Monk and Coltrane, lost and found

June 18, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. Restoring something that was lost is especially appropriate for this album.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Have you ever misplaced something for so long that when it finally turns up, you’d forgotten you ever had it in the first place? The Library of Congress had a doozy of a moment like this in 2005. One of their engineers unearthed an unmarked box with tapes of this historic concert in it, tapes no one even knew to look for. And so this November 29, 1957, performance became one of the hottest new jazz releases in 2005. Not a re-release—a new release.

To call the discovery of the forgotten Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes an important find doesn’t begin to do it justice. More than an amazing historical document of the far too brief collaboration of these two giants, it’s just plain great jazz. The eccentric Thelonious Monk has been both lauded and slammed for his iconoclastic piano playing—a spare, muscular and decidedly unrefined sound that is instantly recognizable as no one but Monk. If you like that style—and I do—this pairing with Coltrane’s brilliant solos is sublime. Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson round out the group. Monk is considered one of the founders of bebop, and this disk puts you squarely in the exploding 50s New York jazz scene, while still sounding fresh and relevant.

Perhaps almost as remarkable as the find of this lost treasure is the fact that Monk and Coltrane were only the second act of a five-act show that included Chet Baker, Ray Charles and headliner Billie Holiday. Alas, their performances aren’t part of this CD, but the poster for the event is included with the liner notes. It tells us that tickets for this fundraiser for Harlem’s now defunct Morningside Community Center ranged from $2 to a whopping $3.95—tax deductible, of course.

Miles Davis—in a silent, electrified way

June 11, 2008

Miles Davis: In A Silent Way

This album has languished in our collection for some time. It was bought with the best of intentions, to explore Miles’ own explorations of electric music, particularly keyboards. As jazz critic Andrew Bartlett put it, “Legendary as a kind of line in the sand challenging jazz fans during the ascendance of electric, psychedelic rock, In A Silent Way hinted at the repetitive polyrhythms Davis would employ throughout the early 1970s.”

Unfortunately for me, it just didn’t catch my ear when I first heard it. Always a fan of Miles’ earlier work, I would occasionally haul it out to try again, only to put it away after a cursory listen.

Recently, though, I pulled it out again and popped it in the kitchen boombox. And this time, it took. Probably as much as anything because I’d been exposed to a similar sounding Miles tune, Spanish Key, used in the soundtrack of the movie Collateral [an excellent film, by the way, whatever you think of the increasingly weird Mr. Cruise].

I listened to the two-track, 1969 release In A Silent Way over and over, each time anticipating the arrival Miles’ long, clear trumpet solos over the layered textures of multiple electric keyboards and dreamlike electric guitar, bass and drums. At that moment, the music would come alive, yet another birth of the cool for Mr. Davis.

But ultimately and interestingly, the album worked best when I had it on in the background and was listening passively. Usually, it’s while actively listening to an album that I find the music most interesting. When I listened actively to this album, though, I quickly became frustrated. Especially when I looked at the liner notes and reminded myself of the personnel. Besides Miles, there are seven other musicians on this disk, including jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on keyboards, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and Dave Holland on bass. But when Miles isn’t soloing, no one else emerges to pick up the conversation. They all just swirl around each other in this hypnotic mishmash of sound, what Bartlett describes as “part ambient color exploration, part rock-inflected energy and vibe.”

And even Miles’ solos, as lovely as they are, err on the side of repetitive and somewhat expected. By way of comparison, I listened to one of my favorite Miles Davis tracks this evening, his 1964 recording of the standard My Funny Valentine. In it, he plays exactly 12 notes of the original melody faithfully before taking off in all kinds of amazing improvisational directions. Throughout the 15-minute track, everyone is improvising non-stop, having a true jazz conversation. And only occasionally will someone play maybe a bar or two of the original melody, as if to say, “This is what we’re playing, remember? Now try and keep up.”

All that said, In A Silent Way will stay in my current jazz rotation a while longer—and return more often. But I think it will be when I want a cool groove in the background. And that’s not a bad way to enjoy it, I think.

Wire: Brit punk, fast, smart and loud

May 28, 2008

This week, I dip into the lost Boombox archives again, to revisit an exciting punk disk that invites you to play it loud.

