Monday, May 31, 2010

The Stryker/Slagle Band Crafts a "Keeper"

Guitarist Dave Stryker, alto-soprano adept Steve Slagle...they are all about keeping at it. Tomorrow marks the release of their fifth album, Keeper (Panorama) and it has that fully blossomed sound inside the pocket and upside your head. Here are two players that work together in a most simpatico way. The crack rhythm section of Jay Anderson, bass, and Victor Lewis on the drums gives the band an excellent push that brings out the best in the two frontliners.

Keeper underscores that the contemporary mainstream of jazz, when done by the right people, has vivid life and that exceptional ability to attract lots of listeners. But of course not just any band does that. The Styker/Slagle band does though, for sure.

There's a deep sense of convinction in the performances on this album. Dave Stryker is flawless, exciting, immediately somehow familiar in his thoroughgoing boppish swinging without sounding like anyone's clone. And the same applies to Steve Slagle. Jay Anderson is a model for this sort of session and gets off some nice solo work too. And Victor Lewis is a drummer who has been at the heart of the scene for so many years for a reason. He makes great time seem effortless, which of course it ultimately is not at all. This is a band that comprises four fully developed artists united in the group effort.

Nine nicely turned originals by Stryker or Slagle are set off by one of Monk's most precious compositional jewels, "Ruby My Dear."

Keep in mind I have nothing to gain by liking this or any other album. As an independent, I like what I please. So when I say I like this recording very much I am not taking it to the bank but you can! Those who dig the contemporary jazz guitar will find Dave doing great work here. And regardless this is a band at the top of their powers.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Trey Gunn Talks About His Music, His New Album

Touch guitarist and pioneering music maker Trey Gunn first came to the worldwide attention of music lovers through a productive association with King Crimson, with whom he recorded no less than 17 albums. He plays a Warr Guitar, which combines regular guitar and bass guitar strings for a very full spectrum of available notes (see him playing it in the illustration on the right).

He's collaborated with scores of other influential musicians and has embarked on a quite advanced and interesting program of music under his own name. We reviewed his Quodia on these pages when it came out. His latest album Modulator (7d Media) marks a giant step further into his own unique musical world. The album came about when drummer Marco Minnemann challenged Trey to make a musical work based on a 50-minute drum solo Marco had recorded.

We spoke with Trey recently and he had much to say about the making of that album and his musical vision in general.

GREGO EDWARDS: What brought you to take up the touch guitar?

TREY GUNN: I discovered that all the music I was trying to make on the regular guitar, bass or keyboard was being articulated on the wrong instrument. Having my fingers tapping the strings on the fretboard just gets me closer to my vision of how sound vibration works for me.

GREGO: When you are not making music of your own what sorts of music do you listen to?

TREY: Rarely anything. I only have so many notes I can hear in a day. With my own listening/producing ear-hours, plus the ambient music I hear whenever I am out in the world....I get pretty full with sound and music in a day without adding pleasure listening. Sad, but true.

GREGO: Your new CD Modulator was put together in an unusual way. Drummer Marco Minnemann laid down a long, continuous drum solo and you took that as a foundation for the music that followed. Did you discuss anything with Marco before you went about composing the music? What ultimately enabled you to find a way into the drum track that worked for you?

TREY: Marco had no preconceived ideas about what I should do. In fact his encouragement and acceptance of where I was heading was very helpful. He was just crazy happy to have me doing this.

The only real interaction we had was when I got stuck on a section and asked him to help decode what he was doing so I could find a new way into the drumming. This happened on two or three occasions. Everything else was done without any input from Marco. Well, except for the hour of drumming!!

Each section of the drum solo was different. Some sections were very easy to get going from my end. The music would just flow right out and then I would work on producing that section to make it sound as right as I could. Other sections were EXTREMELY difficult to find something that worked. Some sections took four or five complete re-writes before I could even find one idea that would work. By the end, it was taking me about a week to write 60 seconds of music. This is because I saved the hardest sections for last!

GREGO: Now that you’ve worked in this unusual manner, do you think you’ll try anything similar in the future?

TREY: Man, I hope not. This was really hard!!! I'm joking, of course. I loved the challenge of it and will take on challenges like this again. But, I juuuuust finished it. So doing something like this again feels very daunting right now. Ask me again in a year.

