Stax Records’ Year of Crisis and Grit

 

Title: Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story
Artist: Various
Label: Stax/Craft Recordings
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 19, 2018

 

1968 was a year that tested Stax Records, the wellspring of Memphis Soul, to its soul. The label emerged victorious, but the story of its three-pronged existential crisis and how the company and its key personnel responded is an epic chapter in music-industry history. Continue reading

The Full-On Electric Ladyland Experience

 

Title: Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Reissue
Artist: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Label: Legacy
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: November 9, 2018

 

Perhaps demonstrating, emphatically, that rock music is long in the teeth, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of several historic albums. At the top of the list is Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, a muddy, blues-infused psychedelic mashup originally released on 2 vinyl platters. Sony’s Legacy label celebrates the half-century with a deluxe 3-CD/1-BluRay set also released in a 6-LP/1-BluRay edition. Continue reading

Grant Green – Live Times Three

france

Title: Funk in France: From Paris to Antibes (1969-1970)

Artist: Grant Green
Label: Resonance Records
Formats: 2CD set, limited ed. 3LP set, Digital
Release date: May 25, 2018

 

slick

 

Title: Slick! Live at Oil Can Harry’s
Artist: Grant Green
Label: Resonance Records
Formats: CD, limited ed. 2LP set, Digital
Release date: May 25, 2018

 

 

These three discs, spread over two albums, document jazz guitarist Grant Green in live performances in 1969 at the studio of France’s state-owned radio network (ORTF), at the 1969 Antibe’s Jazz Festival in France and in 1975 at a jazz club in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Green’s progression toward a solid footing in the funk-jazz world is clearly demonstrated. As always, Resonance Records has done a fine job finding good source tapes and remastering for superb audio quality. Each album is accompanied by a 48-page booklet illustrated with archival photos and featuring essays by Resonance producer Zev Feldman, music journalist A. Scott Galloway, and Blue Note Records discographer Michael Cuscuna, among others.  Continue reading

Miles Davis & John Coltrane – The Final Tour (Bootleg Series, Vol. 6)

Davis & Coltrane
Title: The Final Tour (Bootleg Series, Vol. 6)

Artist: Miles Davis & John Coltrane

Label: Sony Legacy

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

Other reviewers have covered in great deal various levels of speculation about how much John Coltrane did not want to be touring Europe with Miles Davis in the spring of 1960, so this review will mostly stick to the music at hand.

No matter how much or how little Coltrane wanted to be playing that music with that band in those places, he showed up and PLAYED. And played, and played; blowing wild honking runs, “sheets of sound” as his style of the time was described, for many minutes at a time. In 1960, this was something new, and the audience in Paris on March 21st of that year was not entirely amused. The Paris concert covers the first and most of the second CDs in this 4-CD set, The Final Tour. Whistles and jeers can be heard from the audience during some of Coltrane’s playing, whereas the more traditional piano solos from Wynton Kelly garner warm applause.

Aside from both shows played at the Olympia in Paris, The Final Tour includes a short set from the Tivolis Koncertsal in Copenhagen, Denmark from March 24 and the two March 22 shows at the Konserhuset in Stockholm, Sweden. At the Scandinavian shows, Coltrane is a bit more concise but no less fierce.

The main dynamic on this tour, as described in Ashley Kahn’s liner notes, was a divergence of musical style which inevitably broke up the band Davis had put together to record the classic Kind of Blue album. Alto sax man Cannonball Adderley was already out on his own, about to be become very popular as he moved toward soul-jazz with his group. Coltrane had just recorded Giant Steps, which would go on to become a classic, but at the time was new, different and not fully accepted by jazz fans. According to various accounts, Davis was booked on an all-star tour of Europe arranged by impresario Norman Granz, and convinced Coltrane to come along for one last tour. Coltrane, who may have been suffering from dental problems and wanted to focus on his own music, reluctantly agreed to play one more round of concerts with the man who had plucked him from a B-list career and brought him into the spotlight (including connecting Coltrane with Davis’s lawyer and manager, who were subsequently able to get Coltrane signed to a deal with high-profile Atlantic Records after his contract with tiny Prestige ran out).

But Coltrane wasn’t interested in playing the same old tunes the same old way. He was exploring new ideas and new sounds, and was working out how to produce as notes on his saxophone what he was hearing in his head. He explains this to Swedish radio interviewer Carl-Erik Lindgren in the last cut on Disc 4 (a fine addition by Sony Legacy, which puts Coltrane’s mood and playing on this tour in contemporary first-person perspective).

The end result is a bit of a conundrum for a reviewer. This is four discs of live performances aimed more inward among the players than outward toward an audience. Hardcore Coltrane and Davis fans are going to eat it up, but it may be too much navel-gazing for other jazz fans. The rhythm section of Kelly, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums more than hold their own and hold it together, even during Coltrane’s most intense note-eruptions. When given some space to solo, the rhythm section members are uniformly fantastic. But the fact remains, there are minutes upon minutes of Coltrane work-shopping various sounds and note combinations, with Davis off-stage and not involved. This may be as tiresome to a modern-day jazz fan as it was to at least some audience members in Paris.

As for Davis’s playing, at times (especially in Stockholm) he is several degrees too laid back and cool. He’s seemingly unwilling sometimes to blow hard enough to produce viable and in-tune trumpet notes.

If you’re a fan of Kind of Blue, try on for size the following version of “So What.” If this way of playing the song suits you, then you’ll like the rest of the album. If it’s too fast, too drawn out and not cleanly enough played, it’s typical of these concerts and this particular group of performances won’t be to your liking.

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Criticism circa 2018, or 1960, be damned. It didn’t matter in the long run. The tour made Davis an international star and he toured Europe as a headliner after that. As for Coltrane, he went on to much bigger things too. The kind of “un-pretty” note-heavy percussive solos he was sending out into the European nights on that tour became the foundation of a new style—free-jazz—and Coltrane continued to innovate and follow his unique muse where it led him until his premature death.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

Stax Singles Vol. 4: Rarities & The Best of the Rest

stax

 

Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest

Artist: Various

Label: Stax/Craft Recordings

Formats: 6-CD set, Digital

Release date: February 9, 2018

 

From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?

It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.

The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.

To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.

Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.

Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.

The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.

For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

The Rolling Stones – On Air

The Rolling Stones

Title: On Air

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Label: Abkco/Polydor/BBC

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

Like most British Invasion bands, The Rolling Stones started out covering American music. In the Stones case, there was an immediate affinity for blues, particularly the electric variety from Chicago’s African American musicians. Indeed, the band took its name from a Muddy Waters song. The band also gravitated to the rock ‘n roll artists from Chicago’s Chess Records, particularly Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Unlike most of their peers, the Stones never veered too far from their roots. They completely absorbed the loose style and ironic lyrics of their Chicago influences, and never stopped including cover versions of African American blues, soul and early rock songs on their albums. In fact, their most recent studio album, Blue and Lonesome, is a tribute and return to their blues roots.

Back at the time when the British Invasion bands were forming, the BBC presented hours of live popular music on both radio and TV. Bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Zombies and others were able to play in front of a national audience, a hugely expanded stage from the small clubs where they honed their craft. On Air collects the Stones’ BBC performances from 1963-65, with a bonus of restored sound and a nice booklet essay by Richard Havers.

By the time they took to the airwaves, even in 1963, less than a year after forming, the Stones were a tight ensemble. The original band—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman—had a coherent and shared musical vision and were at ease playing together. They weren’t yet capable of the musical fury needed for some of the songs they were covering, but they tried hard.

The Stones were at their best covering Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, able to use the faster pace of true rock ‘n roll to their advantage. On the slower bluesier material, and also, curiously, on their original tunes, these performances aren’t up to the polish and energy of contemporary studio album tracks. That could be due to the tight schedule and lack of rehearsal time for BBC productions. In any case, the highlights are their covers of Berry’s “Around and Around” and “Carol,” which became staples in the Stones’ live repertoire through the ‘70s and ‘80s; plus Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Mona.” Among the originals, a highlight is the last track on the album, the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue.” The song title pays homage to Chess Records’ studio address. Early highlights in the Stones’ long and storied career were recording sessions at Chess Studio, in 1964 and 65.

