Incredible Risks: New and Improvised Music

Steve Koenig

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

Strange synchronicities. I was listening to the great music comedienne Anna Russell’s routine about bagpipes (note to Sony Legacy: a complete boxed set, please) and what should come in through the transom but three significant bagpipe discs.

I first “met” jazzpiper Rufus Harley in a flea market and for my quarter ran away grinning like a madman with Atlantic SD 1539, bought mainly because it had a picture on the cover of this man with the soulful look of Coltrane, and on the back a photo of Harley on the Steve Allen TV show where the look was more Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The liners, too, showed a serious sense of humor: the subtitle of the 1970 King/Queens is “A Universal Oneness-and-There Ain’t But One Thing Going On, All You Have To Do Is Dig It.” Producer Joel Dorn continues his reissues from the Atlantic vaults with Harley’s The Pied Piper of Jazz (Label M 495710).

Pauline Oliveros wields her wheezebox well Live at the Meridian (Sparkling Beatnik SBR 0024, 53:43, sparklingbeatnik.com) in The Circle Trio of violinist India Cooke and singer Karolyn van Putten, also on tar. Well known for her musical quasi-new age experimentalism and environmentalism (Oliveros often uses cavernous spaces for resonance), this one-piece live concert is very effective, developing slow threads from each into quite loud, piercing free-improv, but the dynamics, both in volume and textural interplay are continually evolving and involving. Using all the techniques of world-music singing, van Putten creates an original melange with derivations ranging from a tremulous accordion-like quaver to Tibetan multiphonics, serving the piece and her partners in its own way . At about 14 minutes in, threads of Southern, which I then recalled has its roots in Irish, fiddling joined the accordion’s pointillism. At the 20 minute mark, there is a Glass-like galactic swirl of accordion, and then the violin slashes away all hints of Minimalism with virtuoso swashbuckling as the piece continues with the hypnotic effect of a long piece of Gagaku mixed with the blues, her cohorts shouting her on to spelling-binding effect. This goes on the permanent shelf.

I was listening to the PBS documentary on Um Khalsoum, when the mail brought the newest release of Anthony Braxton, Composition N. 247 (Leo CD LR 306, 61:37, atlas.co.uk/leorecords/) dedicated her. (Sometimes I wonder about the connection between iconic musicians and politics; Celia Cruz, Um Khalsoum and even Satchelmouth had partisan politics which were very conservative and nationalistic, which is not to say there were merely two-dimensional. Likewise, their politics entered their music only metaphorically or by emotional association. While I digress, Celia’s Carnegie Hall concert this past November 13th was that of a master, but somewhat sentimental; she was supported by the late Tito Puente’s band. The first and only other time I saw her live, she stunned us at Brooklyn College’s Whitman Auditorium. At Carnegie, she seemed to coast on her laurels, but those were some mighty laurels.)

Anthony Braxton, Matthew Welch and James Fei (whose Leo disc Solo Saxophone made my Top Ten of 1999 list) offer another of Braxton’s Ghost Trance works. After an extended repetitive section comes a drastic change in direction, akin to a drop in pressure when an airplane suddenly loses altitude; we are now in a music jungle, these reeds the calls of birds and elephants, with the lowing of the contrabass sax and clarinets, then Welch’s bagpipes, interweaving a basket to hold these sounds. This is the most successful of the Ghost Trance Musics to date, for me, although I’ve only heard the first few Braxton House releases, which I found interesting but numbing. The liner notes by reedist James Fei are exemplary; he explains Braxton so clearly that any layman would understand the intellectual concepts and compositional constructs. As Braxton is one our most significant composers, and he usually is excruciatingly oblique in his own writings, I’m grateful to Fei (and to continual Braxton-explainer Graham Locke) for those of us who want to know more about the “how” of his music. We are promised several two-CD sets live at Yoshii’s.

Hank and Slim. The World Turned Gingham.
(Caciocavello CAD 6, 61:37, soleilmoon.com).

