You, me, the music, and me.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

MILES DAVIS A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Columbia KC 30455 (1971)

"The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a signal for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that? And of course being born Black in America... we all know how that goes."

- from the liner notes by Miles Davis

Recorded and released just after his groundbreaking fusion albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson is Miles Davis' most straightahead "rock" album, and it represents an even sharper turn away from anything resembling a traditional jazz sound. Drop the needle on "Right Now" and you may think you've purchased the wrong album, with drummer Billy Cobham laying down a pounding 4/4 beat and electric bassist Michael Henderson playing a simple, chugging line beneath guitarist's John McLaughlin's chunky power chords. Before the tape rolled, Miles had instructed McLaughlin to play like he couldn't remember how, and while McLaughlin is far too accomplished a musician to fool us, his playing is more primal than (and almost unrecognizable compared to) his previous work with Davis.

The sidelong "Right Now" is probably the closest that any of Davis' studio recordings came to capturing his actual live sound at the time. Producer Teo Macero had tinkered with Miles' previous recordings (with his permission), cutting and restitching them into complex sonic murals. Some of this technique is present on Jack Johnson, but to a much lesser degree. (To hear more of this group in their natural state, check out the recently released The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 or The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.)

Side two's "Yesternow" is closer in sound and spirit to Bitches Brew but still maintains a leaner sound than its predecessor. The track begins with Miles playing short, legato phrases over Henderson's bass and McLaughlin's wah-drenched guitar. Slowly Cobham's drums enter the conversation, as McLaughlin takes the lead with some languourous blues-drenched lines. The beat picks up speed as someone (probably either Miles or Herbie Hancock) injects some vicious organ stabs into the mix, then the pace shifts drastically into what sounds like a Brew outtake, then another shift into an upbeat funk riff.

In dedicating this album to former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, Miles was aligning himself with another black hero who fought for his own personal freedoms as well as the freedoms of his black countrymen. Refusing to allow himself to be put in a box stylistically, Davis was unafraid of those who criticized his artistic shift into a more populist "rock and roll" sound, and it resulted in some of the most controversial and groundbreaking jazz ever recorded.

"Dig this - The fight he lost (1915) in Havana was rumored to be thrown - Jack Johnson died like he lived - in a fast car (1946 - age 68).
The music on this album speaks for itself! But dig the guitar and the bass - They are 'Far-in' - and so is the producer Teo Macero. He did it again!"

- Miles Davis

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Geffen Records XGHS 24096 (1986)

There are two things that you should know about this album right off the top. First, it's available on CD in an expanded twentieth-anniversary reissue with six extra tracks, and second, you should stop reading this right now and rush out and buy it, because while the original LP is a masterpiece of improvisation and invention, the reissue is even better; the remastering punches up the sound of the tracks noticeably, and the additional tracks alone are worth the price of the CD. Then again, if you read my top ten list of about a month ago, you already know this. So, go already! Buy it! I'll wait right here...

In 1985, contemporary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny surprised a lot of people by entering a studio with legendary free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and recording Song X. Metheny had previously expressed his admiration for Coleman and, in 1983, had recorded some of his compositions on an album called Rejoicing (with longtime Coleman collaborators Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins), yet few fans of either musician were prepared for the results of their session together. Though Metheny gets top billing, the album feels more like an Ornette record than anything Metheny had previously recorded.

The rhythm section is evenly integrated with musicians from each leader's musical past; Ornette's son Denardo (who has played and recorded with his father since the age of ten) plays drums and percussion, while frequent Metheny bandmate Jack DeJohnette holds down the main drum chair. Bassist Haden, known primarily for his work with Coleman's first quartet, had played with Metheny on Rejoicing and 80/81 (and would later record an album of duets with the guitarist entitled Beyond the Missouri Sky).

The opening title track sets the tone for the rest of the album; two brief, furious blasts of the theme, then several minutes of whirling free improvisation, then two more thematic statements. "Video Games" features some frantic playing from Metheny on guitar synthesizer (sounding like Pac-Man on a bender) which abruptly shifts into some swinging trio interplay led by Ornette. "Endangered Species" is thirteen minutes of pure frenzy, with the instruments creating a thick soup of guitars, drums and horns that gradually empties into a frenetic percussion duet at the end.

Not everything on the album speeds along so frantically; "Mob Job" swings lazily and features some of Ornette's unique violin playing, while "Kathelin Gray" is the kind of lovely, lyrical ballad that Coleman specializes in. The biggest surprise on the album comes near the end with "Song X Duo", a short improvised duet between Coleman and Metheny that unexpectedly (probably even to the players) climaxes in a brightly strummed open G chord before returning to the theme of the title track. It's an unexpected burst of tonality in an album made by artists who recognize its importance even amidst the freest of improvisations.

