You, me, the music, and me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Off topic, part two: top ten or eleven albums of 2005

CD's? What are those doing here!?! I know, I know... this is supposed to be a vinyl-only blog, but I couldn't resist showing you my best-of-2005 list from my radio show (thanks to everyone who tuned in).
1. PAT METHENY/ORNETTE COLEMAN Song X Twentieth Anniversary (Nonesuch) - I struggled with the guilt over putting a reissue of a twenty-year-old album atop this list until I concluded that the remastering of this album (producing a crisp, you-are-there sound unheard of in the early days of CD's), the closer sequencing of the tracks (adding an even greater immediacy to the proceedings) and the six previously unreleased tunes at the beginning made this practically a brand new album. Proof that even a masterpiece can be improved.
2. DRUMHELLER (Rat-Drifting) - By mining an underappreciated vein of creative music (namely the seventies quartet sound of Anthony Braxton, with a little Roswell Rudd thrown in for good measure) for inspiration, these five Montreal-based musicians made one of the most enjoyable and accessible avant-jazz albums of the year.
3. BILLY BANG Vietnam: Reflections (Justin Time) - Mixing modern modalism with traditional Vietnamese melodies and instrumentation, violinist Bang made a warm-hearted, inviting album that straddled realms both global and personal.
4. KEITH JARRETT Radiance (ECM) - Alone at the piano once more (after what seems like a lifetime of stellar recordings with the Standards Trio), Jarrett digs deep and produces his most personal and soulful solo set since The Koln Concert.
5. FIELDWORK Simulated Progress (Pi) - Brief, snappy rhythm-based improvisations by this sax/piano/drums trio may point toward the shape of jazz to come.
6. ROB CLUTTON Dubious Pleasures (Rat-Drifting) - Prolific Canadian bassist steps out on his own with an accomplished set of solo compositions and improvisations.
7. BILL FRISELL East/West (Nonesuch) - Nothing really new or surprising on this double-disc of live material from two trio dates on either side of the U.S., but for fans of this tastefully avant guitarist, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
8. MARC RIBOT Spiritual Unity (Pi) - This saxless tribute to one of the most iconically identifiable hornmen who ever lived succeeds because the players concentrate their efforts not on Albert Ayler's sound or legend, but on his belief in music as ritual (and life as music).
9. ANTHONY BRAXTON/MATT BAUDER 2 + 2 Compositions (482 Music) - One of many albums released by Braxton in 2005, this Cage-y quartet date pairs him with some of his former students and marks the recording debut of Bauder as a composer.
10. (tie) ODYSSEY THE BAND Back in Time (Pi) - James Blood Ulmer regroups his classic trio from the Odyssey LP and produces a more-than-worthy sequel.
TONY WILSON Horse's Dream (Drip Audio) - A folksy solo outing from the king of Canadian avant-garde guitar.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

JOHN FAHEY The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album

Takoma SF-72720 (1974)

I don't own a lot of Christmas-themed albums. It's not that I don't like Christmas music; on the contrary, I can lead my vocal students through carols all day and never get tired of the seasonal sounds of "Silent Night" and "Good King Wenceslas". It's just that when I put on music to relax to during the holidays, I usually prefer to hear something different than what I hear all day in the malls and on the radio.

Most people who think the way I do will more often than not put on The New Possibility, an album of folksy Yuletide arrangements for steel-string acoustic guitar by fingerstyle legend John Fahey. Fahey's settings are simple and straightforward yet full-sounding, with the melodies always front and center. The ambient reverberations of "What Child Is This" feel like they were recorded in a snow-covered forest on Christmas Eve. Fahey sprinkles harmonics over "The Bells of St. Mary's" and breaks out the slide to lend a bluesy feel to "Go I Will Send Thee" and "Silent Night, Holy Night". The centerpiece of the album is a ten-minute original composition titled "Christ's Saints of God Fantasy" that is so vivid in its imagery it's like a "John Fahey Christmas" TV special for the ears.

