Monday, October 20, 2008

The Cracow Klezmer Band - Balan: Book Of Angels Vol. 5 (2006)

Probably the album in the series that is the most rooted in the traditional klezmer sound. Still fun and well done overall and another great set of tunes. Still a bit of "free" moments but not as off the wall as the Koby Israelite release.

The first striking thing about the Cracow Klezmer Band's reading of John Zorn's tunes from his Book of Angels, on Balan, is the sound -- crystalline, full of separation and space. The next is Jaroslaw Bester's bayan -- hunted, witchy, signaling from some far-off place to Oleg Dyyak's hand drums, Wojciech Front's double bass, and then the small army of strings provided by the band's own violinist, Jaroslaw Tyrala, and the DAFO String Quartet. They respond as if gathering in some hidden terrain, and begin to dance. And it is about dancing, folks. Thus begins "Zuriel," the first cut from this entrancing, ingenious, and by all means exotic recording. On the following cut, "Suria," the seemingly random guttural vocals of Jorgos Skolias enter into the mix along with Ireneusz Socha's minimal electronics. Skolias becomes an Eastern soul singer by the track's middle as the strings envelope him in ether. On "Kadosh," the track melds traditional klezmer, symphonic cadenzas, and free improvisation into the mix, but the result is no less songlike. Bester's bayan commences "Asbeel," with a single note played obsessively and repeatedly, which is answered at first by Tyrala's plucked violin and then the entire band swirling like drunken Gypsies around the lone note that has now become one song, then another, and then yet another ranging from classic klezmer and Yiddish folk melodies to manic Gypsy tunes and even French bistro pop amid crazily shifting dynamics between group play and soloists. Bester arranged all of this material, and has done something utterly unexpected -- something, ironically, that listeners have come to expect from this entire series of recordings -- in pushing the klezmer genre to its limit and then past it, letting in a flood of other musical approaches and ideas. While all of Zorn's Book of Angels recordings have been wonderful thus far, Koby Israelite's beautifully intoxicating Orobas and this volume push the Masada material into entirely new sound worlds. Beguiling.

-Thom Jurek,

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Koby Israelite - Orobas: Book Of Angels Vol. 4 (2006)

This album is fucking bizarre dudes. Another set of Zorn tunes, but this one is definitely one of the most far out from the Book of Angels series. The album is all over the place. One song will be Jewish/Turkish electronic fusion stuff like Balkan Beat Box, the next will be traditional, the next will sound like heavy metal, the next traditional, the next jazzy, the next fusion etc. It's a fucking blast and definitely NOT background music. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of bands like Secret Chiefs 3 or whatever, this album is pretty good. Find joy in the schizophrenia.

Koby Israelite has issued two previous CDs for the Tzadik label, Dance of the Idiots and Mood Swings. Both showed a tremendous flair for composition, instrumental acumen, humor, and an ability to shift genres without batting an eye. Israelite was born in Tel Aviv, and has played everything from traditional Hebrew folk music, classical music (he was trained on piano at a conservatory from the age of nine), and he's a huge fan of heavy metal and has played in a number of metal and punk bands. This set of John Zorn tunes -- from Zorn's second Masada book -- Orobas: Book of Angels, Vol. 4 was handpicked by the composer. The results are stellar. There's the Yiddish gypsy blues that meld with funk and jazz on "Czgadi," where accordions engage in contrapuntal free form with a fretless bass before guitars and trap kits move to the center of the mix. The startling metal guitar riffing that introduces "Zafiel" is splayed out by Turkish folk melodies by mid-track. Then there are the mariachi-styled melody lines played by trumpets, electric guitars, Farfisa organs, and a drum kit on "Khabiel"; the mood changes, the genres smash and meld effortlessly (klezmer melodies and reggae enter and leave seamlessly and the track is taken out by a kind of prog-surf metal before it ends), and the music becomes hypnotic while remaining exciting, even breathtaking. The other musicians who lay here -- trumpeter Sid Gauld, Stewart Curtis on recorders, piccolos and clarinet, and Yaron Stavi on bass, (Israelite plays no less than eight instruments himself) -- are in top-flight, and this feels more like a band than an individually directed effort. And perhaps that too is a strength Israelite possesses, to place his imprint on Zorn's music in an idiosyncratic way, and still give his ensemble an individual identity. As for the series, Orobas: Book of Angels, Vol. 4 is another essential Four-for-four and counting. This is the most exhilarating set of recordings Tzadik has offered in quite some time. For those who haven't yet checkout Israelite, this is a fantastic opportunity.
-Thom Jurek,

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Mark Feldman & Sylvie Sylvie Courvoisier - Malphas: Book of Angels Vol. 3 (2006)

Perhaps my favorite of the Book of Angels series. There are certainly still some elements of Zorn's jazz side here, but this is more like of a classical record than anything. If you got the Masada String Trio album I posted with Mark Feldman's amazing violin playing, he is all over this one too. And Sylvie Courvoisier plays pretty inventive piano notes. It's beautiful and again very Jewish in sound. A few of the pieces are a little more "avant-garde" but overall, a very pretty effort from this duo.

