Friday, November 6, 2009

Two I'd Slept On

The Great Pretender - Lester Bowie

I don't remember ever laughing out loud listening to a jazz album before (and certainly not an ECM album), but I'm pretty sure I did on my first listen to The Great Pretender. This has been on my "to buy" list for a while, and I finally picked it up cheap at the WFMU Record Fair. Though he clearly had some sort of spiritual/temperamental affinity with Louis Armstrong, Bowie approached music from an angle that was a bit askew from everyone else, even from the rest of the boldly experimental AACM/BAG community he was such a central part of. His choice of material and his slyly ambiguous attitude toward it make him very difficult to neatly summarize or compartmentalize. When listening to him, his musical choices can somehow seem perverse and absolutely right at the same time. And when he's got you looking for a curve ball (or a knuckle ball or an Eephus pitch), he fools you by throwing one right down the middle.

The title track is a tour de force, justly one of Bowie's best known recordings, as it seems to contain so much of his musical spirit in one place (even featuring his wife, the r'n'b great Fontella Bass, on backing vocals). The mighty Hamiet Bluiett is here for just this one track, and the pianist Donald Smith does particularly fine work, helping lead the way through all the jumps, twists and turns of the almost 17 minute de(con)struction of the Platters' classic platter. Funny, pretty, ugly, scary - it's all those things. Bowie the mad scientist taking us on a tour of his laboratory, or Bowie as Willy Wonka inviting us along for a boat ride - you know things are gonna get weird, but a good kind of weird.

Although it's tempting to view everything after "The Great Pretender" as bonus tracks, the album is strong all the way through, wildly varied, but with no dips in quality. "Oh, How The Ghost Sings" gets into spooky feedback/echo/reverb territory, strangely reminding me of Spoon's "The Ghost of You Lingers". "It's Howdy Doody Time" would be an appropriate theme song for a version of the show where Howdy gets demented and invites Chucky to co-host. Or a version where Howdy is voiced by Paul Reubens. "Rios Negroes" is a relatively straightforward Latin groove number that nonetheless doesn't seem out of place on this album, a grab bag so unpredictable you'd be a little afraid to stick your hand in it.

Olé Coltrane - John Coltrane

I recently picked this one up at the library, and it's almost high enough praise to say that it lives up to the promise of its lineup: Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Art Davis (it's a two bass lineup - wait for the part when they both start bowing!), and Elvin Jones. Like The Great Pretender, this is a case where the lead, title track is clearly the main event, the raison d'etre for the album. And here, too, it's a long excursion that fully justifies its length.

As is so often the case, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are standouts, propelling the tune ever forward while creating a sense of urgency and excitement that makes 18 minutes feel like 5. All the "guests" make worthwhile contributions, but "Olé" still sounds like classic Coltrane quartet material, which is a very good thing. Dolphy, Hubbard and Davis augment this classic sound, given a Spanish (Moorish?) tinge on "Olé", but don't essentially transform it. This is still the Coltrane Show.

The blues and ballads that make up the rest of the album are excellent, but seem like they belong to the period that Coltrane was leaving behind rather than the future that the title track points the way to. It's this clearly audible sense of straddling two eras that gives Olé its reputation as a "transitional" album. Still, I'd place this among Coltrane's best, a thoroughly enjoyable listen start to finish.

Bonus Links

A "Listening Party" entry on "The Great Pretender" from the increasingly excellent A Blog Supreme

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