Dave Brubeck: Maori Blues

Dave Brubeck has said that Darius Milhaud (his mentor at Mills College in the late '40s) "told me to travel the world and keep my ears open." Well, Brubeck's "big ears" have stood him in good stead during 60 years of traveling, listening, absorbing, and composing--and one piece of that global crazy quilt is his "Maori Blues," resulting from a welcoming ceremony his Quartet experienced in New Zealand in 1959. (There's even a fuzzy-but-fun photo of this event tucked down under the disc in the CD tray of Time Further Out, the familiar album with the goofy Joan Miró cover.)

Nominally a blues, Dave's tune is another "Time" experiment in 6/4, and it displays so much building energy that one might call it a "stomp" instead. The piano starts a repeated series of notes, and the bass and drums instantly lock into the then-uncommon, staggered groove (Paul Desmond sits this one out), releasing Dave's pent-up spirits and allowing him to work out some "native" aggression: the listener hears rough dancing, pounding feet, high emotions, slapped strings, pummeled keys, cymbal crashes, beat-down drums … and then the illusion of slowing motion as the three happy tourists pull together to dance off the set and out the door, with Joe's last bam answered by Dave's vaudeville ba da da dum. (Yes, Mrs. Calabash, it's a fine example of the Maori, the merrier.)

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Activate

Introduced by a strangely metered 7-note sequence, "Activate" is a truly magical ride through the cosmos guided by multi-instrumentalist Bill Laswell. The track's audio collage quickly establishes itself, fusing indecipherable electronic sounds generated by the use of several processing units key to the final product. However, the big mystery is what the actual musical concept is, as constant bass solos compete with horns and strings that merge to imitate airplanes, car horns and whooshing winds. These effects are somewhat drowned out by the upfront percussion, driven mainly by closed hi-hats, which provide the catalyst for everything else that occurs. The music is too jarring for conventional listening; it seems carefully crafted with the goal of breaking down technical limitations, and the basic motif is proof. Built on purposeful disharmony, the melody is established by single-tone synthesizer stabs that sink into the background as part of the orchestration, and from the outset several layers combine to create music without true definition or precedent. It is a unique sound and style that takes patience to fully appreciate.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Unsquare Dance

Even at 2:02, "Unsquare Dance" lingers in the listener's memory long after the tune has ceased. As a pop hit, it is familiar to anyone, and its un-imitated sound is energetically driven by snappy drums, handclaps and finger snaps that fall precisely on the beat and complement the percussion well. Dave Brubeck's short yet sweet piano motifs seem influenced by both classical and early American music; the entire Time Further Out album is constructed in a similar manner, and this cut fits in well with the disc's intended concept. Riffs that echo Chopin intertwine with a quick run-through of "Turkey in the Straw," and, without Paul Desmond's usually omnipresent sax or even much content, the tune floats atop slight yet unsubtle rhythmic variations meant to push through the boundaries defined by the composition's odd time signature. Ultimately the music is engaging, and instead of dancing (as per the title), listeners will prefer to hum along to Brubeck's brief melody and tap their feet with the constant rhythm that the bass and drums outline. The Wright/Morello duo forms the composition's core; they are responsible for its destination, and the track winds up in uncharted territory.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Matthew Shipp: GNG

The idea of displacing a repeated melodic motif to create syncopation is as old as ragtime, but Matthew Shipp does it with such jarring effectiveness in the head of this track that you may think that your CD is mistracking. No, it's just Shipp's serpentine melody turning in on itself. This 5/4 gem is like "Epistrophy" on steroids. And (like Monk) Shipp doesn't just jam on the changes when the melody is over, but pursues a holistic vision linking the composed and improvised sections of his piece. The meter shifts for the piano solo, but Shipp maintains the ambiance with his distinctive phraseology, building his solo from fragments of increasing complexity while laying down contrasting chords that are big and thick like pillars holding up a cathedral. No empty flourishes or practice-room licks here, just probing piano trio work from one of the most distinctive musical voices on the scene.

January 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tobias Gebb: How Deep Is The Ocean?