The second book of Masada tunes—300 compositions John Zorn penned in 2004—is only revelatory for the most diehard of fans. What’s more exciting over a decade into the Masada story is that new life has been breathed into the project. Following Book Two releases by Jamie Saft and the Masada String Trio, Malphas is a set of eleven of those compositions interpreted by pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, a duo which has been one of the most exciting of the many performers of this music.

Where other groups focus on the jazz or the upbeat groove of the songbook, Courvoisier and Feldman bring a classicism to the project, closer to the Masada String Trio (Feldman with bassist Greg Cohen and cellist Erik Friedlander). Their delicate playing is gorgeous, even more so than on their Masada Recital from 2004. It’s an airy yet poignant record, catching the best of what Zorn creates in the compositions.

The packaging, likewise, is simple and attractive: a maroon digipack with a stylized Star of David cut from the front. Occasionally the pieces are referential, quoting Mozart or the six-note ballpark “charge” theme, an approach Zorn has long worked into his compositions. He quoted “Für Elise” in his pivotal 1993 work Kristallnacht and used cartoon sounds in the string-quartet-plus-turntable piece “Cat o’ Nine Tails.” There, however, the quotations referred to something about the context of the piece. Here they just seem to emphasize Zorn’s eclecticism and serve as a distraction. Those moments, however, are few on a warm and beautifully recorded album.

-Kurt Gottshalk,

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Masada String Trio - Azazel: Book Of Angels Vol. 2 (2005)

Volume 2 of Zorn's Book of Angels features the original Masada trio: Mark Feldman (violin), Greg Cohen (bass) and Erik Friendlander (cello). Again, it's jazz, though deefinitely leaning on the third stream or classical/chamber sound. But this set is definitely more in the jewish music setting as well. Like I also said before, if you have always been wary of getting into Zorn's works, Book of Angels is probably the easiest to get into (though not necessarily representative). Marvelous, beautiful stuff. Feldman's violin is especially prominent.

When saxophonist/composer John Zorn first introduced Masada in 1994, it’s unlikely that he could have anticipated it would become so successful. The first songbook was originally developed for his adventurous but clearly jazz-centric quartet featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron. Since then Zorn’s compositions—brief sketches meant to encourage exploration and interplay—have been interpreted by a wide variety of ensembles, ranging from the raucous Electric Masada to the elegant but still rhythmically propulsive Bar Kokhba Sextet and the chamber recital approach of Feldman and Courvoisier in duet. Special projects, including Masada Guitars and Voices in the Wilderness, have demonstrated the remarkable adaptability of Zorn’s songbook.

The Masada String Trio is Zorn’s most accessible ensemble, although it makes absolutely no compromises with the probing spirit that has rendered the Masada project his most endearing and enduring work. While the trio—violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, and bassist Greg Cohen—has been at the center of a number of Zorn projects including Filmworks VIII (Tzadik, 1998) and Filmworks XI (Tzadik, 2002), it’s been nearly a decade since they have recorded a studio album of new Masada material.

With over 300 tunes composed for his second Masada songbook, Zorn is in a different and more advantageous position. Whereas the bulk of the first book was first introduced by his flagship quartet, this time he can inaugurate the material using the wealth of musical contexts that have become part of the larger Masada universe. Astaroth: Book of Angels Volume 1 found long-time associate Jamie Saft approaching ten new pieces from a piano trio perspective. Azazel: Book of Angels Volume 2 reconvenes the Masada String Trio and, like Volume 1, demonstrates that there’s plenty of life left in the Masada project.

