The Jimmy Giuffre 4: Dragonfly

Jimmy Giuffre isn't the first name that comes to mind when one thinks about '80s fusion. Yet he was such an adventurous creative soul, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he would eventually try plugging-in. Indeed, the most surprising thing about this music is not the identity of its creator, but rather its label. Surely this must be the most "commercial" album ever issued on the avant-centric Soul Note.

"Dragonfly" is an aggressive, Return to Forever/Weather Report-like tune that features sudden melodic and harmonic twists of a kind that would've make Josef Zawinul proud. The band isn't quite as tight as the major label fusion groups of that era, but they execute Giuffre's tortuous composition with just enough precision and plenty of fire. The rhythm section is plenty exciting. Drummer Randy Kaye and electric bassist Bob Nieske form a dynamic foundation, and Pete Levin on electric piano is an intrepid soloist and accompanist. Giuffre's rather dark sound and swing-meets-free manner of improvising doesn't incorporate the sort of post-Coltrane/Shorter elements one is accustomed to hearing from tenor saxophonists playing in this bag, but that's not a problem. It runs counter to formula, and that's seldom if ever a bad thing.

As high as the quality of musicianship is, the instrumentation and style robs it of the timeless quality we get from Giuffre's acoustic work. Still, it's an intriguing performance—a lesser-known aspect of this great multifaceted artist's recorded legacy.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ryan Meagher: Downers

Let me be clear: I am not sure what to make of this music. I listened to this CD multiple times because it was out of my normal listening comfort zone, but I didn’t want to dismiss it out of hand. On “Downers,” the liner notes by Meagher (pronounced "Marr") suggest that he wrote this for a friend who he thought was on depression medication. The melody definitely captures a feeling of someone lost in his own mind; in a droning musical abyss. The approach is choppy, Sperrazza’s drums are mostly heavy handed and the whole piece sounds like garage band indie-rock with improvisational forays. The dual saxophones create an other-worldly aura that is slightly atonal at times reinforcing the image of being in a dazed state. Stillman’s alto solo is sparse and creates a somnambulistic mood while Meagher thrashes like a rock player on dissonant chords in the background and Sperranza pounds relentlessly on his toms. The song changes time signatures like a person answering a question long after it’s been asked. Three fourths of the way through the song, Meagher slashes chords like an indie-rocker and sustains notes behind Sperranzza’s driving drums before they return to the saxophones and the melody. The closing seems like the band has run out of steam, mimicking a drug induced crash with the drums punctuating that theme.

New York based Meagher says in the liner notes that this is the best he has to offer. It is not for everyone and certainly falls outside the genre most of us call jazz, but the composition is interesting and the energy level is enviable, and the music tells a story—however disjointed it might be.

March 28, 2009 · 1 comment

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Remember Shakti: Shringar

Jazz musicians have been interested in Eastern music for decades. But the reverse interest from Indian musicians and listeners is a more recent phenomenon. Because of this sea change, jazz music is thriving in India these days. Western jazz musicians now travel there to play festival after festival. Remember Shakti's performance in Bombay in 2000 was another landmark in this exciting relationship between two great musical traditions.

Guest artist Shiv Kumar Sharma composed "Shringar." Sharma is a maestro of the santur (santoor), a hammered dulcimer played with curved mallets. Remember Shakti provides understated but brilliant support for him during the 26 minutes of this deeply involving piece. In the Carnatic tradition, Sharma builds tension one degree at a time. He is in no hurry. Ninety-five percent of the performance is a meditative setup for the finale. When the end of the tune is finally near, McLaughlin, Sharma, Hussain and Selvaganesh let loose. Cascading Indo-jazz notes and emphatic beats fall from the ceiling of Fhanmukhananda Hall. An excited Bombay crowd shouts its approval as the last fevered-pitch beat reverberates. The socially and artistically promising aspects of this music are still playing out. Western fans are digging the Indian influences more and more. This album was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. Eight years later, 40% of the Grammy nominees for best Contemporary Jazz Albums were Indo-jazz fusion efforts. That's a good sign for people open to the future of jazz, since this is where much of it is heading.