Hank Sterman and Slim Fenster, that is. The tag says “File under avant garde country & western,” saving it from the ambient or electronica catch-all. Nonetheless, the country component here is minimal; there’s some slow, twangy guitar and lyrics muttered somewhat like the Residents, with Pink Floydy slow pulses and washes. This is my favorite in this category since Hemorrhoy Rogers’ disc Klippity Klop Don’t Rob Me (Eerie Materials Sw04, eerie@crl.com), which of course is totally different and wonderful, sounding like Chadbourne-meets-the-Chipmunks; besides, how could you resist titles like “On The Day The Sheriff Stopped Wearing Diapers on his Forehead, I Got Married to a Low-Flying Horse”? But back to the boys at hand, who offer a psychedelic trance mix, starting with a radio warning of a hurricane watch on the Texas coast, with the ambient clouds moving in, with different colors of drone-clouds. High effective in this genre, not a notch of (musical) pretense, and a keeper. This too has genuinely funny biographical notes about the long-lost duo. There are also instructions about how to make Slim’s Dream Catcher, which involves pony beads and DAT machines. I intend to make one as soon as I put this column to bed.

Walter Perkins’ MJT + III. Rags.
(Koch Jazz/Veejay KOC CD-8557, 77:45, kochentertainment.com).

A 1959 date which immediately set my body moving, this is a great find. Frank Strozier, Bob Cranshaw, and Harold Mabern are just some of the names on this most valuable reissue. A previous Koch Jazz release, Message from Walton Street, listed just under MJT, is less strong but still more than worthy. My thanks to producers Donald Elfman and Naomi Yoshii for digging in the vaults and filling in important gaps in my knowledge and pleasure.

A brief note to mark the passing of John Lewis, late of the Modern Jazz Quartet, J.S. Bach, and this world.

Rapoon. Cold War: drum ’n’ bass.
(Caciocavello CAD 7, 63:24 + 71:55, soleilmoon.com).

Robin Storey, that is. Rapoon is his name for his beat-driven ambient works. Vince from ManifoldRecords.com recommended Rapoon highly to me, and like all good salesmen, Vince learns his customers’ tastes, but earlier Rapoon didn’t do it for me. I just don’t enjoy drum’n’bass, whatever happens to be mixed with it (here including tablas, psychedelic whoosh, Arabic or Hindi sampling) but if you do, the beats are a hundred times more interesting than Daft Punk (except for their early track released on a UK 12″ only as “Indio Social Club,” and here the track “Building Homogenous Dreams” recalls that one, even if it’s not discoteque-able). The first disc has the ambient/noise component stronger than the beats. This double CD is special for its variety, and moreso for its inclusion of Sonic Foundry software, for you PC users (I’m a Mac-man, myself), which affords you the opportunity to make your own mixes.

Most exciting is the longest-ever continuous recording, seven-hours long, audio-only but on a DVD disc. I will report more on Robert Rich’s Somium (Hypnos HYP 2131, DVD, hypnos.com) as soon as I get my hands on a DVD player. The composer is famed for his Sleep Concerts, mixing electronics with environmental sounds. This is supposed to be the next closest thing, for home use, and designed to affect your “hypnogogic states,” for both active and passive listening. Digitalis by Markus Reuter (Hypnos HYP 2128, 62:57, hypnos.com) might appeal to those ambient-lovers who enjoy “space music.” When I hear this, although I don’t like the synthesized sounds per se, I think of an aural equivalent to looking at galaxies, with sparkles and washes of sound, grand and small at the same time. Big sounds with much detail. Quarteto Gelato offers salon music at its best. Neapolitan Café (Silva Screen/QG SILKD 6033, 57:56, silvascreen.com; quartetogelato.com) will appeal to fans of Piazzola or the group QuarTango. Tenor Peter De Sotto has a creamy voice and the whole disc is a treat and definitely not background music. In addition to Neapolitan song and opera arias, they take on Dvorák’s Four Bagatelles in an arrangement which delightfully reminds you that the word salon means chamber; this is most enjoyable chamber music.

