Thursday, November 23, 2006

John Coltrane - Live At The Village Vanguard Again

'Live At The Village Vanguard Again' is the stub of a (lost) longer recording of a 1966 show featuring Trane, Pharoah Sanders on tenor and flute, Alice Coltrane on piano, and Jimmy Garrisson and Elvin Jones on bass and drums as usual. Oh, and Emanuel Rahim on percussion, too. What fascinates me about these late Coltrane live recordings is the raw emotion, and this record is no exception.

Without a doubt the main attraction here is the contrasting styles of Trane and Sanders, best seen on 'Naima'. To Trane, this has always been a lush ballad, expressing the deep gratitude he felt towards his ex-wife, the woman that he credited with saving him from drug addiction in the late 1950s. So he plays his heart out - I never fail to be moved by the way he plays this piece. Sanders had no such concerns though, and takes the piece somewhere much darker during his extended solo. Reflecting perhaps the darker side of Trane's emotional state in those late days, Sanders sounds almost to be in tears, his tenor audibly wailing. Sanders clearly felt very much in debt to Trane (as did many of his generation) and went on to show his gratitude with a fine reading of 'Naima' in the 1980s (on his LP 'Africa', on Timeless records).

Next up is 6 minutes of Garrisson playing solo as the introduction to a surprising version of 'My Favourite Things'. One associates late period Trane with the free-noise assaults of 'Ascension' and 'Om' but this piece opens with a funky Garrisson backing up a sweetly melodic Trane on soprano. Things soon take a turn for the bizarre as Trane gets further out, but the band never lose the plot, there is always a rhythmic thread. Sanders is effective on flute, adding texture and colour behind the soaring Coltrane.

Alice Coltrane was well in the band by this time, but she was still developing as a player at this time and often sounds like she's in another band, her clumsy block chords no match for the virtuosity going on right next to her on stage. Better was to come from her, and soon - see her gutsy piano playing on 'Gospel Trane' from her LP 'A Monastic Trio' for example.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Alan Silva - Skilfullness

Alan Treadwell DaSilva played bass on a number of noteworthy recordings during the 1960s, including Cecil Taylor's mighty 'Unit Structures' and Albert Ayler's impulse! recordings from the Village Vanguard. He was heavily involved in the whole Paris scene of 1969-1970, and it was there that he recorded the first album under the name of the Celestial Communication Orchestra, 'Luna Surface' on BYG. The music on that record was captured as part of the mammoth session from 13th-18th August 1969 that also featured such major names in the avant-garde as Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie and Sunny Murray (as well as some very unusual names indeed - step forward, Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley).

1970 saw Silva on ESP records with the release of 'Skillfulness'. This time around the group featured less well-known but still excellent musicians, particularly Karl Berger on vibes. The album features only two tracks, both occupying a single side of vinyl. The meat of the sandwich is definitely the title track that runs for 20-odd minutes on side A. If you click on the link through to the review of 'Luna Surface', you'll see that reviewer mention this track also and describe it as 'skull-crushing'. I'm not sure I agree. 'Solestrial' on side 2 is certainly made up of free-noise, but 'Skilfullness' is much friendlier than that - one could almost call it intimate. Once you get past the dissonance and strange shrieks of Silva's violin, you'll notice that the piece is actually made up of a series of duets between Silva and usually just one of his sidemen. The highlights for me are the intricate interplay between Silva and Berger around the 11-minute mark, and the smooth lines of Becky Friend on flute that contrast with Silva's urgent, high-pitched piano style (he is heard on violin, cello and piano on this track).

ESP releases are known for their uncompromising freedom, and this album is no exception. The label was set up in 1965 and is still going, with many of it's past releases still available on CD - this album being no exception. Have a look!