If you know a person who usually turns a deaf ear to holiday music (or if you are that person), get them a copy of The New Possibility; it's the perfect gift for the music-lover on your list (especially if that music-lover is you).

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata

Atlantic SD 1578 (1971)

"You Must Read the Back of This Album" proclaimed the lettering across the top of this album, and so I dutifully did, flipping it over and reading it right there in the store, where it told me that "with a few minor exceptions Rahsaan Roland Kirk is the only musician on this album" and that "everything that you hear was done live, at one time, in a recording studio. There are no overdubs, no gimmicks, and no electronic effects." A statement such as this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Kirk's legend; as a teen, one night he had a dream he was playing three horns at once, and so he decided to make this technique a reality. As a result, Kirk can sound like a one-man saxophone choir.

Long before Wynton Marsalis came on the scene, Kirk was stressing the importance of jazz as America's "classical" music, but in a more open and inclusive way. Many of Kirk's compositions and improvisations on this album sound like funky baroque or renaissance pieces with deceptively simple structures. His sound is like a kind of personal folk music with traces of other cultures thrown in; at one point, Kirk quotes the Jewish song "Hava Nagila" in his own "Island Cry". John Coltrane is a big influence, too; Kirk's soloing on "Something for Trane that Trane Could Have Said" pays tribute to Coltrane's snaky soprano sax sound, while "Runnin' from the Trash" is a humourous take on Trane's spiralling "sheets of sound" technique found in tunes like "Countdown" and "Chasin' the Trane", in which Kirk blows so fiercely without pause that you fear for his health.

What I like a lot about Roland Kirk is that the music he made in his lifetime came from a very personal place. He was not striving to be "avant-garde", nor did he especially care about tailoring his sound to attract a large mainstream audience. When I listen to a Kirk album, I believe that every sound that I'm hearing is there because Kirk wanted it there and felt that it was right. By producing nearly every sound on Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata himself, Kirk made an album that is a model of selfless self-expression.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Off topic (sort of)

As I may or may not have mentioned, I host a weekly campus radio show called No Pain for Cakes on CFMH-FM in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Tonight at 9:00 p.m. (Atlantic) I'll be counting down my top ten favourite albums of the year. If you haven't had a chance to tune in yet, please do! (Click on the NO PAIN FOR CAKES - CFMH link over on the right with all the other links, or, if you live in or near Saint John, tune to 92.5.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

GARY PEACOCK December Poems

ECM -1-1119 (1979)

ECM is one of those record labels that is pretty much immediately identifiable by both the sound and design of its releases. Say "ECM" to a jazz fan and they will probably start thinking of spare instrumentation, thoughtful playing, reflective improvising, and, above all, an icy, wintry, yet warm sound. Their album design has tended to follow the lead of the music; simple, stark imagery with plain block typography.

You can't get more wintry than by titling an album December Poems, and bassist Gary Peacock does deliver a record that captures the feel of a snowy day when winter is still new. Peacock is an extraordinarily gifted and versatile player who has proven himself to be equally at home with the avant-jazz of Albert Ayler and Marilyn Crispell as with the more straightahead music of Art Pepper and Bill Evans. He is currently most active in and best known for his work with Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio (which first worked together on the Peacock-led Tales of Another for ECM).

Peacock goes it alone for most of December Poems; the only other musician on the album is saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who plays on two tracks. "Snow Dance" features Peacock duetting with himself, overdubbing a high register solo over a lilting modal rhythm. "December Greenwings" is a freewheeling duet with Garbarek, who solos with the gravity of Coltrane combined with the freeflight of Ornette over a walking bassline. Peacock coaxes all sorts of unearthly noises from his instrument on the abstract, otherwordly "Flower Crystals". And "A Northern Tale" sounds like a long-lost folksong and really does seem to tell a story without words.

