Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Holiday Season Is Box Set Season

Six discs of Orange Juice?!?  Bring it on.  OJ had a concept, a sound, that shouldn't have worked: awkward, white Scottish guys trying to play funky, dance-y, r'n'b-flavored pop/love songs in a DIY/post-punk milieu, fronted by a singer with a voice that, on first listen, seems completely, almost laughably wrong for this kind of music.  The first time you hear them, you have to readjust your ears and your expectations.  And then, if you're lucky, at some point it clicks and you get it.  Off-kilter white "funk", a guy that can't sing doing a sensitive, vulnerable thing - these are elements that became somewhat common in the '80s underground/indie scene (and have been revived and recycled ever since), but even if you're familiar with the context, there's still something jarring and, ultimately, fresh about the way Orange Juice deployed/combined them to create their sound.  The Housemartins were on to something similar, but they had a better, if still unconventional, singer in Paul Heaton and their aesthetic seems a bit easier to parse (Northern soul, gospel, Marxism, delivered with a bright tempo and mood).  Orange Juice's influences, the components of their sound, don't come through so cleanly, perhaps (especially on their early Postcard material, documented on The Glasgow School) because of a simple lack of competence, a classic case of ambition outpacing ability to spectacular effect.

I don't know how long the link will be active, but the Guardian has a bunch of streaming preview tracks here.

Also on my Christmas list is this super-deluxe-looking Syl Johnson box from The Numero Group.  I only know a handful of Johnson's records, mostly his top shelf (and sometimes uncannily Al Green-like) Hi Records work and the phenomenal "Is It Because I'm Black", so I'm very much looking forward to digging into this treasure trove.  I'm also hoping to catch the man live at Southpaw in December, having missed him last time he was in town.  Syl Johnson is right up there with O.V. Wright in the category of Undeniable Soul Masters who deserve to be more widely known.

Speaking of treasure troves and six-disc boxes, I recently got the Paul Motian Black Saint/Soul Note set, which consists of six complete albums Motian made for the Italian label(s).  Black Saint and Soul Note played a crucial role in picking up the slack left by American labels in documenting the most creative jazz that was happening from the late '70s into the '90s.  The box includes One Time Out, an early (but not the first) Motian-Lovano-Frisell trio album, which contains some of that group's wildest excursions and one of Bill Frisell's freakiest guitar tones on record.  There are also piano-drums duos with Paul Bley and Enrico Pieranunzi.  The Pieranunzi (Flux and Change - attention Crap Jazz Covers, if you haven't seen this one, you need to check it out), a live record arranged into a series of suites or medleys combining improvised sections with standards, gave me a fuller appreciation of the Italian pianist's range.  I'd previously thought of him as a fairly conventional, if brilliantly fluid, classically-inflected player in the Bill Evans line, but this album demonstrates his imagination and his ability to move between free playing and changes while keeping up a dynamic, exciting interaction with Motian.  It's a fun listen and shows why this duo has continued to collaborate over the years (this looks like it could be a worthy sequel).

Three of the discs document the predecessor to Motian's long-running trio, the Paul Motian Quintet, with bassist Ed Schuller and saxophonist Jim Pepper along with Lovano and Frisell.  I hadn't heard anything from this group before buying this box (although I had heard the earlier version of the Quintet with Billy Drewes instead of Pepper), but can now say definitively that these albums are prime Motian.  If you're a fan and you don't have The Story of Maryam, Jack of Clubs, and Misterioso, you've got a serious gap in your collection and some good listening ahead of you.  These albums include many Motian compositions that he would record again later, but the versions here are almost uniformly excellent, if not necessarily definitive.  Motian the composer was fully formed by this point (the mid-'80s); these discs are full of characteristically beautiful and mysterious tunes like "Cathedral Song", "Trieste", "Byablue" (a gorgeous solo performance by Frisell), and the Motian tune par excellence, "Abacus".  While some of his compositions, like "Circle Dance", can resemble bright, major-key folk songs, many of them achieve beauty while defying listener's expectations on a note-by-note level.  The melodies don't progress or resolve in ways that we're accustomed to hearing; they strenuously avoid cliche.  The next note is always a surprise, and so the tunes remain fresh and elusive.  Monk's compositions (some of which appear in this box) often feature aggressively or humorously "off", "wrong", or discordant notes.  Motian's compositions thrive on the unexpected note, the one that doesn't so much sound "wrong" as surprising or counterintuitive.
(Strangely enough, this is not my first post that mentions both Syl Johnson and Paul Motian)

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