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MATTHEW SHIPP Root Of Things

Album · 2014 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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The most difficult artists to write about are those whose artistic vision is so unique and personal that it is hard to come up with comparisons and references, and such is the case with pianist Matthew Shipp and his latest trio outing, “Root of Things”. Early in his career Shipp displayed much influence from the high speed jagged and aggressive piano assaults of Cecil Taylor, and you can still hear some of the Taylor influence, but Shipp has distilled and reduced the Taylor approach, taking out much of the extravagance and leaving a more refined core. Is Shipp’s playing a ‘lounge’ version of Cecil Taylor’s pyrotechnics, that would be an odd way of putting things, but it could almost suffice as a layman’s description, but its also a bit shallow because Shipp is much more than just that. If Matthew has a possible reference in today’s world of pianists, Craig Taborn might be as good as any. Both Shipp and Taborn are drawn to thick busy contrapuntal textures that owe much to serial composers, and both favor a tonality that deceptively slips from extended harmonies to atonality and in-between areas that are not clearly one or the other. Apologies are due if this all sounds too technical, but Shipp’s music is not exactly easy listening.

On this CD you get two tracks with busy, but introspective piano work; “Root of Things” and “Code J”, while “Path” centers around bassist Michael Bisio, and “Pulse Code” is for drummer Whit Dickey. The more energetic work-out tracks are “Jazz It” and album closer “Solid Circuit”. “Jazz It” is probably the CD’s top cut. As the title implies, this is the ‘jazz number’ and the only cut that ‘swings’. It opens with a bluesy Monk like groove, but as Shipp goes into quadruple time while soloing, the rhythm section feels compelled to follow and keeps slipping into chaotic high speed romps. Overall, “Jazz It” has more humor and good times slap bang chaos than most of the rest of this CD, which often sounds more like concert hall music than post bop. Dickey’s solo on “Pulse Code” is nice because he goes more for interesting layered poly-rhythms ala Billy Higgins, rather than boring displays of flash. Closing number “Solid Circuit” is probably closest to the old days of free jazz blowouts, but even on this one, the trio shows much care and restraint in their interactions.

This is one of the better jazz CDs to come out so far this year and it should hold up well to many close listens for modern post bop fans, avant-garde listeners and even concert hall devotees who like the jazz as well. If every cut on here would have been as strong and imaginitive as “Jazz It”, this would have been close to album of the year.

WADADA LEO SMITH Wadada Leo Smith / George Lewis / John Zorn : Sonic Rivers

Album · 2014 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
John Zorn's prolific Tzadik label started a new SPECTRUM series with an excellent collaboration between three modern creative jazz giants culminating in the album, "Sonic Rivers". Three horn players - trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, trombonist George Lewis and Zorn himself on saxes, play a restrained session full of bursts and free jazz beauty.

I was expecting this album's concept to recall one of the legendary works between George Lewis and John Zorn in collaboration with guitar genius Derek Bailey resulting in the album "Yankees",released on the Celluloid label in 1982. Even if more than three decades separate these two releases, besides the line-up, they have some more things in common. Both "Yankees" and "Sonic Rivers" radiate that adventurous and creative jazz spirit which becomes more and more rare in the current jazz scene.

Wadada Leo Smith and George Lewis are two key artists of Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) movement, which began in the mid 60's. Both are not only musicians, but composers as well, known for their experimental works. John Zorn is probably the most influential figure on the NY downtown avant-garde scene for the last few decades, known for his explosive dissonant playing and his many compositions as well.

Here, on "Sonic Rivers", one can find a very successful balance between the non-jazz avant-garde and the non-traditional compositions of the Chicago school, plus the New York eclectic explosive mix of all styles in one. Surprisingly enough, no-one of these three musicians dominates on these recordings. Even Zorn, adding his dissonant sax soloing, leaves a lot of space for the others. In all, this music sounds very aerial, almost minimal in moments, but still full of content - the characteristic by which one can usually separate the best free jazz albums from all the others. Lewis uses some electronic devices on a few compositions, but generally it's three horn players building multicolored acoustic pictures.

Critically thinking, there is nothing revolutionary different or just really new here. Mainly this music's value is that it reinvents that creative spirit which made so many 60s and 70s jazz releases great listening, even till now, and in a big part, almost forgotten in these modern days of music. The modern jazz scene really needs more of this inspiration today.