Wire: Pink Flag

One big music regret I have is that I didn’t get into punk music when it was first happening in the late 70s/early 80s. Mainstream rock was pretty uniformly bland and awful then, so I mostly retreated into blues, jazz and classical.

I finally found punk largely thanks to my daughters, taking them to all ages rock shows at places like Metro and the greatly missed Fireside Bowl—and once even on a road trip to St. Louis to be among the maybe 30 or so people who turned out to see the Chainsaw Kittens—for the record, NOT a punk band—on a frigid winter night in an unheated storefront venue. The girls eventually mostly moved on to other music, including what I like to think of as whiney singer/songwriters—Rufus Wainwright, Conor Oberst and the like.

I, however, remained faithful to bands who know three power chords and the F word and whose songs all come in at two or three minutes or less. Local college station WNUR has a show from midnight to 2am Sundays that pretty much sums up what I’m looking for these days when I’m listening to rock music: Fast ‘n’ Loud.

Wire delivers just that, with Pink Flag. The album, originally released in 1977, has 22 songs on it and clocks in at a hair under 38 minutes. The shortest song is a 28-second gem called Field Day for the Sundays. Remarkably, the band had only played 15 gigs when they went into the studio to produce this seminal album.

Wire is an old school punk band and, even better, as far as I’m concerned, a Brit punk band. Plenty of speed and low-fi distortion, but also more musicianship and variety than some punk bands can muster. A great, high-energy listen, even if you think you don’t like punk. And as one reviewer put it so well, “Short, odd, angular, sarcastic songs… remind the listener that punk rock can be simultaneously smart, detached, and visceral.”

Groove globally, listen locally

May 21, 2008

Soulio

There has perhaps never been a better time for listening to music. There is so much variety out there. Good, cheap technology is making it possible for more and more people to make and share music. And everyone from Amazon to iTunes to MySpace is making it easy to get our hands—and ears—on a dazzling array of music from every little corner of the world.

In some ways, this bounty mimics what’s going on in the food world. Increasingly, formerly exotic ingredients are making their way to supermarkets and home kitchens. Seasonality be damned, if you want asparagus in January, it’s being grown somewhere in the world and chances are, you can find it in the store. I can already hear the locavores groaning. What about carbon footprints? What about protecting local, small farms? What about embracing seasonality and absolute freshness? All valid points.

I’d like to suggest the same thing for music—kind of a locahear movement. You know, supporting local musicians by showing up for their gigs, paying cover charges or dropping something in the tip jar. And by buying their CDs.

I did that this past Friday night, catching a too rare performance by Chicago jazz combo Soulio at Nick’s, a friendly no-cover bar in Wicker Park. Soulio’s website describes their sound as “bluesy, groove-based jazz, hard bop, funk and soul-jazz.” Down Beat magazine’s Jeff McCord calls it “an amalgam of loping funk, Blue Note-like hard bop and a blues-driven vibe reminiscent of the Jazz Crusaders.” And Brad Walseth of Jazzchicago.net labels it “good time straight ahead soul-jazz that is meant to be enjoyed by listeners or dancers alike.” Having heard Soulio live a few times now, I would say their sound is D.) All of the above.

I picked up their self-titled CD too that night, for a mere $12.99. Soulio is 11 tracks, about an hour of loose-hipped but tightly played jazz, a mix of pieces by the greats—Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris and Freddie Hubbard, for example—two originals by sax player Matt Shevitz and two ’60s tunes, Sunny and Grazing in the Grass. Proving once again that familiarity does indeed breed contempt, these two tracks are my least favorite on the disk. But if I force myself to tune out the “heard that a thousand times” factor, what they do with even these songs is quite nice.

The basic group is a quintet, led by trombonist John Janowiak and rounded out by a sax player, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Given the sometimes hardscrabble nature of local music, personnel sometimes changes. Various friends guest on some of the tracks on the CD—a trumpeter, a keyboard player and an additional drummer. When I saw them this past weekend, they had an excellent trumpeter sitting in with them.

Which brings me back to my ad hoc locahear movement. Making music is a hard way to make a living, especially at the local level. A bass player friend of ours in St. Louis says that you get paid for hauling equipment and you play for free. When I talked to Soulio’s trombonist during a break Friday night, he said they all play in a number of groups, including a corporate/wedding band. He didn’t say so, but I’m sure most of them also have day jobs. For every White Stripes or Mariah Carey or Common who strikes it rich, there are countless hardworking, talented musicians who barely get by [often with the support of an understanding spouse gainfully employed at a place with benefits]. But they do it. They make music because they love it. And we’re all richer for it.

