Get Hip! Fast: Astell&Kern Blue Note 75th Anniversary Package

Among the many different products celebrating Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary (or perhaps capitalizing upon is a better way to put it) is the Astell & Kern Blue Note 75th Anniversary Package.  When I got the press release I was curious, so I clicked on the link and here’s what the package includes:

-75 Blue Note albums, remastered in a hi-res digital format, preloaded onto the company’s AK240 digital player
-hardbound book with all the original album art
-a new book on Blue Note by Richard Havers
-a copy of each album on an SD card (does anybody still use those?) in a case with original album art. Bonus: it comes with a fancy tower where the cases can be spun around to make various architectural shapes, that can “be placed next to your home system for an elegant, luxurious display.”
The 75 albums are pretty much what one would expect: Monk, Silver, Sonny, Trane, Blakey, Mobley, Hancock, Dexter, Hubbard, etc etc. There’s even a couple of the more experimental-leaning albums from Blue Note’s catalog: Jackie McLean’s Destination Out, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, and Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Conquistador!.

I was particularly interested to see what post-1969 albums were included. Here’s the list: Donald Byrd’s Black Byrd, Marlena Shaw’s Who is this Bitch, Anyway?, Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter, Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me, and Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. Except for Byrd, it’s all vocalists. Where are any of the label’s fantastic instrumental albums of the last 30+ years? Just in the last couple year’s there’s been some great ones, such as Shorter’s Without a Net and Ambrose Akinmusire’s The Imagined Savior is far Easier to Paint. Not to mention excellent albums by Joe Lovano and Andrew Hill.

And this tells you all you need to know about who Astell&Kern is marketing this to: upper-class people for whom the classic Blue Note catalog signifies sophisticated taste, but who probably only own a couple of them.  The Wilson, Jones and Porter albums are probably the safest – and have the most crossover appeal – of the 75 albums on the list. This is for the stereotypical NPR crowd who doesn’t know much about jazz but who think that it’s important for them to. Blue Note has tons of cultural cache, so here’s one way for those with plenty of disposable income (that there is no price listed indicates that this set costs a whole bunch) to get hip.

This is pure and simple conspicuous consumption (don’t forget to make sure that luxurious and elegant tower of SD cards with original artwork is prominently displayed next to the McIntosh speakers for dinner parties). Forget about going out and discovering new music, being surprised by it, taking a risk and buying something based on a trusted friend’s recommendation (Grant Green’s Idle Moments was one of the best albums recommended to me), or beginning on a trail of exploration that leads to unexpected places (How did Song for My Father take me to The Sidewinder, then to Mode For Joe, before ending at Black Fire?) – don’t worry about the fun part of collecting and listening to music: Astell&Kern are offering up the chance to not only show the Joneses how unhip they are, but to buy great taste in one limited edition package. I can’t think of a more soul sucking way to enjoy all this great music.

Jacob Young’s Multiple Sides and the Danger of Pigeonholing

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

There aren’t too many professional musicians I know who can only do one thing. In fact there might not be any. To make it playing music one has to be able to take a bunch of gigs which requires playing in a bunch of styles – weddings, swing dances, funk bands, latin, messed up country, whatever.  So why is it that when I heard a new album featuring Norwegian-American guitarist Jacob Young I was surprised?

The only times I’ve heard Young was on his albums with ECM. Regardless of where one might stand on the existence of the ECM sound, one has a pretty good idea as to the universe the label’s albums occupy. For example, his new album on ECM that’s a few months old–entitled Forever Young and featuring saxophonist Trygve Seim, pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz– ended up having the mood and vibe I expected. Not that the album was predictable by any means, but that the lineup pretty much told me what I could expect to hear: pretty melodies, an understated yet tight rhythm section, and relaxed and tuneful saxophone and guitar work. And Forever Young more or less matched up with what I thought I’d hear conceptually. It’s a gorgeous and eminently enjoyable album that’s perfect to curl up with.