ESP records

Alan Silva's 'Skilfullness' at ESP records

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I Get The Message

Don't worry guys, I've got the message. I was just looking at my traffic, and once again I see that the hits per day have dropped by about 50% after posting about Weather Report. I won't do it again, I promise.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stormy Weather

I got into Weather Report in totally the reverse order. Growing up, my dad often played 'Heavy Weather', with the track 'Birdland' being a particular favourite. For those that don't know, this album was the band's commercial peak, and in sound is pretty typical of where jazz fusion was in 1977. Anyway, from these inauspicious beginnings, with an inkling that the earlier stuff was supposed to be better, I found my way to 'Mysterious Traveller' from 1974. This was more like it - dark and slippery with a real sense of funk. Now I could see that this was the band based around the same guys that made Miles' 'In A Silent Way' so special (Joe Zawinul wrote the original version of the title track). 'I Sing The Body Electric' is even earlier, 1972 to be exact. This is pretty much the original WR of Zawinul on keys, Wayne Shorter on saxes and Miroslav Vitous on bass. Word is that Vitous' influence gave the music a harder edge, and that is certainly true of the track I'd like to mention today. I haven't previously thought of WR being about anything other than complex, slowly developing tunes. Intensity is not a word that I've associated with their output - until now.

Side two of the album contains edited versions of a performance in Japan that was later released in full (in 1977) as 'Live In Tokyo'. First up is a medley of pieces - 'Vertical Invader', 'T.H.' and 'Dr. Honoris Causa'. What strikes you from the opening drum solo to the final, distorted electric piano notes is the incredible level of energy. The story goes that the band found the Japanese audiences on that particular tour to be such good listeners that they felt they could "...hit 'em hard, right from the first note" - and that's what happens. The intensity of the first section, 'Vertical Invader' is unsurpassed in their catalogue. Zawinul's rhodes is so heavily distorted that at first listen you would swear you'd just heard a guitar player start up. Only in the higher notes does it sound like an electric piano. It's not all fire and brimstone, though. The same section of track is also marked by some superb interplay between Zawinul and Shorter, both improvising with great inspiration. Zawinul plays especially well, using single lines in the most part, like a horn player. This approach also brings to mind a soloing guitarist, adding to the feeling that there's an uncredited guitar player in the band. Throughout the whole thing the rhythm section keep up a tight, fast and furiously funky groove, Vitous driving them forward with abandon. The overall effect is intoxicating and unsettling - stormy weather indeed.

It would be great to hear more, and of course you can by getting hold of a copy of 'Live In Tokyo', which I shall be doing very soon I think. If you have any interest at all in WR, please have a look at Weather Report: The Annotated Discography which is an example to all of us who have tried to put together artist-orientated websites.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Butter or Jam?

This cover has little going for it, although it's not bad considering the period and style of music. The question is, though - what's Pharoah got on his toast?

While you're puzzling that out, check out 'Pharomba' on the radio (you know the drill - main page, right hand column, click the track names to play), and for more commentary on that, see yesterday's post.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Pharoah Sanders - Love Will Find A Way

Way back in december last year I reviewed Pharoah's 1976 LP 'Pharoah'. I noted that it was, by and large, a laid back funky slice of post free-jazz that was worth a listen. One well-known track on this album is 'Love Will Find A Way', and this is the name of his 1978 album on the Arista record label.

I don't know if it's the major label influence, or the march of time (remember that other ex-free jazzers were mellowing around the same time - like this and this), but this is Pharoah's most commercial album so far. That is not a criticism - in fact there is plenty to enjoy here. The first track to grab my attention was a cover of Marvin Gaye's soul hit 'Got to give it up'. It's in no way free-jazz, but what it is is tight and funky. It's more of an ensemble piece than a vehicle for Pharoah's blowing - the horn and rhythm sections play incredibly well here. Pharoah comes out for pretty much only one solo, but rather than breathing fire he chooses to express his energy inside the groove and comes over a bit like Maceo Parker. Only in the dying seconds of the track are some trademark squeals heard, as the music fades. It's as if Pharoah was placing his free days firmly in the past.

Elsewhere, most of the tracks have a latin feel, with smooth production and female vocals giving them a real mainstream feel. Again, that's not a bad thing. There's still some of the meditative quality that was to be found on Pharoah - especially on the title track. It's been radically rearranged since 76's simple format - all lush strings and heavenly choirs, but Pharoah takes a solo that is so heartfelt that you are immediately reassured that his new commercial style is in no way a sell out. Also good is 'Pharomba', which is reminiscent of some of Gato Barbieri's impulse! recordings from the early 70's. I've always thought that the Argentinian tenor comes across like a latin Pharoah Sanders on some of these recordings, and here Pharoah does exactly that.

