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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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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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Album · 1969 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.83 | 18 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
OK. Call me a SOFT MACHINE slut for giving their first two albums 5 stars but damn! I really love these guys and a belated introduction to their musical output hasn't dampened my enthusiasm to their sound one bit. In fact it may have enhanced it. I, like countless others, weren't around at the time of these releases to comprehend their musical meisterhood and it seems like many a music fan of the era didn't get to appreciate their ingenious jazz-fusion whimsy at the time of its release. SOFT MACHINE continued their evolution on VOLUME TWO by ratcheting up all the unusualness of their first album and keeping just enough of the familiar poppiness to give a musical structure to embellish upon. The whimsical glee exerts itself full throttle on the first track with their childlike playfulness meets their adult contemplative spirituality on “Pataphysical Introduction.” You know you are in for something special right away.

There had been a few personal changes from Volume One to VOLUME TWO. Robert Wyatt was still in charge of drum duties and lead vocals. Mike Ratledge stayed on board for as keyboardist, but on this release bassist Kevin Ayers was out and Hugh Hopper who guested on the first album was now in. This time around Hugh's brother Brian Hopper guested on the sax (both soprano and tenor.) This album is really two long tracks but because of the advise of Frank Zappa the band broke those two longer tracks into many because of the fact one could reap more royalties that way. The album is actually very short clocking in at just over a half an hour but there is so much going on in that time that it actually feels longer to me.

VOLUME TWO is the logical evolution from “Volume One.” Instead of just jettisoning the psychedelic pop leaning template that had begun before their first album and still utilized on the debut, the band keeps this as a template and simply expands the avant-garde and jazz-fusion tendencies developed on their debut. The result is another superbly excellent album that is short but sweet. The jazz factor is ratcheted up quite a few notches but the underlying flow of the album remains comparable to the debut. As with the previous album this is a grower. No SOFT MACHINE album unleashes its secrets easily. One must listen attentively to let the magic unfold at his or her own time. For me personally, I find this an excellent successor to the debut and a logical bridge between the debut and the even more jazz infused developments of “Third.” Yeah, the only totally unoriginal thing about this band is that they could have been more creative in naming their albums!

SOFT MACHINE The Soft Machine

Album · 1968 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.10 | 17 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
All one has to do is listen to the demos (available as Jet-propelled Photographs) recorded the year before to hear how quickly THE SOFT MACHINE was evolving their sound. It had been a wild ride since the days of the Wilde Flowers for drummer Robert Wyatt and bassist Kevin Ayers to get to this point. Mike Ratledge joined the band in 1966 when they officially formed as keyboardist and fellow ex-Wilde Flower veteran Hugh Hopper (bass) joins in on a few tracks here. Hugh would later join the band as a full member.

Originally the band also included Larry Nowlin on guitar but by the time we get to this debut album there is no guitarist to be found and just as well. It allows the band to emphasize how much a band can do with just a bass, keyboards and drums. Although Daevid Allen (guitars and vocals) was out and would begin his own Canterbury powerhouse Gong, on this debut we get a mixture of his own beatnik philosophy that he left behind, the psychedelic rock that was in fashion at the time and a new found appreciation for jazz that is incorporated into the nooks and crannies of the song structures creating a very new and exciting kind of music.

I personally believe that the sudden evolution can be attributed to the musical genius of Jimi Hendrix with whom SOFT MACHINE would tour. Hendrix was a major catalyst in the musical world at large and such a close proximity to his world surely must have served as an energizing lightning bolt for the band catapulting them suddenly into the more progressive interpretations of their earlier psychedelic pop churned out just a short time prior their debut. The band tackles the songs quite creatively. I love how the leading track “Hope For Happiness” is really one long track but in the middle they insert another track titled “Joy Of A Toy.” That strategy is repeated throughout the album making a smooth. flowing album from beginning to end. The melodies are catchy, the musicianship is excellent and the arrangements are quite brilliant. Ayers and Wyatt trade off vocals complementing each other quite well.