Some of this music was previously released as part of a BBC-produced radio documentary, “The Rolling Stones Story.” A red-vinyl promotional LP contained “Cops and Robbers,” “Memphis Tennessee,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Fannie Mae.” The sound quality on that LP was not anywhere as good as this new 2-CD set.

The CD credits “demixing” engineer James Clarke, who also worked sonic miracles with the Beatles’ live performance recordings for Ron Howard’s “Eight Days A Week” documentary and the CD reissue of their Hollywood Bowl concerts. The Abbey Road engineers were able to “demix” (isolate each instrument, clean up the noise around it and put it on a separate digital track), then remix some of these original-mono recordings into stereo. The resulting sound is clear, but there is a “skeletal” feeling to it, like the band has been separated too much, losing some of the energy and cohesion. I would have preferred new mono mixes, with each instrument and vocal “scrubbed” of noise and distortion. The power and synergy of a clean mono mix is unbeatable, especially with this material.

On Air is a must for a Stones fan, because it shows the band outside of the studio in its earliest form, young and hungry and building toward bigger things. For a fan of British Invasion music, the Stones offer a master class in how it’s done. The album also documents some of the Stones’ earliest covers of Black music, which underpinned the transformation of their sound during the 1960s.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Editor’s Note: We’re featuring this album as part of our ongoing exploration of the Black roots of rock ‘n roll, an initiative begun in 2009 with the conference “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music.”  For further reading we recommend Maureen Mahon’s book, Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004).

Two Live Releases from Resonance Records – The Three Sounds & Jaco Pastorius

The Three Sounds

 

Title: Groovin’ Hard – Live at the Penthouse 1964-1968

Artist: The Three Sounds

Label: Resonance 

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: January 13, 2017

 

Truth Liberty and Soul

Title: Truth, Liberty & Soul – Live In NYC

Artist: Jaco Pastorius

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: May 26, 2017

 

 

Resonance Records’ George Klabin and Zev Feldman continue mining the world’s vaults and closets and unearthing excellent-quality jazz recordings previously unissued as commercial albums.  Among their releases this year are albums by Gene Harris’s  piano trio The Three Sounds recorded in Seattle in the 1960’s, and a gala 1982 big-band fusion concert led by the late great bassist Jaco Pastorius and recorded by National Public Radio at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. The albums offer entertaining and excellent-sounding windows into two very distinct styles of jazz.

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The piano trio (piano, bass and drums) was a stable of urban jazz bars in the post-WWII era, popularity peaking in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s. Famous piano trios were led by Erroll Garner, Ramsey Lewis, Oscar Peterson, among others. And there was also The Three Sounds, fronted by keyboard ace Gene Harris. Resonance’s producers located and secured rights to a series of Three Sounds performances at The Penthouse club in Seattle, which were originally tape-recorded and broadcast over local radio. The performances feature Harris and bassist Andy Simpkins with different drummers present for each of the three different recording dates (1964, 1966 and 1968).

Musically, The Three Sounds hew more toward the jazz side of soul-jazz, as compared to Ramsey Lewis for instance, with the emphasis on a swinging groove. Harris was a skilled pianist, but he emphasized musicality over technical chops. He and his band mates were in sync and projected a logical and well-thought concept of how to play their way around their set lists. Album highlights include the Harris originals “Blue Genes,” “Rat Down Front” and “The Boogaloo,” plus covers of Neil Hefti’s “Girl Talk” and Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” that avoid stereotypical schmaltz traps and groove along nicely.

Jaco Pastorius was a self-taught and revolutionary bassist (for more on that, check out the documentary film “Jaco”). He gained fame as part of fusion-jazz mega-stars Weather Report, but left the band in 1981 and formed an ensemble he called the Word of Mouth Band. An expanded version of that group performed at Manhattan’s Avery Fisher Hall on June 27, 1982 as part of the Kool Jazz Festival, and the performance was recorded by National Public Radio’s “Jazz Alive!” program. The Resonance 2-CD release includes 40 minutes of music not included in the original broadcast.

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For this performance, the Word of Mouth Band included members of the A-list of New York studio musicians, some of whom were familiar names as part of that era’s “Saturday Night Live” band. Fans of the “Blues Brothers” movies will recognize names like “Blue” Lou Marini on tenor sax and Alan Rubin on trumpet. Plus, legendary harmonica player Toots Thielemans joined the band for seven numbers.

The big band that Pastorius brought on stage was very much of fusion jazz and of the early 1980s. It included Pastorius’s electric bass (with heavy amplification and effects), steel drums played by Othello Molineaux, tuba player David Bargeron, percussionist Don Alias, plus six sax-men, six trumpets, three trombones and two French horns. In the drum seat was Pastorius’s former Weather Report bandmate, Peter Erskine.

One of the reasons Pastorius left Weather Report was an on-going disagreement with band founder Joe Zawinul about how far the band should move toward electronic effects and synthesizers. Although much younger than Zawinul, Pastorius favored an approach closer to jazz’s acoustic traditions. His vision, as presented with the Word of Mouth Band, is modern and somewhat electrified, but firmly rooted in traditional large-ensemble jazz. It’s no accident, for instance, that the band presents a very recognizable cover of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” As far as fusion-jazz style, this band favors Latin and funky flavors as opposed to the slicker and somewhat disco-esque music of later-era Weather Report.

Even though the ensemble is large and some of the arrangements are dense, the playing is flawless. Engineer Paul Blakemore, who made the original recording for NPR, returned to his multi-track tapes and remixed the concert, the result being superb, punchy and detailed sound.

Both of these albums are the latest examples of Resonance’s emphasis on quality music above all else, followed closely by quality recordings. As is always the case with Resonance releases, both albums feature hefty booklets full of details about the musicians, performances’ times and places and producer Feldman’s always entertaining tales of scouring the vaults and closets to find the hidden jazz gems.

It’s interesting listening to these albums back-to-back, noting the different times and places, and the very different styles of music included in the big tent of jazz. In a modern context, the Pastorius concert is an afternoon on the deck with friends, beer, chips and salsa – fun, bright and energetic. The Three Sounds club dates go well with an adult beverage, low light and a comfortable chair – engaging and relaxed but never dull.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

American Epic/The American Epic Sessions

American Epic Blue-ray

Title: American Epic / The American Epic Sessions

Artist: Various

Label: PBS

Formats: DVD, BluRay

Release date: May 16, 2017

 

American Epic 2

Title: American Epic (The Collection)

Artist: Various

Label: Legacy/Sony

Format: 5CD box set, MP3, Streaming

Release date: May 12, 2017

 

 

American Epic The Sessions

Title: The American Epic Sessions

Artist: Various

Label: Lo-Max/Columbia

Formats: 2CD, Vinyl, MP3, Streaming

Release date: June 9, 2017

 

 

First broadcast as a 3-part, 3.5-hour documentary on PBS, “American Epic” explores the beginning of regional commercial recording in the U.S. The program’s premise and logo is these early recording field trips resulted in “the first time American heard itself,” a somewhat grandiose claim. Along with the TV mini-series, Sony released a 100 song, 5-CD box set of newly-transferred/newly-restored vintage recordings, organized by recording locations, plus a single-CD soundtrack album, covering only recordings used in the TV programs. And, taking advantage of a fully-restored vintage recording system, the films’ producers teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and musician/producer/entrepreneur Jack White to stage a series of recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio with performances by a wide assortment of contemporary musicians. Those recordings, transferred from the lacquer discs on which they were inscribed, are collected in “The American Epic Sessions” 2CD set. A two-hour documentary, covering some of these recording sessions and detailing the vintage recording equipment, was also broadcast on PBS.

In 1926, Western Electric developed an electrical recording system, which quickly replaced the acoustic (“screaming into a horn”) systems that had used sound-pressure energy to cut grooves into cylinders and discs up to that point. With Western Electric’s system, sound waves hitting a microphone created an electrical current, which was then amplified by a 6-foot rack of tube electronics, and used to drive an electro-magnetic cutting stylus, which cut grooves onto wax blanks. The system used in “The American Epic Sessions,” lovingly restored and expertly operated by engineer Nicholas Bergh, cuts onto lacquer discs.

The key take-aways relevant to this project: the Western Electric recording system was portable, and at the time it was developed, radio was killing the commercial record business. During the acoustic era, record companies had concentrated on urban-centric popular “dance band” music and formal classical recordings. But the U.S. was a regional and tribal country at the time, and local music genres and styles remained local. Desperate for new record-buying customers, the record companies sent electrical recording systems and crews out into the land, searching for new musicians and musical styles in hopes of “the next big thing” that radio didn’t offer.

