Stanley Jordan: A Place in Space

Stanley Jordan has always been difficult to classify. Depending on who you ask, he is a novelty act, a crossover threat, a guitar genius. . . . Take your pick! Probably the most common descriptor pegs him as the guy who plays guitar like it's a keyboard. Jordan's 2008 release State of Nature won't make it any easier to pigeonhole this artist. The opening track, "A Place in Space," starts with an easygoing trio groove and a melody reminiscent of "Milestones," then moves into a Zappa-esque interlude for contrast. The guitar solo is tasty, until the 4-minute mark -- when all hell breaks loose. The band shifts into double-time, and Jordan now dishes out everything from polytonal licks to jagged rock lines, stopping just short of free jazz pandemonium. If the label was hoping for airplay on the smooth jazz radio stations, Jordan just torpedoed those plans with this very anti-smooth attack. When he returns to the main melody, with its light swing, it's almost like he is commenting ironically on everything that came before. But the overall performance is nothing short of brilliant -- a wild ride from this mercurial player.

April 24, 2008 · 1 comment

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Matthew Shipp: Galaxy 105

Now it all comes to a head, everything Shipp has been exploring since his first record: analytical approach, intricate composition, muscular performance, forward-looking ideas. Harmony & Abyss is almost a survey of his career, and yet within it are some surprising moments. Take “Galaxy 105,” a wonderful trio workout. No electronics, no FLAM, no slick production. Just three rhythm-makers working over a basic melodic idea. A few chords and a heck of a lot of ideas. Helps that these guys know one another like brothers at this point. They get into a groove and can’t get out. Lucky for the listener.

February 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Matthew Shipp: Space Shipp

With Nu Bop, Shipp threw down the gauntlet, declaring he really did have something new to say. Thrusting himself out at the leading edge of the “jazztronica” movement, Shipp issued an intentionally discomfiting salvo in the interest of freshening up jazz a bit. The opening seconds of “Space Shipp,” which start the album, contain nothing but a looped synth-and-drum-machine sequence straight out of the Aphex Twin school of electronica. But then Shipp reminds us this is his music, with a chord sequence that informs us this couldn’t be anyone but him. A minute into the tune, Shipp is improvising off the progression, Brown is blasting away on the kit, and the electronica loop – it’s still there, yes – recedes into the background. Shipp shows us that electronics are just another tool in the box.

February 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chicago Underground Duo: Memoirs of a Space Traveller

A lot of music on the Thrill Jockey label is referred to as “post-rock,” probably because the sound palettes employed fit in both the rock and jazz worlds – though sometimes comfortably in neither. “Memoirs of a Space Traveller” draws from both genres to tell a story that moves from disturbing, almost violent cacophony (with blustery clots of percussion, electronic noise, and blasts of cornet) to end in peaceful reflection – a quiet set of guitar figures and muted horn accents close things down as the noise finally recedes. It must have been quite a trip.

November 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Deodato: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Space Age Jazz's final triumph was to prove, 72 years after Nietzsche's death, his Eternal Return theory of a constantly recurring universe. Time being cyclical, the philosopher foretold, everything he wrote would reappear in one form or another. Sure enough, Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883) returned as Richard Strauss's tone poem (1896), which returned as the movie theme from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which returned as Deodato's campy electrified hit (1972). Alone among these immortal works, Deodato's is actually fun. Thus concludes the Eternally Returning Odyssey of Space Age Jazz. Please rotate the iPod, Hal.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Giuffre: Propulsion

During the Space Age, nobody journeyed farther than Jimmy Giuffre. Never a virtuoso, the clarinetist in 1956 found his niche with "swamp jazz," which bogged him down in a barely audible chalumeau register. Six years later, having grown restless, he fearlessly drained the swamp but was soon up to his ass in alligators. Adapting Italian flutist Severino Gazzelloni's breakthrough techniques involving overtones and multiphonics, Giuffre plunged into the avant-garde without a chute. His subsequent free fall became both album title and career description. "Propulsion," though, remains extraordinary, a depressurized balloon streaking amazed out of a child's fingers and unpredictably into space.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Don Ellis: Slow Space