This one was certainly a grower. Upon first listen most of the complexities passed me by and I was more focused on the psychedelic pop aspects of the music. To fully appreciate SOFT MACHINE albums takes patience and dedication to fully unlock the brilliance embedded into the music. Although I liked this album on the first listen, I have grown to really love it for its bold and daring display of creativity as well as for its long lasting influence on not only the Canterbury side of jazz-fusion but for the evolution of progressive music in general. A belated 5 star masterpiece in my world but one that will firmly remain in that status. You'll know you're hooked when “Hope For Happiness” becomes the dominant ear worm beckoning you to put on the album time and time again!

STANLEY CLARKE Live at the Greek (feat. Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Deron Johnson & Najee)

Live album · 1994 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 4.95 | 2 ratings
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Despite being a jazz fusion fan, somehow I missed Live At The Greek way back when, so it was a treat to discover it. All the players here have pedigree: Stanley Clarke from Return To Forever, Larry Carlton from The Crusaders, Billy Cobham from The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Daron Johnson played with Miles Davis in the early '90s, and Najee, well know in smooth jazz circles, shows his fusion chops here. With this kind of talent, we should hope for something good, and fortunately, we've not been disappointed. The album starts unassumingly with a short (3:26) instrumental version of Minute By Minute, a Doobie Brothers song by Michael McDonald and Lester Abrams, which Carlton previously recorded as a studio instrumental. The next five tracks range from 5:20 to 14:02 minutes, and include three originals, plus Miles Davis' All Blues and Charles Mingus' Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, both being given the fusion treatment here. But the tour de force is a 21:33 minute version of Clarke's School Days. Clarke, Cobham and Carlton get the chance to really stretch out on this track, and the results are worth the price of admission. This would have been a great concert to attend!

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band: First Set

Live album · 1992 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 2.71 | 3 ratings
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First Set was one of the first albums I got when I made the transition from vinyl to CD. The 1980s had not been good to the ABB, or jazz, blues and rock in general, so I did not expect much. Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts had produced some respectable albums in the 1980s, but they didn't get much notice. Also, I had just listened to The Fillmore Concerts, so First Set had a hard act to follow. But I was pleasantly surprised. No, Fillmore II it's not. But at the time Dickey had been quoted as saying 'this is the way the ABB is supposed to sound', the addition of Warren Haynes on guitar and Allen Woody on bass making the band sound more like ABB I. We even get Thom Doucette on harp. First Set includes some new songs, plus some old classics, with a good range of material. I saw the ABB at Red Rocks in 1998 after Warren and Allen had left the ABB for Gov't Mule, and Jack Pearson was on guitar, and Oteil Burbridge on bass. The opener was John Hammond, Jr., backed by Little Charlie and the Nightcats. So it was kind of like old home week. If you haven't been to Red Rocks, go!


Album · 1973 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.14 | 5 ratings
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Brothers & Sisters, courtesy of Dickey Betts, brought a shift towards more of country sound for the ABB, though we saw this before with Diickey's Blue Sky, and Gregg Allman's Midnight Rider. Also, apparently one of Duane Allman's inspirations for the twin harmony guitars was the fiddles in Western Swing music. The shift led to complaints by some that the ABB was moving away from its blues-rock roots, but we still saw plenty of that in concert, With the deaths of Duane, then Barry Oakley, many wondered if the ABB would even carry on. But it did, recruiting Chuck Leavell on piano, and Lamar Williams on bass. The choice of a second keyboard player, rather than than another guitarist, made sense at the time, as there were likely few guitarists who would have wanted to be thrown into to Duane spotlight. And Chuck and Lamar were good players, so no problem there. They also contributed to the jazz element of the ABB, which Jaimoe had pushed from the start. In fact, ABB II spun off Sea Level, with its own jazz fusion elements. So the ABB was not fundamentally changed and, even with more country sound, Brothers & Sisters shows all of the ABB's elements. Treat yourself to the 40th anniversary 4-disc set for some interesting outtakes, jamming, and two live discs.

