Friday, January 27, 2012

Recent Record Finds

Rounding up some of the better items I've found in recent record digs, stretching back to that annual colossus of record shows, the WFMU Record Fair, and including more recent trips to the pride of St. Louis record stores, Euclid Records (sorry Vintage Vinyl, I like you too), and a worthy new discovery, Greenpoint's Co-op 87. There are also one or two finds from Gimme Gimme in the East Village and Permanent Records in Greenpoint here too, plus a couple items on the soon-to-be-obsolete compact disc format.

Grant Green - Goin' West
Grant Green's Goin' West is a somewhat lesser-known link in a tradition stretching from Louis Armstrong's collaborations with Jimmie Rodgers to Sonny Rollins to Bryan & the Haggards. (I also tend to enjoy when the jazz-to-country crossover goes the other way - Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Jethro Burns, even Merle Haggard have ventured to varying extents into jazz territory with good results.) Though it was released in the late '60s, the early '60s recording date and inclusion of "I Can't Stop Loving You" certainly suggest the influence of Ray Charles' surprise success with Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music in the choice of this concept. Whatever the impetus, this group makes it work, turning some of the potentially hokiest material into music that sounds like golden age Blue Note, which in fact it is. I think a lot of the credit has to go to Billy Higgins, who finds creative solutions for making these tunes swing. Check out Higgins on "On Top of Old Smokey" (feels weird even typing that) - great drummers are often praised for making complex music sound natural and spontaneous, but here you have a great drummer making something fairly sophisticated out of very basic musical materials. A young Herbie Hancock also sounds quite comfortable in this territory, and as for Grant Green, all I can say is that hearing that tone coming out of my speakers is one of life's great pleasures. Oh, and the bass player is Reggie Workman!

Goin' West makes an interesting point of comparison with Bill Frisell's treatment of country and folk material. Frisell revels in the beauty and simplicity of the melodies (check out Frisell's versions of "Red River Valley" with Gary Peacock, a tune that also appears here), whereas Green & co. are more about adding layers of complexity. I could imagine both approaches ending in disaster, but these musicians are too good, too tasteful for that to happen.

Pat Matheny (w/ Charlie Haden & Billy Higgins) - Rejoicing
Although I normally much prefer Bill Frisell to Pat Matheny, I've been enjoying this record more than the Power Tools record (Strange Meeting w/ Frisell, Melvin Gibbs, and Ronald Shannon Jackson) I picked up at the same time. Rejoicing is an ideal companion piece to Song X - quieter, heavy on Ornette tunes but w/out Ornette himself. If you can manage to make a bad album with Haden and Higgins on board, shame on you, but that's certainly not the case here. Everybody sounds good, although I prefer the first side, with mostly Ornette tunes, to the second side, which gets into Pat originals and some guitar synth textures.

Julius Hemphill - Blue Boye
It's probably an unfounded bias, but I tend to steer clear of solo saxophone albums, or really most solo instrumental albums that don't feature piano or guitar. I knew Julius Hemphill would do something worthwhile with the format, though. In any case, Blue Boye is really better described as a "saxophone Conversations with Myself" or a "one-man WSQ" than a solo recital, with most tracks featuring Hemphill overdubbed on multiple instruments. I love the liner note description of Hemphill, one of the masters of writing and arranging for multiple horns, confidently building up the multiple tracks in a series of single takes while still wearing his overcoat in some half-assed, freezing basement studio.

It's often been noted that there was always a strong blues feeling in everything Hemphill did (and though I may be on shaky ground, I would argue that this stronger blues strain is one of the things that distinguished the music and musicians that came out of the St. Louis BAG scene from the closely related Chicago AACM scene), and it is certainly in evidence here, as the album title would suggest. I've been particularly enjoying the bluesy, boppish and truly solo "Kansas City Line" and the funky flute and hand clap driven "Homeboy Tootin' at the Dog/Star", which brings to mind the deep roots of Otha Turner's Mississippi fife & drum pre-blues.

Charles 'Bobo' Shaw & The Human Arts Ensemble (feat. Joseph Bowie) - P'nkJ'zz
This is a NYC loft scene edition (recorded at Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea) of the Human Arts Ensemble, which had originated with a very different lineup in St. Louis as a racially integrated adjunct to the Black Artists Group. BAG-related figures Joe Bowie (whose punk-jazz fusion project Defunkt would've been operating at this time), Julius Hemphill and Abdul Wadud are on this record, and most of the music resembles the Hemphill-Wadud collaborations (with their blend of free, blues, and African gestures) more than it really touches on punk. The exception is the first track, the wild (and gloriously titled) "Steam Away Kool 1500". While it may be a stretch to call it "punk", it's certainly in your face, gesturing toward rock with a heavy electric bass groove that reminds me a little, but only a little, of Keith Jarrett's "Mortgage On My Soul". It's a bit of a disappointment when the album doesn't continue in this vein, although I also enjoy the Latin or Afro-Latin acoustic guitar-driven vamps of the next two tunes, and the last and shortest track, "Be Bo Bo Be", gives Wadud the chance to go off a bit with a bowed solo.