Cruising at warp speed, we lose our sense of velocity. Surveying the illimitable reaches, we confront infinite stretches of emptiness. Space and time crawl. At last, having penetrated deepest recesses, our inertial dampers bring the mighty ship to a stop. It is quiet. Commander Ellis and his mission specialists methodically place sonic buoys at strategic intervals to serve as guideposts for future travelers. When not fingering his keyboard, jazztronaut Bley reaches into the innards of his unlidded instrument, dampening, strumming and plucking by hand. Peacock and Stone show the restraint of Zen gardeners. Humans are in space. Slow space.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Countdown

After being traumatically beaten into space by the Soviet Union—momentarily making Communism seem scientifically and technologically superior—the U.S. played catch-up with an urgency unseen since Pearl Harbor. Soon our own rockets began lifting off, most of which collapsed back onto the launch pad in fiery embarrassment or careened out of control and had to be detonated. Still, we were determined. And nowhere was our newfound sense of national purpose better expressed than in John Coltrane's "Countdown," the most technically advanced saxophone solo to date. Why, if an American could accomplish this, we could … go to the Moon!

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Sun Ra: Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus

Unskilled, impoverished, equal parts showman, shaman and charlatan, Sun Ra was to jazz what low-budget filmmaker Ed Wood, Jr. was to cinema—an outsider by necessity. Writing about Wood, journalist Gary Morris equally describes Sun Ra: "In fact he had no taste or even 'talent' as that term is generally understood." Just as Wood laced his shoestring Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) with flying saucers that were actually junkyard hubcaps, "Rocket #9" plunders the musical junkyard of Sun Ra's imagination for an uncontrolled 6-minute flight that crashes in Roswell, New Mexico. No need for a cover-up. Just harmless hokum … as that term is generally understood.

November 16, 2007 · 7 comments

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George Russell: Chromatic Universe (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

Space-themed dual-piano albums were briefly fashionable in the late 1950s. Ferrante & Teicher mixed schmaltzy arrangements, gimmicky prepared pianos and runaway reverb for musical analogs to Les voyages extraordinaires, those farfetched 19th-century literary fantasies where gentlemen in evening dress ride plush davenports into space aboard vessels with handsomely appointed drawing rooms. By contrast, piloting composer George Russell's ultramodern starship, astronauts Bill Evans and Paul Bley shoot light years past Ferrante & Teicher. "Chromatic Universe," with the Milky Way's most stellar dual piano work, truly is un voyage extraordinaire. All systems A-OK. We have a go for launch. Godspeed, George Russell.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Shorty Rogers: Martians' Lullaby

On the cusp of the Space Age, many otherwise well-informed people believed in Martians. Orson Welles's Halloween 1938 radio enactment The War of the Worlds panicked the unsuspecting with breaking news of Martians invading New Jersey. Fourteen-year-old Milton Rajonsky may have been listening that night. Years later, as the Orson Welles of West Coast jazz, Shorty Rogers fixated on the Red Planet for "March of the Martians," "Martians Go Home," "Martians Stay Home" and "Martians Come Back." Only with "Martians' Lullaby" did he discover that Martians were lulled by trumpets and trombones blasting a 12-bar blues. If only New Jersey had known!

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Terry Gibbs: Nose Cone

At first, a rocket ship's nose cone contained only scientific instrumentation. Later, small laboratory mammals, gradually increasing in size and intelligence, rode into orbit. Finally, realizing the age-old dream of human spaceflight, Al Cohn's "Nose Cone" blasted off with none other than Terry Gibbs and his 16 Swingers aboard. A decade before being tapped by Francis Ford Coppola to play The Godfather's Michael Corleone, lead trumpeter Al Porcino (that's not him?) boosts Terry's crew into the stratosphere swifter than an Atlas rocket. Maini's manic alto, Lewis's state-of-the-art drumming and Gibbs's feverish enthusiasm ignite a band as combustible as liquid oxygen.

November 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Woody Shaw: Escape Velocity

Woody Shaw is one of the great overlooked trumpeters in jazz history. He bridged the gap between hard bop and the avant-garde, intently applying the harmonic inventions of John Coltrane to the trumpet. Shaw assembled one of the greatest post-bop groups in the late-1970s, and his men proved jazz had never died during this engagement at the famous Village Vanguard. Cerebral yet passionate, Shaw burns throughout this solo and inspires his band to follow suit. His intensity never wanes, and listeners will be awed by the complexity and density of his harmonic excursions.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments

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