Archive for August, 2012

critic’s pick 241

It might seem like a natural assumption on the surface. After all, when you have been performing onstage for the past 18 years in Mexican wrestling masks, one might be apt to dismiss you as a novelty act. But that is just one of the pleasant misconceptions surrounding Los Straitjackets. In short, never judge a band by its headgear.

From its inception, Los Straitjackets proved it had the chops and ingenuity to back up its stage profile. Fronted by twin guitarists Eddie Angel and Danny Amis, the band dug deep into garage rock and surf music inspirations. But what resulted never sounded relentlessly retro. It recordings were spirited, elemental, instrumental excursions that occasionally utilized outside vocalists for variety.

Jet Set, the band’s just-released 13th album, sticks strictly to instrumentals. Yet what it offers over the course of 15 tunes builds upon the surf and retro influences until the album emits a bright pop zeal all its own. Such a sound envelops Angel’s Aerostar, a sunny, immensely accessible tune drenched in ‘60s pop references, from its lyrical guitar lead to Jason Smay’s effortless backbeat.

But there is much for Los Straitjacket to celebrate on Jet Set. First, there is the return of Amis, who has been out of commission in recent years following treatment for multiple myeloma. Though he still hasn’t resumed touring duties, Amis offers five compositions on Jet Set, including the album opening Crime Scene, a brisk roustabout of a tune beefed up by the brass of Conan O’Brien’s Basic Cable Band and swift melodic turns that summon images of cinematic car chases, circa 1966.

Among the other delights Amis brings to Jet Set is its title tune, a sort of country hullabaloo saturated in joyous twang and an equally exuberant percussive rumble, and Low Tide, one of the few instances where the album cools its jet set for a slice of island solace. The resulting reverb sounds like a cross between a musical saw and theremin.

But Jet Set also utilizes Amis’ touring replacement, Greg Townson, effectively making the band a quintet. Townson writes or co-writes seven compositions on the album, including the atomic surf joyride Bobsleddin’, the less frenzied but still groove-savvy party rave-up Wrong Way Inn and the chunkier, after hours guitar adventure Mr. Pink.

So, yes, Los Straitjackets still play the costumed retro card to a degree (witness the cheeky cover art for proof). But the drive and variety initiated throughout Jet Set is far more the product of a band invigorated by new blood as well as the return of a co-founding force. And that makes for quite a party, indeed.

who’s missing

the who’s roger daltrey and pete townshend last night at the olympics’ closing ceremony. photo by jeff j. mitchell, getty images

The Musical Box had all good intentions of sharing some thoughts about the ballyhooed “rock concert” coda that made up the meat of the Olympics’ closing ceremonies. And, technically, we could have reviewed the very chopped up, out-of-sequence bits NBC decided to broadcast before breaking away at 11:00 so we could all enjoy a preview of some inane situation medical comedy with monkeys leaping about in lab jackets. But after sitting through two hours of performances that looked and sounded like a really bad night at the Oscars (Russell Brand singing The Beatles? Fatboy Slim doing a dee-jay dumb show? Ryan Sechrist as host?) only to be told The Who’s set wasn’t going to be broadcast until after the local news, we simply gave up and got some shut eye. By all accounts, Ray Davies’s lovely (and seriously live) performance of Waterloo Sunset wasn’t aired at all.

It all made us think of the ceremony’s first image: a huge projection of 1971-era John Lennon singing Imagine dead into the eye of the camera. Bet ol’ John would have had a few choice words about this mess.

in performance: jackson browne/sara watkins

val mccallum, tyler chester, sara watkins, fritz lewak, jackson browne and sean watkins.

Sure, the music was splendid. For the better part of two hours last night at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion, Jackson Browne played down his role as global activist and let his roots as a Laurel Canyon folkie shine. But what you couldn’t help but be struck by initially was his looks. At 63, Browne appeared positively youthful. There were the expected facial creases that come with the years. Outside of that, Browne looked like he had stepped out of a time machine. Shoot, the guy practically had the same haircut he sported in 1972.

Musically, the show was an outgrowth of the solo acoustic concerts Browne has shown a preference for in recent years. But instead of being the lone performer, he enlisted a functional support troupe of guitarist Val McCallum, bassist/keyboardist Tyler Chester and drummer Fritz Lewak. What resulted was less the sound of a band and more the music of a solo artist colored by a rhythm section. Outside of a slightly muted Running on Empty, the performance stayed clear of Browne’s rockier works and leaned more to the pop-folk favorites that have highlighted his solo shows.