March 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Actual Proof

“Actual Proof” from the record Thrust was very important to me. One thing that I love about it is the way the structure works—there’s a tricky bassline where sometimes you’re not sure where one is, and sometimes the second beat sounds like it’s on one—and how the improvisation works against the structure. As those events happen, the soloist’s challenge is to make sure he’s expressing what the structure is, while also playing through it. Here Mike Clark is really funky, Paul Jackson plays very contrapuntally, and Herbie plays creative, open ideas against that. I also like that it’s an electric piano. Herbie is not only a great acoustic piano player, but also really got the thwack you need to play the different colors that the electric piano brought into the music—and here all those colors are on display. Sometimes he’s playing really complicated lines against the bassline. Other times he’s really funky against the bassline. Other times, he’s sort of playing counter-rhythms against the bassline, which has the effect of taking something that’s displaced and displacing it even further. The whole thing adds up into a really thrilling song. There’s a thrilling version of "Actual Proof” on a record called The Flood, which was a live date made in Japan about a year later with the same rhythm section, but Herbie is playing acoustic. I’ll choose this version, because it’s the first one that came out. I also like that it’s really funky, but once you start to delve into the structure, it’s not just predictable funk. It’s a puzzle to play over, but you’d never know from the ease and grace Herbie expresses when he plays on it. He’s always so rhythmically secure, so that even when things get really tricky, he’s just floating above it and playing the form.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaco Pastorius (with Herbie Hancock): Liberty City

I really enjoy “Liberty City” from Jaco Pastorius’ second record, Word of Mouth. It’s a big band arrangement where Jaco is playing all his stuff, but Herbie is soloing exuberantly all over it, on top of it, underneath it, hearing all this stuff behind him and really going for it. I remember buying this, putting it on, and listening to it over and over. It has Toots Thielemans, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine...the feel is so good. Especially in that period, Jaco’s style was so fresh, combining virtuosity with total taste, and such a good rhythmic feel, defining a new sound for the electric bass—you hear Herbie react to and be inspired by it, as he so often was by other people, while at the same time being supportive. You could pick selections from Jaco’s first record, Jaco Pastorius, where Herbie played on "Speak Like A Child" among other compositions. It’s very telling that when Jaco asked Herbie Hancock to be part of his first record and subsequent ones, because he knew that Herbie would add his own unique thing to the music.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Remember Shakti: Giriraj Sudha

Guitarist John McLaughlin's group Remember Shakti, which he co-leads with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, has had two lives. As Shakti, the Indo-jazz fusion group turned heads a quarter century ago with its fusing of Western jazz and Indian classical music. Yet despite critical acclaim, Shakti could never sell enough records to please its label, Columbia. The band's "world music" was apparently too new for the world. In the late '90s, McLaughlin and Hussain re-formed with mandolinist U. Shrinivas replacing violinist L Shankar, and percussionist V. Selvaganesh succeeding his father, Vikku Vinayakram. This time around, the world was ready. Remember Shakti, as it is now known, sells out its shows around the globe. Saturday Night in Bombay, recorded live, features special guest stars and was nominated for a Grammy. How things changed in 25 years!

"Giriraj Sudha" was composed by U. Shrinivas. The renowned Indian vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and tavil player A.K. Pallanivel join Remember Shakti for this performance. The ever-present drone and some McLaughlin chords back Mahadevan for the tune's opening. Soon the catchy melody is introduced by Shrinivas's mandolin. Mahadevan sings the theme in unison with the mandolin and guitar and also to the beats of percussionists V. Selvaganesh and A.K. Pallanivel. There is much open space in "Giriraj Sudha," allowing for a greater appreciation of the phenomenal timekeeping. The musical conversations range from monosyllabic vocals matched beat to beat, to long vocal-instrumental runs executed with a joyful precision that bring waves of applause from the engaged audience. It is impossible to not get caught up in the Indo-jazz fusion hooks and various rhythms that populate this song. Ten minutes never flew by so fast.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mahavishnu Orchestra: Planetary Citizen