While there are brief moments of reckless abandon on the cue-driven “Mibi” and “Gurid,” the balance of the thirteen-song set manages to be approachable while at the same time filled with the kind of telepathic and complex interaction that renders it impossible to distinguish form from freedom. While some might expect that the trio’s inherent chamber aesthetic would be self-limiting, Feldman, Friedlander, and Cohen prove it’s possible to cover an expanse of emotions, from the exhilarating “Ahiel,” with Cohen’s powerful forward motion, to the darker title track, the Satie-like elegance of “Garzanal,” and the dervish-like frenzy of “Bethor.”

Like Astaroth, Azazel remains undeniably a Masada project, though it demonstrates a wider stylistic purview than the first songbook. Additionally, the trio has clearly evolved as a unit, with Feldman and Friedlander especially notable for shifting roles from support to lead so seamlessly that the changes are virtually invisible.

Azazel: Book of Angels Volume 2 is a strong argument against naysayers who accuse Zorn of milking the Masada project dry. With a large community of artists from which Zorn can now draw for Masada, there seems to be no end to its potential, and the Masada String Trio proves that it’s possible to create challenging and multifaceted improv-based chamber music that doesn’t sacrifice widespread appeal.

-John Kelman,

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Jamie Saft Trio - Astaroth: Book Of Angels Vol. 1 (2005)

So I've recently fallen in love with John Zorn's current Masada book, The Book Of Angels. So far there is 11 volumes of amazing jazz and klezmer tunes that are sort of traditional to the the Jewish culture as he sees fit, and each volume is a different artist (or part of the "Masada Family") and takes some of the tunes and makes a record however they want. All the records sound vastly different, yet they are all relatively short Zorn tunes. For those scared of John Zorn much of the work is his easiest to get into. It is not easy listening but it's definitely not demanding. Sort of the ideal blend. Jamie Saft rips it on the keyboards, Greg Cohen holds his own on the bass and then Ben Perowsky pounds the drums like his is known for (let us not forget he released "Camp Songs" one of my favorite Tzadik releases). This is the first version which has a nice nice jazz element, and kind of goes from some nice cool jazz to free jazz track after track, all while maintaining a certain Jewish feel. I'll probably upload all the volumes as I like all of them. Great stuff.

With Sanhedrin: Unreleased Studio Recordings 1994-1997, saxophonist/composer John Zorn put a period on what turns out to be but the first phase of his Masada project. His voluminous Masada songbook, first emerging in ’94 with his quartet featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron, has gone on to a wide variety of interpretations, including solo guitar, piano/violin recital, string trio, and electric octet.

But when Zorn indicated in the liner notes to Sanhedrin that he had composed an entire second book of Masada music in an almost ridiculously short period of time, the question arose as to whether there was something new to be said, after over two hundred compositions in the first Masada songbook so vividly and completely explored the juncture of traditional Jewish music and a variety of improvising contexts. Based on the first recording of Masada Book Two material, Astaroth, Book of Angels, it's clear that Zorn's frenetic imagination has yet to run dry. In fact, there are a number of surprises about Astaroth that create high anticipation for future Book Two releases.

First is that, while Zorn continues to mine the harmonic territory of Jewish music, the overall aesthetic seems less direct, with the pieces now subsumed as part of a greater musical whole that recognizes broader thematic and rhythmic concerns. While some might accuse Masada Book One of ultimately becoming predictable, including hypnotic rhythmic foundations for some pieces, and rapid-fire themes for others, breaking down into chaos only to be magically pulled back at their conclusion, the material on Astaroth feels less categoric. And while nobody could accuse the Book One recordings of being anything but open-ended in terms of improvisational potential, the Book Two material feels somehow less rigidly of a kind.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is Jamie Saft—a keyboard player who has always seemed more a jack-of-all-trades, but here demonstrates an heretofore unheard talent in context of a traditional piano trio format (also featuring Greg Cohen and drummer Ben Perowsky). In the past, Saft's contributions have tended to feel more like confection, textural icing on the cake. Here he demonstrates an unfettered imagination and sense of invention that, for perhaps the first time, truly dominate. Capable of lyrical economy on the relaxed vibe of Shalmiel� and the melancholically bluesy Lelahel; harder-edged expressionism on Ygal�; flat-out swing on Ezeqeel and Sturiel; naive innocence on Ariel�; and darker abstract impressionism on Baal-Peor, Saft's performance on Astaroth deserves to see him reach a larger audience.

Cohen and Perowsky are equally impressive, but that comes as less of a surprise. And with Cohen having been a member of the flagship Masada quartet from the mid-90s, there's an undeniable continuity between earlier efforts and this new phase in Zorn's investigation of the varied possibilities of traditional Jewish music. If Astaroth is any indication, Zorn's Masada projects will continue to retain a specific identity, while branching out into even broader areas of exploration.