Song X simply must be heard to be believed. Like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, it's one of those albums that is essential to any jazz fan's collection.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

WINGS Back to the Egg

Columbia FC 36057 (1979)

There's an old joke about the little girl who innocently asks her father, "Daddy, was Paul McCartney in a band before Wings?" McCartney laughed about it in interviews, saying that now he was getting fans who were too young to remember Wings. Of course, the joke now would be about kids who are too young to remember Paul McCartney, period, but that would be unnecessarily cruel. Give 'im a break! He's got a new album out! With the guy who produced Radiohead! And people seem to like it! (No, I haven't heard it!)

As much as you can feel sorry for a multi-zillionaire, sometimes I feel a little sorry for Sir Paul McCartney; the guy often got short shrift in people's estimation of his contribution to the Beatles' songwriting oeuvre. Personally, I always got the feeling that John was, admittedly, the "substance" guy, but Paul was the "music" guy. This became even more apparent after the breakup of their little band; John's albums featured the work of an artist willing to plumb the depths of his soul and confront his own shortcomings, yet it often lacked the melodic sweetening of his Beatlemusik, while Paul's work was, well, pretty, and certainly catchy, but not always... ahem... deep.

Neither is Back to the Egg, but it's fun in a catchy, non-deep, silly-love-song sort of way. Best of all, it contains two tracks by the wonderful ridiculousness that was Rockestra, Paul's big-band-symphony thingie featuring five guitarists (including Pete Townshend and David Gilmour), three drummers (!), four bassists (!!!), and lotsa horns and keyboards. I guess it was Paul's attempt to bring a symphonic, "wall-of-sound" grandeur to rock 'n' roll, and it doesn't sound half-bad, though I wouldn't want to hear a whole album of it. It reminded me of a TV broadcast of some awards show I saw when I was about nine years old where they had a huge group of musicians on stage jamming with a video screen of Bill Haley and the Comets playing "Rock Around the Clock" and it sounded like an unholy mess, yet strangely exhilirating.

Anyway, if you haven't sampled any of McCartney's work between his stint with the Beatles and the time he fell in with that Jackson kid, Back to the Egg is a pretty good place to start. It's got a handful of good rockers ("Getting Closer", "Spin It On", "To You", "Again and Again and Again") and the love ballads aren't as cloyingly sweet as some of those found on his other albums (though "Baby's Request" comes dangerously close). "After the Ball/Million Miles" is downright pretty without being sickeningly so, and features some imaginative instrumental arranging. I still think McCartney has one of the best rock singing voices ever (able to leap from a sweet croon to a raspy yelp in a single breath) and he's in fine form here.

McCartney may never put out anything to rival his work with the Beatles, but, then again, very few artists probably will. Get past the comparisons to past glories and there are gems aplenty on Back to the Egg and McCartney's other albums, with Wings and without.

Monday, January 16, 2006

WIRE 154

Warner Bros. QBS 3398 (1979)

The story goes that, at a certain high-society party one night, Miles Davis was introduced to a lady of status and fell into a rather one-sided conversation with her, during which she listed her many titles and accomplishments. When she noticed him growing visibly distracted, she was said to have huffed, "Well! Might I ask what you have done in your lifetime?", to which Davis coolly replied, "Well, I've changed music about five or six times."

English post-punks Wire may not have had quite as much influence on their peers as Davis did on his, but like Miles they put their music through many stylistic changes over the course of their career. Beginning life as a snotty art-punk band in the tradition of the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks, their sound changed as they searched for different means of expression, incorporating synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers into the mix. 154 was their third album and was the first to suggest the the group had grown bored with traditional punk sounds and were ready to try something new and different, punk formalism be damned.

The overall sound of the album may be a bit off-putting to the casual listener; synths and guitars grate against each other abrasively over pounding drums, and most of the lyrics tend to be either dark or analytical (or usually both: "The Other Window" describes a man on a train watching a horse struggle to free itself from a barbed-wire fence and, realizing that he is unable to help, eventually ignoring the situation). Yet repeated listenings reveal Wire's ear for catchy hooks; "The 15th" and "Map Ref. 41'N 93'W" could've been pop hits in an alternate universe (despite their oblique lyrics; the chorus of "Map Ref." goes "Interrupting my train of thought/Lines of longitude and latitude/Define and refine my altitude" and somehow manages to be hummable!).

Unfortunately, the tensions in Wire's music were reflected in the relationships between the band's members; the group broke up after the album's release. Happily, Wire reunited in 1985 with The Ideal Copy, a record that picked right up where 154 left off. Wire continues to record and tour to this day, continually confounding any and all expectations with regards to their sound (or what it should be).

(Wire performing live in Germany in 1979. The first song is from the album Chairs Missing, the second is from 154.)

