Jazz Music Reviews from Chicapah

FRANK ZAPPA Sheik Yerbouti

Live album · 1979 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 2.52 | 18 ratings
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In 1977 Frank Zappa’s contract with Warner Brothers ended and he finally got the unfettered freedom that he’d been yearning to have for years. “Sheik Yerbouti” was the first release on Zappa Records and I get the feeling that Frank wanted to celebrate the occasion by having some fun. While many might consider this double LP too frivolous I beg to differ. The man’s humorous side was never hidden from public view so to expect him to conceal it as if it were something he was ashamed of is to dismiss a huge part of his personality for no good reason. For those inclined to limit themselves to his more “serious” endeavors there’s plenty of albums available that more readily accentuate Zappa’s adventurous jazz/rock fusion explorations but I think to do so hampers one’s ability to completely understand his genius. This wasn’t just some wise guy with distinctive facial hair who surrounded himself with eclectic collections of musical virtuosos, this was FRANK ZAPPA! He was openly rebellious and to expect him to play by the rules was pure folly. This is no masterpiece of prog rock or modern jazz but I doubt that he was trying to make one this time around. I think he just wanted to reiterate to the industry that in his realm there were no sacred cows to be revered and, by combining live tracks with studio add-ons and effects, demonstrate that he refused to be restricted or corralled by traditional methodology. “Sheik Yerbouti” displays splendidly the mixture of wit and immense talent that made Frank the stellar, one-of-a-kind 20th century savant who influenced millions of musicians worldwide during his too-short 52 years on Terra Firma.

The first five cuts are a non-stop medley of tunes that appear to be a lampoon of the trends that surfaced and thrived (at least for a while) during the 70s, starting with a hilarious send up of R&B Doo-Wop sensibilities entitled “I Have Been in You.” I find the crude lyrics and the high-pitched backup vocals to be an absolute hoot because Motown was never this brutally honest about sex although they sang about it all the time. From there he cruises into “Flakes,” a great skewering of Californians in general coupled with proggy interludes and rhythm guitarist Adrian Belew’s faux Bob Dylanisms that only the mind of Mr. Zappa could make work. “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” is next, a rocking stab at the New Wave movement that also gives a wink to the pretentious performance artists of that era via free-form word association. “I’m So Cute” then barges in. It reminds me of some of the silly British glam acts that tried so hard to be outrageous but were only successful at becoming ridiculously dated. The southern-fried boogie craze gets its turn on the grill with “Jones Crusher,” a driving number faithfully rendered complete with inane words and an overblown concert finale. “Whatever Happened to All the Fun in the World?” is the first of several brief forays into an abstract dimension that’ll give you cause to grin. It’s not all vaudeville, though. On “Rat Tomago” Frank cuts loose on the fret board and proceeds to dazzle and stun your ears with his inimitable axe-wielding ferocity. It’s pretty much a droning on-stage jam but who cares when the guitar playing is this fierce? “Wait a Minute” is another short spasm of incidental hijinks. Those of the politically correct persuasion had best skip “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” a bold slice of satire that’s bound to offend the sensitive. My opinion is that if you can’t enjoy a chuckle over this song then you’re taking yourself way too seriously (Something Zappa avoided like the plague.) Lighten up, for heaven’s sake.

“Rubber Shirt” is an experimental detour into jazz land where Terry Bozzio’s drums and Patrick O’Hearn’s bass guitar roam free. Frank, ever the mad scientist, combined two totally unrelated tracks to construct something intriguing. It goes to show that he was never afraid to “put it all out there.” He wasn’t as concerned about the common man’s acceptance of his fearless craft as he was of staying true to it. “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango” is a strange journey into Latino territory where Zappa colors far outside the well-defined lines. It’s definitely not for the musically conservative ear. On the odd little ditty, “Baby Snakes,” it’s back to unapologetic funny business for a few minutes. “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin” is a sly poke at rock & roll theatrical productions. (Makes me wonder what FZ would’ve thought of extravaganzas like the recent insipid “Rock of Ages” stage show and movie.) “City of Tiny Lites” is a prime example of why there’ll never be another Frank. It’s a tightly-compacted conglomerate of rock, prog, funk, jazz and humor that’s a testament to his unmitigated gall. “Dancin’ Fool” follows, an incredibly spot-on swipe at the vapid disco phenomenon. (The tune actually crossed over into dance clubs for a spell in ’79 to Zappa’s astonishment.) “Jewish Princess” is Spike Jones on LSD. Sometimes making music can be made for no other purpose than to elicit a giggle or two and I’m okay with that. Let it be exactly what it is and don’t overanalyze. “Wild Love” is a highly complex, intricate arrangement of musical passages and assorted absurdities that defies description. Think jazz/rock fusion tossed in a blender. The album ends with 12:36 of “Yo Mama,” an epic that showcases Frank’s progressive leanings eloquently. Here structure and spontaneity get swirled together brilliantly. I realize that a lot of folks won’t “get it” but I’m glad that I do. It’s greatness.