-John Kelman,

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Floratone - Floratone (2007)

Bill Frisell side project from last year, where he formed a "band" with drummer Matt Chamberlain, and then the other two "members" of the "band" are producers. I guess it's sort of jazz, but not really. It's not really avant-garde either at all. It's just instrumental music that is sort of a blend of a ton of styles and is just awesome. Also features a lot of Viktor Krauss and Eyvind Kang, so string-wise it's pretty set. Awesomely executed stuff.

A casual listen might suggest that Floratone is a new Bill Frisell project (and that would be mostly correct), except every indication is that this is a fully collaborative project between Frisell, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and Tucker Martine and Lee Townsend. Composition credits are all shared and they all appear on the front cover. Why is that notable? Because while Frisell and Chamberlain are both credited with "loops" along with their respective instruments, Martine and Townsend receive only "production" credits -- no instruments. That's because on Floratone, the pure elements of sound and space are given as much attention as the music itself. Not only are there cool shimmering loops coloring the tunes, but any musical element can get treated, delayed, bounced around, echoed and twisted through 360-degrees of the stereo spectrum. With titles that invoke the South, the songs mostly float along at a languid pace anchored by the bass of Viktor Krauss. Ron Miles (trumpet) and Eyvind Kang (viola) also contribute to several cuts but don't really figure prominently. The focus is squarely on FrisellChamberlain and the soundworld they've created with Martine and Townsend. There's the slight reggae lilt of the title cut with some great dub-style echo and the New Orleans flavored "Mississippi Rising" with its second line rhythm. "Louisiana Lowboat" is somewhat lumbering and clanky, coming across almost like a Tom Waits instrumental. "Monsoon" rocks things up a bit and "Threadbare" gets a bit noisy, but this is mostly a pretty laid-back affair. It's great to hear Frisell messing with the delays again in a big way (see also the "West" disc of East/West) and the pure sonics of Floratone are as much of a treat as the playing. It's pleasant enough for background music, but careful listening will be rewarded. Try this one with headphones.
-Sean Westergaard, AMG

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Joni Mitchell - For The Roses (1972)

By recommendation of my awesome girlfriend, who brought this lovely album to my eyes just today.

Mostly overlooked (though still generally regarded as a classic) "transitional" album my Joni Mitchell. This is where she first gets the ideas to start embracing the jazz influences that dominated her later work. Nice combination of folk with slight jazz touches.

On For the Roses, Joni Mitchell began to explore jazz and other influences in earnest. As one might expect from a transitional album, there is a lot of stylistic ground explored, including straight folk selections using guitar ("For the Roses") and piano ("Banquet," "See You Sometime," "Lesson in Survival") overtly jazzy numbers ("Barangrill," "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," and hybrids that cross the two Let the Wind Carry Me," "Electricity," "Woman of Heart and Mind," "Judgment of the Moon and Stars"). "Blonde in the Bleachers" grafts a rock & roll band coda onto a piano-based singer/songwriter main body. The hit single "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio" is an unusual essay into country-tinged pop, sporting a Dylanesque harmonica solo played by Graham Nash and lush backing vocals. Arrangements here build solidly upon the tentative expansion of scoring first seen in Ladies of the Canyon. "Judgment of the Moon and Stars" and "Let the Wind Carry Me" present lengthy instrumental interludes. The lyrics here are among Mitchell's best, continuing in the vein of gripping honesty and heartfelt depth exhibited on Blue. As always, there are selections about relationship problems, such as "Lesson in Survival," "See You Sometime," and perhaps the best of all her songs in this genre, "Woman of Heart and Mind." "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" presents a gritty inner-city survival scene, while "Barangrill" winsomely extols the uncomplicated virtues of a roadside truck stop. More than a bridge between great albums, this excellent disc is a top-notch listen in its own right.
-David Cleary, AMG

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Scientifik - Criminal (1994)

Classic (though very overlooked) 90s hip hop. Some of the all time best producers on here: Diamond D, Buckwild, RZA, some others. I believe this had real minimal distribution and that it may have not even had stateside distribution at all until like 2 years ago. Dude outta Boston. Just great shit along the lines of CL Smooth and that early 90s east coast stuff. Kinda reminds me a lot of Charizma as well for those who like him. Lots of mystery surrounding dude though, his girlfriend and him were found shot, with the initial idea that he shot her and then himself, but there was never any conclusive evidence. Anyway his two albums were re-released in 2006 and you should probably pick them up, in the last year this has become one of my all time favorite hip hop releases.