A typical recording trip would include a blitz of advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth announcements at general stores and post offices, offering local musicians a chance to make a record. The musicians would flock to a central location, such as a disused hat factory in Memphis or a hotel in San Antonio, for recording sessions. Through this process, the genres of country/hillbilly, Delta blues, Tejano, and Hawaiian music gained national distribution and influence. Some big stars emerged, like country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Tejano pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Many other recordings, by artists such as Dock Boggs, Willie Brown and especially Robert Johnson, didn’t sell well in their day but were incredibly influential on later musicians and musical genres. Other artists such as Charley Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, and even Hopi Indian Chanters, enjoyed regional success and years of fruitful recording sessions.

The “American Epic” documentary and the 5-CD set concentrate the regional styles and genres. The documentary is divided into 3 parts, with each focusing on a handful of artists and songs. Herculean efforts were made to track down descendants or first-person associates of the original artists, and their stories bring life to the people behind the old records. The filmmakers concentrated on the music, and avoided the dull academic tone that slows down too many PBS programs. There is a nerdy hip-ness to the whole project, and the technical details of the early recording process are explained enough for a casual music-oriented viewer to understand by not descending too far in the weeds. Above all, these stories tie together music, people and places.

Recording location rather than music type or artist divides the 5-CD set. This makes for more interesting listening, because each of the CDs is its own “mix tape” of genres and artists, alike only in that they were recorded in a particular region of the U.S., and even then not in a single location or studio. That said, the sequencing choice makes more difficult comparisons of artists within a single genre.

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Engineer Nicholas Bergh, using a system he developed based on his understanding of the original recording process, transferred all of the recordings used in the CD box. A quick comparison of previous reissues of a handful of tunes indicates that Bergh was able to squeeze more fidelity and musical content from the discs, varying from a shade better to much better. It’s worth noting that there is a good bit of overlap between the “American Epic” box set and the classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” so one can compare the transfer technology and aesthetic evolution over the past 50+ years. There is also some overlap with various Yazoo collections, not surprising since Yazoo owner Richard Nevins contributed rare records from his collections and is thanked in the liner notes.

For a person interested in the true roots of what today is called “roots” music, as well as the original Delta style of blues, and the history of what became country music, this set is invaluable. In some cases, this is the first opportunity to clearly hear the musical subtleties and even decipher the lyrics, since the day the discs were cut. The amply illustrated booklet includes printed lyrics and as close to a first-person description of each artist as the producers were able to find.

The American Epic Sessions” is a bit more of a creative-license undertaking. The documentary producers were clearly enamored with Bergh’s restored recording system, so the logical thing to do, with music-industry bigwigs like Burnett and White involved and a documentary crew in tow, was bring some modern musicians in and cut some 78s. The results are mixed, musically, and the listener must accept the somewhat low-fidelity sound quality captured in the lacquers, but the exercise was net-net successful. I recommend the video documentary over the 2CD music-only set, because it’s interesting to watch modern musicians, accustomed as they are to endless re-takes and overdubs, adjust to the antique one-mic/one-take recording process. Suffice to say, some adapt better than others, but all were able to wax a successful side or two.

Overall, the “American Epic” project was an important undertaking, introducing some seminal music to a new audience in a sound quality not heard before, and bringing life to the musical and recording pioneers who first spread the American musical vernaculars out of their local wellsprings. The “Sessions” video and audio aptly demonstrates the conditions and limitations of the early electrical recordings.

Editor’s note: There is also a separate hardcover book, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice, written by series producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 288 pages). According to colleague Steve Ramm, there is little crossover in terms of illustrations and content between this book and the one accompanying the Sony box set. Please note that the book’s title is listed variously on other sites as American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself and American Epic: Companion to the TV Series. Also, there have been hints from some quarters that a director’s cut of the PBS series will be issued on Blu-ray later this year, so you may wish to hold off on your purchase of the version covered here. For various compilations associated with the series (but NOT remastered) see our June 2017 Releases of Note.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – So It Is

PHJB
Title: So It Is

Artist: Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 21, 2017

 

 

Now in its 56th year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to thrive and regularly record albums. This latest effort is a far cry from the original traditional Dixieland outings, and for that reason it’s likely to resonate with modern audiences.

According to the band’s website, a performing trip to Cuba last year was highly influential toward the writing of this album. Band leader and bass/tuba player Ben Jaffe has integrated Afro-Cuban elements into a New Orleans-style blend of funk and up-tempo jazz. There are still references, here and there, to Dixieland and second-line street jazz, but this version of the PHJB would find a home in the record shelf of a Meters fan as well as his trad-jazz loving elders.

Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, founded Preservation Hall and organized its first namesake bands, in the early 1960s. Back in the early years, via recordings for Atlantic and then Columbia, the band featured aging but still vibrant local stars and other practitioners of the “original” style of jazz. In more recent times, the band embraced New Orleans’ musical evolution and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians and producers, moving its sound toward a modern beat-driven jazz style.

It’s worth noting that this album is the second in a row for the PHJB with all original compositions. No more traditional tunes and covers of beloved oldies. The newness of the material is probably a prime reason the band has successfully transitioned to the all-important festival circuit, often paired with rock and pop acts. This is not music to hear while sitting still in a formal concert hall, but rather get-up-and-dance music to power a good outdoor festival mud roll. It’s more party music than contemplation music.

Although all 7 cuts on the album are worth a few careful listens, the featured single “Santiago” is contagiously raucous, and “Convergence” stands out for its funkiness. On the jazzier side of the band’s capabilities are the title track and “One Hundred Fires.” It’s also worth mentioning Walter Harris’s outstanding drum work throughout. The album is beat-driven, and Harris is a very capable driver.

The downside to the party atmosphere is that the music seems wider at the expense of deeper, but the excellent playing mitigates some of the shallowness. This is gut-feeling jazz, more akin to pop music than concert-hall jazz. Alas, like even the best pop music, it has a somewhat plastic soul. Recommend for listening along with friends and fun.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Zaire ’74 – The African Artists

Zaire 74

Title: Zaire ’74 – The African Artists

Artist: Various

Label: Wrasse

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 26, 2017

 

In conjunction with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and concert promoter Steward Levine planned a 3-day music festival in Kinshasa, the capitol of what was then Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Held in the country’s largest sports stadium, the event included performances by James Brown, Bill Withers, the Crusaders, the Fania All-Stars with Celia Cruz and Ray Barretto, and other American stars. Also featured were the top stars of Zaire and folk singer Miriam Makeba, who hailed from Masekela’s home country of South Africa.

When the fight was delayed due to Foreman suffering a training injury, the music festival became a stand-alone event, three weeks removed from the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Both the fight and the musical performances of the American artists were previously well known, in part via the excellent documentaries. The Oscar-winning When We Were Kings documented the fight and Soul Power captured the American musical performances with some brief African musical segments, plus the behind-the-scenes story of staging the festival. Now, finally, the complete performances of the African artists have been released.

According to Masekela’s liner notes, even though all of the music performances were well recorded with modern equipment, event promoter Don King tied legal knots around releasing it. Given King’s history of, to put it charitably, non-traditional business dealings, Masekela’s version of events seems credible. In any case, most of the performances on this 2-CD set haven’t been available until now, 43 years after the event.

Miriam Makeba was already world-famous in 1974, and she put on a superb performance in Zaire. Like the other artists, she prepared a “Praise Song” for the country’s ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko. This was probably part tribute to the man who had led Zaire to independence from Belgian colonization, and partly insurance for safe passage in a country ruled with an iron fist by Mobutu.

Although all of the artists featured in the album offer something worthwhile, two bands stand out. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Afrisa present a guitar and horn-driven funk style that would be at home in the Nigeria of 1974, or opening up for James Brown. Franco and T.P.O.K. Jazz was already popular in Zaire, and they put on a flawless and fast-paced performance. In the interest of full disclosure, almost all lyrics are sung in non-English languages. The horn runs, complex beats and funky song structures are at home in any language.