After opening with the more topically themed Black and White and the new  Standing in the Breech, Browne found a sense of combo comfort in 1980’s Call it a Loan, 1972’s My Opening Farewell and especially 1974’s Fountain of Sorrow.

The latter, combined such subsequently performed early classics as The Pretender and These Days as well as comparative obscurities like A Child in These Hills and The Late Show, formed a canon of songs that have aged especially well, mostly because they were essentially folk remembrances with a taste for the bittersweet in the first place. Last night, it almost seemed like Browne had grown into them. After all, reflecting in your 60s comes a little more readily than imagining such reflection in your 20s.

Brown’s support trio also backed up opening act Sara Watkins. Assisted by brother and former Nickel Creek bandmate Sean Watkins, the fiddler/vocalist devoted nine of the set’s ten tunes to her new Sun Midnight Sun album. Highlights included the hearty Celtic stomp The Foothills and the spiritually slanted Take Up Your Spade.

The latter had Browne sitting in. In turn, the Watkins siblings were guests for roughly one-third of Browne’s set, augmenting favorites like Take It Easy and overlooked gems like 1993’s I’ll Do Anything.

In short, this was a gloriously cool late summer evening where two generations of Southern California folk stylists played as one obviously happy family.

current listening 08/11/12

+ Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (1965) – Over 45 years on, Maiden Voyage remains the jewel of Hancock’s 1960s Blue Note catalogue. The personnel replicates the Miles Davis Quintet of the previous year (with the newly departed George Coleman returning on sax and Freddie Hubbard in for Davis), but the music is an original mix of jagged bop (Eye of the Hurricane) and serene lyricism (the title tune). It remains a lovely listen.

+ Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets (1968) – The torch is passed here from Syd Barrett to David Gilmour as Pink Floyd settles into the lineup that would last through the making of The Wall. Secrets sounds somewhat dated in its overtly psychedelic slant. But that’s half the fun. Gilmour and Roger Waters, even then, were the figureheads. But Richard Wright’s keyboard colors give Secrets its texture, mystery and, ultimately, allure.

+ Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Year of the Horse (1997) – Granted, Year of the Horse was the third live album in as many decades to team Young with his longstanding garage rock troupe Crazy Horse. And, yes, some of the repertoire spills over from the previous concert records. But the playing here is outrageous, whether it is through the funereal reading of Human Highway or the electric bludgeoning of Slipaway. A brutal gem.

+ Fairport Convention: Babbacombe Lee (1971) – A tip to the seminal British folk-rock band’s annual summer festival, which takes places this weekend. Babbacombe Lee tells the story of an Englishman, convicted of murder, who survives multiple attempts of execution by hanging. The tale is almost Dickensian. But the music, full of dramatic harmonies and traditional-meets-progressive interplay, is all Fairport.

+ Various Artists: The Harder They Come (2002/1972) – Still can’t stop listening to reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s outstanding comeback album, Rebirth. The record also pushed me to rediscover the 2002 reissue of The Harder They Come. Often mistaken for a Cliff album, this soundtrack-and-more set is actually a reggae primer with invigorating rhythms by The Maytals, Desmond Dekkar and a youthful Cliff at his mightiest.

critic’s pick 240

For much of its 40-plus year history, the electric guitar avenues of the European ECM label have been occupied and industriously tended to by John Abercrombie and Terje Rydal.

Abercrombie is a native New Yorker that has weaved his music in and out of jazz tradition while borrowing from – and, consequently, reshaping – the atmospheric colors that have come to define “the ECM sound.”

Norwegian Rypdal expresses his electric playing within chamber-like compositions, more rockish and abstract impulses and richly textured guitar sounds that reflect the openly Nordic qualities of ECM music.

What we are presented with this summer are a pair of recordings by both that essentially bookend the entire ECM history, thus marking its extraordinary evolution.

Abercrombie’s new Within a Song shakes up his quartet lineup by enlisting a modern jazz giant. Rypdal’s three disc Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert, the latest entry in the ECM Old and New Masters series, restores Rypdal’s complete 1975 album Odyssey (previously available only in a hard-to-find import edition that omitted nearly 24 minutes of music) while adding a wonderful, previously unreleased radio concert from 1976.

Within a Song alters Abercrombie’s quartet makeup by replacing violinist Mark Feldman with tenor sax great Joe Lovano (also new is bassist Drew Gress). Together with drum holdover Joey Baron, the new foursome offers an evocative and often hushed sound. From the moment the album kicks in with Where Are You, the combination of Abercrombie’s light but immensely expressive guitar tone and the deep, wispy sway of Lovano’s sax moan recall the great latter day trio recordings of another ECM great, Paul Motian (a trio, perhaps not coincidentally, included Lovano).