GREGO: Ha-ha, OK! The music on your new album is rhythmically some of the most sophisticated that I’ve ever heard. It must have been quite a challenge not only to match what Marco was doing, but to counter it with lines that extended and transformed it into a wider space. Did this experience change the way you approach rhythm as a basic element? Do you think you’ll be building on what you’ve achieved on other projects in the future?

TREY: Yes, I think so. Though these new ways of thinking had already started forming in me before I began to work on this project. But it has still been very influential for me working with Marco. Both Marco and guitarist Alex Machacek played with me in UKZ and I began working with their rhythmic approaches at that time. We even played one of Alex's pieces, "Austin Powers," on a UKZ tour in Japan. It had some extremely challenging rhythmic characteristics that left Crimson rhythmic complexities in the dust.

GREGO: One thing that strikes me about your new album, as with much of your work, is the dense, orchestral quality of the layering. You’ve clearly become a master of the studio. Does this kind of production change the way you approach the instruments you play (as opposed to playing live)? Is there a different way to think about music when you are shooting for a finished studio composition as opposed to putting together a piece for live performance?

TREY: I am very, very efficient with how I use my time and energies. I wouldn't have taken on this project with Marco's drum solo if I didn't think I could learn some new skills. One of the skills I was working on throughout the whole project was upping my production chops. The other was with orchestration. Keeping in mind that orchestration around these drums and my Warr Guitar is very unconventional orchestration. But these were the challenges I put in front of myself for this project. I am currently working on some bonus tracks for the European version of Modulator (for Voiceprint Records), where I will be stretching out with the orchestral instruments in some newer directions.

Yes, live playing is utterly different for me and I can't even think of working in the studio as a similar animal. In truth when you play live, as much as you want to "sound good," it isn't the point. The point is to directly transmit Music. How you sound is purely the plate that the food sits on. Meaning that it is marginally important for presentation but not the meal. With a studio recording, it HAS to sound good. That is the first thing that you hear: what it sounds like. Not what is the meaning of the music. Sooooo.... I have to treat these two scenarios quite differently.

GREGO: What’s on the horizon for you? What new projects are coming up or in the works?

TREY: Remastering and releasing some of my back catalog with extra bonus tracks. The Third Star will be coming out this year with five extra tracks in a remaster version. More shows with TU (Pat Mastelotto and myself). More shows with KTU (TU plus Finnish accordionist, Kimmo Pohjonen). Releasing other people's new music on my label, 7d Media. Stick Men's new record comes out on it in two months and I will be releasing Inna Zhellennaya's new disc Cocoon, that I played on, in the fall.

GREGO: Thanks for your time, Trey. We'll look forward to those new projects and reissues.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Carlos Bica: New Jazzed-Rock From Portugal

Carlos Bica is an excellent bassist. He can bow with the best of them and his pizzicato soloing is always interesting. But he also can write well and puts together a sterling jazzed-rock congregation on his new Carlos Bica and Materia Prima (Clean Feed) CD. The band has Mario Delgado on electric guitar who contributes much to the ensemble sound and solos with taste. Keyboard/accordionist Joao Paulo does good work as well. Matthias Schriefl is perhaps the best soloist of the lot; his trumpet/fluegelhorn gets funky with a plunger mute or just glides nicely as a straight horn.

This is a group sound and they show remarkable poise on this series of live dates. The music is very enjoyable and has some real Euro-Portuguese flavored charm. The arrangements really are what puts this one over the top. Materia-Prima has considerable subtlety for an ensemble that mostly keeps in a jazzed-rock mode. Kudos for Mr. Bica!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jimmie Lee Robinson, Posthumously

February 13, 2009—The blues keep on playing a pivotal role in the American musical heritage as we experience it today. Much of the music out there presupposes its existence. Chicago has of course been an important, central city for its development, mainly for wave after wave of the urban, electric style that has been so influential.