Boston area rapper Scientifik recorded at least two LPs in the 90s. But it is Criminal, which was denied a proper domestic release due to industry politricks, that lives on in the boom-bap afterlife of folklore, vinyl bootleg, hissy dub, and mp3 download. Criminal boasts a mid-90s dream team of producers – deities RZA, Buckwild, and Diamond D contribute beats – as well as a tragic, dramatic back story. Police theorize that Scientifik shot his girlfriend to death and then turned his gun on himself in late 1996, but the case is still officially unsolved due to incomplete evidence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this record retains a cult following. It ain’t hard to tell why the music is still captivating. On the mic Scientifik is certainly competent, and by 1994 standards he operates correctly, dropping jewelz and relating crime sagas in a soldierly, commanding voice that flexes just enough to reveal his famished intensity. It doesn’t hurt that some of the beats are absolutely tremendous bangers. The mid-album string of “East Coast Jungle,” “I Got Plans,” and “Lawtown” is as good as it gets; each song typifies that ol’ brooding, moody, Gotham City at midnight hardcore rap sound that safe harbor mixshow DJs and their insomniac fans once coveted.

Criminal is a work teeming with skills that successfully panders to the consensus of aficionados; this is the album’s primary strength and its ultimate weakness. Even if we adjust for the era’s overflow of beloved gems and our current nostalgia for the cerebral street music of yesterday, we are left with mega-quality sans distinction. Guest verses from hugely magnetic legends Diamond D and Ed OG only accentuate Scientifik’s dearth of album-carrying charisma. Criminal lacks the dimension and enjoyability of similarly shelved and/or sabotaged mid-90s projects like Jemini the Gifted One’s Scars and Pain, even if its standout songs shine brighter.

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Carlos Santana & Alice Coltrane - Illuminations (1974)

AMG totally slams this record, gives it 2 stars. For me, it's really sublime and beautiful and I bet it would find some fans here. You would think with these two in the early 70s, this record would be really dense and noisy, but it's pretty minimal for the two of them. They are new versions of John Coltrane songs and they sure are pretty.

Of the five albums from Carlos Santana's jazzy period, four can be described as jazz/rock, altho the latter term is sometimes a stretch. Illuminations, Carlos' joint effort with Alice Coltrane, John's widow, cannot be so characterized at all except for one of the four instrumental tracks, "Angel of Sunlight." This jazz/rock fusion, also steeped in raga, is a showcase for the sort of fine guitar soloing expected from Carlos, as well as Santana-style percussion, good bass work, etc. The other three songs are jazz/classical. They are richly textured orchestral arrangements, heavy with sweeping strings arranged by Alice, who herself plays harp and mellotron. Jules Broussard plays flute as well as saxophone. (Where is that Santana percussion section?) Carlos' chief contribution is exquisite, sweet guitar notes, not ripping solos. The result is a majestic, celestial atmosphere, reflecting Carlos' and Alice's spiritual focus of the time. The song titles tell the story: "Angel of Air/Angel of Water," "Bliss: The Eternal Now," and the title cut. This music is not what you normally expect from Santana, but is very pleasant, very lovely, for sure.
-David C. Heires,

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A Certain Ratio - Early (2002)

I don't know ACR that well, but of the two albums I've heard, they didn't strike me as GREAT. As a collection of good singles or whatever this is much better to me. Basically Joy Division/Factory Records sound but much more NY-disco influenced. It's fun stuff. Plus it's on Soul Jazz Records, so you know it at least sounds good and IF YOU BUY IT it is bound to come with an awesome package.