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THE BRAND NEW HEAVIES The Brand New Heavies (N'Dea Davenport vocals)

Album · 1991 · Acid Jazz
Cover art 4.04 | 4 ratings
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There is a certain amount of confusion surrounding The Brand New Heavies’ first album (also called “The Brand New Heavies”). The original release featured Jay Williamson (named Jay Ella Ruth at the time) on vocals and was released in England in 1990. It was quickly replaced by a new version with a lot of the same songs, but with the much stronger N’Dea Davenport from the US on vocals. This version of the album was released first in the US and was also used later for any re-issues of the album worldwide. This review is also based on the Davenport version, as that has become the definitive version of the album for most.

This was the first album from England’s late 80s acid jazz fad to actually connect in the US. Although popular with the rave kids in England and elsewhere, acid jazz remained a mystery in the US, with only a few big cities on the coasts picking up on its trendy mix of 60s soul jazz, 70s funk and 80s DJ music. Early English acid jazz bands such as The James Taylor Quartet were a little too exotica cute and loungey to connect with the more funkified US RnB/dance/jazz scene. The Brand New Heavies, on the other hand, carried a lot more of the street rhythms and funky grooves that made them recognizable to the Americanos.

Musically the Heavies first album is similar to what The Commodores and Kool and the Gang were playing in the late 70s, a blend of pop and funk with very dance-able rhythms, but not as down and dirty as the more hardcore early to mid-70s funk sound. Every song and every riff on here is great, but its all done with a certain cleanliness that some funk fans may find a little on the lite side. Likewise, the instrumental numbers are similar to The Brecker Brothers, but not with the same blazing bebop chops. Davenport is a great singer, but her voice lacks character and personality, she sounds like the top notch back-up singer all of a sudden promoted to lead. It all adds up, this is a good album, but it would have been tops with a little more grit and grease.

Although most of this album stays on the pop-funk vibe, “Put the Funk Back In It” slows things down for a heavy p-funk groove, while follow up song “Gimme One of Those” takes the guitar riff from Funkadelic’s “Loose Booty” and tops it with classic James Brown style synth noodling. You’ll swear you’ve heard this song before somewhere back in the 70s. Live funk bands were a rarity in 1990, and this band was a real breath of fresh air and a wake up call to other musicians that the funk was back. It also still sounds great today, although maybe not nasty enough for the hardcore funk fans.

TOHPATI Tohpati Ethnomission: Save The Planet

Album · 2010 · World Fusion
Cover art 3.75 | 3 ratings
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Tohpati Ethnomission's a group from Indonesia, yeah, Indonesia. And probably the first thing we have in mind when we think about this country is some kind of exhotic music, well, it's not that the exhotic don't make any part of the group's music, but it's not the main focus here, the 'thing' here is gather both together, exhotic and 'secular' music, like jazz/fusion, progressive rock and rock n roll. The mind behind the group is Tohpati (guitars), that is also part of simakDIALOG. In Save The Planet, first album of Tohpati Ethnomission he's with Indro Hardjodikoro (bass), Endang Ramdan (percussion), Demas Narawangsa (drums and percussion) that had only 16 years old on the time they recorded, Diki Suwarjiki (suling, a kind of flute) and Lestari (voice on track 2).

What we have in Save The Planet is quite good, in fact, more than good. Highlits like 'Selamatkan Bumi' and his 9 minutes long, 'Drama' (that reminds some King Crimson's Robert Fripp moments), 'Ethno Funk', 'Inspirasi Baru' (and the great bass solo), 'Perang Tanding' (moments that resembles some Frank Zappa) and 'Amarah' (and the various guitars), shows us that the band have A LOT of potential.

But unfortunatelly the group sometimes bet on calm and slow compositions, which I don't like, I don't think it fits their style.

But all in all Save The Planet worth the hearing! Specially when it comes to jazz rock/fusion lovers. The album have some irregularities but shows clearly the bright future Tohpati and his mates can have if they keep playing and writing like that. It's a waiting game, but in my opinion it'll worth.

CHARLIE HADEN Silence

Album · 1989 · Post Bop
Cover art 3.02 | 2 ratings
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snobb
In September 1987 Charlie Haden recorded an excellent piano trio album with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Paul Motian called "Etudes". Released the following year on the Italian Soul Note label, it opened with Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" and continued with mostly originals by the band members, all boppish and swinging.