Today we look at one of the lesser known electric blues heroes from Chicagoland, Jimmie Lee Robinson. He was Little Walter’s guitarist in the ‘50s and gigged around before making a comeback in the ‘90s. The CD we’re looking at today, Chicago Jump (Random Chance), was recorded during that later period but languished on the shelf until recently. Jimmie passed away in 2002 and so the CD is a kind of posthumous tribute. It’s a straightforward date with a small electric outfit doing songs in the tradition of the Chicago sound. Now Jimmie Lee was no B.B or Buddy Guy, but he was decent and in the tradition. And his vocals had a nice soulful attack. Perhaps this CD will not be nominated as one of the 100 best blues recordings of the 20th century but it is solid, real, engaging and direct. The best of the blues is like that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Joanna Newsom and Her Voice, Her Harp

When I first heard Joanna Newsom on one of her earlier albums, she hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. The Milk-Eyed Mender was pretty much her, her unusual voice and wonderful harp playing. Her voice sounded like she was much much younger than she was, but it was completely distinctive. The harp? Very nice. And she wrote songs that had whimsy and substance at the same time.

From what I understand, she developed a condition in her vocal cords that needed attention and she was forced to stop singing for some time. She is, happy to say, back with a slightly changed voice (it no longer sounds as young) and with her creative powers at a razor-keen sharpness.

She has a new 3-CD (or LP or download) box set of her songs, Have One on Me (Drag City). It has a classic quality. I mean she addresses the song form as art, not pop. In that she is like Joni Mitchell at her best. And like Joni, her music is intensely personal and romantic in that widest sense. There the similarities end.

The box set gives you a big helping of Joanna's songs, her harp, sometimes her piano playing, and sensitive story-weaving. Ryan Francesconi put together the arrangements and they are very appropriate. Strings and such are there as needed, nicely voiced, sparse, never intruding, never too dense to obscure that Newsom vocal and instrumental charm.

She is beyond classification. Singer-songwriter? Yes. Alternative rock or something? I guess. But what she does is art song for today, if I would venture to say (which I obviously would, since I just did!) There is nothing like Joanna Newsom out there. It is music to live with happily. But it isn't what anybody else is doing. No, not Norah Jones. Joanna Newsom.

The box set is available at a terrific price. Google her and you'll find it straight off. I recommend it completely. Some terrific songs can be yours. This is real musical talent!

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Stone Cold Ohio" by Little Axe

February 11, 2009—The Little Axe aggregate continues to do good things with their latest CD Stone Cold Ohio (Ryko). The synthesis of old time blues, gospel, songs of work and songs of protest with the contemporary studio and its ability to combine old sound with new is in many ways aided and constructed by industry vetted producer Adrian Sherwood.

This new one is another winner. (See below for a review of a previous release). There's some cool acoustic guitar work embedded in there too. Sounds like there is the presence of what my young but eager nephew calls "that guitar with the spaghetti strainer built into it," the resonator!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Najma Akhtar & Gary Lucas Create A New Sort of Fusion

Stylistic meldings of South Asian and "Western" musical styles have led to some extraordinary sounds over the years and anyone who has listened deeply to the adventurous side of music since the '60s will surely need no prompting on my part as to the various breakthrough performances and recordings.

When guitarist Gary Lucas involves himself with such a project, one approaches the results with high expectations. And happily one is not disappointed.

Vocalist Najma Akhtar grew up in England but is of South Asian ancestry. She is a vocalist of nuance and great musicality. For this album Ms. Akhtar composed and adapted vocal lines while Mr. Lucas created guitar universes to compliment those vocals. Tablas, and sometimes classical Indian violin are the additional musical voices. The album is called Rishte (World Village).

With Gary Lucas of course, you can get wonderfully lively acoustic guitar music or the more electric and sometimes more orchestral guitar playing for which he is known. Here you get both.

If jazz is, as the famous quote goes, "the sound of surprise," Rishte is more like the sound of astonishment, or can be if you make some exclamation in the midst of the first listen.

There's the blues-rock riff electricity with contrasting Akhtar on "Woh Dhin." There's the lovely acoustic guitar blues of "Special Rider" and some truly different vocal approaches from Najma; and there's my favorite, the psychedelic orchestral shredding with memorable vocal line on "Soul Taker."

In other words the collaboration is a total success. There is a most definite melding of two (actually more than two) stylistic universes: South Asian classical, pop, devotional sounds with blues-rock-folk of American tradition (and as always with Gary, there's "something else" always going on there that does not easily classify).

If I said this was a "triumph" I don't believe I would be exaggerating on the side of hype. It is. A triumph, that is. As the late Lester Bowie once said, "it depends on what you know." It does.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mark O'Leary, Avant Electric Guitar; A Shaker Song for Obama's Inauguration

February 10, 2009—I woke up this morning with a song rattling around my head. Anyone who watched Obama’s inauguration last [year] will recall the moment where Yo Yo Ma and his distinguished colleagues played an arrangement of American folk material, part of which involved the Shaker hymn “’Tis A Gift to Be Simple.” Now that happens to be a wonderful song, profound in its lyrics and unforgettable in its melody. Like many, I’m sure, I first came across it as part of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and only later knew it in its original Shaker incarnation. Since then it has been a theme song for a commercial, used as a background for TV shows, etc. Now I think the Shakers who first performed it in their starkly beautiful meeting halls would have been quite astounded if they we’re told that in the future it would be played during the inauguration ceremony of the first black President of the United States in 2009. In so many ways, that musical interlude was a remarkable moment among remarkable moments.

And so the song rang on in my head this morning and I thought, “Yes, to be simple. That’s it.” Of course there’s nothing very simple about the lives we all find ourselves in today. Simplicity-within-complexity is probably the best route to follow if you are not able to live on a little farm somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And that’s where today’s music comes in.

Ayler Records is a European concern devoted to modern Improv/Jazz in mostly its outer echelons. They record people who deserve a wider audience and they do a great job of it. Some time ago they inaugurated something that makes sense for today’s market. For those recordings that might not sell in landmark quantities, Ayler initiated a download-only series. For a modest sum, you can download a particular limited edition CD-rom album in the form of 300+ kbps MP3s. If the recording quality is good to begin with (and it generally is), this upper-level MP3 format does not sound at all bad. Blindfolded, you might think you are listening to an ordinary wav file CD. Anyway these downloads can be purchased at the site I will be devoting some attention to this series in the coming months. The first one on my stack we look at today.

Simplicity in complexity. You take the simple idea of a download-only release, in this case a simple lineup of electric guitar and drums, and you go from there. When the guitarist is Mark O’Leary and the drummer Han Bennink (for the release entitled Television), the results are anything but simple. It’s a full program of Free Improv from two exceptional musicians. Bennink is the famous and infamous Netherlandish bad boy of the drum set, who has gained international recognition as a member of ICP and other interesting ensembles. The guitarist Mark O’Leary is less well known, but deserves a recognition that seems to be coming to him as we speak (or write). He’s an Irish fellow with a fertile musical imagination and a formidable set of chops.

The CD is a continual barrage of notes and energy, with varying levels of intensity. It is a urgent dialogue between two gifted improvisers. Bennink is the ever inventive drummer as always, coaxing drummer’s drummer cascades of set color and texture; O’Leary shows considerable linear line-making abilities and a harmonic sense that has sophistication but is ever melded to a fire of commitment and passion. It is a wonderful session. Judging from the music clips on his My Space page, Mr. O’Leary also does some interesting larger group out-fusion projects too.

Television is a major duet recording and should not be missed by those who like to be challenged by open-ended, skillful complexity. And that’s simple. Shaking and quake-ing. . .

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Radio Massacre International: Space Rock & Soundscapes

There are musicians and bands that I don't get the chance to hear until someone is kind enough to send me one of their recordings. Such was the case with Radio Massacre International, a guitar-bass-drums-electronics unit that has a new 2-CD release, Time & Motion (Cuneiform). In many cases, such as this one, I am grateful for having the chance to be exposed to what they are doing. This is an aurally advanced unit that alternates between beatless and highly evocative electronic soundscapes and a sort of space rock jamming that is equally evocative.

The two-disk format gives the group plenty of room to stretch out and they do that exceedingly well. It enables them to wind out long tapestries of sound that end only when the statement they are trying to make has been fully articulated.

I like the band in the forward moving, pulsating mode but the entire presentation is about loosening the bonds to timefullness and then framing that with its grooved opposite. All three musicians play thoughtfully. They do not overplay but trust in their mutual musical objectives and the evocation at hand. The result is not a "wow, these guys have super chops," but instead, "hey, what interesting music they make!"

Guitarist Gary Houghton really gets off some nice sound sculpture sorts of solos. At times the band forms the current equivalent of middle-period Pink Floyd in the jamming, instrumental mode. Not in terms of a direct influence but rather in their epic approach to narrative space rocking.

It's not the sort of music you should be in a rush to grasp. They take their time and you must surrender to their presence to get on their wave length. Once you do that you are in for some very interesting and exhilarating sounds.

Based on this recording I would put Radio Massacre International in the top handful of current bands playing in this mode. In their own way, they belong up there with groups like Ozric Tentacles, and Robert Fripp and some of the offshoot Crimson related units, to mention only a few.

Good show!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New Jersey's Own Jam-Bone Jamband

February 9, 2009—We return to the jamband scene today for a look at a local New Jersey group. As a Jersey boy myself I have a weakness for the local scene born of territorially rooted, animal-like instincts I suppose. SO when I stumbled on a local band on the Live Music site of, I gave a listen. The group is Jam-Bone, essentially a power trio with some fine guitar work by one Rich Plumpton. The set I downloaded was apparently from their first gig on 2-13-03. When I look back to the archive I find they have replaced it with three other, later dates, but my attention is devoted to the earlier date since that is what I have been listening to.

First impressions when playing this download is, “OK, we have a bar band here.” And of course they are playing in such an establishment, how could they not be? As they crank into the old standby “Mustang Sally” they sound average. But then Plumpton launches into a solo and he has a very nice sound and touch. It goes from there to a version of “Scarlet Begonias” that has an even hipper jam moment. In the end this sounds like a band anyone would be happy to catch in the local context. But then they do what sound like decent originals and Plumpton is a hot guitarist for this kind of thing, so they could develop into something major. You might check out their other shows on the archive and go see them. They also have their own site: Happy listening.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Golem Brings Klezmer Into the 21st Century

February 6, 2009—The klezmer resurgence that began in the late-‘70s brought back to the public a form of music that never really died. It continued to exist in the rooted underground as an important part of weddings and other traditional gatherings. The resurgence replaced at least in part the folk revival, Kingston trio type versions of traditional Jewish-Yiddish music that proliferated on vinyl and in the concert halls and cafes of the era. Now there was nothing wrong with that expression. All traditional musics can be and often are expressed partially through the adapted musical vocabulary of contemporary music styles. In the forties it was the Bagelman Sisters, who had a heavy big band swing influence (and were great as well!). Today, there’s Golem!, who at times are a kind of Pogues of klezmer—adding a punk veneer and a slight rock edge.

Their CD Fresh Off Boat (Joub) has a spirit of fun and humor, sometimes of a rather dark variety. They cover in their own way a number of traditional melodies. The vocals are good. Instrumentally they hold their own. What’s not to like?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Indian Guitar from V.M. Bhatt with Matt Malley

The condition with South Asian-Indian Classical Music is that it continues to flourish. And well it should. We in the West have been exposed in recent times to some very accomplished musicians playing more traditionally Western-associated instruments, such as the alto saxophone, the violin and the guitar. In the latter category there is no more accomplished player than V. M. Bhatt. He uses a specially modified acoustic guitar with a slide device, and he does it with Indian classical rigor.

There are some beautiful recordings with him playing in a traditional rag context and he has made an album with Ry Cooder that won a Grammy.

Now he is back in a collaboration with electric bassist, keyboardist Matt Malley and Subhen Chatterjee on tabla and percussion. The album is called Sleepless Nights (World Village) and it's one of those recordings I suppose you could stay up all night playing over and over, but of course that's not the point.

We've had provocative and exciting Indian-Western hybrids for some time now. Ravi Shankar innovated in this medium with movie soundtracks, his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, etc. There have been others too, notably John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussein in their Shakti performances, and more. Bollywood's commercial Indian movie soundtracks, of course, have experimented with such combinations for many years as well.

That sets the stage, but what Bhatt and Malley accomplish on Sleepless Night is to combine the instrumental rigors of traditional raga practice with western bass guitar, tabla but also trap set work from Mr. Chatterjee, often using some of the implications of western harmony. The feeling is of a kind of Indian jamband if you will. Lengthy and rather breathtaking guitar soloing within a new East-West context.

Lovers of Indian music, improvisation and the nearly infinite fertilities inherent in new forms of fusion will jump at this one, and for good reason. It is excellent.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lucas, Johnston & Fast 'N' Bulbous Do Beefheart

Gary Lucas, a guitarist's guitarist, whether adapting an unlikely tune to a Delta blues slide or in a full-tilt electric shred zone....Phillip Johnston, piquant alto saxist and another bold iconoclast, the founder of the acclaimed Microscopic Septet....Fast 'N' Bulbous, the band Gary and Phillip put together to do some new arrangements of the music of Captain Beefheart. This is a potent combo, not the least because Gary did an important stint in Beefheart's band, but also because Beefheart's considerable music lends itself to open-ended interpretations. And that's what you get. Freshly minted Beefheart, so to say.

The latest album, Waxed OOP (Cuneiform) is a lively, rocking, exciting blend of very hip Lucas, excellent mid-sized band arrangements and some gems of the Beefheart repertoire, and not just the well-known songs either.

Beefheart was and is a complex, multifaceted artist. He extended the blues into zones no one would have expected them to go, he was a prolifically bizarre wordsmith magician, and he wrote some amazing music for his various bands, stretching the envelop as to how a typical rock-blues aggregation (or not so typical, sometimes) could take on complex and unprecedented interactions. Listen to a little Trout Mask Replica, for example, and you'll hear guitars, bass and drums do things that nobody thought they were supposed to do back then. And we're not even beginning to talk about his vocals! That's for another time.

Waxed OOP gives you another look at Beefheart the composer, the forthright and worthy arrangements of Johnston and others, and some great Lucas guitar, unaccompanied here and there and in full-bloom in the ensemble.

"Well," originally a vocal solo, bursts into a flowering full-band sound. "Blabber'n' Smoke" reminds you how many great songs Beefheart could toss off almost casually in his peak years and how good they still sound, especially with some fresh arrangements. "Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop" is another gem, from the extraordinarily innovative album Lick My Decals Off Baby and it has new life in this rendition.

If you love Gary's playing, Johnston's concepts and arranging and/or Beefheart and his music, or you just wonder about any or all three, you cannot go wrong with Waxed OOP.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Indonesian Guitar Music On Folkways Records

When one thinks of Indonesia, guitar playing is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. Yet the country has its rock bands, pop groups and some good jazz guitarists, some of which we have and will be covering on these pages in the future.

Today, though, a fascinating volume in the Folkways Music of Indonesia Series. Volume 20: Indonesian Guitars gives you seventy-odd minutes of what is on the local, folk music level, as opposed to more nationally distributed styles.

The form taken is about half the time a solo acoustic guitar/singer in a style that is an equivalent to some of the traditional country blues music of 20th Century US. But no, of course it sounds Indonesian. There is clearly a relationship of some of this music to the traditional lute playing of earlier times, and the melodic modes certainly have deep roots in traditional musics of local Indonesia.

There are surprises, like Band Teleu Nekaf, who use flute, acoustic guitar and slide electric guitar to create what sounds like a hybrid of Sundanese and Hawaiian music. All of it is quite interesting. Some of it is not like anything I have ever heard before. I must say this one is heartily recommended if you are up for a musical adventure.

The album is available as CD or download from Smithsonian Folkways and includes the usual meticulous notes for which Folkways is known. Google them to find out more.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New Album From Mushroom: Psychedelic Mood Music

With younger baby boomers getting older, and the Elvis generation still older, it is predictable that the former group has gotten a soft spot in their hearts about those fleeting hippie days. . . that five minute summer of love and the long aftermath of disco designer jeans and Ronald Reagan notwithstanding. As a member of that group I have long felt the pull of the short-lived counter-culture, especially in its cultural efflorescence as psychedelic rock.

Mushroom gives you a kind of mood music for a would-be love in. It's a San Francisco collective and their twelfth (!) album is just out: Naked, Stoned & Stabbed (4 Zero/Royal Potato Family).

Now don't get me wrong, this is music that takes its role seriously. The mellotron, dron-ish jams, guitars, sitars, and the like come together for an hour's worth of mostly instrumental music. It's almost like you get the jam endings from a number of would-be rock albums of the period. All I can say is it really is time to take this musical era seriously and Mushroom takes what was positive about the music of that time and does something with it that is pleasant and not insubstantial. There isn't quite as much of the "heavy" feedback drenched sounds of the era, but others do that and so that's cool.

This is music that mellows you out. And it's fun too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Algernon and their "Ghost Surveillance" Music

Algernon does not fit easily into a preconceived notion of what a band should be doing. It's a five-man outfit, essentially two electric guitars, vibes, bass and drums. Dave Miller, one of the guitarists, writes most of the material.

Ghost Surveillance (Cuneiform) is their latest release and it is an intriguing mix of ambient instrumental rock music. It has a progressive edge to it but goes everywhere at once. The main thrust is a fascinating group sound of vibes, guitars, synthesizers and a hip rhythm section. Now that might sound like a lot of things but the compositions have a kind of quirky individuality that sets the band apart. The melodies are strong, sort of riff oriented sometimes. It's music that has a tunefully different spin on what a band can do. Every cut is different and the arrangements are elaborate yet directly communicating.

If you want some smart prog rock, here's where you'll find it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Alvin Queen and Some Significant Others

February 5, 2009—The world of freewheeling hard bop remains alive today. Sometimes the blazing hell-for-leather onslaught of the best moments can be missing from some of today’s sessions. That’s a pity.

However, the Alvin Queen CD on tap this morning has plenty of the intensity of the classic dates. Queen is a very good drummer who has played with all sorts of people and the CD Jammin' Uptown (Just A Memory) is graced by the presence of some of the very best on the contemporary scene. The now deceased John Hicks mans the piano, Terence Blanchard is on trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Ray Drummond on bass, and the under-heralded Manny Boyd is on reeds. This music was originally released in 1985 and has been reissued with bonus material.

What you get are nicely turned blowing vehicles and some very nice contributions from all at hand. If you like the classic Art Blakey Jazz Messengers line-ups this will certainly appeal to you. You might find yourself shouting “go” like you were sitting at a table in the Birdland club, 1955.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Politics, Deep Avant Rock and Compelling Guitar Work from Barry Cleveland

Guitarist, songwriter, producer, journalist and politically involved Barry Cleveland surfaces with a new album that may raise a few hackles with the far northpaw political contingency. Hologramatron (Moon June) assembles an all-star lineup to produce a vibrantly luminous album of progressive-protest rock.

Of course rock has had a tradition of speaking truth to Power, and this album follows in that lineage. He takes on big oil interests, laissez faire excess, religious right versions of Christianity, the spoilage of our environment and other issues with a sarcastic wit. Of course if the music was not interesting, I would not be covering this release. It is.

There's an attractive space-rock ambiance throughout and a varied program that keeps interest up. In addition to the spiky originals there's a remake of the lovely anti-war song "What Have They Done to the Rain," which was a hit for the old Searchers back in (was it?) 1966. Then there's a rousing version of the instrumental oldie "Telstar" (anybody else have the Tornadoes album?) which totally sounds right.

If you voted for Genghis Khan any time in the last 20 years you might not like this album. If you didn't I think you'll be pleased.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gary Lucas & Dean Bowman Do Blues, Gospel, Spirituals and More

One thing about Gary Lucas that I admire is that he is unpredictable. Chinese pop, Beefheart, movie music, world music collaborations, one can never be sure what will be next. What is a constant is his consummate artistry.

And so with his latest, Chase the Devil (Knitting Factory Records), a series of duets with vocalist Dean Bowman. It's a moving collection of roots music of a gospel-blues sort. There are traditional spirituals, classic Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gary Davis, Blind Willie Johnson, a Judaic hymn, and some rooted originals, among other surprises.

What makes it here is the convincing blend of soulful vocals, classic material and Gary Lucas's wide-ranging acoustic and electric guitar artistry. Gary's wonderful fingerpicking is on display but so is his blazing electric work. Superficially one might think this is leagues away from his work with Captain Beefheart in the years past. But no, the Captain was in most respects an avant blues artist and this album carries on the idea that the blues is what you can imagine it to be. Gary and Dean imagine a different spin on it all. They succeed superbly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ana Moura, Fado Goddess!

If you don't know about Portuguese Fado music, or even if you do, Ana Moura is someone you must not miss. Her voice has the full yet tender sound equal to some of the greatest Fado singers, which means that the singing is just unbelievably beautiful.

The Fado tradition goes back many centuries and has a quality that must be heard to appreciate. The minimal ensemble consists of an acoustic guitar, nylon or steel stringed, and the Portuguese guitarra, which has 12 strings tuned in a particular way. That's true of the music on Ana Moura's new album Leva-Me Aos Fados (World Village), though it sounds as if there are two guitarras in the ensemble, most of the time, plus a bass instrument, sounds like an upright at least part of the time.

The point however, is that the kind of exquisite melanchology that Fado portrays so poetically is ever present in Ana's vocal style that one does not have to understand Portuguese (I don't) to hear the passion in her voice. Like the blues, Fado should be expressive!! Well, Ana Moura is the best thing I've heard in a long time. What a voice!! Need I say more? Wow!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jambands, the Radiators

February 4, 2009—Today starts a series of blogs on jambands. In the coming months I’ll be looking at a bunch of bands as represented in the "Live Music" section of the site There are thousands of live shows reposited there by bands that give permission to tape and disseminate their performances (provided they are traded or given away free, but not sold commercially). You can check out the shows of a particular band by streaming or downloading what’s on the site, searching by band name, then date or other factors. I’ve spent hundreds of hours lately immersing myself in the various offerings there. I’ll be covering some of the more interesting or representative shows from time to time here on this blog. I must note that of course if you like a band you should support them by paying for their regular releases and/or catching them live.

First a little history, much of which may be quite familiar to readers, but not everybody. Starting in the late ‘60s there were a number of bands that regularly included jams as part of their live shows. Cream, Hendrix, and the guitar hero sorts of bands did that regularly. The San Francisco groups were especially appreciated at the time as artists who did much to promote and develop these sorts of practices—the Airplane, Quicksilver, and of course especially the Dead. And it was in part due to their longevity and in part by their preferences that the Dead built a huge following who appreciated the long jams and musical forms involved, centering mostly around Jerry Garcia and his formidable inventive abilities and what the band did as a whole during these segments.

Well, when Garcia passed there were many Dead-dedicated groups playing out there in the local bars and stages across the US and beyond, but I suppose it was Phish that gained the most recognition by building a repertoire and stage presence that continued in the Dead tradition of ever-changing set lists and plenty of jam space. Sometime around then as more bands and audiences began to take to the idea that this kind of music was something to be expanded and appreciated on its own terms, the name “jamband” began to be applied.

The big record conglomerates have covered this music when and if a group had what is considered potential “hit material.” But it is clear that as far as Jamband status is concerned, a band can create quite a cache for themselves without such support, especially with the medium of the internet as a factor.

In my informal survey of the Archive’s live music holdings, I found that, as with any music form where there a great number of people involved, there can be imperfections or negative musical factors at work with some of the bands. I’ve found that many bands are strictly Dead clones or so close to the Dead that they have no real identity of their own. This can be found either in the songs themselves and/or the jams, which may closely ape what Jerry and company’s jams sounded like at any particular stage of the Dead's existence. (This of course is not a bad thing if the band contains former Dead members, like with Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends, etc.) Other bands may play lackluster originals that detract from the show. Sometimes a facile kind of funk may become a crutch to what is going on in a set. Sometimes the jams are undirected—the lead guitarist may not really have many ideas and to go on at length can be a little snoozy. The rhythm sections can be stiff with some folks, really not up to the standards set by the Dead at their best, so that a groove never develops.

On the other hand I’ve experienced some truly interesting bands and shows on the Archive. And I’ll be noting what’s good out there as I address particular shows in the months to come.

Today’s show involves a band that’s as old as dirt, or nearly so. New Orleans’ Radiators formed in 1978 and still make the circuit today with the same original five members. That is a rarity out there. They may not have had much conventional music business success as far as the “hits” go, but their live shows are exciting, party and jam get togethers. I’ve been listening to a full, three-CD performance of the band recorded live at the Great American Music Hall on March 20, 1993. The sound quality is very good and they run through originals and interesting covers—everything from Blind Willie Johnson’s classic “Everybody Out to Treat a Stranger Right” to Creedence’s “Born on the Bayou.” Now these guys don’t get involved with 20-minute jam sequences but there’s a looseness and some nice guitar soloing throughout. The show catches them in their middle period more or less and by 1993 they had really found a nice groove on just about everything they did. So I’ll cover more of these shows from time-to-time. Stay tuned.