This album makes a great companion to the two excellent documentaries, all mementos of a long-ago Big Event.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Dennis Coffey – Hot Coffey In the D

Dennis Coffey
Title: Hot Coffey In the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge

Artist: Dennis Coffey

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: January 13, 2017

 

If you listen to classic Motown soul, you have heard guitarist Dennis Coffey, a bona fide member of the famous Funk Brothers in-house studio band. That fuzzy funky guitar on the Temptations “Cloud Nine,” that’s him. Also the neat little psychedelic hooks on later Diana Ross and the Supremes hits, and you can hear him on songs by Edwin Starr and Freda Payne. But wait, there’s more: he also had a million-selling instrumental hit in the ’70’s, “Scorpio.”

Like most other Detroit musicians of his era, Coffey’s recorded work is only part of his legacy. He was a regular in the city’s then-thriving music club scene. By 1968, Coffey was a member of a jazz/funk trio led by organist Lyman Woodard. The group regularly played at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, known around town as a club where the audience expected excellent music, and respected the musicians by listening rather than partying and dancing.

These recordings were funded by Coffey and his production-company partner, but not released until now. They are not haphazard tapings, or soundboard feeds, but rather professional recordings of a working band in action. Here’s the promo video for Hot Coffey In the D, which is more of a mini-documentary on the making of this album:

For the most part, Coffey, Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis smoke up the joint. Some tunes run a little long (especially their cover of “The Look of Love,” which just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to justify a nearly 12-minute excursion), but for the most part this is tight and very soulful instrumental jazz. I call it “jazz” because it is improvisational soloing over skeletal song beds.

Davis does a great job of holding the music together with rock solid beats and tasteful un-busy accents. Woodard is a funky B3 player in the Groove Holmes or Jimmy McGriff mode, although the album notes indicate he was emulating Jimmy Smith (I didn’t hear much Jimmy Smith-style jazz swing in his playing, more a solid funk groove and superb management of the bass pedals). But the real star of the show is Coffey, whose guitar playing is at turns funky, psychedelic, jazzy, and lyrical. His style is somewhat akin to Gabor Szabo in that, like the Hungarian-born jazz-pop guitarist, he can switch styles quickly and weave in and out of the song’s beat and melody. Also like Szabo, he tends to return to the song’s melody with clean single-note runs. But Coffey’s style is all his own, more leaning toward soul and rock than any contemporary jazz guitarist. And, judging from his Motown work, he was very much at home in the “Factory,” able to adapt his playing to whatever the hit producers needed.

The agility and ability of this band is demonstrated in the set list: opening tune “Fuzz” is pure acid jazz; mid-set the band lays down a fast-paced by jazzy cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”; and two songs later the band covers the then-current pop/R&B crossover hit “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over).”

Not to be overlooked, the CD booklet is another Resonance Records masterpiece. It includes interviews with Coffey, Davis, Mike Theodore (Coffey’s production partner and producers of these recordings), and legendary singer Bettye LaVette “on the 60’s Detroit club scene.” The ample text may require more than one playing of the CD to read, unless you’re a speed-reader! The booklet and cover art make strong arguments to buy the physical media rather than a download or stream.

Overall, Hot Coffey In the D is a worthy document of a great time and place in music.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Adam O’Farrill – Stranger Days

adam-ofarrill
Title: Stranger Days

Artist: Adam O’Farrill

Label: Sunnyside

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and his brother Zack (the drummer in this quartet outing) are third-generation New York jazz royalty. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was an in-demand arranger and composer and made recordings with Charlie Parker, Clark Terry and many other greats. Their father, Arturo O’Farrill, is a two-time Grammy winner and leader of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. So a heavy burden of expectations rests on the young O’Farrill brothers’ shoulders. With Stranger Days, they have chosen a new jazz direction, decidedly not Latin-flavored and decidedly the kind of melodic/swinging music associated with their father and grandfather.

The O’Farrill brothers, along with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax and Walter Stinson on bass, take a turn into free-jazz with episodes of bebop and the occasional aside of a brief swinging melody fragment. It’s abstruse music, and it takes a few listens to this album to understand the music and Adam O’Farrill’s vision.

The liner notes, by Zack O’Farrill, help. Zack notes that his brother is a “true cinephile” and an avid player of videogames. He cites those influences on Adam’s musical approach, a dedication to movie-like musical pictures and game-like interplay between the musicians. Plus, the brothers grew up immersed in music and were exposed to many different styles and genres. The music of this quartet seems particularly influenced by free-jazz and modern classical music, but they arrive at a somewhat more accessible style that is not all atonal/a-rhythmic screeching instruments. Indeed, at times they sound like the great Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, which says much for their musical chops.

If you saw the O’Farrill name and expect something Cuban-big band-swinging, you won’t find it here. But Stranger Days is worth a listen because Adam O’Farrill and his bandmates strike out in new directions. They are young, and there is a wide world for them to explore. It will be interesting to hear where they go from here.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Otis Redding – Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

otis-redding
Title: Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

Artist: Otis Redding

Label: Volt/Concord

Formats: CD, digital, LP (excerpts, limited edition)

Release date: October 21, 2016

In this new 6-disc set, Concord Records, the current owner of the Stax label and catalog, puts out for public consumption every inch of tape rolled during Otis Redding’s 3-day/3-night stand at Los Angeles’s Whisky A Go-Go club on April 8-10, 1966. The completist approach is for better or worse, especially since “the best” material from these sets was released in 1968 as In Person at the Whisky A Go Go (Atco), and then more material was released in 1982 (Atlantic LP) and 1993 (Fantasy/Stax CD with bonus tracks) as Good To Me.

In keeping with the year-end holiday spirit, let’s start with the “for better” aspects of this set. The number one good new feature is the improved sound quality. Engineer Seth Presant remixed the original 4-track tapes and the result is a near-clear window into what Otis and his 9-man band sounded like on that stage. The new reissue also features some snazzy packaging; including liner notes on the back of a poster-sized reproduction of the box set cover art. Liner notes include essays by reissue co-producer Bill Bentley and Los Angeles arts and culture writer Lynell George.

The CDs are broken up mostly into individual live sets, the exception being the long second set from Friday, April 8, 1966 being spread over the end of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Disc 3 contains the longer first set from Saturday, April 9, while disc 4 contains the shorter second and third sets from that night. Disc 5 and disc 6 are, respectively, the two sets from Sunday, April 10. Several songs are heard in nearly every set. Indeed, buyer beware—there are many repeat performances of key tunes in the Otis Redding songbook, so variety is not the strong suit in this album.

Which brings us to the “for worse” aspects of this reissue. The big problem with these performances is, the band just didn’t hit its mark most of the time. The horns were often out of tune and rhythm was not tight enough for album-quality takes (which is probably why a few tunes were repeated over and over). The liner notes mention the club’s audience being mainly white kids, and Otis Redding was just beginning to have crossover success at that point in his career, so there was probably a bit of an energy gap between performer and audience. For whatever reason, the overall performances ebb and flow through each set, although it’s clear that Redding was working hard to get his music across and leave L.A. with a viable live album in the can.

After listening to all the Whisky A Go-Go shows, I’m not convinced that Redding would have wanted the complete package released. The performances just weren’t good and consistent enough, which is likely why a lot of editing was employed to get the first two releases. And, even in the edited form, these performances pale in comparison to Redding’s tear-down-the-house triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival a year and two months later. It’s worth noting that Redding played Monterrey backed by the super-tight Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG’s (see the film “Monterey Pop” to witness the incendiary results). Otis Redding died in a plane crash, at age 26, six months after Monterey.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Quincy Jones – Live In Ludwigshafen 1961


Title: Live In Ludwigshafen 1961

Artist: Quincy Jones

Label: SWR-Jazz Haus

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: March 25, 2016

 

In 1959, Quincy Jones put together a big band orchestra for the European musical Free and Easy. The show lasted only a couple of months, playing for small audiences in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Marooned in Europe with a payroll to meet, Jones and company set off touring the continent, booking venues and collecting money to pay their way forward. Eventually, the band ran out of money and came home to the U.S., with Jones $145,000 (in 1960 dollars) in debt. Mercury Records president Irving Green offered Jones a vice president position, and Jones went on to arrange and/or produce hits by Dinah Washington, Leslie Gore, Billy Eckstine and others. He eventually made his biggest mark on music as a producer (Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, etc.), but continued to make jazz and jazz-pop albums throughout his tenure with Mercury.