Three months after the "Etudes" sessions, Haden recorded more material in a Roman studio, but with a very different team this time. Billy Higgins replaces Paul Motian, lyrical Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi replaces Geri Allen, and even more, now there is a trumpeter on board, none other than Chet Baker. The end results became the album "Silence".

As one can expect, the music on "Silence" is different from "Etudes". With full respect to Baker's early albums, his participation on jazz albums in the 80s hardly adds a lot of pluses. His name and his voice can still attract nostalgic listeners, but his trumpet playing is hardly competitive compared with the artists he is working with. Even worse, there seems to be a rather pointless and commercial attempt to exploit Baker's past, you can't return the atmosphere back to the cool jazz era in the late 80s, added with Pieranunzi's melancholic mainstream slick piano sounds, its all quite artificial, out of time and place, a not too successful imitation.

This is still a product of classy musicians, so maybe it could attract fans of sentimental Italian jazz from the 70s, which, with varying success tried to combine American jazz traditions with Italian melodic lyricism and sentimentality.

ZU Carboniferous

Album · 2009 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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siLLy puPPy
ZU is an atypical power trio emerging from Rome, Italy in the 90s delivering some energetic and unconventional hybrid music. I was totally unfamiliar with this group before their 11th studio album CARBONIFEROUS and I have not heard any other albums before this but from what I have read they have taken on a more heavy and distorted take on their RIO / Avant-prog meets math rock music. There are a several groups this band reminds me of. They have a musical delivery approach like the avant-jazz French group Jean Louis but the heaviness and chord changes have a Fantômas feel as well which is particularly true on the two vocals tracks that have Mike Patton making a cameo appearance. This could be due to the fact they toured with Fantômas and Melvins in 2006. ZU also has a groove on some tracks similar to another strange band called Chrome Hoof. This is especially noticeable on the first track “Ostia.”

Any way you slice it ZU is an RIO band in structure with an avant-jazz-metal veneer consisting of the unconventional trio of instruments that includes bass, drums and baritone saxophone. We do get a couple guest guitarists lending a hand on “Chthonian” and “Obsidian” but Massimo Pupillo's extremely heavy fuzzy bass pretty much delivers as much distortion as the music can handle and Luca Mai's sax playing takes the place of the traditional guitar. He handles rhythmic duties for the most part but also contributes some sizzling solos that bring John Zorn to mind. Jacopo Battaglia has a jazz drummer's method of dancing around the strange chord progressions and contributes more of a complementary sound than an expected backbone of the band. The musicians spend their time weaving around each other in a way that makes it hard to focus on any one particular instrument that stands out but there are times when solos are thrown in.

This music is highly addictive. It was love at first listen for me but it only got better the more I listened to it. The band makes full use of tones and distortion as a key part of the musical structure and the musicianship is top-notch. By blending various aspects of math rock, noise rock, punk, jazz, grindcore and a touch of repetitive drone doom at times, they have created a very intricate and disciplined style of music that doesn't come off as being as complex as it is. A true treasure tucked away under the various categories of RIO, avant-prog, avant-garde metal, or free jazz, but nomenclature aside it is simply a unique sound that fans of adventurous, energetic and unorthodox fusion will find most satisfying.

JAN GARBAREK Til Vigdis

Live album · 1967 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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I believe you have never heard saxophonist Jan Garbarek sounding like this! Nothing strange there, most jazz fans have no idea this album exists!

The twenty-year old future Norwegian saxophone superstar is playing in a student club on "Til Vigdis". The album consists of three very free compositions with enough kicking and swinging to be recognized as post-65 Coltrane music influenced. The rhythm section (bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen) are both future Nordic jazz leading figures as well.

Not particularly memorable or musically exciting, this album is unique as probably one of the earlier European free jazz albums, and it also shows Garbarek's early influences as well. He will show much higher class on his next release, "African Pepperbird", but for those who only know Garbarek as a new-agey contemporary Nordic jazz star, this album could open their eyes (and may be ears). This original limited edition is really an expensive rarity though, with i-net prices up to 1500 euro.

QUINCY JONES The Great Wide World Of Quincy Jones

Album · 1959 · Big Band
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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In 1959 Quincy Jones’ career was still young, but he had already established himself as the new leader in the world of big band jazz. “The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones” was approximately Jones’ fourth or fifth album (depending on who is counting) and has him featuring a sound that was becoming familiar by now. Oddly enough, Jones is only the conductor on here, but the arrangements by Al Cohn, Bill Potts, Ernie Wilkins and Ralph Burns sound very much like Jones with their bright bold sounds and shimmering optimistic energy. In the late 50s, the Quincy Jones sound was fast becoming the sound of commercials, movie, TV, Vegas and background music of any type, and his sound continued to be influential well into the 80s. These days, Quincy’s 60s sounds are often the sound of choice for those who seek retro-chic hipness.