So it was a bit of a shock when I popped Interstatic’s new album Arise into my player. I didn’t read the one sheet beforehand, and the cover doesn’t list the personnel. As soon as I read who was in the band I was surprised, almost to the point of “This can’t be the same Jacob Young.” But it was, and more than that, the group’s drummer is Jarle Vespestad, who has worked with pianist Tord Gustavsen, who has put out several gorgeous and austere albums on ECM. The trio is rounded out by Roy Powell on organ (he’s the guy behind the Mumpbeak progish album I just reviewed on this blog). Interstatic isn’t your prototypical B3 trio in the Jimmy Smith vein, as these guys get their rock on. On Forever Young, Young plays acoustic on a few tracks and when he picks up the electric it has a very clean sound. But on Arise – which is on Rare Noise Records – he nasties things up with large heaps of overdrive, wah wah and other distortion effects. It’s a whole other side to Jacob Young that I didn’t know existed, and why would I, all I knew of him prior to hearing Arise is the side that shows up on ECM.

I know that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard Arise, but I was, and still kind of am. As a musician who likes to play in different styles, and who has lots of friends who play professionally with tons of different bands, this shouldn’t be a shock. His presence on each album simultaneously does and does not make sense to me. If anything, my momentary cognitive dissonance serves as a healthy reminder that musicians are not just the sum of what you hear on your speakers. They are complex folks, with complex interests, who in order to get to where they are have more than likely had to learn several different approaches and musical languages. Any statement like “Oh, I know that musician’s stuff, s/he does x” – while easy to make, especially if all you have heard of a particular player is one style, ends up pigeonholing that musician and what s/he does. It’s a statement and a mindset that limits not only our own thinking, but the way in which we perceive and structure the world. It hems in musicians as well, just like genre names and boundaries.

I submit: “But she’s a jazz player, what is she doing, this doesn’t make sense?” In cases like this, the listener needs to come to the musician, not judge the musician based on preconceptions on what the musician should be or only does. I remember getting an album by Robert Hurst, and I was so confused because it didn’t meet my expectations of what a Robert Hurst album should sound like I almost dismissed the album. But I forced myself to figure out what he was doing, and I’m glad I did, because I ended up really enjoying the album and getting a lot out of it. I still hold on to that lesson.

I’m glad I discovered this other side to Jacob Young, and it has reminded me that I need to keep an open mind, remember that musicians do many things, and that if I can, I should try and remove all preconceptions of an artist or label or personnel lineup before hitting the start button. Doing so better serves the musician and my appreciation for them.

And now to give you a little taste of two of the sides of Jacob Young (noticed I didn’t say THE two sides, cause there’s probably a whole lot more to him than I will ever know):

For a sample of Forever Young, head to the website ECM put together for the album.

And now a video of Interstatic in action…..


The Genre Bending of Rare Noise Records

September 3, 2014 1 comment

The handful releases from Rare Noise records I’ve received in the last couple years has presented a problem for organizing my music collection: as I sort albums into loosely defined genres I can’t figure out where in the hell to put them. Most of Rare Noise’s output that I’ve heard contains a mix of so many influences and genres that it’s really doesn’t make much sense to file them under any genre. The catalog is full of combinations and takes on metal, prog, electronica, musique concrete, free jazz, straightahead jazz, new/contemporary music, and so on. To get out of trying to best organize them, I decided the best solution would be to put them together. And so they all reside together on the same shelf. While sure, I’ve got plenty of albums that defy genre that have found homes, but putting all the Rare Noise releases together makes them easier to find.

These albums’ resistance to classification, as manifested in my organizational conundrum, is pretty telling as to what Rare Noise produces. While I don’t care for everything the label puts out, there’s several albums I really dig, all of which bend, or flat out ignore, genre conventions.  Here’s the lowdown on a few of them I really enjoy.