By the way, the image above is of the rear sleeve. I love that photo, since seeing it on the cover of a recent double album retrospective of Pharoah's work titled 'You've Got To Have Freedom', which I have reproduced below. I haven't bought the album as I've got pretty much everything on it already, but if you're new to Sanders' music then it would be a very good place to start.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bill Dixon - Intents and Purposes

I'm unsure what attracts me towards free jazz sometimes. There's the unbridled creativity, of course, and the 'living-in-the-moment' spontaneity that I try to live by myself. But that doesn't change the fact that much of it sounds just plain odd. I'm a fan of unusual instrumentation (see the recent post about Dorothy Ashby for example) so was delighted to pick up this Bill Dixon album. It's credited to the Bill Dixon orchestra, which tells you a lot already about the instrumentation. There's a horn section - Dixon himself on trumpet and flugelhorn, then a couple of reeds (alto sax, bass clarinet) and a couple of brass (bass trombone, english horn) - that's hardly conventional, as well as a cello, bass and various percussion. It's looking pretty odd already, and that's before you consider Dixon's arrangements.

Arrangements? Yes, despite being loosely attached to the free-jazz genre, Dixon's music is much more considered than that genre suggests. Of note is the presence of several bass instruments on these pieces - as a result the music often has a dark, brooding quality (once again at odds with the preconceived ideas that people have about free music). Dixon's music is always full of space, and his improvisational style reminds me a little of contemporary Don Cherry, although perhaps a little more considered - maybe with a splash of 'In A Silent Way'-era Miles?

Dixon was arguably one of the main driving forces behind the development of free jazz. After meeting Cecil Taylor (recording with him on 'Conquistador!'), Dixon became involved with the free jazz community and funded (although didn't play with) The New York Contemporary Five. He also briefly played in a quartet with Archie Shepp that released one album in 1962. Despite these associations though, Dixon went very much his own way in terms of his recordings. After this album was released in 1967, he didn't record again until 1980, but has been a regular in the studio since then. He favours smaller groups now, but the brooding atmosphere of 'Intents...' remains thanks to his use of two basses on many recordings.

Dixon's discography can be found here although many of his recordings are difficult to find.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Dorothy Ashby - Soul Vibrations

Something of a pioneer of the harp as a jazz instrument, Dorothy Ashby was born plain Dorothy Thompson in Detroit in 1932. Somehow she managed to overcome the resistance of fellow jazz musicians (might have had something to do with going to the same school as Donald Byrd and Kenny Burrell) and made herself a household name in her native city, even presenting a radio show in the 1960s. Her recorded output includes several albums for Prestige in the late 50s/early 60s, one of which, 1958's In a minor groove becoming critically acclaimed.

As the sixties went on, many bop players started to look for inspiration from othe styles, including popular music, soul and gospel. And the result of Dorothy Ashby's excursions into these genres was 1968's 'Afro-Harping' - a soulful and thoroughly contemporary take on her original, bop-influenced style. Original is a word that will always be used to describe her playing - the harp is a strange bedfellow for most modern jazz styles (perhaps suited mainly to the sort of spiritual free-jazz that was Alice Coltrane's forte).

"Soul Vibrations" is the lead track from this LP, and immediately on hearing it one can spot it's many influences. The backing has a strong soul music feel and the string introduction lends an eerie feeling that is in keeping with Ashby's following minor-key solo. Apart from a string break about half-way through, pretty much the whole track is dedicated to Ashby's soloing. She never seems to dominate - perhaps because of how low she is in the mix. It works, but I'm not sure this was the effect that Ashby herself would have wanted, having held her own with hard bop giants like Roy Haynes and Richard Davis. I just get the feeling that she ought to have sounded louder. In addition to the soul feel, the strings lend a soundtrack-like feel - to me it brings to mind that tense moment just before a chase - perhaps the hero of the tale is becoming paranoid that he is being followed. The otherworldly sound of the harp is perfect in this context, and makes the piece considerably more unusual and memorable than many of the period. And of course, there is a strong jazz feel in Ashby's solos that give it some real bop credibility (thus keeping the critics happy).