With the Creation reissues of A Certain Ratio's catalog becoming increasingly tough to track down and with the post-punk revival going on around the time of its release, Early arrived right on time. Despite an uneven discography and an inexplicably numerous string of Joy Division comparisons, ACR was an excellent -- if inconsistent -- post-punk band that exemplified a spectacular movement against the old rock guard. In reality, it only seems right to refer to the ACR captured here as a post-punk band for chronology's sake. They came after the punk explosion of 1977, yet they had hardly anything in common with that movement. At their best, they used rock instrumentation to sound little like a rock band, laying a combination of disco, funk, and Latin percussion as the foundation of their sound. They hardly took a cue from punk, evidenced as early on as their second single, a cover of Banbarra's "Shack Up." Early, an assemblage of key moments and rarities that ends with 1985, is one of those compilations that makes no overt commitment to the fanatic or the curious -- an issue that's probably exacerbated by the inclusion of five Peel Session selections. As a result, four songs are presented in two versions, eating up space that could have been taken up by other highlights. The only case where this overlap can be excused is "All Night Party," their first single; the studio version is a drumless din of Mancunian miserableness, while the Peel Session version is given the death disco treatment with drums from Donald Johnson, who wasn't on board at the time of the song's original recording. It would be a bit of a cop-out on the part of the Soul Jazz label to view the second disc -- the one with the B-sides, rarities, and Peel Session material -- merely as the icing on the cake, the bonus. Though Early goes for the price of a single disc, the space provided could have been used a bit better. The discs are far from maxed-out content-wise, and there are a handful of damnable exclusions. However, this bizarre restraint might have more to do with the future of the ACR catalog than a few boneheaded decisions. All things considered, there is no shortage of great material here, and the packaging is phenomenal. A short film documenting the band's first trip to New York City is also included

-Andy Kellman, AMG

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Lindsey Buckingham - Gift Of Screws (2008)

Always get kind of nervous posting new music but whatever. I'm gonna post up a few albums that I've uploaded for other reasons in the last couple weeks and just forgot to post here. But yeah, this is the new Lindsey Buckingham. It's great. Whereas 2006's "Under The Skin" was bizarre and artsy and stuff, this is just a great pop records. Of course it features Lindsey's signature finger-picking guitar style and his classic vocals. Definitely one of my favorite releases of the year.

Two studio albums in three years may not seem to be a breakneck pace for anybody else, but for Lindsey Buckingham it is no less than pure acceleration. Indeed if we include the live album that came out in 2007 between the two, it's like three outings in as many years -- warp speed for an artist like Buckingham who has been known to go more than a decade between his own offerings outside of Fleetwood Mac. On 2006's Under the Skin, Buckingham issued a soft-spoken songwriter's disc. It was all acoustic, deeply reflective, poignant, profound, and drenched in beauty. It was also criminally under-noticed. Somewhere he promised he'd release an electric rock record in the future. Gift of Screws (referencing the poetry of Emily Dickinson) may not be all the way there, but more often than not it offers the kind of rocking, heady electric pop he's known for, as well as some glorious, lyrically sophisticated, acoustic singer/songwriter fare that bears his signature alone. Some of these tracks were written for an aborted session begun in the 1990s. Still others made it onto the Mac's Say You Will, and still others are brand-spanking new.

The set opens with "Great Day," a pulsing, urgent, minor-key rocker that blends electric and acoustic guitars, organic and electronic percussion, and some hushed keyboards. It explodes near the end with a scorching, burn-up-the-wire guitar solo he usually only plays live. "Did You Miss Me?," written with wife Kristen Buckingham and featuring drums by Walfredo Reyes, could have appeared on any of Fleetwood Mac's blissed-out, bittersweet '70s recordings. The weave of guitars, layered backing vocals, and drop-dead catchy chorus is pure Buckingham. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are the rhythm section on the rumbling multi-dimensional blues-winder "Wait for Me," which also offers more evidence of the guitar slinger emerging from the shadows to take place center stage before giving way to a dense multi-textured chorus that transcends the blues without leaving them for dead. Fleetwood also adds drums to "The Right Place to Fade," with bassist John Pierce. Acoustic guitars meld enormous power chords and stinging lead fills in a frenetically paced pop song. Along the way, there are hesitant, confessional, acoustically orchestrated songs where the darkness almost swallows the light as in "Bel Air Rain." The wall of strings fingerpicking style adds to the emotional heft of songs like "Time Precious Time," especially as the vocal effects give the sound a nearly three-dimensional quality. The title track is a balls-out rocker that places '60s rave-up garage rock up against '70s glam in a storm of guitars and clattering drums. The closer, "Treason," is a dignified near-anthemic pop song with a gospel chorus that is unlike any song Buckingham's written before and sends the set out in a very elegant and deeply moving way.

What it all means is simple: that Buckingham is not only still relevant, but he's also a pioneer in terms of craft, execution, and production, and has plenty to teach the current generation about making excellent records and never resting on your laurels. Gift of Screws is a standout even in his catalog.
-AMG (Thom Jurek)

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Kenny Werner - Lawn Chair Society (2007)

Another recent jazz album. This one is super fun. Out on Blue Note last year, just a nice combination of jazz, funk and weird computerized electro-acoustic sounding mumbo jumbo. Lots of different sounds, but definitely a fun and rewarding listen. And just look at that album cover.