Jones continued touring with a big band early in his Mercury executive career, and live recordings made in Zurich, Switzerland on March 10, 1961 and the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival in July of that year, have been released by Mercury/Polygram. Jones recorded his last strictly-jazz big band album, The Quintessence, for Impulse! Records in December, 1961, essentially ending his career as leader of a touring jazz big band.

On this CD is the band’s complete concert of March 15, 1961 at the Pfalzbau auditorium in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The well-made mono recording highlights the combination of ensemble and solo playing that was the trademark of Jones’ skilled and modern-sounding band. Featured are excellent live renditions of tunes on Jones’ Mercury studio albums, including “G’Won Train,” “Birth of a Band,” “Stolen Moments,” “Moanin’” and “I Remember Clifford.” Also included is a superb version of the Count Basie classic “Lester Leaps In” featuring great solos by guitarist Les Spann and pianist Patty Bown.

It’s worth listening carefully to Jones’ introduction of the band (track 13, which is followed by a somewhat loose and joyous version of “Birth of a Band,” the title cut to Jones’ first Mercury album). This lineup included many future headliners and leaders on 1960s jazz albums. That Jones could assemble such a band testifies to his influence in the music business even at a relatively young age. Although his greatest career highlights were years forward, this concert demonstrates why Quincy Jones always had the respect of musicians, and always knew how to please an audience.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

Josh White – Josh At Midnight (LP reissue)

josh-white
Title: Josh At Midnight

Artist: Josh White

Label: Ramseur Records

Formats: LP

Release date: August 19, 2016

Josh White (1914-1969) played a style of folk-blues with a jazz-like swing that stood in contrast to the Delta style of blues that came to dominate the genre. Although White enjoyed fame and popularity in his lifetime (and a period of being blackballed for his activism in favor of civil rights legislation), his music fell out of frequent broadcast or rotation on many blues fans’ turntables.

Josh At Midnight was recorded in 1955, in a small church in New York City, using a single Neumann U-47 mic. Original producer Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, oversaw this vinyl-only reissue. The sound quality is superior to the early-era CD reissue I found in the local library system. It’s a mono recording, but the careful placement of White, bassist Al Hall and second vocalist Sam Gary produces a 3-dimensional sound quality, and creates nice separation between the sounds even as they weave together into a satisfying whole.

Musically, White covers songs in the traditional overlap between folk and blues music, such as “Timber (Jerry the Mule),” “One Meat Ball,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He also dives deeper into the blues vein with the saucy “Jelly, Jelly” and “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” (a traditional blues song the lyrics of which were later appropriated by Led Zeppelin for “In My Time of Dying”). There is also the album’s opener, “St. James Infirmary,” a blues-jazz song made famous by Louis Armstrong.

White’s style will appeal to modern “roots music” fans. He was a superb guitar player—Holtzman describes him as “an acrobat with the instrument” in the LP’s new liner notes. His voice was refined and expressive, more a polished performer than a “down and dirty country bluesman.” The key appeal is that he had a ton of soul, and his big personality shines through in his playing and singing.

This vinyl reissue is clearly aimed at audiophiles as well as roots-music fans. If you don’t have a phono rig, seek out one of the previous CD reissues. Even though they don’t have the crystal clear sound and powerful dynamics of this version, the music will shine through.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed

space-echo
Title: Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed

Artists: Various

Label: Analog Africa

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

Although this album is a compilation of actual music made by real-life musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, Analog Africa chose to anchor its theme to a fantastical and somewhat bizarre myth of a ship full of electronic keyboard instruments mysteriously appearing in a farm field in the island nation of Cape Verde, located off Africa’s west coast (see the album’s webpage for the full text of the music’s “creation myth”).

Back in the realm of facts, much of the music in this single-disc compilation was either written or performed by the band Voz de Cabo Verde, lead by Paulino Vieira. This group was sort of the Motown or Stax house band of Cape Verde’s musicians, performing at recording sessions both at home and in Portugal. As with all the Analog Africa compilations, it’s worthwhile to buy the physical media (CD or 2LP set) in order to read the extensive liner notes. The booklet includes interviews with some of the musicians and an article about Cape Verde musical traditions.

The Cape Verde flavor of Afro-pop is a keyboard-heavy mashup of dance rhythms, Portuguese and Brazilian influences and native beats. It is at home at a lively party or in a dance club today. Worth a listen if you’re in the mood for something different but accessible. Belief in the ship-in-the-field “creation myth” is optional.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Erroll Garner – Ready Take One

erroll-garner
Title: Ready Take One

Artist: Erroll Garner

Label: Sony/Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

During his lifetime, Erroll Garner was a somewhat controversial figure with jazz aficionados. The main knock was that he was a technical master of the piano with plenty of flair and piano-bar panache, but not enough soul and swing to be a jazz heavyweight. Despite the bickering among jazz critics, Garner (who died in 1977) did not have trouble filling performance spaces or selling albums, but his place in the public ear waned after his death. His live Concert by the Sea remains one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, and received a deluxe 3-CD reissue (and was nominated for a Grammy) last year. Now, Sony/Legacy has dipped into the archives of Garner’s late manager, Martha Glaser, and found 14 finished but never released recordings, the content of this new album.

Ready Take One is composed of recordings made in 1967 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago; in 1969 at Capitol Studios New York; and in 1971 at RCA Studios New York. The album closes with a live version of Garner’s hit, “Misty,” recorded in Paris in May 1969. For the 1967 sessions, Ike Isaacs on bass, Jimmie Smith on drums and Joe Mangual on congas backed Garner. For the 1969 and 1971 studio and live recordings, Earnest McCarty, Jr. replaced Isaacs on bass. The fact that the band and style of playing remains consistent throughout makes the album hold together as a coherent sequence of enjoyable tunes rather than an “archive dig” of disjointed musical examples.

According to Robin Kelly’s liner notes, Garner’s style in the studio was much like his style on stage with his band: he would call out a tune and then go, with the band responsible for keeping up with whatever improvisational twists he chose to explore. Fortunately, the backing musicians were up for the challenge, and the recordings sparkle with the excitement of a quartet doing what good jazz musicians do—exploring and reacting to each other rather than playing heavily-rehearsed and written-down music. And, for the record, although all of the players are technically excellent, the album gushes with swing and soul.

One admittedly minor criticism: although the liner notes emphasize the fact that the reissue producers chose to keep audio of Glaser calling out take numbers and a few seconds of studio banter here and there, this “bonus material” does not add anything to the music. In fact, it slightly interrupts the flow of the album.

Six of the album’s 14 cuts are Garner originals; “High Wire” and “Wild Music” are particularly nice. The Paris recording of “Misty” also stands out because, despite playing the song thousands of times to ever-eager audiences, Garner could still bring excitement and a connection of “I’m playing this song just for you” to what was yet another performance. Also interesting is the band’s take on the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” Garner’s decision to take the melody apart and reassemble pieces of it on unusual beats doesn’t always work, but the approach shows how the band was not content to run through standards in any sort of traditional way.

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The 1971 sessions, especially, show the influence of funk and acid-jazz on more traditional performers. Garner sometimes sounds quite a bit like Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”), and that more-soul/less-swing approach was probably preferred by live audiences of the time. But, Garner never shies away from virtuosity, so there is always crisp execution of complex right-hand runs and rock-solid left-hand rhythm.

Sony/Legacy has an arrangement to mine the archives of Garner and Glaser, and more releases are promised. Hopefully, there is more of this kind of polished music in the vaults. And, hopefully, future reissues producers will assemble and sequence future releases into enjoyable, musically coherent albums like Ready Take One.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show 12/31/69

Jimi
Title: Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show 12/31/69

Artist: Jimi Hendrix

Label: Sony/Legacy

Formats: CD, SACD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

For Jimi Hendrix, 1969 was a critical year of transition. With his British-American band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he rode a 2-year explosion of popularity that culminated in the fall 1968 release of the 2LP set Electric Ladyland. After that, a combination of road weariness, musical restlessness and personnel squabbles led to the breakup of the Experience. By the time of the Woodstock festival, August 1969, Hendrix was playing with Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, an old friend from the Army and co-traveler on the early 1960’s Chitlin Circuit. The Woodstock band also included extra percussion and Larry Lee on rhythm guitar. Although the Woodstock performance was memorable—think of the electrified psychedelic performance of the National Anthem in the Woodstock movie)—the band was assembled just for that event.