Composer Beth Custer has a group and album Doña Luz 30 Besos (City of Tribes COTCD-026, 40:55, cot.com) which is on constant rotation on my portable, and dedicated to Cuban singer Gloria “Yoya” Bravo, who now is on my look-for list. The songs are mostly English; this is rock for those who love jazz. The vocals and the band are sultry, wistful, and self-confident, with Will Bernard’s guitar pyrotechnics serving texture rather than flash. Custer herself plays piano, clarinet, accordion, percussion and “mouth ’bone.” Through her voice is not quite like theirs, if you like Kitty Brazelton, Karen Mantler, or Jane Siberry, put this on your shopping list without fear. Like the first two, the interplay with the musicians is intuitive and mines a rich vein. The Colombian/Cuban cumbia rhythm has deep roots and I’m most familiar with the variety played all over Mexico by groups such as Los Angeles Azules. Percussionist Greg Ribot and El Norte has put an instrumental jazz spin on this loping rhythm, and varied the instrumentation track to track on The International Conspiracy (Cathexis GRC40, 70.:20, cathexisrecords.com). Still, I miss a vocal component. The disc is fun, but on the restrained side. Not dull, mind you, just not blaring out. Yes, he’s brother to guitarist Marc Ribot.

I expected one of my other fave guitarists, Dr. Eugene Chadbourne, would be serving up a slice of ethnic tinge with his Piramida Cu Povesto (Leo CD LR 304, ), “set against a background of intrigue and insanity in post Caecescu Romania,” with a booklet of fairy-tale-like stories by the politically-astute Doctor. These three long improvisations on dobro steel guitar are of unspecified provenance, and no apparent Rumanian connection. It’s the first Chadbourne disc I didn’t like, and I’ve bought over twenty-five plus dozens of his home-made cassette objêts-d’ found art. Pointillistic and random. On another listen, I did like it. Maybe it’s me who’s random.

Mark Elf is a contemporary guitarist whose previous releases were more mainstream than is my taste. He told me that I’d probably prefer him in concert: “I think I really come to life in a live setting,” and boy is he right. I was smilin’ and-a foot-tappin’ all through Live At Small’s (JenBay Jazz JBR 0007, 69:04, jenbayjazz.com). Elf is joined by Meal Miner on bass and drummer Joe Stausser. The guys picks away high-speed, messes around excitedly between the chords, and you egg him on just as his playing does you, the audience and his cohorts. Standards are the main fare: “Stella By Starlight,” “Quick Silver,” “Too Close For Comfort,” and Monk’s “52nd St. Theme.” The originals are in the same vein and just as rich listening. Another more-than-nice surprise.

George Benson was foremost a jazz guitarist before getting smoothed out by CTI, and when on Warners his smooth and pleasing vocals brought him deserved fame with standards such as Leon Russell’s “Song For You.” For folks like me who missed his solid-jazz era, Sony Jazz Legacy just reissued two exciting discs, both including now-customary and useful extra tracks. Produced by John Hammond, It’s Uptown (CK 66052, 61:26, sonylegacy.com) adds five extra tracks to this enjoyable bop and tiki-lounge date. There’s a Kenny Burrell-like “Willow Weep For Me” and a strikingly bluesy vocal on “A Foggy Day,” and neat-o twisted phrasings of “Summertime.” He should have become a jazz singer instead of a pop singer. Uptown is good enough, but for real kicks, tune into The George Benson Cookbook (CK 66054, 53:11, sonylegacy.com), which indeed cooks, including Benson’s title tune “The Cooker.” On tracks both boppish and bossa, he is joined by solid backups including organist Lonnie Smith, Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax, trombonist Al Hall. I didn’t realize he sang early on as well, doing a fifties-jumpstyle “All Of Me” with vocal phrasing also revealing totally appropriately solid sixties-soulstyle whoops and melismas. The notes reveal that Benson started out as a singer, at ten years old. The four “bonus tracks” are of unstated provenance, and one, Little Willie John’s “Let Them Talk,” is previously unreleased. I haven’t seen the packaging of this advance copy, but all recent Legacy single reissues have come with original labels. I hope this does too. “All Of Me” should be released as a single.