Support them. Get out there and hear some music. In a club, a bar, a coffeehouse… hell, even the lounge of the Holiday Inn out by the airport. At the very least, you’ll have a little fun. You might find something truly transcendent, like Soulio. And I guarantee, the musicians will be glad you came.

A gift for you, from Nine Inch Nails

May 14, 2008

Nine Inch Nails: The Slip

Before Dolly Parton ditched duet partner and old school country star Porter Wagoner for a successful solo career, she used to be a pitch woman for Duz detergent. At some point in the commercial, she would pull a towel out of the detergent box. It was a free premium that came with the detergent, and Dolly would announce, “You cain’t buy these towels in any store. But you can get them free in boxes of Duz!”

Well, you cain’t buy the new Nine Inch Nails album The Slip in any store either. But you can download it for free at the Nine Inch Nails website. Yeah, let other bands offer up a measly song or two—this is an entire album. Ten songs, nearly 45 minutes, absolutely free. What’s more, the slip is licensed under a creative commons attribution non-commercial share alike license. And the band encourages you to “remix it, share it with your friends, post it on your blog, play it on your podcast, give it to strangers, etc.”

So that’s what I’m doing here. Just click on the album cover art or title above and you’ll be taken to the Nine Inch Nails site where you can download it. For free. No tricks. As Trent Reznor, the band’s only permanent member says, “As a thank you to our fans for your continued support, we are giving away the new Nine Inch Nails album one hundred percent free, exclusively via nin.com.”

And what do you get for free? Despite the often true old adage you get what you pay for, this is one fine album. Reznor’s hugely influential industrial rock sound comes through loud and clear on this latest album. From the opening track, the music is dark and insistent. He builds textures and layers with guitars, percussion, electronica and, on one track, an old, out-of-tune piano. One reviewer refers to some of the music as “Eraserhead industrial noise.” I can see that, especially on some of the instrumental tracks or passages. And honestly, that’s some of the stuff that intrigues me most on this disk. That said, the straightahead rock numbers rock in a most satisfying way.

There’s a thematic consistency to this album that really works—it feels of a piece. But there’s also plenty of variety, especially impressive when you consider that Reznor writes, sings, plays and produces all of the music on it. [He hires a back-up band for his tours.] Equally impressive for me, the more I listen to it, the more it works. So do yourself a favor. Download The Slip. You can’t beat the price—or the music.

Buddy Guy: Chicago blues, alive and real

May 7, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. The amazing Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal lives up to its name and then some.

Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal

Buddy Guy takes a certain amount of heat for sometimes playing in the rock ‘n roll end of the blues pool. And I’ve read reviews of him pandering to the crowd with easy, crowd-pleasing pap like Mustang Sally. But when he gets it right, he nails it.

On this 1996 release recorded on his home turf—his club here in Chicago, Buddy Guy’s Legends—he gets it right. The back-up band is G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band [complete with the horn section], and they are in turn backed up by blues piano legend Johnnie Johnson. Not bad company.

Probably my favorite way to listen to live music is in a bar. This hour-long live album delivers the sound of that venue, right down to appreciative crowd noise and energy and even the buzzing of a guitar amp on the opening track until the guy at the sound board gets it sorted out. Put a drink in your hand and some smoke in the air [well, no more—Illinois has gone smoke-free, I’m happy to say] and you’re there. A great mix of songs and tempos and solid musicianship, wall to wall. And yeah, Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal owes more than a little to rock [as does much of Chicago blues], but there’s still plenty of Mississippi juke joint in Buddy’s guitar.

If you want to catch Buddy live in this kind of setting, your best chance is the dead of winter. This just kills me. He owns Legends—he can play there anytime he chooses. And when he chooses is the entire month of January, probably the least hospitable time to be in Chicago. But book your tickets early—pretty much the entire month sells out quickly, especially the weekend dates.

Of course, when he’s not on the road other times of the year, you may find him sitting at the bar in Legends, taking in whatever local or touring blues act is playing that night. And while he won’t get up and play with other bands playing his club, he’s happy to talk with you if you walk over and say hi.

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.