27 June 2008

Friday Album Cover: These Are the Vistas

The Bad Plus
These Are the Vistas

This week, coinciding with their quartet performance with Kurt Rosenwinkel (review), we will be looking major-label debut of The Bad Plus, These Are the Vistas. Easily my favorite Bad Plus album (I could listen to an endless loop of "Big Eater" and their cover of "Flim"), the cover presents a simple portrait of a robot vaguely reminiscent of R2D2. The notes to the album inform us that the robot is named Robonaut, who is (perhaps) "alone on a distant outpost in space, talking into the void." Since I'm being lazy this week, I won't add any other comments.

One final note: If you haven't already, be sure to check out The Bad Plus' blog, Do the Math. It's a winner.

20 June 2008

Friday Album Cover: Blues & Roots

Charles Mingus
Blues and Roots

In the liner notes to his 1959 masterpiece Blues and Roots, Charles Mingus explains,
This record is unusual--it presents only one part of my musical world, the blues. A year ago, [Atlantic records executive and producer] Nesuhi Ertegun suggested that I record an entire blues album in the style of Haitian Fight Song, because some people, particularly critics, were saying I didn't swing enough. He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy.
The record which Mingus produced was a classic album of the hard bop genre, which presented a return to the so-called roots of jazz; namely, swing and the blues, with a bit of gospel thrown in for flavor. Mingus proved his critics wrong with this album, and also demonstrated the myriad possibilities presented by the blues. On the album cover, Mingus is presented as a serious artist of the blues, deep in contemplation. Juxtaposed against the almost violent swing of the album, the album cover serves the purpose of presenting jazz (as well as its blues roots) as a serious art form. Mingus's facial expression portrays a deep contemplation, as if he is preparing to reveal the secret of his art. He is a man on a mission, preaching the gospel of jazz to all who are willing to hear it.

19 June 2008

Under the Radar: Mingus Plays Piano

Note: Under the Radar is a new feature, in which I will review an album that I feel to be worthy of wider recognition. The albums reviewed will either be selections from the catalogue of a legendary performer that are overshadowed by his/her other work, or the work of an artist who may not get the recognition he/she deserves.

Charles Mingus
Mingus Plays Piano

During his life, Charles Mingus was perhaps the most inventive jazz composer to have hit the jazz world since Duke Ellington, a talent whose skills were not matched until Wynton Marsalis began experimenting with long-form jazz in the 1980s. It is not surprising, given his talents at composition, that Mingus was quite the capable pianist. The liner notes to Blues and Roots inform us that, to give his music a more authentic blues feeling, Mingus taught the tunes on the album to his band members by playing them on a piano; his sidemen were to figure out the melodies and chord changes by ear. Mingus's skills were not limited to the rudimentary banging of chords and melodies needed to flesh out a tune, though. As a jazz composer (as opposed to a musician who simply writes tunes), the piano for Mingus was the only proper outlet for his imagination.

In his liner notes to The Impulse Story, a compilation of Mingus's work 0n the Impulse! label, Ashley Kahn quoted a witness's recollection of the recording of Mingus Plays Piano in 1963:

An in-house counsel at ABC Records, Phil Kurnit, recalls witnessing the album’s birth.

“Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”

"Just thinking on the piano" is quite an apt phrase in this case, as Mingus lets his thoughts flow onto the keys quite openly throughout the album. Beginning with "Myself When I am Real," the listener is greeted with the feeling that Mingus is being completely spontaneous and honest with his performance of his own tunes as well as the standards interspersed throughout the album. He employs a very free sense of timing which can be very rewarding, keeping me on the edge of my seat wondering if he can make it to the next bar on time. He uses this to maximum effect on "Myself When I Am Real," in which his rhythms are as disjointed and mercurial as Mingus was widely reputed to have been.

Myself When I Am Real

More impressive than the manic feel to his playing, though, is the deep blues feeling Mingus imparts on these tunes. "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues" is a highlight. First appearing as a barnburner ("Song With Orange") on his 1959 album Mingus Dynasty, Mingus reimagines it as a soulful blues on Mingus Plays Piano, and imparts a deep melancholy that is haunting. After playing the opening melody in a loose rubato, Mingus settles in with a slow blues figure, sometimes interspersing choppy interludes between phrases, other times letting the chords at the end of phrases ring for maximum effect. Listening to it after reading Ashley Kahn's quote, it is probable that this is the type of feeling that Phil Kurnit described when he spoke of hearing Mingus "just thinking on the piano" when he was playing alone in the studio, contemplating loss and mortality through the familiar language of the blues.

Orange Was the Color of Her Dress

Mingus's left hand is much like his style of comping on bass: very heavy, melodic, and full of intricate rhythmic figures that dance around the beat before landing squarely on the beat. His right hand is reminiscent of the fire of Bud Powell or Art Tatum, but with less metronomic precision (as I wrote earlier, though, this is not a criticism). Mingus the piano player is often just as enthralling and satisfying as Mingus the bassist and bandleader. Though he would play piano on a few other recordings in his life (most notably on Oh Yeah), he would never release another solo piano recording. It would have been fascinating to hear Mingus take on any number of his other compositions or favorite standards, but now, we can only imagine what that would have sounded like.

Track Listing: Myself When I Am Real Mingus; I Can't Get Started; Body and Soul; Roland Kirk's Message; Memories of You; She's Just Miss Popular Hybird; Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues; Meditations for Moses; Old Portrait; I'm Getting Sentimental over You; Compositional Theme Story: Medleys, Anthems and Folklore
Personnel: Charles Mingus, piano

18 June 2008

A Request

Can anyone tell me a simple way to embed some audio clips on a blog post? I'd like to include sound samples on album reviews, but alas, I don't know how. Thanks in advance...