Bassists and non-bassists alike will find something to like about December Poems; it showcases the simple virtuosity of Gary Peacock to great effect and is the perfect album to put on during those (upcoming) cold winter nights.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Columbia OC 45281 (1989)

Most people who've seen the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous are probably glad that Bob Dylan became a singer/songwriter instead of a filmmaker. Co-written by Dylan under the pseudonym "Sergei Petrov", the movie feels like one of those long, epic-length song-saga thingies that he tosses out every so often (except it's almost two hours long and has Luke Wilson in it). The tale of a jailed rocker named Jack Fate (played by Dylan) being freed to play a benefit concert in some unnamed, war-ravaged country, it's mostly a mess, but it does contain some interesting insights into Dylan's thoughts and feelings on the state of the world, both political and personal. It's fun to watch Dylan listen to the actors speak words that are unmistakeably his own back to him. Many felt, however, that the film was too vague and unfocussed; perhaps not coincidentally, the same criticism gets aimed at a lot of Dylan's post-sixties musical catalogue.

Oh Mercy feels like it takes place in the imaginary country in which the movie's story is based, and while some of the songs' subjects are not explicitly defined either, the vagueness works better on record than on film. The characters on the record (this time all speaking in Dylan's voice) sound chased, pursued, hounded by demons that they can't see; it's as if they took a brief minute to sit down, explain what has happened to them or what they are feeling, and then they're off again. Too afraid to name names or be specific, they speak their piece and get outta there.

The production on the album is rich yet spare; producer Daniel Lanois uses guitars and keyboards with just the right mixture of lushness and grit, and the percussion is mostly muted. "Political World" is an upbeat, one-chord rocker that builds in intensity as the song progresses, and "Ring Them Bells" and "Man in the Long Black Coat" are drumless, atmospheric ballads. "Most of the Time" and "What Good Am I?" showcase Dylan's skill at love-gone-wrong songs; he can make self-pity sound elegiac without sounding morose. "Disease of Conceit" is a memorable, almost humourous sermon, with Dylan singing the title so quickly it comes out as "diseasaconceeeee".

Dylan doesn't need the medium of film to bring his cinematic concepts to life; if you want proof, skip the movie and hunt this record down. Oh Mercy won't replace any of his sixties albums, but it's a worthwhile trip into Dylan country.

Friday, December 09, 2005

GAME THEORY Lolita Nation

Enigma STB-73280 (1987)

I first bought Lolita Nation on cassette during my first year at Dalhousie University in Halifax. I had heard only one Game Theory song before ("Erica's Word", from a compilation tape called The Enigma Variations 2) but figured I'd take a chance since they were produced by Mitch Easter, who also produced R.E.M.'s first few albums and had a great band of his own called Let's Active. At the time, I was pretty excited to be living in Halifax and to have access to a greater selection of music than what I was hearing on the radio back home. In those pre-Nirvana days, it was a shock to my system to walk into a record store and see new releases by bands like Sonic Youth, Husker Du, and Dinosaur, Jr. Heady times, indeed.

Game Theory were a power-pop group from North Carolina led by singer/songwriter Scott Miller. Miller had a knack for writing insanely catchy tunes wrapped in sparkling arrangements; his lyrics could be wryly sardonic, bracingly bitter, or heartbreakingly sincere, and his subject was usually love or its disintegration. It seemed to me that Game Theory never got anywhere near the amount of success that they deserved; they didn't even get the minimal attention paid to other "alternative" bands of the era. Too bad, because Lolita Nation deserves to stand beside anything put out by R.E.M. (or XTC or the Beatles, for that matter).

Lolita Nation was a real grab-bag of an album, a double LP packed with some of the group's strongest songs mixed together with shorter, more experimental tracks. "Vacuum Genesis" is a brief snippet of what sounds like Miller humming softly while vacuuming, "Where They Have to Let You In" features spooky chain-rattling and chirping crickets, and "Turn Me on Dead Man" is a backwards-tape track that somehow sounds just as melodic as any of the songs on the album. Oh, the actual songs? They're pretty good, too; "The Waist and the Knees" is a biting rocker that deals with the disillusionment of record deals, and "One More for Saint Michael" is a loping acoustic track that references Star Trek ("Captain Jim throws the Prime Directive out for the umpteenth time/it's habit for him now"). The record contains many tiny little "Easter eggs" for listeners with good ears; the guitar freakout at the end of "The Waist and the Knees", the last track on side one, contains a riff that is the the theme of the opening track on side two, "Nothing New". There are also many little samples of and references to earlier Game Theory albums (many of which have been reissued sporadically on CD and are rather rare; at one point, the Lolita Nation CD was going for upwards of $100 a pop on eBay).