The highlight is a respectful take on the Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue classic Flamenco Sketches that prefaces the tune’s bluesy melody and with touch of literal flamenco. The resulting mix then blurs the edges, letting the two styles – and two jazz eras – bleed into one another.

In contrast, the new, unedited Odyssey is a monster. The opening Darkness Falls lets Rypdal’s guitar work flood in, as if from a hilltop. You can almost see it approach. The rest of the album shifts between layers of pastoral cool and massive, jagged expression. The piece de resistance, though, is Rolling Stone – the lengthy piece left off previous CD editions of Odyssey. Its construction is essentially transparent. You discover guitar lines that recall John McLaughlin’s electric work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra (but taken at a slower, more purposeful pace) weaved one atop the other. Colored by Brynjulf Blix’s orchestrations on organ, the resulting music waxes and wanes with an epic, enchanting sweep. The music sounds as rapturous as when Rydal first designed it 37 years ago.

“tom delivers us from suspense”

the first of three postings for tom waits’ “hell broke luce” video.

In the end, it was simply a video.

Over the course of the past week, where three grimly comic photos were posted on his website – one of him in hipster pirate regalia, another with him underwater and a third of him in a chef’s hat literally playing with fire – Tom Waits offered his fans a tease. Under each shot was the same promo-like caption: “Coming August 7.”

Okay, we thought. What was coming? A new album? Possible, especially since Aug. 7 is a Tuesday, the day of the week most new recordings traditionally hit music and online stories. But records don’t just pop up without some kind of formal advance notice or promotion. And besides, Waits’ Bad As Me album is still less than a year old. A follow-up this soon was simply too good to be true.

That left the prospect of a tour, which seemed more likely. Waits has preferred a touch of online flamboyance in recent years when announcing what have become increasingly rare treks on the road.

But that turned out to be a pipedream, as well. Instead, the newest posting on Waits’ website this morning with the heading “Tom Delivers Us from Suspense” turned out to be a link to a new Matt Mahurin-directed video for Hell Broke Luce, a savage, scorched anti-war rant from Bad As Me.

It’s heavy stuff – full of images of vultures, ripped limbs and death set to profanity-ridden lyrics of war, loss and more death. Here’s a link, but if you are easily offended, don’t say you weren’t warned. Even some of Waits’ more casual fans might find it a touch disturbing. Quite often, there is a dark vaudeville air about his songs. But within the music and images of Hell Broke Luce, nothing is the least bit funny.

Sure, a tour would have been nice. But this picture-postcard-in-motion from Waits will be enough to excite the senses for now.

one night with lady day

Witnessing even a partial depiction of the life of Billie Holiday onstage is akin to watching a production of Death of a Salesman or Of Mice and Men. We all know the story ends badly. But maybe this time through, it won’t be (or, at least seem) so sad.

That was the feeling that stuck with me last night after watching Balagula Theatre’s presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Natasha’s Bistro. Its music was serene with a lead performance by Jessie Laine Powell that started strong before rising to meet the demands of a supposed single evening’s performance by the great Holiday that steadily nosedives. But you can’t help but thinking, ‘Oh, she’ll be alright. Lady Day will win the day.’

And, of course, she doesn’t. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar& Grill doesn’t stick around for the final, aching chapters of Holiday’s demise. But you know what happens. The performance, as mentioned, unfolds in real time by imagining the singer performing a club show in Philadelphia four months before her death. That it parallels the downward spiral of her life and career is no coincidence. With her glory years long past and her life ravaged by drugs and a lifetime of abuse (the script slips in the fact Holiday was raped at the age of 10 as though it were an incidental detail), the singer was forced to play dives like the Emerson because her New York cabaret card was revoked following a drug bust. That she was also sentenced in Philly is hardly ironic, either.

These observations are not at all intended as a review. For the sake of full disclosure, the show’s director and producer, Sidney Shaw, is a close friend. Also, last night was the final performance of a four day, sold-out run of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (although an encore performance will be staged Aug. 26). But for anyone with a passion for jazz and an understanding of how narcotics and hard living sidelined, crippled or completely destroyed of some of the music’s pioneering artists during the 1950s, the production can’t help but fascinate.