To play jazz, one has to be a complete musician. Requirements: technique, imagination, huge ears, improvisational spark, superb time, and empathy. Jazz is not rife with fakers. As a result, many greats get lost in the fray of musical excellence. Maybe one has been Kenny Werner—and maybe we’ve found him now. Boy, have we.

Aficionados have known him forever. Since the early 1980s, Werner has been playing in fantastic trios, working with the likes of Archie Shepp and Joe Lovano, and becoming a fixture on New York’s jazz scene. I’ve heard him as an intelligent and somewhat indirect player—a guy with a voluminous jazz vocabulary of chords and lines who has neither the blues snap of Wynton Kelly nor the languid lyricism of Bill Evans. But what did I really know? Werner was also a brilliant and deeply rhythmic solo player (check out his set Live at the Maybeck Recital Hall from 1994). Maybe I’d only ever heard a part of his art.

Lawn Chair Society—his first Blue Note record, and his second stint on a major label after a pair of RCAs in the late ‘90s—sets Werner in a new and stunning light. Known as a modern acoustic pianist, Werner does much more than just fool around on a Fender Rhodes on Lawn Chair. Rather, this is an integrated electric/acoustic album that manages not to bury the personalities of its soloists—a rare accomplishment.

The soloists are formidable. In addition to Werner—who improvises only on the acoustic, and with lyricism and wit—the recording features Dave Douglas’s trumpet, Chris Potter on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade’s drumming. Blade brings a unique sound to the disc, never swinging in the straight ahead jazz sense but playing every manner of atmospheric funk pattern, loud and soft, in and out. All the players act similarly as colorists as well as melodists, with Douglas using various mutes and Potter adopting different tones to blend with the electronic environments conceived by producer Lenny Picket for Werner’s compositions. As the players color the pieces, they manage to retain their own voices—Dave Douglas is till piquant and puckish on cornet, Potter jumps and mutters like he is always making a joke, and Colley plays with unparalleled beauty.

Most of the compositions are improved by a well-planned use of electronics. Right out of the gate, “Lo’s Garden” processes percussion through a sequencer of some kind. But rather than being a tune with merely a cheesy fusion-electronica bed, Douglas and Potter (on bass clarinet) play a herky-jerky line that meshes in rhythm and sonority with the groove. Werner’s keyboards are not up front—he always saves the soloing for piano—but they generate pulsations and feeling below the surface. With Colley’s sound always earthy and round, the result is balanced: no fusion flash or smooth goopiness, just a single-minded approach to a fascinating tune.

“Lawn Chairs (and Other Foreign Policy)” integrates acoustic and electric differently but just as well. Though it begins with a hip acoustic piano rip, it then moves into a ragtime-ish keyboard groove that Douglas plays over as if he were some kind of doped-up Louis Armstrong—growling, smearing, and diving for fun with a touch of Miles-ian echo. The two horns then play a line that becomes the ground rhythm as percussion and bass enter. This gradually morphs into a piano solo with traditional acoustic accompaniment, winding up eventually in a Rhodes-and-organ-saturated groove that directly references In a Silent Way. It’s marvelous, however, because each of these transitions is achieved with slight-of-hand. The tune feels complete.

The highlight for me is the astonishingly direct and emotional song, “Uncovered Heart”, written 16 years ago at the birth of Werner’s daughter. The synthesized content is limited to subtle string pads, with Werner playing a Jarrett-like open style that emphasizes rhapsodic melody. After Werner states the simple tune in two choruses, the horns play a variation as introduction to a smashingly plain and lovely bass solo. When Werner solos it is equally elegant and elegiac.

It makes sense that “Uncovered Heart” should be the album’s showcase, as Werner’s daughter, Katheryn, was present for the recording but died in a car accident before the album’s completion. “Loss”, a short, synthesized orchestral piece that likely refers to Werner’s terrible loss, leads the album back to a bass line similar to that of “Uncovered Heart”, which then leads into the album’s only cover, “Kothbiro”. Another highlight, this tune moves with inevitable and stately grace. Werner’s solo is stripped of all clichés, and the trading of statements by Douglas and Potter is the kind of plainsong that jazz always needs more of. Werner—knowingly or not—has created a substantial monument to his love for his daughter.