While we’re riding the mainstream, I highly recommend an easy-to-overlook reissue from bassist Sam Jones called Something in Common (32Jazz 32217, 62:29, 32Records.com) taken from the title Muse LP and half of Cedar Walton’s live Firm Roots. These session are a most wonderful surprise from 1977. They are neither just head-and-solo nor are they totally free, but explorations within the mainstream structure and texture. The lineup: Cedar Walton, Slide Hampton, Blue Mitchell, Bob Berg, Billy Higgins, and not one of them coasts on their reps. The twelve-minute opener, “Seven Minds” begins with a wonderfully woody-rich bass solo, and carves out beautiful space which hits a rich vein they never leave. The rest of the disc is exciting and deep, and will appeal to those of all stripes. The final three cuts are Jones, drummer Louis Hayes, and Walton on electric keyboards live in 1974, the first pair fine, but sadly ending the disc with (do they still call it ) an M.O.R. “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” Peter Rugolo. The Fugitive: Original Television Soundtrack. (Silva Screen SSD 1106, 47:20, silvascreen.com). The famous Stan Kenton band arranger Rugolo created an exciting soundtrack for this adventure series, which will appeal to lovers of film music, of which I am not one, but most especially, to those Kenton lovers who would like another perspective on Rugolo’s orchestration. This plays like music, not just a series of cues.

Another surprise keeper is the new Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissue of Topol’s Fiddler on The Roof, London Cast (Sony Legacy SK 89546, 63:38, broadwaymasterworks.com) not least for the performance, which I enjoy but for me will never replace Mostel’s, but the five bonus tracks of rehearsal tapes from Jerry Bock’s private collection. In fine mono quality, these home tapes show have bock and Harnick campily and joyfully testing out drafts of songs which later were remolded into “Tradition” and “Tevye’s Dream.” (Fiddler freaks should check last issue’s column, about jazz, hiphop and Mexican versions.) My hero Judy Holliday stars in a new reissue of the original Broadway cast of Bells Are Ringing (SK 89545, 51:28). Holliday flammed the McCarthy commission by playing her dumb blonde character, and named no names. The cover photo is better than that of the original LP, and has the original 6-eye black and gray CBS label, though missing the bottom black bar on my LP. Three short Jules Styne tracks are bonuses. This work of Comden and Green with Jules Styne features the poignant hit, “The Party’s Over.” Holliday is a fine balladeer, as exemplified in her o/p torch disc “Trouble Is A Man,” last seen on a Sony Special Products CD. Randy Greif. Alice In Wonderland. (Soleilmoon SOL 55 CD, 6 hours, 5 CDs plus playing cards, soleilmoon.com). Remastered from the initial limited Staalplaat pressings, this is a masterpiece of the indefinable genre which takes these incredible risks I speak of. Using the texts from a undisclosed reading of Alice (the voices are British), Greif uses the texts straight and manipulated, with drift and more vehement types of electronic sonic interplay. The sections vary, and though you may get caught in this, it is not mindless. The six hours float by like a dream, a very strange dream. The closest on-disc correlatives might be M.J. Harris and Martyn Bates’ moody, spacy electronic Murder Ballads, or Dagmar Krause and Marie Goeyvert’s recent duo manipulations of classical music samples with humorous texts. Alice is a must-have, and folks are already offering it on e-bay, even thought it’s in print, so catch it from Soleilmoon or Manifold right away. Recommended to folks who like anything on XI.

Carlo Actis Dato. The Moonwalker.
(Leo CD LR 311, 53:27).

Lots of live, short solo pieces from this Italian sax master recorded in Bangkok, Katmandu, Marrakech, Mali, Bali and Java, liberally spiced with local color between sets. Here Actis Dato (now you know how to file him alphabetically) uses bari and tenor, plus bass clarinet. The pieces ranging from an r’n’b-like tongue-thwacking polyrhythmic piece sounding like a one-man saxophone quartet (“Bad Rap 1″) to others which evoke Sardinian vocal quartets, and others which have hysterically funny two-part saxo-fights (“Fusi Orari”). I like this better than his previous solo outing, Urartu, and perhaps even more than his engaging ensemble works, most available from Leo and Splasc(h). It’s a great survey of a diversity of saxophone styles, and each miniature, ranging from 38 seconds to five minutes, is a gem. The hour flies. Genuinely funny liner notes.