Many moments stood out, including sobering performances of Foolin’ Myself and Somebody’s On My Mind delivered by Powell as Holiday’s hold on the occasion begins to slip and the sadly amusing between-song banter where Holiday blasts white club owners so racist that they wear white socks. But the instances where Holiday begins mistaking her onstage pianist/accompanist Jimmy Powers (wonderfully performed and portrayed by University of Kentucky professor Raleigh Dailey) for her junkie lover Sonny Monroe are simply heartbreaking. These are the moments you realize that Lady Day, despite all her past greatness, is lost.

kirk plays coltrane

kirk whalum. photo by raj naik.

It was a question – or, at the least, a consideration – that sat in the back of Kirk Whalum’s mind as he assembled his newest album.

“What would John Coltrane think?”

Now, those who have experienced the Grammy-winning Whalum’s music over the past 27 years would probably never contemplate such a query. After all, aside from the fact both can be viewed as spiritually inclined saxophonists, the artists come from altogether different stylistic universes. Whalum is an artist whose playing is steeped in the melodic, smooth jazz accessibility of R&B and pop while Coltrane, who died in 1967, was viewed as an improvisational colossus whose music grew from bop-bred jazz into groundbreaking avant garde innovation.

So what’s the connection and why would Whalum, who performs Saturday for the African American Forum’s annual Smooth Jazz Fest, be pondering the blessing of a late jazz giant?

The answer comes with the very makeup of Whalum’s 2012 album Romance Language. The record’s first six songs are re-imaginings of the repertoire that makes up the 1963 album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. That record, long considered one of Coltrane’s most accessible works, utilized his famed ‘60s quartet (completed by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones), a collection of standards (composed by Irving Berlin, Billy Strayhorn and Rodgers & Hart) and the sleek vocals of Garrison.

“Coltrane was such a soft spoken and generous person that I believe he would have liked this project,” Whalum said. “I think he would have been honored. I think he would have said, ‘Wow. This is cool.’ I know if, say, a hip-hop artist did some of my music, I would be flattered.

“I mean, this is a totally different but very authentic and earnest way of paying tribute to his music. I say authentic because I grew up in Memphis. So when it comes out of R&B in instrumentation and form, it’s natural for me. To put his music in this space, I think, is something kind of novel. But it’s honest and respectful, too. And I think it’s something that doesn’t diminish the original.

“That was the main thing. I didn’t want to be someone who dug up a legendary artist and recorded one of those pieced together duets with their music. That’s foul. This is paying tribute but with using your own tools.”

Whalum is hardly new to the music of Coltrane or to the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album. He wrote a master’s thesis on Coltrane during the ‘80s. But the interpreting the 1963 album also allowed the saxophonist to maintain a working partnership with younger brother Kevin Whalum, who serves as a sort of modern day Hartman on Romance Language.

“My brother and I have been collaborating for probably 20 years now,” Whalum said. “He’s nine years younger than me and listened to a lot of my music in his formative years. And all along, I’ve felt a simpatico between him and the great Johnny Hartman. So whenever I listened to that record, the famous ballads record he did with Coltrane, I would think of my brother and how we could not avoid a re-imagining of that project. This is something that’s been on my mind for a long time.”

As John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was barely 30 minutes long, Whalum beefed up Romance Language with comparatively contemporary songs penned and/or popularized by such modern soul stylists as Eric Benet, Minnie Ripperton and the duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. These songs, obviously, are light years removed from the Coltrane catalog, but not the vibe that embraces it on Romance Language.

“I felt as personal a connection with those songs as I did with the first six,” Whalum said. While Whalum can only imagine what Coltrane would have thought about Romance Language, he chose to largely ignore what jazz critics had to say about it. Ever since Whalum’s debut album, Floppy Disk, surfaced in 1985, he has contended with mounting commercial success and a devout fanbase but also numerous jabs from critics already inclined against anything related to the music now termed smooth jazz.

“The jazz illuminati kind of ignore us for the most part anyway,” Whalum said. “It’s sort of a given because of the gulf that has developed between jazz music that is R&B-based and jazz that is based more or less on the framework of the ‘40s and ‘50s, both in terms of instrumentation and content. So right off the bat, I knew I didn’t have to worry so much about the scorn of those critics because they are already not really concerned with what we do. So actually, I felt kind of a freedom. It was liberating.”

Lexus Smooth Jazz Fest featuring Kirk Whalum will be held at 7:30 Aug. 4 at the Old Morrison Front Lawn of Transylvania University. Tickets are $30, $50 and $75. For more info call (859) 255-2653 or go to www.aafinc.com.

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