If I have failed to write about the adventure of Chris Potter in mid-thought or the flash of Brian Blade when he is fused with the piano vamp on “Inaugural Balls”, it is only because Lawn Chair Society is such a thoroughly integrated recording that it tempts the listener to forget its flashiest moments. “Balls” bustles into a brilliant collective improvisation fueled by organ swells and pure Blade hipness. “New Amsterdam” gets started with a Herbie Hancock-ish gospel groove that is jagged and funky at once, with Colley latching it all to the dirt. These tracks are propulsive and meaty just as “Uncovered Heart” and “Kothbiro” are infused with legitimate sentiment. The balance in it all—electronic whooshes meshing elegantly with skin on ivory—is the record’s ace in the hole.

The closer you listen, the higher Kenny Werner’s Lawn Chair Society will rise on your year’s-best list. Firm and delicate, electric and acoustic, gentle and daring, it does with nonchalant ease what 30 years of “fusion” has done so rarely: keep jazz both serious and modern as it integrates the possibilities of new technology. Suddenly, Kenny Werner (along with producer Lenny Picket) is a jazz master and maverick—a veteran artist whose voice has come alive on a big stage.

Pull up a lawn chair and check out Kenny Werner. His time has come.
-Will Layman,

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Esbjörn Svensson Trio - Leucocyte (2008)

I don't usually post new albums, but I thought I'd make an exception today and we'll see what happens.

So i spent a good part of today downloading and looking at some jazz releases from this year because I hadn't really been paying attention. I went to look up what EST had put out this year, only to be shocked that Esbjorn had died in June and here I am 4 months later and didn't even know. Awful. Truly awful to lose such a talent and someone who has been consistently putting out great records and really keeping modern jazz exciting. This trio is basically the biggest European name in progressive jazz in the last few years, and were the first European band on the cover of Downbeat magazine last year, I believe. Anyway, I've liked all the albums I've heard of theirs, but this one blew my mind. The first six tracks are sort of all over the place, but still flow really well. The "Premonition" tracks are great, and the ones that follow are more based in jazz. The album closes with a suite named after the album, and it is experimental and really cutting edge and exciting. A really engrossing record that is out there, but not necessarily by being really loud and abrasive (though it is not subtle either). Definitely one of the best "first listen's" of a new album this year. Highly recommended.

Considering that this is the last we will ever hear from the wonderful e.s.t (pianist Esbjorn Svensson having tragically died in a diving accident earlier this year, at the age of 44) it's impossible not to feel sadness while listening to Leucocyte. Yet it's not for just the passing of one of the world's most talented jazz musicians. It's also for the fact that a band, so psychically linked and at ease with each other should, at this fascinating stage of their development, be robbed of the chance to grow and change as they undoubtedly would have done.

Composed of childood friends Svensson and drummer Magnus Ostrom, along with bassist Dan Berglund, e.s.t's last album, Live In Hamburg, seemed to be drawing a line under the ECM-friendly-with a-touch-of-rock-trio period of their career. Equally at home on the festival as well as jazz circuits, you could feel it was time for a change.

Leucocyte reminds you that, despite carrying the pianist's name, the trio were a band of equal thirds. It's Berglund's earthy tones that drive much of the first half of the album. Following the delicate introductory meditation, Decade, Premonition sounds hungry for just such a change. The feedback and distortion are comparable to Australia's Necks, but under it all Svensson's voice echoes the changes, and his keys can never resist the Jarrett-esque flourishes that trip lightly over the atmospherics. Not once does the soloing take the place of progression and thematic exploration. And the attack always veers towards that rock aesthetic that rears its head most ironically on the number entitled Jazz.

But it's the album's second half suite, Leucocyte, that indicates where the trio were headed next. Mixing in far more electronics; erasing melody, leaving just the warp and weft of instrumental texture, and even (on part two's Ad Interim) resorting to total silence: it shows us a band that were now fearless and confident enough to really experiment.

Leucocyte is far from a perfect album, and that's why it's so heartbreakingly good. It's unsure in parts, and occasionally too wilfully rough. But it's a pointer to a future that's been cruelly denied us. We can only dream of what might have happened next. But thank goodness we have this to remember Svensson by. It's a testament to an artist whose life was always a work in progress.

-Chris Jones, BBC

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blind Boy Fuller & Sonny Terry - Harmonica & Guitar Blues 1937-1945

Just a real great classic blues collection. Been a fan of Blind Boy Fuller for a while, and had some Sonny Terry songs here and there, but together, this compilation is just like the perfect blend of badass old country blues. Just get it if you are a fan of old blues because it's great.

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