There are so many good tunes on here, but some standouts include the high flying energy of “Air Mail Special” and the striking melancholy tune of “I Never has Seen Snow”. “Chant of the Weed” sounds like a typical theme for a early 60s sit-com, and a great example of how pervasive Quincy’s influence was/is. There are also plenty of good soloists including Phil Woods, Budd Johnson, Art Farmer and Lee Morgan. The only possible drawback is the revved up version of “Caravan”. It’s a song that’s covered too many times to begin with, and this overly charged up version pales in comparison to Ellington’s very odd and murkily exotic original. This is one tune where Jones’ extroverted sound just doesn’t seem like the right fit.

Fans of modern (post swing era) big bands will want to get this. Quincy Jones was really onto something when he first hit the scene, but unfortunately it did not last for ever, soon after this record and a couple more like it, he will leave big band jazz for the more lucrative world of pop and studio work.

BO HANSSON Mellanväsen (aka Attic Thoughts)

Album · 1975 · Exotica
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Because he scored a cult hit early in his career with an album of music “inspired by The Lord of the Rings”, Bo Hanson has always been lumped in with the art rock crowd, which is unfortunate because the people who would probably appreciate his music more are fans of incidental music, soundtracks, adverts and things like that. "Mellanvasm" aka “Attic Thoughts”, like Hanson’s other albums, consists of short instrumentals on which he plays most of the instruments via multi-tracking creating a very personal sound. As mentioned earlier, soundtrack music makes for a good reference to Hanson’s sound, you could also include the exotic pop instrumentals of Brian Wilson and George Martin. Some cuts also recall 60s lounge pop-jazz, the sort of sound that had a revival during the initial acid jazz phase.

Hanson creates his personal sound stories using a plethora of analog keyboards (as well as guitars etc) making this album a good one for those who enjoy the sound of 70s instrumental keyboard based exotic albums such as Augustas Pablo’s “East of the River Nile’ or Les McCann’s "Layers". I have heard Hanson’s music used in acid jazz mixes, so there are some out there who recognize where Hanson’s music might find a good fit. Hopefully more soundtrack and exotica fans will discover this unique and 'charming' music.

GREGORY JAMES Madagascar

Album · 1982 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 1.00 | 1 rating
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Before we get too far into this review, it should be pointed out that Gregory James is an excellent jazz and fusion guitarist who remains active in the San Francisco Bay area music scene, but we all have our clunkers, and “Madagascar” is his. When this album first opens, things don’t sound too bad, James and his crew present an 80s style of jazz-rock fusion that sounds like a cross between Pat Metheny and sophisticated new wave rockers, The Police. Unfortunately, as things progress, tuning problems slowly become apparent. By the time we hit the second track, “Jeanetta”, its obvious that woodwinds player Barry Shulman is way out of tune with everyone else, buts its possible he had a hard time getting his bearings because the guitar is out of tune with itself, making it hard to tell if Bruce Barrett’s bass is in tune with anyone, but it does seem like his bass may be the one anchor in this swamp of intonation dizziness.

The persistent out-of-tuneness gives the entire proceedings a certain sea-sick atmosphere, so its hard to tell if other things that appear to be wrong are only appearing that way due to the tuning problems, but it does seem that the players are having a hard time hitting a groove together. Sometimes it almost sounds like the individual player’s tracks were recorded separately, or possibly the drums were added after everyone else played to a click track. Then there is the EQ situation, everything is mixed incredibly high and thin in a trademark plastic 80s sound that is devoid of any depth, which is further pushed by James choice of ‘synth-axxe’ sounds.

The album notes boast of the kind of recording specs that sound engineers just love, but these kind of statistics are never a good sign as it just means the album was mixed by people who don’t have good ears, and who also hope that science will fix things for them. Even with all the problems going on, you can tell the musicians on here are good, which makes it all the more surprising that they let this recording session gone awry get pressed onto vinyl.

You do see this album for sale on the internet, and since none of the money would be going to James anyway, I feel it only fair to let people know what is on here, which leads to another possible market for this record. There are those of us who collect albums that are remarkably flawed, that’s why I own two copies of “Madagascar”.

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