One of the reasons the original Mahavishnu Orchestra broke up was because a couple of the players thought they should have received more generous songwriting credits or be able to contribute their own pieces to the band. On Inner Worlds, a product from the third Mahavishnu lineup, the compositions were spread around the band. John McLaughlin let the musicians do their thing. That decision turned out to be the most lucrative one in the career of bassist Ralphe Armstrong, the composer of "Planetary Citizen." The song itself was a playful R&B soul funk number that barely qualified as fusion. It begins with Armstrong's high-pitched falsetto "Hey, hey, hey…." The music instantly breaks down into a funk-out. It was still John McLaughlin, Narada Michael Walden, Stu Goldberg and Armstrong playing this funk. So it was good and intricate even though it was lightweight by this band's standards. The song's refrain, "Are you ready to be … a Planetary Citizen?" fills our ears. It was a catchy tune that maybe could have been a hit for some R&B band. But we fusion fans were glad it was short. If it weren't for what later happened, "Planetary Citizen" would have remained a curious novelty number in the band's discography.

Let's fast-forward. The English soul/hip-hop/rap crossover group Massive Attack made a massive mistake when it recorded its Blue Lines album in 1991. The band, which was also influenced by fusion, would often use samples from tunes from that genre in its finished pieces. Their album's first tune, "Safe from Harm," included a Billy Cobham sample. But its fourth tune, "Unfinished Sympathy," the band would live to regret.

Four years later Ralphe Armstrong was watching TV. He found himself admiring the music in an Adidas sneaker commercial. But it started to sound funny to him. He quickly realized why. It was his music in the commercial! Ralphe's high-pitched "Hey, hey, hey" vocals from "Planetary Citizen" had been pilfered! Ralphe also discovered the music had been used in the movie Sliver. He sued a couple of members of Massive Attack, its producers, Virgin Records, Paramount Studios and of course Adidas. Ralphe had a strong case that his copyrights had been violated. The attitude from the Massive Attack members was dismissive. That would not last. After several years and a few setbacks, most of the case was settled out of court, and Armstrong received a healthy settlement that was far more than he ever earned in the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Armstrong got a gold record because of Massive Attack's sales! He also got enough money to buy a Jaguar, send one son to college and pay off his house. Ralphe Armstrong clearly benefited from being a planetary citizen.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mahavishnu Orchestra: Gita

Expectations are a huge part of listening. That is why the vocal cuts on the Mahavishnu Orchestra's swansong album Inner Worlds were so difficult to accept by many Mahavishnu fans. There had been a few Gayle Moran vocals on the band's previous recording Visions of the Emerald Beyond. But this was a new pared down quartet, and the lead vocals were handled mostly by the male voice of Michael Walden. Moran's sparse vocals had been almost operatic. Walden's were R&B and soul and sometimes syrupy sweet and all over the record. This was not expected from a powerhouse fusion band! And let's face it. Walden was no baritone most of the time. He was not afraid to soar into the higher pitches. How masculine sounding were these new vocals? Could the mostly male fusion audience accept this?

Mostly not. Walden has a good set of pipes and sings quite well. This would be further proven later in his solo pop career. Yet, the melody of "Gita" with its ascending lines and wild guitar synthesizer work was every bit a part of the fusion legacy that the Orchestra was still building. One could easily imagine the tune, played without the vocals, being a killer live number. Some 30 years later the song is heard with fewer expectations. I enjoy it because I know what has come since. But an honest review must consider "Gita" in its original context. For the melody, band performance and early use of the guitar synthesizer, I give a 90 rating. For the shock of hearing the vocals at that time – no matter how talented Walden was or the spiritual message of the lyrics – I give a 70 rating. We split the difference and bestow an 80 rating.

March 11, 2009 · 1 comment

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Mahavishnu Orchestra: In My Life

As are the other vocal numbers on Inner Worlds, "In My Life" was a huge surprise. Its vocal sections are as close to pop music as the band ever got. Not everyone appreciated that. I would include myself in that crowd. There is no denying the song is good. Even the vocals have meaning. Walden does a fine job interpreting them. We also get to hear John McLaughlin and keyboard player Stu Goldberg sing backing vocals! The opening acoustic guitar arpeggio is one of the more thrilling McLaughlin ever played. Bassist Armstrong effectively provides the electric anchor for this otherwise acoustic and claimed drummer-less performance. (I hear a gentle drumbeat coming from someplace. There must be an error in the credits.) McLaughlin slays with his 12-string solo. This is all great stuff held back somewhat by intrusive vocals. At least that is the way most fusion fans viewed this music. They still didn't view the new Mahavishnu Orchestra, now a power quartet, as a sellout. That was because the spiritual lyrics and fusion instrumental sections still prevented "In My Life" from being heard on the radio. It made you wonder, though. What then was the purpose of the new direction? Maybe it was just to take a new direction.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mahavishnu Orchestra: All in the Family

"All in the Family" was the first cut on Mahavishnu's Inner Worlds. It was an auspicious introduction of John McLaughlin's brand new guitar synthesizer. No one had ever heard anything like it before. It was difficult to play this early invention because there was a noticeable delay between attack and result. McLaughlin had to play the music ahead of its time! Despite that issue, McLaughlin and the band kick some serious ass on this number. Narada Michael Walden's aggressive African-influenced drumming serves as introduction. He is soon joined by Ralphe Armstrong's rolling bassline and strategically placed Stu Goldberg electric piano chords. Then we hear the clarion call of McLaughlin's new axe. What a sound! It was not from this planet. He switches back and forth between it and his straight electric. In effect, he calls and responds to himself. Goldberg matches him in unison from time to time, then takes a devilish organ solo. All the while Walden and Armstrong continue keeping up the frenetic pace. Goldberg and McLaughlin later climb the proverbial scale ladder to blast this baby into the outer worlds. This song portended well for the rest of the album, but it turned out the new technology's best use was on "All in the Family."

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jonas Hellborg: Black Rite

Bassist Jonas Hellborg says "Black Rite" was assembled in the studio. I take that to mean it was created on the spot or just before the performance. I am guessing the string parts were coordinated ahead of time or overdubbed later. But to listen to legendary drummer Tony Williams and Hellborg interact, even if overdubbed, is pure joy. "Black Rite" is a soundscape buttressed by Williams's marshalling rhythms. Williams and Hellborg are heard in the mix equally. Hellborg has always been about finding some subterranean groove and grinding it into the earth's molten core. The key to this duo was how Williams's own signature grooves would mesh with Hellborg's. Obviously there is an exciting rapport. On the other hand, the duo's intriguing accent playing, under the background strings, is enough to cajole you into formation as well. Hellborg plays several beautiful themes in unison with the Soldier String Quartet. The melodic pace remains mostly constant even as Williams plays double time. A burst of energy leads to a purposeful drum break that leads to the coda. "Black Rite" is an organic piece with its own pulse of aggression and restraint. It is a very moving creation.

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jonas Hellborg: Miklagaard

I sometimes wonder about a song's title. Does it have hidden meaning? I found that Miklagaard, most often spelled with one less "a," was an ancient name for Istanbul. Is that all there is to the title? Wait. We are in the Internet age. Why don't I just ask Jonas Hellborg, the man who named the song? So I did. His response was, "Miklagaard was the Viking name for Istanbul. They laid siege and tried to take over but finally made a deal with the Sultan and instead became mercenaries for him." Sometimes a title really is what it says.

"Miklagaard" is an insistent dirge. It is structurally similar to several pieces that would appear later on Ginger Baker's Unseen Rain, to which Hellborg was a major contributor. Hellborg seems to play rhythm and a Middle Eastern-tinged melody simultaneously. It is quite hypnotic. Tony Williams sounds great serving as the linchpin for Hellborg and the occasional well-placed riff from the Soldier String Quartet. You could listen to this drummer and bassist for hours on end, and they would never run out of ideas. Their interplay will put you into a serious trance. When you snap out of it, you may just find yourself in Miklagaard.

