You, me, the music, and me.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

ALICE COLTRANE Universal Consciousness

Impulse! AS-9210 (1972)

Alice MacLeod became John Coltrane's second wife in 1965, a time of great creativity and change for the tenor saxophonist. 1965 was the year Coltrane recorded Ascension, his massive free-jazz statement of purpose. It was during this time that pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones felt they could no longer continue in the stylistic vein Coltrane was mining, so they left the group. Replacing Jones was Rashied Ali, and taking Tyner's place was Alice Coltrane. She played piano with the quartet until her husband's death in 1967; her style, at times recalling Tyner's rolling romanticism and stacked fourths, lent itself perfectly to her husband's new sonic explorations.

Universal Consciousness was one of many albums Coltrane recorded for the Impulse! label (both with and without her husband); the overt spirituality of John's albums is still present (and quartet members Ali and bassist Jimmy Garrison are on hand), yet is even more explicit and specific, as titles like "Oh Allah" and "Hare Krishna" demonstrate. Rather than simply duplicating the Eastern mysticism found on her husband's final recordings, Alice refines and defines it, telling of her pilgrimages both physical and spiritual in the detailed liner notes.

As if to define her own personal sound that much more distinctly, there is no piano on the album; Coltrane plays organ and harp throughout, accompanied by Garrison's bass and a multitude of drums and percussion provided by Ali, Jack DeJohnette, Clifford Jarvis, and Tulsi. An added bonus is a quartet of violins which lends an otherwordly feel to "Oh Allah", "Hare Krishna", and the title track (Coltrane's string arrangements for the group were transcribed by none other than Ornette Coleman). The musical highlights of the album are perhaps the most unconventional; "Battle at Armageddon" and "The Ankh of Amen-Ra" are a pair of duets with Ali that recall one of John's last albums: Interstellar Space, an album of duets with Ali ("Battle" actually sounds like an intergalactic war between two godlike entities, while "Ankh" showcases Alice's facility on the harp).

Many of Alice Coltrane's albums are thankfully back in print on CD, and she recently returned to recording after a twenty-six year hiatus (!) with the stunning Translinear Light. Her Universal Consciousness is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable album and a worthy continuation of the Coltrane legacy.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Atlantic 1224 (1955)

Was Lennie Tristano the true father of free jazz? Many would say so; in 1949, Tristano's group recorded "Intuition" and "Digression", two pieces with no written themes or preordained rhythm or tempo. They are the first recorded examples of totally free improvisation in jazz and predate Ornette Coleman's first albums (which were not 100% improv due to the presence of pre-written heads) by nearly a decade.

Tristano's free music bore little resemblance to today's image of avant-garde jazz; melodic lines unfolded slowly and leisurely, creating a weave of counterpoint that, at the time, had more in common with the polytonality of 20th century classical music than jazz. As a result, Tristano's music often gets dismissed by jazz historians and critics as dispassionate and soulless, a laughable claim to anyone with an open ear who has heard his music (such as Charles Mingus, a former student of Tristano's who was heavily influenced by the pianist).

"Line Up" and "East Thirty-second" show Tristano's ability to play snaking single-note lines with the fluidity of a horn player; his improvisations over rapidly walking bass by Peter Ind and Jeff Morton's drums sound eerily similar to Coleman's. The latter track also features staccato, hammering chord clusters like those of Cecil Taylor. The solo "Requiem" opens with ominous, slightly Wagnerian block chords before morphing into a slow 4/4 blues. The album also compiles five live recordings of standards, showcasing Tristano's ability to adapt his technique to the traditional song form. Tristano disciple Lee Konitz plays clear, simple alto sax lines above and around Tristano's comping while bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Art Taylor keep the beat.

Tristano's is a name that deserves to be remembered; his influence is felt in the world of jazz and free improvisation alike, plus he simply made great music that deserves to be heard and preserved.

Monday, February 20, 2006


Verve V-8497 (1962)

Shelley Manne is so closely identified with the drum sound of such early big-band swing ensembles as those belonging to Raymond Scott, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton that it's easy to forget that he's also one of the most versatile, creative, and downright musical drummers who ever lived. Equally at home with the traditional sounds of Les Brown or the forward-looking Ornette Coleman, Manne is in perfect sync with pianist Bill Evans, another musician with the ability to sound at home in various musical situations (Miles Davis' Kind of Blue band, various trios, and overdubbed duets with himself).

The album itself covers a wide swath of styles; "The Washington Twist" is a staccato blues with a polite Dave Brubeck-like theme that breaks into some smooth and swinging soloing from Evans. Manne is nearly inaudible beneath the calm surface of "Danny Boy", providing just the right amount of support and momentum to the sentimental ballad. "Let's Go Back to the Waltz" finds Evans and co. returning to one of his favourite dance rhythms; bassist Monty Budwig gets off a full-bodied solo before the gentle 3/4 time suddenly breaks into a rapid four-on-the-floor shuffle, then returns to a slightly faster waltz tempo at the end. The traditional standard "With a Song in My Heart" gets an avant-garde makeover near its end, as the trio seem to improvise freely over the feel of the song (in a manner similar to Ornette Coleman's).