UPDATE: I've figured it out. Thanks Ted.

13 June 2008

Friday Album Cover: Motor City Scene

Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams
Motor City Scene

Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams serve as co-leaders on Motor City Scene, a 1960 album on the small label Bethlehem Records re-released in the 1990s, featuring fellow Detroit natives Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, and Louis Hayes. Though the album art is a bit obvious, it is still well executed. With the glasses, beret, and goatee, the driver in the photo looks like a white Dizzy Gillespie, which I always found interesting. Have a good weekend.


Stanton Moore Trio
Emphasis! On Parenthesis

Before we begin, I would like to share one of my more mundane conundrums (or is it conundra? Wait, there's another one...). I have a minor compulsion to categorize and label my music collection on iTunes. This compulsion is especially acute when it comes to my jazz collection. All my music is classified, besides the usual artist and album fields, by genre, subgenre, and year recorded. When I can find the information, I also list recording personnel in the comments field. I spent the better part of a year (in 15-minute sessions whenever I had a free moment at home) recording this information on my pre-iTunes music. I tell you this to introduce this review because, when I first got Stanton Moore's new album, I had no idea how it fit into my categories. Is it Jamband/Jazz or Jazz/Fusion? Perhaps there is some other category that fits better (Funk?), I'm not sure yet. I have yet to assign this album any labels, and it is killing me and my perfect little system.

Since Miles Davis began infusing his music with rock and funk beats, hiring guitarists, and playing the Fillmore in the late 1960s, the debate over jazz fusion has evolved into a somewhat fruitless series of accusations, in which more traditionally-minded musicians and critics label music that strays too far from The Jazz Tradition as nonjazz, while more inclusive observers argue that boundary-stretching artists like Medeski Martin & Wood are just as much jazz musicians as Dave Holland or James Carter. Enter Stanton Moore. As drummer for the popular New Orleans band Galactic, as well as a leader of side projects like Garage a Trois, Moore sits firmly in the New Orleans funk tradition typified by the Meters. However, his mostly-instrumental solo albums frequently veer into jazz territory, evoking the more groove-oriented soul jazz of the early 1960's (think Jimmy Smith and The 3 Sounds) while retaining the hard-driving backbeat of Moore's work with Galactic.

Such is the backdrop of his latest solo offering, Emphasis! On Parenthesis. Moore teams up with frequent collaborators Will Bernard and Robert Walter to lay down some groove-oriented acid jazz (to use a somewhat outdated term). Moore and his band lean heavily on a series of riffs which, stitched together, comprise his tunes. This method of composition is similar to the riff-based blues of the early Count Basie band. It is there that the similarities end. Bernard's style is more dependent on Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and other blues-rock guitarists. Walter, as well, takes his cues from the blues-rock tradition which influenced bands of both the British Invasion and the post-Grateful Dead jamband scene. It probably makes more sense to classify this group as a jamband, rather than a jazz trio. Both labels underscore the significance of improvisation to this group, but to call the trio a jazz band would imply a certain sense of sophistication and adventurousness that Moore and company lack.

Simply put, this album lacks adventure. After listening to it multiple times, I was left with more than a few melodies stuck in my head, but with few, if any, of the moments of surprise and joy that I hope a new jazz album will bring. This is not a swipe at the skills of these three musicians. Moore has an outstanding sense of rhythm, and can lay it on thick while still keeping the sound of the band light. Walter and Bernard follow Moore's cues, and keep the sound of the band from plodding into the ground. Despite their technical skills, though, the music seems a little tired. On my first listen, I felt like I had heard these riffs before. In the hands of artists, though, familiar melodies can lead to new and intriguing possibilities - think of Jason Moran's reworking of James P. Johnson's "Modernistic" on the album of the same title. Here, though, Moore's well-worn funk licks fall short of ecstasy, residing instead in the limbo between transcendent jazz and contrived funk.

Track Listing: (Late Night at The) Maple Leaf; (Proper) Gander; Wissions (Of Vu); (Sifting Through The) African Diaspora; Over (Compensatin'); (Smell My) Special Ingredients; (I Have) Super Strength; (Who Ate The) Layer Cake?; Thanks! (Again); (Put on Your) Big People Shoes; (Here Come) The Brown Police
Personell: Stanton Moore, drums; Will Bernard, guitar; Robert Walter, keyboards

06 June 2008

Friday Album Cover: A Night in Tunisia

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
A Night in Tunisia

Note: I know I have been depending a bit too heavily on the Blue Note catalogue for album covers lately, so this will be the final Blue Note title for awhile.

Blue Note was responsible for a number of iconic album covers during the 1950s and 1960s, and while many remember certain albums for their photography or artwork, some albums relied solely on typography. Like other classic Blue Note albums Somethin' Else or In 'N Out, A Night in Tunisia features a simple cover consisting of the band name and album title. I always liked these covers for their understatement. With a group like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blue Note did not need to put much on the cover to grab someone's attention at a record shop. Even so, covers like this stick out, and reflect a certain aspect of each album. In this case, the cover's vaguely African color scheme matches Art Blakey's drumming style, in which he synthesized various traditions of African drumming on his drumkit. Besides Lee Morgan's raging solo on the title track (which is quite possibly the best solo on "A Night in Tunisia" ever recorded), this album cover is something that always comes to my mind when I think of this album. No small feat for a simple text design, indeed.