Game Theory released one more album before breaking up; Miller went on to form The Loud Family, which released several albums of fine, quirky avant-pop in the Game Theory vein. These days Miller is keeping busy recording and playing occasional shows (some with friend and fellow singer/songwriter Aimee Mann) and a new Loud Family album is scheduled for January. If you didn't catch Game Theory the first time around, check out what Scott Miller is doing now. If you appreciate intelligent, heartfelt pop music, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Columbia FC 38900 (1983)

If I told you that guitarist James Blood Ulmer's music was a combination of elements of jazz, blues, folk, rock, country, and soul, you might be tempted to write it off as a stylistic mishmash or artistic car wreck. If I told you this while playing Odyssey for you, you might instead be amazed at how effortlessly Ulmer blends all of these styles into songs that are both wildly expressive and incredibly catchy. Ulmer toured and recorded with free jazz godfather Ornette Coleman in the seventies, and he was one of the first guitarists to apply Coleman's theory of harmolodics to his instrument. In his own music, Ulmer applies Ornette's influence to his own jazz/blues mixture, resulting in a sound that is neither straight free jazz nor straightahead blues but a soulful, unfettered mixture of the two.

Most of Ulmer's tunes have an upbeat, almost country-ish lilt to them, such as the opening track "Church" (which alternates languorous wah-wah with short, clipped phrasing) and "Little Red House" (featuring a soulful vocal by Ulmer and Charles Burnham's eloquently folksy violin). Rather than working from a base of atonality (such as Sonny Sharrock, for example), Ulmer's playing is rooted in the blues, with jazz and avant-garde flavourings added for taste. "Election" combines guitar and violin to create a Celtic-sounding theme, with drummer Warren Benbow pounding away at a march-like beat. The title track is a spiralling free-jazz instrumental, with Ulmer's double-tracked guitars duelling away over a driving rock beat.

Many fans of the guitar have often wondered what Jimi Hendrix would sound like if he were alive today and what kind of music he would be creating; Ulmer's effortless, democratic mix of disparate styles and genres may provide at least one possible answer.

Friday, December 02, 2005


RCA Victor LPM-2612 (1962)

How could I possibly add anything more to the accolades that have been heaped upon tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins? A musician's musician and an improviser's improviser, he is famous for his endless imagination which manifests itself in solos that can last for hours without one musical idea or riff being repeated. At 75, he shows no sign of slowing down and continues to tour and record regularly.

Our Man in Jazz was recorded live at the Village Gate in New York City with a group consisting of Rollins' longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw and two musicians frequently associated with avant-garde kingpin Ornette Coleman, cornetist Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins. Ornette's influence is heavy on this album; this is some of the freest jazz that Rollins had ever played before or since. The 25-minute "Oleo" starts off with a jabbing duet between Rollins and Cherry before a brief statement of the theme, then the harmony is all but abandoned as the group trades off furiously paced solos and duets. Cherry is in especially fine form, peeling off dizzying blasts of high notes a la Dizzy Gillespie; this may be his most inspired playing on record. "Dearly Beloved" contains rapid-fire exchanges of ideas and drastic shifts in tempo that seem to be communicated telepathically between the musicians, and "Doxy", while more conventially swinging than the other pieces, contains some great "out" soloing from Cherry and Rollins.

Our Man in Jazz is a perfect intro to free-form jazz for those more accustomed to traditional sounds; it's "inside" enough for conservative tastes, yet won't disappoint anyone looking for unconventiality. For fans of Sonny Rollins (and for those who aren't yet), it's an overlooked but essential gem in his catalogue of recordings.