Empathy almost seems like too obvious a choice of title for this album; so relaxed and in tune with each other are the three musicians on this record that it sounds as if it were made by one person (with three distinct personalities).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

ARCHIE SHEPP I Know About the Life

Sackville 3026 (1981)

I Know About the Life was recorded during the filming of Ron Mann's excellent documentary Imagine the Sound (cruelly unavailable on DVD); in the film, Shepp is shown playing in the studio and being interviewed by Sackville Records co-founder/CODA magazine co-founder/Canadian renaissance man Bill Smith. The tone of the interviews is relaxed and intimate, yet serious and focused, just like the music on this record.

Shepp's boozy, Ben Webster-ish tone suits the laid back feel of the title track, which is the only original Shepp composition on the album. Pianist Ken Werner contributes elegant comping while bassist Santi DeBriano and drummer John Betsch sound like a one-man rhythm section, so focused and synchronized is their accompaniment. My only caveat involves what seem to be some tuning problems on Shepp's part that plague the recording and make his playing sound a little more off-kilter than usual. That's not meant to put down his playing; Shepp has always had a distinctive, freewheeling quality to his style that always seems to suit the material (his unique rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" is a modern jazz classic).

Shepp pays tribute to his mentor John Coltrane on "Giant Steps"; here the tuning is even more suspect, and Shepp can't navigate the sharp harmonic turns quite as effortlessly as Trane did in the original, yet the rhythm section cooks, and Shepp's soloing is passionate and heartfelt. Near the end, there's a particularly wonderful "duel" between Shepp and Betsch that reminds one of Trane and Rashied Ali duking it out on Coltrane's Interstellar Space.

The album closes with a pair of Thelonious Monk compositions. "Round Midnight" is played straight by the rhythm section, with Shepp inserting honks and squeals that probably would never have occured to Monk sideman Charlie Rouse, and "Well You Needn't" ends the session on an upbeat note. Life may not be essential Shepp, but to his fans and followers, any Shepp is worth hearing. Make sure you beg or borrow (but don't steal) a copy of Imagine the Sound at some point in your life to catch a glimpse of this sometimes underappreciated modern jazz legend.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO Fanfare for the Warriors

Atlantic SD 1651 (1974)

Within days of my joining the AEC in early 1970, Lester (Bowie) took me aside one day after rehearsal and said, very seriously, "Don't even mess with us or get any more involved if you can't commit to playing Great Black Music at a very high level, becoming famous, and taking our place in the History of Jazz."

- AEC drummer Famoudou Don Moye, from the liner notes to Tribute to Lester (ECM 1808)

Regardless of what one thinks of the country of the United States of America and their position in the world, they can be credited with two very important contributions to world culture; they gave us jazz, and they gave us the Art Ensemble of Chicago. For nearly forty years the group has dedicated itself not just to the performance and preservation of jazz and the avant garde but to what they call "Great Black Music", a style all their own that encompasses traditional African folk music, blues, poetry, vaudeville, and theatre. They have survived changes in lineups and record labels (and the deaths of two founding members) and continue to thrive as one of America's most underappreciated national treasures.

Fanfare for the Warriors was recorded with the help of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who was not an official member of the group but a fellow member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based collective made up primarily of avant garde jazz artists. It's a strong, varied album and contains at least one example of each ingredient the band uses in its musical melting pot; there's the poetic recitation of "Illistrum", the bluesy, driving "Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel", and the intervallic, avant garde madness of "Nonaah". The title track is a classic free jazz raveup in the vein of Albert Ayler, while the flutes and piccolos of "What's to Say" give off a dancing African township feel. The off-key vocal harmonizations and subsequent laughter in the brief closer "The Key" proves that, for all their lofty goals, the group never takes itself too seriously.

If you only own one Art Ensemble album, I'd tell you to go out and get a few more, but if you're going to limit yourself to one, Fanfare shows this multitalented, multistylistic group at one of their many peaks.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Slash/Warner Bros. 92 38181 (1983)

One red rose on a new black dress
Crushing it between our chests
Tonight I wonder where you'll be
One dead rose is all I see

- "Red Rose", Dave Alvin/The Blasters

The Blasters were one of the bands associated with the American "indie-rock" scene of the early eighties. One of the things these bands had in common was that, sonically, they didn't have much in common; the Blasters didn't sound much like Camper Van Beethoven, who didn't sound much like Husker Du, who didn't sound much like X, who didn't sound much like the Replacements, etc. At one point or another, however, all of these bands were labelled as "alternative", a term that was still relatively new in the eighties and hadn't yet become an official "genre". In those post-punk, pre-grunge days, these bands were popping up in various parts of the country; separated by geography, they concentrated not on copying their neighbours' sound but on inventing their own. As a result, the "alternative sound" of the eighties is a lot harder to pin down than that of the nineties and beyond, and probably better for it.