FISHBONE Truth and Soul

Album · 1988 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
FISHBONE stepped things up a bit with their third release TRUTH AND SOUL (counting the eponymous debut EP). After a phenomenal debut and a mediocre second release as a fully realized album the band return with a slightly better album. This album is officially recognized as when they started to incorporate hard rock and metal into their sound but it's certainly not like they put the pedal to the metal full throttle. It is obvious on the first track “Freddie's Dead” a Curtis Mayfield cover that they changed their sound up a bit by incorporating amplified guitars to the mix but straight away on the second track they revert back to what they had been known for at this point by having a nice pleasant upbeat jazzy ska number. This trend would continue throughout most of the album with a few exceptions on the way.

Overall this feels like a transition album where the band was still grasping for straws and hadn't quite settled on any particular sound yet. They borrowed heavily from the past but were obviously intent on creating a newer sounding future. The most convincing foray into the much better fusion sound that is to be fully realized on their next album takes form here on the track “Show Bus Movin'.” This is an album that deserves a listen but if it feels a little awkward keep in mind that this is the collision of a jazzy ska band in transition to becoming a jazzy ska gospel metal band. The songs stand up as great on their own but the album as a whole feels a little clunky. Despite it though there is enough strong material on this to warrant a listen and an excellent introduction to the much better following release.


Album · 1991 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 2.39 | 3 ratings
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Shades Of Two Worlds is the second CD I bought (in a used shop) in my transition from vinyl 20 some years ago. Now (2014) people are going back to vinyl. The first CD I bought was The Fillmore Concerts boxset. The 1980s had not treated the ABB well. It had not treated jazz, blues or rock in general well. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I liked the sound of Shades. I recall a quote from Dickey Betts around that time saying 'this is the way the ABB is supposed to sound' With Warren Haynes and Allen Woody on board, it sounded more like the original ABB. Obviously, they could not recreate the magic of ABB I, but produced a series of good albums. If you like the ABB's original blend of blues, jazz and rock, you should like Shades. Some tracks are stronger than others, but overall a good effort.

BILLY BANG Billy Bang / John Lindberg : Duo

Live album · 1981 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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This album, recorded at KPFK Radio in Holywood in 1979, contains three free form improvisations that were a revitalization of some of Dave Holland's early works ("Music For Two Bases", etc), released a decade earlier.

Acoustic bassist John Lindberg studied with Holland and played with Anthony Braxton among many others. Together with guitarist James Emery and Billy Bang, they founded The New York Strings Trio in the late 70s (as an alternative to the World Saxophone Quartet) with the intent of participating in New York's loft jazz scene, a re-incarnation of the free jazz scene of the late 60s. Lindberg had already released a solo bass album in 1979, and later Billy Bang released a solo violin improvisation album in 1980.

So this Lindberg-Bang duo album, called "Duo", could be placed between their solo albums and The New York Strings Trio music, all released at about the same time. Without any big surprises, listeners can find on this album perfect interplay between two young and very innovative artists, playing music full of life, emotions and even tunes and soul - not always a characteristic case for some free form string duo releases.

Lindberg's physical bass is obviously influenced by early Dave Holland, but he doesn't sound like a clone at all; the late 70s was a short but very grateful period for those searching for their own voice and willing to explore. Billy Bang, who will soon after this release become an almost free jazz celebrity, mixes adventurous free improvisation with blues and more traditional jazz forms, and shows how great the violin can sound in free improvisational jazz (without being scratchy, noisy or openly dissonant).

This is a perfect album for fans of string driven free jazz (Dave Holland, Barre Phillips, etc) - adventurous and accessible at the same time, there are just a few such albums around.

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