By late fall 1969, Hendrix was rehearsing with Cox on bass and soul/blues multi-instrumentalist Buddy Miles on drums. The group, which Hendrix called Band of Gypsys, debuted in public at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969. This new album is the first official release of the unedited first set, an audio record of Jimi Hendrix bringing forth something very new, at some risk to his career and popularity.

The concert is long known and yet not well-known. There were four sets that night. All previous releases have been edited together out of pieces of the four, with only some bits from the first set. The original LP, released in 1970, was mostly comprised of the later overnight sets. The multi-CD deluxe reissue pieced together a running order similar to the middle sets, with tunes picked from all four. The running order and vibe of these previous issues isn’t quite what the audience heard, although as stand-alone albums, the original LP—which reached #5 and stayed 61 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart—is especially powerful.

Band of Gypsys has been somewhat controversial with critics and hardcore Hendrix fans. Miles’ drumming is heavy and somewhat leaden compared to Mitchell, and the Gypsys was firmly set in blues and hard-funk music, whereas the Experience was more freeform and trippy-psychedelic. Also, Buddy Miles was a showman, and some critics and listeners at the time just couldn’t cotton to his sometimes heavy-handed vocal riffing; the feeling was that he was upstaging the star, Hendrix. In retrospect, Miles’ style fits the music that Hendrix and band wanted to put out, and the point was that it wasn’t a “new Experience,” it was a different direction for Hendrix and his music.

The first New Year’s Eve set was almost all new material, no nuggets from the Experience hit parade except a decent but not stellar rendition of “Hear My Train a Comin’,” a song Hendrix played live numerous times with the Experience. More Experience songs were sprinkled into the later sets, and showed up on the multi-CD reissue compilation. In this unedited release of the first set, we hear the band having some timing and rhythm issues, probably opening night jitters. Several long blues jams keep things in order.

Indeed, blues are the order of the evening. Hendrix used this band as a vehicle to dive fully into the blues music always at the core of his rock hits. His band mates are up to the task, all seasoned by years of playing in R&B revues. Miles definitely prefers a heavier and busier drum style than a classic blues stickman like Chess’s Fred Below. He worked closer to Stax’s Al Jackson Jr.’s backing of Albert King, which was contemporary to these recordings. With mostly rock-steady bass backing by Cox, Hendrix stretches out and explores the ranges of both his guitar and his voice. Particularly on “Bleeding Heart,” near the end of the set, slow blues is rendered with full tension and power, the heavier style of Cox and Miles deployed to perfection.

The album’s title track, “Machine Gun,” presented here in an unedited form (previous releases were edited together from all four sets’ versions) is a smoldering anti-war anthem as powerful in today’s world as the turbulent late 1960s. “Izabella,” based around a fictional soldier’s letters to his girlfriend from Vietnam, is also of the time, although the rendition in this set is somewhat sloppy and tentative.

The set closes with an up-tempo rock colossus, “Burning Desire.” Here, at the end of the set, we hear Hendrix let loose in a rocking manner more familiar to the Experience fan. Miles even displays some Mitch Mitchell-like fleetness at times, which is probably unfair to note since Band of Gypsys was resolutely not aiming to be Experience-like.

Sony says no other complete sets from the New Year’s Eve at the Fillmore East concerts will be released, likely because so much from the later sets is already out there. It’s also worth noting that this will be the first Sony release of Hendrix material in SACD and high-resolution digital downloads. This is surprising, since Sony has in recent years released a large trove of remastered Hendrix recordings, likely transferred and remastered in higher than CD resolution. For whatever reason, these studio and live recordings have been issued only on CD, lossy downloads and in some cases vinyl. This new release was mixed from the original 8-track tapes by long-time Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, and mastered by Bernie Grundman.

After the New Year’s Eve sets, the Band of Gypsys played one more live set, a song-and-a-half misadventure at the January 28, 1970 Winter Festival for Peace. Hendrix walked off the stage, his manager fired Miles on the spot, and that was it for Band of Gypsys. Hendrix died from drug-related asphyxia on September 18, 1970; he was 27 years old.

Hendrix’s short-lived Band of Gypsys phase has always received mixed reviews. An informative listening session would compare this new release of the first New Year’s Eve set with Hendrix’s “American unveiling” at the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival, and the August 1969 Woodstock performance. One might also listen to one of Hendrix’s 1968 Winterland shows to trace the arc of his brief career as a rock and blues superstar. His playing, singing and songwriting evolved greatly in that short time, and the Band of Gypsys’ New Year’s Eve performance was an important part of the journey.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Betty Davis – The Columbia Years, 1968-69

betty davis_best of the columbia years

Title: The Columbia Years, 1968-69

Artist: Betty Davis

Label: Light In the Attic Records

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: June 30, 2016

 

 

For most of this somewhat disjointed album, soul singer Betty Mabry Davis, profiled here in a Blackgrooves review of her early 1970’s output, is heard taking first cuts at songs for a never-completed album co-produced by her then-husband Miles Davis.

The two 1969 sessions at Columbia Records’ 52nd Street, NYC Studio produced no actual master takes for a commercial release, and indeed don’t amount to enough time for a CD release. So, Light In the Attic, the Seattle reissue label that has brought Davis’s four later albums back into print for a new generation of funk fans, filled out this barrel-bottom compilation with out-takes and a single A side from Mabry’s earlier session at Columbia’s Hollywood studio. That session, produced by her then-boyfriend Hugh Masekela, resulted in one single, which didn’t chart and faded into obscurity.

Davis got another try at the music business when she relocated to NYC, fell in with Jimi Hendrix’s and Sly Stone’s entourages (and in fact wrote music for Stone, and later for The Crusaders), and caught the eye of Miles Davis. Betty and Miles Davis were married for one turbulent year, but she helped effect a major change in the jazz icon’s music, by introducing him to Hendrix’s blues-rock and Stone’s hard-funk, among other “younger” music styles percolating around New York and California in the late ‘60s. Miles’ reaction was to scrap traditional jazz and move into a new electrified, rock-influenced direction that came to be called “fusion jazz.” Miles’ most well-known achievement in this style was the album Bitches Brew, the title of which was suggested by Betty Davis. To be fair, Miles evolved his style throughout the “electric period,” and the fantastic album In A Silent Way pre-dated Bitches Brew, so the Betty Davis “influence-creation” story is probably somewhat overblown. But her influence on Miles was no doubt strong, as he admitted in his autobiography.

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Turning back to this new-old CD, Light In the Attic has re-explored the circumstances of the single musical collaboration between Betty and Miles Davis, during the time of their brief marriage. The booklet well documents the sessions, and includes interviews with Davis, Masekela and bassist Harvey Brooks. Also shown are reproductions of Columbia internal memos showing Miles Davis’s producer, Teo Macero, who co-produced the Betty Davis sessions, urging other executives to renew Betty’s contract. Columbia never did re-sign her, and thus the album was never completed.

Net-net, the New York sessions are rough and incomplete, but the makings of an album were emerging. Betty Davis was backed by Hendrix’s drummer and bassist, Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, along with a host of jazz greats who were in the Miles Davis orbit: Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, and Brooks. The playing on the four songs that survive in complete takes from the New York sessions is at the level of these musicians, in other words excellent, when they can find a groove. Then there’s the issue of Betty Davis’s voice getting in that groove. When it happens, more in some songs than others, it’s clear that this group could have made a very interesting funk-jazz album. The problem is, there wasn’t enough time to get locked in all the time, get enough songs completed, and otherwise polish and finish a commercial album.

As for the Hollywood session, we hear on this album the A side of Mabry’s one Columbia single, “Live, Love, Learn,” a somewhat sappy pop-soul ballad that didn’t click with an audience. The better stuff out of Hollywood is the previously-unreleased material: an alternate take of the single’s B side, “It’s My Life” (with a killer Masekela horn arrangement), and the straight-ahead Motown-esque “My Soul Is Tired.”