Especially since reading Point From Which Creation Begins, Benjamin Looker's history of BAG, I've been picking up records here and there from what might be called the post-BAG discography. I haven't yet found another Dogon A.D.-style lost masterpiece, but Hemphill certainly went on to make many strong records in the '70s and '80s (and not just with the WSQ - see above), and I've also enjoyed some of the records where Lester Bowie got together with his old St. Louis associates, such as Fast Last! with Hemphill, brother Joe, Philip Wilson and John Hicks. One I'm on the lookout for is Shaw's Streets of St. Louis, also recorded under the HAE moniker and featuring a monster lineup, including Hemphill and Wadud, both Bowies, and Hamiet Bluiett.

Sonny Rollins - There Will Never Be Another You
This has to be one of the greatest two-drummer albums, with Mickey Roker (who talks a bit about it in his DTM interview) and Billy Higgins (who participated in some notable two drummer recordings with Ornette and Ed Blackwell) burning live in the MOMA Sculpture Garden in 1965. There's some great Tommy Flanagan, and the 16-minute title track is a particular must-hear, with Sonny wandering off mike around the courtyard near the end.

Laura Nyro - Gonna Take a Miracle
The legendary Philly team of Gamble & Huff brought a restrained but meticulous production approach to this record, only unleashing the strings a couple times and putting all the focus on the vocals of Nyro and Labelle (just a few years before they hit big with "Lady Marmalade"). The result, especially on the more sparsely instrumented tracks, is something like street corner harmony in a gloomy cathedral. It's a very precise but hard to describe atmosphere I don't think I've heard on any other record. In retrospect, it was a smart move to do an album of remembered songs, songs that had nostalgic value to Nyro, in what was up-to-date style in 1971. She didn't go to Motown and try to replicate the sound of the original records, instead going with producers and singers who were still on their way up and would go on to help define the sound of '70s R'n'B. Another unexpected but effective move was sequencing what is in my opinion the strongest track last. That song, the title cut, is a tour-de-force heartbreaker, originally a minor 1965 hit for the Royalettes (check out this great video), and a great expression of the breakup-as-Armageddon trope that Jens Lekman was gently mocking/paying tribute to with "The End of the World (Is Bigger Than Love)".

It must be a mark of how much I like Robert Christgau's writing that I can get pissed off about a forty year-old review, but his dismissive B-minus write-up of this record, where the best he can say about Labelle is that they "don't screech once", is pretty galling. I imagine his anti-Nyroism was at least in part a contrarian reaction to her critical darling status amid the earnest atmosphere of the early-'70s singer-songwriter scare, but at least he was able to recognize the greatness of the "Monkey Time/Dancing in the Street" medley. When Labelle start repeating the line "don't forget the Motor City", I get chills.

Roger Woodward - Shostakovich - 24 Preludes & Fugues
This was a WFMU Record Fair find, one of a few 20th Century classical records I picked up, still under the sway of Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise. This is the only version I've heard of this music, and the only thing I've heard from Woodward, who came out of Australia and is apparently still active, having recorded this in his early 30s in 1974. So, I'm thoroughly unqualified to write in depth about this, but I can see where this is in some way a 20th-century response to Bach as well as a chance for the composer to try out a bunch of ideas in short pieces. Though listening to the whole thing in one sitting is a bit taxing for someone of my attention span, there is a variety that sustains interest through the set of 24, with some pieces sounding like Baroque music with a few 20th-century harmonic touches and others more like full-blown Shostakovich squeezed into the prelude-and-fugue form. There's also a Keith Jarrett recording of the Preludes & Fugues on ECM which I'm somewhat curious about. I'm not crazy about his Goldbergs on harpsichord but I'm willing to give Klassical Keith another shot.

Mstislav Rostropovich - Britten - Cello Suites
Another one from the Record Fair. I first discovered Rostropovich through his recording of Shostakovich's first cello concerto, and after hearing this record of the first two of Britten's beautiful and technically dazzling suites for solo cello, I'm on the lookout for more recordings by the great Azerbaijani cellist. There's a record of Britten (on piano) and Rostropovich together that I'd like to hear, and there's also BBC documentary that I think is available streaming online if you do a little digging. I'd also really like to hear the 3rd Britten suite, which was written for but not recorded by Rostropovich. Another win for vinyl: this record has a really cool cover which seems not to have been retained by any of the CD releases of this music.

...and last and also least:

Having Fun with Elvis on Stage
One of music history's most notorious novelty/bizarro items, this is 37 or so minutes of Elvis' stage banter from the Adderol-addled early '70s brought to the public courtesy of Col. Parker's cynical avarice. Judging by this record, Elvis spent much of his time on stage during these years dealing with requests for his sweaty scarves from female fans of all ages.

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