That_The_Days_Go_53bfc0785c4cdThat the Days Go by and Never Come Again, by Indigo Mist, is an Ellington tribute unlike any I’ve heard. The group consists of trumpeter Cuong Vu, pianist Richard Karpen, bassist Luke Berman, frequent Vu collaborator drummer Ted Poor, and several folks on live electronics. Four of the ten cuts are from Duke’s book: Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and “Lush Life,” and Ellington’s standards “Mood Indigo” and “In A Sentimental Mood.” The tracks all segue, so as to make one long suite, and they vary in instrumentation, texture, dynamics, and mood. It’s also not always clear when one song begins and the other ends, and when combined with the free flowing and organic way in which the music grows, the album takes the listener on a winding journey. Along the way one encounters Karpen’s thundering left hand piano booms and dissonant clusters, a lengthy drum solo from Poor that dances around the stereo field, brief outputs of random sine waves, a piece that straightforwardly touches on swing and bebop before going sideways, and Vu’s plaintive recitations of “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and “In A Sentimental Mood” wafting through the mist. That the Days Go by and Never Come Again is a gorgeous, far out, haunting, and evocative album. In a word: special.

2.-Plymouth_Cover_600600_72dpiOne of my favorite albums of 2014 so far is the self titled album from Plymouth. This is a heavy album that imposes its will. The quintet includes Jamie Saft on organs, echoplex and Rhodes, guitarists Joe Morris and Mary Halvorson, Chris Lightcap on electric bass, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The three tracks on this beast are long – the “short” one (“Plimouth”) [sic] is thirteen minutes, the long one (“Standish”) almost thirty. Each cut follows roughly the same narrative arc: a relatively quiet and sparse beginning that is followed by a slow buildup in intensity, dynamics and polyphonic textures, and then concluding with a gradual decline.  The buildup is not constant, however, as the players weave in and out of each other, contributing a new chord, huge swath of sound, short-lived rhythmic gesture, or melody. The sonic pallet contains a little bit of everything: spacey ’70s fusion, driving hard rock, crunching distortion, huge organ chords, and angular and penetrating guitar lines. Don’t bother looking for catchy tunes or hummable melodies. There are no stars here, as no player stands above the rest – just a guitar flourish from Morris or Halvorson here, a keyboard or drum kit intervention there. Listening to Plymouth’s music is almost like being able to watch the entire lifespan of a glacier: seeing it form, watching it gorge its way through a mountain, witness subsequent fall into the sea, and then being left to consider its power and complexity.

spA second Saft-involved project is Slobber Pup, which released Black Aces in June 2013. Pretty much all you need to know about this album can be found in the title of the disc’s final track: “Taint of Satan.” Yup, Black Aces is Hard. Like Plymouth, this album also features Joe Morris. The quartet is rounded out by bassist Trevor Dunn-who was a member of The Melvins-and drummer Balazs Pandi, who played with Merzbow. [Morris and Pandi can be heard on the avant-garde free jazz album by tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman on Rare Noise entitled One.] Although Slobber Pup’s instrumentation is similar to Plymouth’s (only one guitar here instead of two) they’ve got a completely different sound. As opposed to Plymouth, there is a whole lot of space for soloists to stretch out. The members of Slobber Pup don’t take a whole lot of time to get started – they punch you in the teeth just about from the word go. Black Aces opens with the 27 minute long “Accuser,” and after a roughly two minute introduction in which Morris and Saft test the waters it’s on, as Morris unleashes some serious and lengthy shredding. In fact, the tune is basically one long vehicle for Morris, who navigates the changing grooves and textures by moving from long single note lines, to waves of distortion laden sustained or strummed chords. The last few minutes is a dark maelstrom of drums, organ chords, fuzzy guitar, and Dunn’s penetrating solo bass lines. Pandi is an absolute beast throughout the entire record; he is almost unbelievably active, and his drums thud with unwavering strength and authority. Check out the title track especially, which features some massive organ playing by Saft, to see what I mean. Pandi gives the music its drive and the group’s stomp on your neck swagger.  He is, like Slobber Pup as a whole, a force to be reckoned with.