This album ties up some loose ends with Light In The Attic’s Betty Davis project, but it’s probably not worth the casual fan’s time or money. The New York material was not released because it was not finished. The Hollywood material is of a failed attempt at a breakthrough, but “It’s My Life” is a neat late-1960s soul-pop scorcher (why wasn’t it the A side of the single?). Betty Davis’s best music came later.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Brook Benton – Rainy Night In Georgia: The Complete Reprise & Cotillion Singles A’s and B’s

brook benton_rainy night in georgia

Title: Rainy Night In Georgia: The Complete Reprise & Cotillion Singles A’s ad B’s

Artist: Brook Benton

Label: Real Gone Music/Rhino

Format: CD

Release date: July 1, 2016

 

Brook Benton enjoyed much success in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a Mercury Records artist. His soulful crooning, and adaptability to changing styles, led to a string of songs making the pop and R&B charts from 1958 through the end of his Mercury contract in 1965. His subsequent short stint with RCA records netted a few mid-chart placements, but no big hits.

This 2-CD set picks up in late 1967, after Benton signed with Reprise Records. His first single for that label, “Laura” (b/w “You’re the Reason I’m Living”), hit #78 on the Billboard pop chart, but nothing else from his subsequent Reprise output moved the needle. In this era, Benton continued in the soul crooner style he honed at Mercury, and the Reprise singles often featured somewhat syrupy strings and backing vocal choruses.

In 1968, Benton signed to the Cotillion imprint. Under the legendary producer Arif Mardin, Benton’s sound moved toward the funky side of soul. He still sang beautiful ballads, but between Mardin’s tight arrangements and the input of musicians in the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, Atlantic’s studio in New York City, and Criteria Studios in Miami (nicknamed “Atlantic South”), the beat and sway of the songs loosened up. Because he was an adaptable singer, Benton was able to stay hip and modern sounding, like the cool adult in the room.

During his years with Cotillion, Benton enjoyed chart success with six out of 13 singles, including #1 R&B hits with “Nothing Can Take the Place of You” in 1969 and “Rainy Night in Georgia” in 1970, which also shot up to #4 on the pop chart.

Benton’s style in the early 1970s was somewhat akin to what Elvis Presley was doing at the time, in fact both men covered some of the same tunes.  However, where Elvis went for the soaring show-stopper approach, Benton stayed cooler and more intimate.

For this set, original mono single master tapes were located for 28 of the 31 tracks. Gene Sculatti’s liner notes detail the chronology of the singles and Benton’s pre-history to the time period covered by the set. Remastering engineer Mike Milchner achieved an overall good sound quality, definitely an upgrade to how these songs sounded coming out of AM radio speakers at the time of their original release.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Charles Bradley – Changes

charles bradley changes

Title: Changes

Artist: Charles Bradley

Label: Dunham Records

Format: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: April 1, 2016

 

 

Charles Bradley’s late-in-life rise from holder of odd jobs and obscure James Brown impersonator to retro-soul music star is now complete, and his third album on Daptone’s Dunham imprint adds an exclamation point.  Like other Daptone artists, Bradley is not doing something very new and different, but he’s picking up older strains of soul and R&B music not heard out of other modern performers, and putting his own twists on them.  He’s been compared to Otis Redding, and of course to his professed idol, James Brown, but he brings enough new mannerisms and styling to the table to be a unique, compelling voice. In all of this, he’s similar to his Daptone label-mate, Sharon Jones.

 

 

On this new album, Bradley offers an array of soul stylings, from the hard-funk of “Ain’t It A Sin,” to the Stax-like vibe on “Crazy For Your Love,” to a 70’s feel on “Change For The World,” to the title track, a cover of Black Sabbath’s 1972 heavy metal ballad. Wait, what? Charles Bradley covers a tune originally sung by Ozzy Osbourne? Yes, and he pulls it off with aplomb, mainly because the song is, at its heart, a soul ballad. Bradley’s version replaces the campy Mellotron parts with horns, to great effect. And of course Bradley sings with much more soul than the Oz-man.

Net-net, this is a very satisfying if nostalgic-sounding album. The backing musicians, mainly Daptone’s Menahan Street Band, stay right with Bradley, with extra kudos for the horn playing and arranging.

Bradley is now 67-years-old. He is among the last of the working soul singers who at least saw the original titans of the genre in concert at their prime. His rise from obscurity following his discovery by Daptone head Gabe Roth is documented in the film “Soul of America.” May his hard-earned music career continue for a long time.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Numero Eccentric Soul Series: Sitting in the Park

eccentric soul_sitting in the park

Title: Eccentric Soul: Sitting in the Park

Artist: Various

Label: Numero

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: June 17, 2016

 

From 2002-2014, listeners to Chicago’s WHPK could tune in once a week and hear songs from some of the most obscure and neglected corners of the region’s soul music legacy, courtesy of an eccentric and obsessed fan and record collector, Bob Abrahamian. Not only did Abrahamian spin singles from his collection of about 35,000 platters, he also regularly interviewed the artists who performed a style of vocal-harmony music known as Chicago Sweet Soul.  Unfortunately, Abrahamian’s obsessive personality and declining mental health got the best of him, and he committed suicide in 2014.

In this anthology, Numero Records drew on Abrahamian’s record collection to produce a tribute both to the man and the music he so passionately championed.  The physical media (LP and CD) releases contain an outstanding booklet, with a detailed biographical essay by Numero’s Rob Sevier and brief biographies of the performers, along with transcript excerpts from Abrahamian’s interviews.  Sevier and Abrahamian’s sister, Jenny, picked the 16 tunes in this collection (12 selections on the LP version).

The music and audio quality vary, but overall the playing and singing range from competent to excellent.  On one hand, it’s clear why some of these artists ended up confined to minor radio play and short turns in Chicago area jukeboxes, but then again, it’s surprising how many competent to excellent soul singers and musicians were working in a single geographic area in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The disc-to-digital transfers, by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering, are generally quite good, and the mastering engineers did not overuse digital restoration tools.

Abrahamian concentrated his collecting on something specific yet large-scale—acquiring all recordings by what he described as Chicagoland vocal-harmony soul groups. Judging by the size of his collection at the time of his death, it turned out to be a larger task than one would expect, or that he likely anticipated.

Stylistically, this music would be in line with 1970s mellow soul, not particularly funky and also not on the fringes of disco. It’s similar to the vocal-group output by more-mainstream artists of the time recording for Motown, Philadelphia International and Atlantic. There is an emphasis on the bass line, and strings are often used to augment the vocal harmonies.

Interestingly, Abrahamian’s radio show and interviews survive online, easily heard by any fan of Chicago Sweet Soul music (sittinginthepark.com). His legacy of loving, respecting and publicizing long-ago songs by obscure Chicagoland artists outlives him.

As is the case with most Numero anthologies, if you’re willing to tolerate a range of musical talent and performing competence, you will likely find some new favorites, and the informative booklet will teach you about the music of a place and time, and in this case the personal musical quest of an obsessive collector.

 

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

 

 

Larry Young – In Paris: The ORTF Recordings

larry young_in paris the otf recordings'

Title: In Paris – The ORTF Recordings

Artist: Larry Young

Label: Resonance Records

Format: 2CD

Release Date: 3/11/16

 

 

Newark, NJ native Larry Young (also known as Khalid Yasin) is probably best known for his fiery organ-combo recordings for Blue Note, or perhaps for his late 60’s membership in the original Tony Williams Lifetime group, with drummer Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin. In this new 2-CD collection, we hear the 24-year-old Larry Young moving away from the soul-blues organ combos he had led since his first recording in 1960, and toward a more modern, modal jazz heard on his classic Blue Note album Unity.

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Young’s performances for the French public broadcaster, ORTF, were recorded in late 1964 and early 1965, broadcast once and then kept in a vault until Resonance Records made a release deal with the French national archives’ media division, the INA. Good news for jazz fans, Resonance hints that there are worthwhile recordings by many other American jazz musicians in the INA vaults, and they intend to release them.

The ORTF recordings place Young in a variety of settings: trios, quartets and larger groups. Most were made in the ORTF studios, but two cuts are from a broadcast of l’Acadamie du jazz’s concert held February 9, 1965 at La Locomotive club in Paris. One of those performances is a 20-minute rendition of Young’s “Zoltan,” which he later recorded as the opening track of Unity. The song is a tribute to Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, which is the result of an interesting part of Young’s background. He learned piano from Hungarian émigré Olga Von Till, who studied with classical composer Bela Bartok in Budapest, and also taught jazz piano great Bill Evans, and many less famous students in northern New Jersey. Ms. Von Till is profiled in the album’s sizable booklet, an interesting side character in an important jazz career.