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jonas Hellborg: Zat

Much of bassist Jonas Hellborg's The Word was homage to Tony Williams's Lifetime, the fiery progenitor of the jazz fusion movement. This homage is in the form of recreating spirit and intent, not sound. Lifetime was an overloaded electrical circuit. The Word is all acoustic. I have not pulled the influences out of a hat. The inclusion here of Tony Williams himself partly leads to my conclusion. But I must be honest with you: the liner notes conveniently told me. That is always helpful!

Ironically, "Zat" sounds more like something the Mahavishnu Orchestra or a post-Mahavishnu Jan Hammer might have performed rather than Lifetime. In particular, the strings evoke the patterns and sounds that Hammer played on synthesizer for his first few '70s solo efforts. Hellborg lays a little low (for him). The main protagonist on "Zat" is Williams. He is all over the place in support of the insistent and catchy string riffs. The drummer's heavy backbeat always drives the tune forward. His rhythms are dramatically punctuated by unison chords from Hellborg and the Soldier String Quartet. "Zat" lasts less than 2 minutes, but brims with fully executed musical ideas that invoke the past to create the present.

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Various Artists: Miles From India

John McLaughlin penned the title cut for this Bob Belden production which, along with McLaughlin's Floating Point, was nominated for a 2008 Grammy. Both albums focus on Western music, or Western- based music, as performed by groups integrated with jazz musicians and Indian musicians. Belden suggests in the liner notes that he is after a "universal truth" that exists in "reconciliation between disparate cultures." I would say he found it.

This slow, introspective, but eventually hopeful ballad is without percussion. You do your own silent counting. Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan creates the tune's atmosphere. Each musician takes a turn. McLaughlin knows this terrain perhaps better than any Western musician. Heck, he invented much of it. He has a beautiful sound on this recording. His solo, over Banks's keyboard-created drone, is a plea to the heavens. His accompaniment is a supportive halleluiah. Mandolin player U. Srinivas, a member of McLaughlin's Remember Shakti band, plays with as much meaning and purpose as McLaughlin. The interplay between the two plectrists is the opposite of culture clash; it is nothing short of touching brilliance. The tune fades, but the memory remains. Belden's judgment to end the 2-CD set with this cut is fitting.

I would suggest that Belden could not have produced Miles From India had there not been a John McLaughlin. His presence as a leader in this Indo-jazz movement goes back three decades to Shakti. He was by no means the first to head in that direction, but he is the movement's towering figure. Belden gives McLaughlin his just dues in the liner notes.

March 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Various Artists: Blue in Green

Can anyone doubt that, had he lived longer, Miles Davis would have been a major player in the Indo-jazz fusion movement that has come to the fore in recent years? Producer Bob Belden here makes sure Davis was part of it anyway. For Miles From India, Belden assembled an impressive cast of Western musicians who'd collaborated with Davis. Many were part of Miles's most historic recordings. Belden then paired them with established and up-&-coming Indian musicians to interpret some of Miles's greatest works. Belden sees Miles's music as a common language. More and more, Indian musicians are becoming fluent in this language.

Dilshad Khan's sarangi hangs over "Blue in Green's" intro like a protective shroud. The sarangi is an ancient Indian stringed instrument mastered by few musicians, Khan clearly being one. Free-floating elements are added by trumpeter Wallace Roney, sounding like Miles himself, guitarist Mike Stern and keyboardist Louiz Banks. Vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, best known in the West as a frequent guest with John McLaughlin's Remember Shakti, acts as the lead melodic instrument, his wordless vocalizations imbuing the piece with a haunting beauty. The tune's midsection provides a venue for some fine jazz explorations from Banks and Stern. They are propelled throughout by the rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb, drummer on the original "Blue In Green" from Kind of Blue. An abrupt change in direction occurs that ushers in Roney and Khan for some spacey and moving interplay. (The sudden shift is reminiscent of what producer Teo Macero had sometimes created in the editing room on Miles's A Tribute to Jack Johnson and other records.) The musicians return en masse to bring the 13-minute excursion to a pleasing end. By communicating across two global hemispheres, this music takes another important step forward in the natural extension of jazz through cultural understanding.

March 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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