Friday, January 13, 2006


ECM 1409 (1990)

Lately I've been reading New Dutch Swing, Kevin Whitehead's book on the development and current state of jazz and improvised music in Amsterdam, and it made me want to dig this album out for a listen. BCJO is mentioned in the book and features many prominent Dutch musicians such as Willem Breuker and special guest soloist Misha Mengelberg, who composed two of the pieces here. This album also brings back memories of the late, lamented Bluetone Records in Saint John (who for a time were the sponsor of my radio show No Pain for Cakes on CFMH-FM); it was the first recording I ever bought there ($8.00, brand new and still shrinkwrapped).

In his book, Whitehead makes note of the differences between Dutch and German jazz musicians; while the Germans tend to be more straightlaced and formal (both in their demeanour and their playing), the Dutch have a tendency toward more theatrical, even clownish behaviour. This is apparent in the contrast in mood between each side of this record; side one contains "Ana", a moody, gently flowing composition (by Canadian Kenny Wheeler) that is given a gorgeous, respectful treatment by the orchestra (under the direction of conductor Alexander von Schlippenbach), while side two consists of two pieces by pianist Mengelberg ("Salz" and "Reef und Kneebus") that are wilder and more playful in nature. "Salz" features some particularly loony playing from Mengelberg and Breuker (on bass clarinet, sounding like Eric Dolphy jamming with Cecil Taylor) while drummer Ed Thigpen (known for his more staightahead work with Oscar Peterson) soldiers along bravely.

As with all ECM releases, BCJO is impeccably recorded and tastefully packaged, and should be sampled by anyone curious to hear jazz from another continent. (Pick up Whitehead's book for even more recommendations of Dutch and German jazz; it's a thorough history and a great read.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

FRED FRITH Cheap at Half the Price

Ralph FF 8356 (1983)

I remember reading an interview with ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in which he said that, during the band's early days, a lot of his friends were a little worried about him after hearing some of the songs he was writing. Tunes like "Animals" (" I know the animals.../Are laughing at us.../They don't even know.../What a joke is!") and "I'm Not in Love" (" ...Happy! Is there time for this?/Is this responsibility?/Girl time, boy time, is that the difference between me and you?") caused some of them to be concerned for his mental health and well-being.

Friends of multi-instumentalist Fred Frith are probably accustomed to his quirky recordings by now; he began his career in the sixties as co-founder of the legendary British progressive rock band Henry Cow and has gone on to play with people like John Zorn, the Residents, and Brian Eno. Cheap at Half the Price is still a pretty unique sounding album, though, and would probably unsettle even Frith's closest associates. Frith recorded the album at his home on a four-track recorder, playing nearly all the instruments himself and using tapes of drum machine samples he had collected through the years (and which probably sounded dated even in the early eighties).

"Some Clouds Don't" opens the album; a disturbingly strained, high-pitched voice advises us, in very Byrne-like fashion, to "beware of the wise, beware of the wise/Lies! Lies! Lies!" and informs us that "some clouds don't have a silver lining". "Cap the Knife" opens with the line "one loving lick from a little dead duck could kill" and samples a speech by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan (because no experimental album from the eighties would be complete without a Reagan sample!). "Evolution" proclaims "welcome to the insects/let's change the subject!" over a shuffling Latin rhythm before breaking into a speed-picked Mediterranean-sounding guitar solo.

The second side is made up of (mostly) instrumentals that are slightly (but not much) more conventional than the songs on side one. "Instant Party" is a driving, somewhat rock-like tune with untelligible vocals that suddenly switches gears into a fiddle-led jig. "Walking Song" sounds like Atari videogame music and features some pretty synthesizer washes and a lilting, wordless vocal melody. "Heart Bares" is a spare, minimalist ballad that leads into "Absent Friends", a rhythmically percolating arrangement of a traditional Swedish melody that layers handclapping patterns over strangulated guitar and a simple synthesizer melody, then breaks into a beautiful fiddle solo; it's the best track on the album.

For those with a taste for the eccentric, Cheap at Half the Price is a great introduction to the world of Fred Frith, and should give no one any cause for alarm with regards to his sanity; at the very least, his musical instincts are completely sound (and, after repeated listenings, his words begin to make more and more sense!).

Thursday, January 05, 2006

RANDY NEWMAN Little Criminals

Warner Bros. BSK 3079 (1977)

Okay, first of all, let's get that song out of the way. Right, that song.

They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet.

Well, I don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
`Round here.