According to the album’s liner notes, Young was in France in late 1964 and early 1965 because there were paying gigs, and freedom from the tense political and racial environment then coursing through Newark and New York. He signed on with tenor saxophonist Nathan Davis’s quartet at the Paris club, Le Chat Qui Peche (the Cat who Fishes), which included his Newark jazz buddies, trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Billy Brooks. The group recorded about half of the cuts across the 2 CDs, and Davis and Shaw also played in the larger-group recordings made by ORTF.

While some of the playing is rougher than would be expected on Young’s Prestige or Blue Note albums, the musicians often lock into deep grooves, and the crystal clear recordings by ORTF’s engineers showcase each musician’s contribution. The long jams work because the playing is imaginative and the soloists are clearly being driven onward and upward by their band mates. There’s a one-take-or-bust excitement to everything, very capable musicians driven by spontaneous grooves and improvisations. This kind of jazz is hard to pull off, and is rarely heard at such a high level.

It’s worth noting that these recordings fall around and just after the time Young made his first Blue Note album, Into Somethin’ (recorded November 12, 1964) and a few months before he made the seminal Unity (recorded November 10, 1965). It’s clear that Young is moving toward something that was new and different for the jazz organ, more abstract, fleet-fingered and percussive, different from the blues-funk style of many of his contemporaries. He would go on to explore a more free-form style, and end up in the earliest group of fusion-jazz musicians, playing on the first two Tony Williams Lifetime albums and on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.

In the ORTF recordings, now out of the vault and available to all, we hear an energized Larry Young moving his art in a new direction, in the company of capable cohorts. Throw in some high-class packaging and a 68-page booklet with details about Young’s life, the ORTF and its jazz shows, the circumstances of these recordings, and remembrances of Young’s band mates and friends, and the result is indeed a very appealing release.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Miles Davis, Robert Glasper, Don Cheadle – Miles Ahead: Original Soundtrack Recording

miles ahead

Title: Miles Ahead – Original Soundtrack Recording

Artist: Miles Davis, Robert Glasper, Don Cheadle

Label: Sony Legacy

Format: CD

Release Date: 4/1/16

 

Don Cheadle’s new movie is what amounts to a fictional bio-pic about Miles Davis, with parts of the portrayed biography being real but the central action of the movie being a creation of Cheadle’s imagination. In short, it takes a real person, Miles Davis, and elements of his real life, as portrayed by Cheadle, and sets in motion a series of incidents that never actually happened.

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Given that setup, it’s not surprising that the soundtrack recording features snippets of Don Cheadle portraying Miles Davis between cuts of actual Davis recordings and additional music by jazz-hip hop artist Robert Glasper.

What is surprising, though, is that it works pretty well. There are only three complete cuts from Miles Davis’s albums: “Miles Ahead” from the 1953 Prestige compilation Blue Haze, “So What” from the 1959 Columbia classic Kind of Blue, and “Frelon Brun” from the 1969 Columbia album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The other seven Davis tunes are either edits or cuts, but offer a good flavor of the depth and breadth of Davis’s music. The Glasper cuts are Davis-esque, as are Cheadle’s spoken interludes.

Like the movie, the soundtrack album is an exploration of one man’s (Cheadle’s) ideas about another man (Davis). There are other views of Davis and his life, including his own autobiography, Miles. Keep in mind, Cheadle’s movie is a series of fictional events, and this soundtrack was created in service to that movie.

Although Sony’s press release suggests this album might be a good introduction to the music of Miles Davis, I highly recommend seeking out the original albums. Aside from the three cited above, check out the other sources of edited/excerpted cuts: Sketches of Spain, Seven Steps To Heaven, Nefertiti, Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Agharta.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s – Damn Right I Am Somebody

Fred wesley and the jbs_damn right i am somebody

Title: Damn Right I Am Somebody

Artist: Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s

Label: Get On Down/Universal Special Markets/People Records

Format: LP with bonus “Flexi Disc” single

Release Date: February 5, 2016

 

The first half of the 1970s was a very productive time for James Brown and the musicians in his orbit. Damn Right I Am Somebody, produced by Brown under the moniker of Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s, was released in 1974 on the heels of Brown’s highly successful double-LP The Payback. Many of the same musicians are heard on both albums—some parts were recorded by the same J.B.’s who toured with Brown, and other parts with a band of crack NYC studio musicians.

Fred Wesley, trombone player extraordinaire, was Brown’s bandleader in that era. The J.B.’s were in constant personnel flux in the 1970s, particularly with saxman Maceo Parker and bassist Bootsy Collins moving between Brown’s orbit and the George Clinton/Parliament world. As was the case on previous and future J.B.’s albums, the emphasis here is funky instrumentals, and longer explorations of riffs and hooks, rather than tight, radio-singles-oriented vocal-centric songs typical of Brown’s name-brand output (although, on his LP releases, Brown and his band always included stretched-out versions that featured instrumental solos and pyrotechnics).

At the time of this album, James Brown was in his peak Godfather of Soul period, and used his voice in the popular culture to espouse black liberation and empowerment. The album title is a reference to the poem “I Am – Somebody,” written in the 1950s by Rev. William Holmes Borders, Sr., the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church. In the 1970s, Rev. Jesse Jackson often quoted the poem in his public speeches, perhaps most famously at the 1972 Wattstax music festival. A loop of Jackson quoting the poem underlies part of “Same Beat – Part 1,” the first cut on side B of this funky vinyl slab. A studio-chatter riff of Brown calling on various band members and asking, “are you somebody?” followed by the response “damn right, I am somebody!” starts off side A and the title track.

Another “message” song is the last cut on side A, “I’m Payin’ Taxes, What Am I Buyin’.” Given that it’s tax-paying season, perhaps a listen to this tune on Youtube will salve some of the sting.

Another significant cut on the album is “Blow Your Head.” In an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Wesley told the story of how a Moog synthesizer ended up on the track:

“We used a New York studio band sometimes and that was recorded with the studio band. So James came in and he wanted to hear it. I thought he was gonna put his voice on it. He saw this Moog synthesizer, and he said [mimicking James’ voice], “What’s that?” So we said, “Oh that’s a Moog synthesizer, Mr. Brown. We’re thinkin’ about using it on some of the tunes.” He said, “How’s it sound?” “Well, we went through some sounds with it.” He said, “Turn it on! Put it on the track!” We said, “What? No, we were gon’-” “Turn it on! Put it on the track!”

So he put it on the track. [imitates sound of synth intro] I said, “Oh lord, I hope he don’t leave this on, it’s messin’ up my track!” [laughs] So he put it on THE WHOLE TRACK. And we could not believe it. We were like, it’s just an experiment, this will stay in the studio forever, no one will ever hear this. And what do you know, it got out on the album and the next thing you know it’s a hit all over the world.” (full interview here)

Hip-hop fans will probably recognize parts of “Blow Your Head.” It’s been widely sampled by artists such as Public Enemy, Digable Planets and De La Soul. Included with this LP reissue is a 7-by-7-inch “flexi-disc” of the “2000 undubbed version,” which doesn’t include the Moog synthesizer. It is fertile sampling fodder, aside from being a super-tight funk instrumental.

This album flows from song-to-song without breaks. As each tune fades out or stops on a beat, a loose studio jam, replete with Brown shrieks and screams, fades out, rides for a few dozen seconds, and fades out, with the next tune immediately starting. This technique was later used as a “concept album” method by Brown and other funk and soul artists. The “faded in and out jam” serves as a musical connector and bedrock. Here, it give the album a feeling of an endless groove/jam, to the last 33⅓ rotations.

Also worth mentioning about this vinyl reissue are the heavy cardboard jacket, faithful reproduction of original graphics, and the column of repeated text on the back which relays the album’s core message: “Think that you are somebody, and you’ll be somebody. Positive Thinking, Positive Thinking, Positive Thinking.”

To get a flavor of James Brown and the J.B.s in the early 70’s, check out their appearances on the Soul Train TV show circa 1974 (“Damn Right I Am Somebody” and interview) and September 14, 1974 (medley of “Cold Sweat,” “Payback,” “Damn Right I Am Somebody”). Also, see the excellent documentary, Soul Power.

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine