but the music on this disk is plenty live and raw. The corners have not been knocked off. And even though the music is multi-layered and satisfyingly complex, there is an artful artlessness to it. The basic, at times almost crude, instrumentation and over the top passionate vocals seem calculated to push the limits—and to push the listener’s buttons. What they don’t do is fade into the background. If you are listening, you are listening actively.

For comparison’s sake, YouTube comes through once again. Here’s a bit of a live performance at Bear’s Place in Bloomington, Indiana. It shows me that their live performances are a little more raw and low-fi than the album. It also shows me that I need to be getting out for more live music.

Matt compared their sound a bit to the Talking Heads—and to jam bands. I can see that. But I can also see other influences. The saxophone music in particular seems to borrow heavily from Middle Eastern music. In fact, the opening track on this album, Indestructible Life!, conjures up a Muslim call to prayer issuing forth from some minaret, both in the vocals and the sax. And occasional reverbed guitar riffs and saxophone passages sound like nothing so much as bits of incidental music in TV shows that indicate that the main character has suddenly traveled to some exotic locale.

The 14 tracks of Catharsis In Crisis take up less than 40 minutes. But you’re just getting started. Some CDs add on a bonus track or two. This disk contains an absurdly generous 26 additional tracks, more than two hours of bits and pieces of music, including several extended jams. The idea, I think, is to give you a glimpse into the process of making music. It does this beautifully. The “bonusy-stuff” as it’s called on the disk also includes a music video, a beautifully disturbing, graphic novelesque piece.

For me, Catharsis In Crisis shows me that rock still has a lot of interesting places to go. And that the next time Old Time Relijun comes to town, I need to be there.