Of all the aforementioned bands, the Blasters were far and away the most traditional, both in sound and style. They dressed in leather and denim, hair combed back in pompadours, looking like your typical rockabilly/boogie-woogie bar band, but without the mannered affectations of certain other bands. On the surface, the music was competent, hard-driving rock and roll; it had a good beat and you could dance to it. Listen closer, though, and you'll hear some of the most perfectly-woven tales of love and heartbreak this side of Hank Williams. Like Williams, songwriter/guitarist Dave Alvin had a knack for writing tightly constructed songs in which not one word was wasted; the haiku-like "He lies to her, she kisses him/Getting tired of love" from "Bus Station" tells you all you need to know about the intricacies of the relationship between its youngish lovers, and the way that the band bears down just a little harder on the instrumental breaks between singer (and Dave's brother) Phil Alvin's impassioned yelps drives every verse and chorus home. The band dedicate "Long White Cadillac" (later covered by Dwight Yoakam) to Hank; like many of the other songs on the album, it sounds exactly like something Williams would have written without sounding like a copy. The band (and Alvin) were just that good.

The cover of the album is one of my all-time favourites. A man in grime-covered overalls, perhaps a service-station attendant or a miner, his hair slicked back, stares into the camera while clutching a single red rose. That image, with its mix of macho cool and romance, gruffness and sensitivity, really says it all about the music of the Blasters. Like their songs, it conveys the maximum amount of information and emotion with the simplest of messages, and the harder you look at it, the harder it seems to look back.

Dave Alvin left in 1986 for a solo career after recording one more album with the band (Hard Line) and the group continued off-and-on in various incarnations under Phil's leadership. Sadly, most of the group's original albums are out of print and unavailable on CD, but various compilations exist and are well worth your time. Pick one up; Hank would've wanted it that way.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

THE BEATLES Magical Mystery Tour

Capitol SMAL-2835 (1967)

This is the only Beatles album I own on vinyl; I think I bought it at a library sale, possibly on the last day when you can fill up a box with as much as you can carry for three dollars. It's in pretty decent shape; it's missing the inner sleeve liner, but there's a 24-page picture book on the inside which is perfectly intact and shows stills from the ill-fated movie of the same name as well as an illustrated story.

Magical Mystery Tour is an album that usually doesn't get mentioned in the same breath as the Beatles' more respected albums (like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), possibly because it's sort of an odds-and-sods collection of music from the film and non-album singles, and possibly because the self-indulgence of the largely plotless movie has relegated it to a place in Beatles history well below A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine. That's a shame, because on a purely musical, song-by-song basis, it's a very strong album, even by Beatle standards. "I Am the Walrus", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane", and "All You Need Is Love", all on the same album? Who could say no to that?

When I think about the Beatles, I marvel at how much they changed over such a short period of time. Think of the four polite-looking young men in suits who were the Beatles in 1962 and compare them with the costumed madmen on the cover of this album and then try to think of another band who altered their image and sound so radically in such a short period of time. It would be like Coldplay suddenly growing their hair long and wearing army fatigues in concert; it's almost impossible to imagine such a thing happening in today's industry-driven music scene.

Writing about this album has suddenly made me want to go out and track down the film (I saw bits of it once while a friend was watching it in another room; I remember him saying, "Pete, promise me you'll never watch this!"), so, against my better judgment, I'm off to the video store. Pray for me.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

TALKING HEADS The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads

Sire 2SR 3590 (1982)

Most live albums serve a dual purpose; not only do they give the listener an idea of what a band sounds like in concert, they usually function as a sort of career retrospective, collecting the group's hits and fan favourites into an unofficial greatest hits package. The Name of this Band Is Talking Heads goes one step further and features performances from five different concerts between 1977 and 1981, giving the listener a chance to hear the evolution of the Heads' sound over a five-year period.

Side one was recorded live at Northern Studio in Massachussetts and consists mainly of songs from their debut album Talking Heads: 77, including their breakout hit "Psycho Killer". The songs don't sound too different from their studio counterparts, a tribute to the band's live chops as much as to the effective simplicity of their sound. The album cover shows the group playing in someone's living room, which is exactly what this concert sounds like; cozy and intimate.

Side two was recorded two years later at the Capitol Theater in New Jersey and finds the band sounding more aggressive, particularly vocalist David Byrne, slurring and growling his way through songs from the band's slightly more experimental second and third albums. The audience sounds a lot larger at this show, and the band responds with a bigger (yet somehow leaner) sound. They also perform their very first single "Building on Fire", unavailable on any of their previous LP's.

Sides three and four cover the early eighties Heads; the band is now using as many as six additional musicians onstage, including guitarist Adrian Belew, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and two backup singers. The sound is much more intricate and rhythmic (funky, too) and is reflective of the innovative sounds of their groundbreaking fourth album Remain in Light. Belew in particular shines throughout on some particularly twisted guitar solos.

The Name of this Band is Talking Heads is not only a great live album but a great way to introduce yourself to what was probably America's greatest band at the time; for fans, it's a perfect summation of the group's strongest and most important part of their career.