Tim Berne. The Shell Game.
(Thirsty Ear Blue Series THI 57099-2, 66:46, thirstyear.com).

“Hard Cell (for Tom)” starts out with a Lacy-like repeating head, but fast, bop-style, then it stretches out, segment by segment. Craig Tabborn’s electronic keybs actually make a fine foil, seconding the theme but then laying out a bed for Berne’s excruciatingly beautiful mutations of the theme. The press release quotes Berne about Tabborn: “who can go from playing ridiculous grooves to completely out,” and Berne’s right. Drummer Tom Rainey, who can do no wrong, and you can quote me on my hyperbole, has worked with Berne over fifteen years, and their playing together is intuitive, like lovers who know what the other is going to say and don’t need words. The twenty-minute “Twisted/Straight Jacket” begins with Berne twisting the metallic sax sound into an erstwhile shenai, with Rainey rattling a bumpy railroad of rhythm and texture, Tabborn going from vibes to vibe. More solo sax carving sculptures in the air which hadn’t existed before he aimed his laser bell at it. The press release also claims Berne has a “master plan of creating music devoid of idiomatic demarcation.” Palaver, but it seems appropriate, after a long stretch listening to and re-learning Miles’ Bitches Brew via that Sony Legacy revealingly remixed/remastered box, while reading the galleys of the forthcoming Miles Beyond: Electronic Explorations 1967-1991 by Paul Tingen (Billboard Books). The Shell Game is another kind of breath of fresh air from Berne, which is no surprise.

Miles, however, continues to surprise beyond the grave as Columbia Jazz Legacy sends an advance of a previously unreleased Miles Davis Live At The Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time (C2K 85191, 44:02 + 46:19), slated for June release. Opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, this is Miles smoking! The guy famed for single, pure, vibrato-less tones here blows like crazy, with the Bitches Brew band (Shorter, Corea, Holland, DeJohnette, Moreira) performing works recorded the summer before, but not yet released at the time of this concert. This two-CD set came in just at deadline, but it’s an astounding concert and puts a whole new slant on my understanding of the various ways Miles works. A major coup: two full unedited sets. Important historically, but more significantly, the music is required joyous listening. I love this concert, and will be listening to this more frequently than any other Miles I have. Columbia Jazz Legacy is also offering a new two-disc The Essential Miles Davis compilation with tracks taken from all period of his career from 1945-1986, and borrowing material from six other labels he recorded for (C2K 85475, 76:38 + 73:19).

Another surprise reissue is one of my favorite Steve Lacy discs, Morning Joy. Hat Hut has remixed this one, and added an extra track for a total of 76:10, the new track being Monk’s “Work,” taken from the same live Radio France concert in Paris. The new disc trades the original strange but interesting cover painting for a b/w shot of a joyless Paris morning. Comparing the two, the sound is considerably tightened up on the new release, Jean-Jacques Avenel’s bass now getting the royal treatment, and the rest audibly cleaned up from hatArt CD 6014. I have to keep both, natch, because in a weak moment I asked Mr Lacy to autograph Morning Joy. (hatOlogy 556, cadencebuilding.com)

Matt Weston. Vacuums.
(Sachimay SCA 9351, 43:14, sachimayrecords.com).

The basic sound elements: sticks, high hats, kick drum, silence; then electronics. The first of four tracks begins with Weston apparently listening to the spaces and resonances of his percussion elements, leaving long stretches of silence. As the twenty minute track progresses, you notice the sound, or sounds, delicately processed. Are the electronics added, you wonder, or applied. Is it the rim sounding like a radiator clanging? Later it seems as if both are happening. There are exciting sections where the electronics take center stage. I enjoy Weston’s use of electronics more than what he does with the percussion elements. Sachimay continues to be a leader in music which works with improvised sound, texture and space.