Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recent Listening - Focus on 1977-1980

I noticed that four of the albums I've been listening to lately and wanted to write something about were all released between 1977 and 1980. Though an essay could probably be written on the way McCartney and Lowe responded to the musical trends of the time with the albums mentioned below, I'll leave it to the reader to draw any larger conclusions about the period from this basically arbitrary quartet.

Andrew Hill - Strange Serenade
I bought this 1980 trio record after seeing it mentioned by both Russ Lossing and Hill's last bassist, John Hebert, in a piece honoring what would've been Hill's 80th birthday. If it seemed odd for this relative obscurity (with a pretty lame cover) in Hill's catalog to be mentioned by two of the five musicians asked to name favorite tracks, it made a lot more sense after one listen. The first thing that really struck me about this album is how much this trio reminds me of Jason Moran & the Bandwagon, especially on the long first track, "Mist Flower". There are some obvious connections: Hill was apparently something of a mentor to Moran and the drummer on Strange Serenade is Freddie Waits, father of Bandwagon drummer Nasheet Waits, who also played and recorded with Hill. I haven't heard a ton of Freddie Waits, but he sounds great on this record, seeming to push Hill and stretch the framework of the music just the way Nasheet does at times with Moran. Avant bassist extraordinaire Alan Silva is stylistically different from the Bandwagon's Tarus Mateen, but he shares what seems like a natural aversion to playing the conventional thing, and both combine with the drummer to create the impression of something unleashed and untamed.

Woody Shaw - The Iron Men
Shaw's 1977 album, actually billed as "Woody Shaw with Anthony Braxton", also features Arthur Blythe, Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil McBee, and Joe Chambers and the previously unknown-to-me Victor Lewis (looks like I should have known about him, as he has an impressive resume and is apparently still playing and teaching) alternating on drums. The album seems to be a dedication to Eric Dolphy, the title a reference to the album and song "Iron Man", both of which Shaw appeared on. "Iron Man" also appears as the first track here. There's also an Andrew Hill composition, "Symmetry", and the overall style of The Iron Men fits into the same fertile zone between hard bop and free jazz that much of Dolphy and Hill's work inhabited.

Muhal Richard Abrams sounds particularly good to me in this context - there's something beautifully clear, almost illuminated, about both his sound and the ideas he's playing on this record, including some really nice comping. Iron Men is also a good place to hear why bassist Cecil McBee (still very active today at age 76) was on so many records with so many major and stylistically diverse figures in the commercially dark (though artistically strong) period for acoustic jazz that was the late '60s through the early '80s.

The rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" makes an interesting point of comparison with the way AACM-affiliated musicians like Abrams and Henry Threadgill approached early jazz and pre-bop material, though the template for Shaw's version was clearly the recording of it he made with waltz master Eric Dolphy (with Dolphy on flute). The tune seems to have had continuing appeal, as Greg Osby recorded it with Andrew Hill late in Hill's career on The Invisible Hand. As fine as the nods to Dolphy, Waller, and Hill are, the album reaches a climax on Shaw's own "Song of Songs", which includes sections of pretty hot interplay between Shaw and Abrams, then Braxton and Blythe, an Abrams solo containing moments where he sounds like two pianists playing simultaneously, and an all-in blow-out before a fade-out at 12:45.

McCartney II
Is the fact that I really enjoy this (in some ways, obviously flawed) album a sign of some terrible decadence in my taste, an incurable soft spot for Paul, or has contemporary music reached a place where McCartney's 16-track home recordings, released in 1980 and by turns dubby, new-wavey, disco-y, and dopey (both meanings), sound fresh, invigorating, and maybe even relevant? While catching up with some Best Show on WFMU episodes via podcast - I tend to be about 3 weeks behind - I heard prominent and passionate McCartney fan Tom Scharpling mention McCartney II a couple of times, including recommending notoriously WTF? outtake "All You Horse Riders", included on the bonus disc of the reissue, for anyone who thinks John Lennon was the weirder, more "experimental" Beatle. While I find "Horse Riders" more of an amusing (and truly strange) curiosity than something that bears repeated listening, I can't get enough of "Check My Machine". A B-side which also appears on Disc Two of the reissue, it's certainly odd but also masterful, full of cool little hooks and sonic details. It almost makes me regret not getting the super-deluxe reissue which includes the much longer, unedited version.

Speaking of odd but masterful, I've had Nick Lowe's "Nutted By Reality" stuck in my head since the two-LP  reissue of 1978's Jesus of Cool arrived at my place a few days ago. What kind of mad genius could devise a song that starts off with a funky Jackson 5 intro, followed by the opening lines "Well I heard they castrated Castro / I heard they cut off everything he had", then shifts midway into an almost unrelated strummy/bouncy part with lush, harmonized vocals to describe the titular "nutting"? The same kind that could write catchy dachshund-eats-silent-movie-star song "Marie Provost" (included in my previous Lowe Top Ten). This is certainly one reissue I'm glad to have bought on vinyl, because Yep Roc did an excellent job with the packaging, including both the original cover and the American, Pure Pop for Now People version in what looks like a reversible gatefold (I haven't actually tried reversing it). Also, why is colored vinyl cool? I don't know, but it is. I should also take this opportunity to declare my preference for "Shake and Pop" over "They Called it Rock". While basically the same song, I like the former's dirtier, more lowdown, almost glammy groove a bit better than the latter's more straightforward Rockpile/Dave Edmunds/rockabilly bounce. Lowe's upcoming opening slots for Wilco should be interesting - will they do "I Love My Label" together?

One last item, departing from the '77-'80 theme:
I just listened to the entire first side of The World of Harry Partch (from 1969), comprising the single track "Daphne of the Dunes", before I realized that I was playing it at 45 instead of 33-1/3 RPM. Since Partch and his musicians were playing his own custom-designed instruments tuned to microtonal scales of his own devising, there's really no reference point outside of Partch's own music to tell if the intruments don't sound "right", but part way through the piece I did start to wonder just how the marimba players in particular were able to negotiate the mixed- and irregular meters at such breakneck tempo. It's still impressive at the correct speed, but if you happen to have some Partch on vinyl, check it out at 45 (I guess you could also speed up an MP3, but where's the fun in that?).

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