"Short People" was the biggest hit of singer-songwriter Randy Newman's career; it went all the way to number two on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart in 1977, and probably would have gone to number one had it not been kept out of the top spot by Debby Boone's treacly "You Light Up My Life". Along with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and the Beatles' "Revolution", it's one of the most misunderstood pop songs ever. Newman invented and wrote about a prejudice that didn't exist (or at least was not very prevalent in society) so he could examine the nature and principles of bigotry and racism without focusing on any one group in particular. What happened, of course, was that many people took the song at face value and interpreted it as an attack on short people. It's a good thing he didn't write a song called "Stupid People". Ahem...

Little Criminals was Newman's sixth album, coming just after his critically praised run of records like 12 Songs, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys, and just before his first film soundtracks (Ragtime, The Natural, and Three Amigos). The album was not received quite so well by critics as his previous works, and some of the tunes do feel more like fragments of songs than actual songs. Most stick with you after repeated listenings, though; "You Can't Fool the Fat Man" is a funny trifle with a catchy New Orleans-style middle eight, and the touching "I'll Be Home" looks ahead to some of Newman's movie ballads* for Toy Story and the like. The best songs are the ones that dig deepest; "Baltimore" is a moving, rhythmically-driving elegy to the crime-ridden city, and "Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier)" is an oddly ominous love song. Best of all is the title track, a pounding rock number with a madly swerving hook about a gang of stick-up artists chiding the drug-addicted thieves they see as beneath them in stature.

What you wanna come back here for?
Thought you're with your uptown friends
Don't need none of your junkie business
You gonna screw us up again

'Cause we've almost made it
We've almost made it
We've almost made it to the top

The funniest song may be "Rider in the Rain", a lazily loping send-up of the Eagles' "Desperado", on which Newman actually gets Eagles frontmen Don Henley and Glenn Frey to sing backup harmonies!

Oh, my mother's in St. Louis
And my bride's in Tennessee

So, I'm goin' to Arizona

With a banjo on my knee

He's a Rider In The Rain

He's a Rider In The Rain

And I'm goin' to Arizona

He's a Rider In The Rain

It's unclear whether Frey and Henley are in on the joke, but you know that Newman is.

Newman sticks mostly to film scores these days, which is too bad; the radio could use a little more of his good-natured cynicism. There's a whole generation who knows him simply as "the Toy Story guy", which is pretty hilarious to anyone familiar with the darkly comic songs found on his earlier albums. Of course, any kind of Randy Newman is better to have around than none at all.

*(side note - I was pretty happy to see Newman take home an Oscar for one of those Pixar movie buddy songs he wrote (it was the one that John Goodman sang at the ceremony), especially since he had been nominated something like fifteen times without a win, though I do think it's funny to imagine that it probably takes him less time to write one of those tunes than it does to actually sing it. Nothing against him or his talent; in fact, it's that tossed-off feel that gives those songs their charm, and Newman is so good that he can probably whip one off without breaking a sweat... "Yeah, hello? Oh, hi, David. Yeah, good. A song? Sure, whaddaya got? Okay... two best pals... against the odds... giant cat... talking cars... okay, got it. I'll call you back in five minutes. (click) Honey? Good news! We can keep the cottage for another year!")

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Incus 34 (1979)

Christmas Day was a little sadder this year as it marked the passing of legendary British guitarist Derek Bailey. To call him an innovator seems like faint praise; just as Charlie Christian adapted and defined traditional jazz music for the guitar, so did Bailey with avant-garde improvisation, creating a language that thwarted cliche and expectation at every turn. Bailey once remarked that he wished to avoid playing in the key of C major at all costs, and most of his music avoids any traditional Western tonality whatsoever. In his hands, the guitar became more of a percussion instrument (which is really what it has always been... only by striking the strings can a sound be produced); his music was full of arhythmic slashes, biting clusters, and searing harmonics, and, as with most freely improvised music, it seemed to ask more questions than it answered.

Time was released on the British improv label Incus and features ten duets with British hornman Tony Coe (ironically enough, listed in the credits as playing "Clarinet in C"). I was amazed to find this in a box at Loyalist City Coin & Collectibles right here in Saint John for something like four or five dollars; Incus albums are rare enough in Britain, let alone Canada. Sonically, the pieces have more in common with twelve-tone serialism or Oriental music than with most people's idea of jazz, yet the music swings in its own way. Coe's clarinet soars in and around Bailey's acoustic guitar like a fly pestering a cranky tiger, with Bailey swatting back with choppy chord clusters and skittering single-note lines.

Bailey was not a big fan of recording; he believed that improvisation depended on the moment in which it was produced, and that to make a document of it to be listened to later was somewhat foolish and contradictory to the nature of "free" music. Luckily, he left behind a massive discography for those of us who were not lucky enough to hear him perform live (myself included). If you've never heard him, go here to listen to a three-hour tribute to Bailey's legacy (courtesy of John Allen at WFMU) and introduce yourself to a truly original artist.