Judging by the name Trio West, you would think that Gebb's band had honed its craft in Hollywood and near various L.A. beach haunts. Not so fast . . . this group got its name from the Upper West Side, and made the CD in Brooklyn. But a cool jazz ambiance permeates the tracks on An Upper West Side Story, helped along by the leader's exceptional drum work. Gebb reminds me of Vernell Fournier and Chico Hamilton in his ability to swing hot with a light touch. This version of the Irving Berlin standard is a gem, with the band alternating between 5/4 for the first half of each chorus, and 4/4 for the last half. But this odd meter doesn't sound odd, just fresh and spicy with plenty of momentum. Won't somebody give these guys a ticket to a Hollywood?

April 03, 2008 · 1 comment

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Dave Holland: What Goes Around (big band version)

After early recordings with Miles Davis and Chick Corea (Circle), bassist Dave Holland established himself as a leader with a long-running quartet and quintet known for complex, through-composed pieces usually including multiple odd-meter passages and collective improvisation. His most recent quintet of Kilson (now Nate Smith), Potter, R. Eubanks, and Nelson was augmented by eight more players to form a big band for the first time in 2001. Holland’s already complex quintet material is compounded here with even more cross-rhythms and thematic variation for the big band. The musicians seamlessly execute the 11/4 melody (alternating measures 6/4 and 5/4).

February 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stan Kenton: Elegy for Alto

After disbanding his "Artistry in Rhythm" ensemble, Kenton reformed the band and called the resulting music "Progressive Jazz." Desiring to play concert tours rather than dance jobs, Stan allowed Rugolo a great deal of musical freedom, and listeners either embraced Kenton's new direction or argued that his band was pretentious, the music wasn't jazz, and it didn't swing. "Elegy for Alto" is through-composed in the then unusual time signature of 5/4. George Weidler is soloist.

January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Pat Metheny: The First Circle

Starting off with a hand-clapping sequence in 22/8, "The First Circle" is one of the Metheny Group's most idiosyncratic works. Is it jazz? World music (whatever that means)? As you listen your way through each section, from the opening hand percussion to the intricate acoustic guitar bridge to Lyle Mays's surging synthesizer (and later piano) solo, you can't help but notice the feeling of lift. As the composition roars toward its conclusion, Pat's intensely strummed acoustic guitar is pitted against Pedro Aznar's impossibly beautiful wordless vocals. The first time I heard "The First Circle," it was at my first Metheny Group concert. It left me standing there with a slack jaw. Warning: it just might happen to you, too.

January 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stan Kenton: Chiapas

Kenton was still on the road -- and still leading an excellent band -- when this was taped during a week-long clinic at a California college. Stan formed his own record label and continued to explore new directions in big band music along with dance gigs, where “Eager Beaver” was still requested. Enamored of the Don Ellis Orchestra’s performance of music in unusual time signatures, Kenton asked one of Ellis’s composers to write for the band. Hank Levy had played baritone saxophone with the old man in 1954, and was on the staff of Towson College in Baltimore, Maryland, when he contributed this composition. The band despised this music at first, but they finally got the hang of it, as this exciting performance shows. Dick Shearer plays the trombone solo, and there are improvisations by Davis and Gale. Levy would contribute quite a number of pieces in a similar vein until 1976. Kenton passed away in 1978.

January 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Frank Zappa: five-five-FIVE

When zonked-out rock-o-holics argue about the relative merits of Hendrix, Clapton, Page and the other total gods of the guitar, this is a track that the Zappa contingency will cite as evidence for their candidate. Zappa flies over an intricate pattern which juxtaposes 5/8 and 5/4 -- not something you will find in your Basic Rock Licks method book. Zappa definitely has a hot hand on "five-five-FIVE"; but I am just as impressed by the rhythm section and especially Vinnie Colaiuta's drumming. (When is Vinnie gonna come out with his Shut Up 'n Play Yer Drums recording?) But no matter which instrument you focus on, this track just might blow out the subwoofers in your auditory system.