mumpbeakProg fans would do well to check out the self titled album from 2013 by Mumpbeak. The group is led by keyboardist Roy Powell, and as is the case with many of Rare Noise’s releases, it includes contributions by heavy hitters from other prominent groups. King Crimson alum and bassist Tony Levin sits in on one cut, and King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto holds the group’s drum chair. The album also features bassist and producer Bill Laswell.  Powell hitched a complex set of pedals to his Hohner Clavinet, teamed up with a few electric bassists, and proceeded to record seven tracks that are venues for him to explore his instrument’s sonic possibilities, get inside the spaces provided by the wide variety of grooves and tempos, and generally rock out.  As is the case with prog, mixed meter and tricky rhythms abound. The compositions aren’t based around tunes; rather, they are grounded by Mastelotto’s drum patterns, melodic ostinatos, and particular colors and moods. Most of the record features simultaneous bassists, and the ways Powell uses his clavinet’s effects to sound like a variety of guitars and keyboards makes it seem like there are multiple soloists, which gives the album a range of timbres, new sounds, and ideas to check out. Mumpbeak surely isn’t for everyone, but it’s an intriguing, dark, ominous, and stimulating take on prog and other forms of improvisation-heavy instrumental rock.



Pharoah Sanders’ Black Unity for Less than a Buck!

pharoah black unitySo after getting a few things for the S.O.’s birthday last week on Amazon I got sent a free $1 mp3 credit. When I get one I scour Amazon for digital albums that, because they only have one long track, are 99 cents. Not every album with one track is 99 cents, but many are. I’ve found a great Cecil Taylor album that way, and some other great things. This time I found Pharoah Sanders’ album Black Unity, which is a single, 37 minute long cut. Get it here.

Recorded in 1971, it features:
Pharoah Sanders – soprano and tenor saxophone, balafon
Carlos Garnett – tenor saxophone, flute
Marvin Peterson – trumpet, percussion
Joe Bonner – piano
Stanley Clarke, Cecil McBee – bass
Norman Connors, Billy Hart – drums
Lawrence Killian – congas, talking drum, balafon

As the personnel would suggest, it’s a rhythm heavy album that grooves like crazy. Combine that with impassioned and fiery blowing from the horn players and you’ve got the best 99 cents you will certainly spend this week.

It’s Not about Cyrille Aimee’s Eyes and Curls

I recently got a press release for singer Cyrille Aimee’s new album that featured the following blurb: “When you see Cyrille Aimée perform, you instantly fall in love with her—her voice, eyes, curls and the joyful spirit she invests in each song.”

The quote comes from a 2013 interview with Aimee by the singer Roseanna Vitro. Out of the four qualities Vitro praises, only one directly relates to skill and talent. “Joyful spirit” is related, but it reads fairly gendered to me (how many male singers would be praised for their joyful spirit?).  What do Aimee’s eyes and curls have to do with her singing, or why you would want to listen to her music? Nope, nothing. What are two of the things that help make Aimee such a compelling performer? Her appearance. That this is the interview’s very first sentence immediately frames Aimee as a gendered and sexualized object, who also sings.

Perhaps, in this case, it’s ok that attention was drawn to Aimee’s looks because the writer was female. But it’s not – the sexualization of female jazz musicians by writers is not limited by the writer’s gender. What it shows is that the practice, especially in regards to singers, is so ingrained that it has become the modus operandi for writing about female musicians by most writers.

I haven’t heard Aimee’s new album, but I’m currently listening to her with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra on their Burstin’ Out! album. (If memory serves, it was my pick for vocal album of the year in last year’s NPR critics poll). It’s the only recording of her’s I’ve heard, and from the first listen I was really shocked by her great sense of rhythm, timing, natural shaping of phrases, and her great voice.

Mega-update to my favorites of 2014 list

August 9, 2014 1 comment

So I went and did some work on my favorite releases of 2014 page, check it out here. It comes with my rational for my new approach to listing my favorite albums by year, and some thoughts on a few of the albums. And check back to the page periodically, as I’ll be expanding the list and adding more thoughts about individual albums.

Categories: Opinion, Recording Review

Brief thoughts on the Sonny Rollins/New Yorker/Django Gold Kerfuffle

My S.O. said I couldn’t limit my thoughts on last week’s Django Gold’s satirical piece in the New Yorker about Sonny Rollins to five short sentences. I’m about to prove her wrong. In no particular order:

If you thought it was funny (I laughed at the Miles bit), cool; if not, also fine.

The response has been wayyyy overblown.

I mean Sonny taking to the web last night to discuss it?

Music shouldn’t have sacred cows.

If nothing else, lots of jazzheads need to channel their inner Dude.


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