January 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Johnny Bothwell: From the Land of Sky Blue Water

Bothwell was called "the white Johnny Hodges" for his beautiful sound and florid technique. Formerly a member of Woody Herman's and Sonny Dunham's Orchestras, his initial recognition came as soloist with Boyd Raeburn's 1944 orchestra. Raeburn even let Bothwell use arrangements from his book for the altoist's sessions with Signature Records in early 1945. Bothwell left Raeburn, joined Gene Krupa for a short time, and then formed a good small group before putting together a big band in 1946. He scraped by for two years, formed other small groups and then disappeared by the early fifties, turning up in Florida shortly before his death. Most of Bothwell's recordings during this period are attempts to get hits with poor material, but there is one constant that makes most of them worth hearing: the talent of his chief arranger Paul Villepigue. "From the Land of Sky Blue Water" is perhaps Villepigue's finest moment with Bothwell. Because of its form of fast-slow-fast, this is clearly not a record for dancing. But Villepigue's use of a flute in the setting and his lovely harmonies clearly enhance the original song; while his transition from slow to fast using four 3/4 bars and one 2/4 bar to get back to 4/4 is one of the most graceful uses of time change in jazz ensemble writing -- and rarely done during that era. Villepigue would later write for Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton.

December 31, 2007 · 0 comments

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Joshua Redman (featuring Brad Mehldau): Summertime

Summertime . . . and the fish are jumpin' in 5/4 time. From Sidney Bechet to Kenny G, saxophonists have delighted in rebuilding Gershwin's plaintive lullaby into various jazz configurations. But this is perhaps the most ambitious transformation I have yet heard of the popular standard. Mehldau has proven in other settings how skilled he is at unusual time signatures, and this recording is no exception. Check out the close of his solo where he quotes Gershwin's melody in the lower register, while pushing an insistent figure in the treble -- a great example of jazz multitasking. And Redman shows once again why he is considered one of the best soloists on the current scene. Grenadier and Blade also shine.

November 28, 2007 · 0 comments

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Don Ellis: Indian Lady

Since his death in 1978 at age 45, trumpeter Don Ellis has fallen off the radar screens of most jazz listeners. But in 1967, Ellis had the most innovative big band on the planet. The liner notes called the Electric Bath LP an "aural collage made up of the Beatles, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ravi Shankar and Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz." That's a scary claim, and maybe a bit much to substantiate, but Ellis was clearly pushing at the limits of the big band vocabulary with the exotic textures and driving 5/4 beat of "Indian Lady." Ellis had immersed himself in avant-garde and mainstream jazz traditions, and dug deeply into "World Music" before it became fashionable. He published an influential article on Indian music two years before Electric Bath, and studied with Hari Har Rao while doing graduate work in ethno- musicology at UCLA. These experiences married to his strong mastery of the trumpet ensured that Ellis not only could lead a hot band, but would also stand out as its star soloist. Check out "Indian Lady" and find out why this unfairly forgotten release garnered a Grammy nomination and an "Album of the Year" award from Down Beat back in the day.

November 27, 2007 · 2 comments

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Dave Holland: Easy Did It

Some bass players walk, others float over the beat, but Dave Holland positively dances. A fresh, sprightly quality infuses his lines – helped along by his zeal for playing with time signatures. When I hear his performances, I invariably wish I had the lead sheets in front of me – there is so much happening, that a casual listening doesn’t do justice to his recordings. I hear the time signature shifting back repeatedly from duple to triple feel on “Easy Did It,” and I am half convinced that there is a lopsided chunk of fourteen beats stuck in every once in a while just to shake things up. But the soloists are never thrown for a loop, and when Holland dances, they join in on the fun.

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Arjen’s Bag

The regular bass player in this short lived quartet had been Dave Holland, who a few months earlier responded to the call to join Miles Davis. Odgers is an able deputy, but it’s the luminous interplay between Surman, McLaughlin and Oxley that make this album so memorable with its arresting melodies that effortlessly segue one into another – despite unusual time signatures (13/8, for example) – and its time-no-changes approach to improvisation. Surman takes a leading role and is majestic, while Johnny Mac’s (as he was then known on the UK scene) phenomenal articulation, sense of time and space combine to create superior jazz, regardless of postcode.

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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