“Sheik Yerbouti” went on to become Zappa’s biggest seller. It rose to #21 on the LP charts and, to date, has sold over 2 million copies. Not bad for an anti-establishment non-conformist. While I can dig that this stuff ain’t for everybody I think it’s still better than most of the self-righteous garbage I hear on radio and TV today. No one dares to be sarcastic anymore for fear of reprisals from the right or left and that’s a shame because we need to be reminded from time to time that we’re all crazy, neurotic messes that don’t seem to know when to take a chill pill and have a good laugh at ourselves. Frank Zappa took on that dirty job with pleasure and, in hindsight, it’s obvious that he didn’t scar anybody for life with his playful jabs. “Sheik Yerbouti” is a harmless yet entertaining escape from the hum drum.

SADE (HELEN FOLASADE ADU) Stronger Than Pride

Album · 1988 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 3.96 | 6 ratings
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After putting out two excellent albums that made her and her top-notch band international stars in 1984-85 Sade took almost three years to write, arrange and record their third disc, “Stronger than Pride.” While not identical to the pair that preceded it, its similarities didn’t disappoint the millions of fans who’d anxiously awaited the next installment of their career. Though one can tell that their commitment to their music is first and foremost, their devotion to their loyal following is just as impressive. This group’s sound is so unique and so individualized that to this day no one has been able to competently imitate or even draw fair comparisons to their admirable way of doing things and that’s what legacies are made of.

The album opens with the title cut. A subtle drum pattern establishes the pulsating hue that gives an inviting personality to the track’s underpinnings yet it’s the melodic mien that makes the song transcend the norm. As only a handful of female vocalists can do, Ms. Adu controls and manipulates the dynamics of the tune via her amazing phrasing and undeniable presence. “Paradise” is next and strong rock and R&B elements regally distinguish the number. This band never tries to get overly clever or cute in their approach to their craft, they simply allow Sade to operate her voice in ways that defy convention. The result is musical art that is timeless. “Nothing Can Come Between Us” follows and here the funk flavoring is so understated that it seems clandestine in nature as it gently cradles Adu’s confident delivery effortlessly. “Haunt Me” offers a fine change of pace in that the emphasis shifts to Andrew Hale’s acoustic piano and Stewart Matthewman’s Spanish guitar work that so beautifully support Sade’s breathy singing. The piano solo is delicate and thoughtful, the light orchestration never smothers the song and Stewart’s saxophone ride is suitably dreamy. “Turn My Back on You” tosses in yet another change-up pitch to the plate with its rhythm scheme being based on a novel, stick-on-a-paper-bag snare effect that provides a true departure from their routine motif. This cut causes me to imagine how Sly Stone (in his peak, lucid years, that is) might’ve interpreted Adu’s charismatic technique and style.

“Keep Looking” possesses a funky bass line courtesy of Paul S. Denman that, along with the ever-steady but conservative drumming of Martin Ditcham, drives this tune relentlessly. Sade enchants with her cool voice, demonstrating how sexy is done right. The hypnotic atmosphere they concoct is their forte and no one does it better. “Clean Heart” is next, sporting a smooth, jazzy lilt. Adu, as usual, casts an unavoidable spell on the listener while subdued horns add a classy ambience to the proceedings. Perky, motivating congas set the pace for “Give it Up,” drenching the number in a powerful African aura that will have you dancing in your heart of hearts. “I Never Thought I’d See the Day” follows. Here Hale’s liquid Rhodes piano spreads out below Adu’s inimitable timbre and the song flows freely on its own accord. The track is quite ethereal, with no perceptible beat in evidence. That decision shows clearly their confidence and maturity because why add what’s not necessary? The closer is an entertaining but curious instrumental, “Siempre Hay Esperanza.” It’s an uncomplicated piece where the swaying groove reigns supreme and Matthewman’s saxophone flourishes are sensuous enough yet, taken as a whole, it smacks of filler material. Perhaps they just couldn’t get the vocal to work to their satisfaction (Ms. Adu is listed as one of the composers) or whatever, but it does give the record a strange “unfinished” feel as it comes to an end.

“Stronger Than Pride” topped out at a very respectable #7 on the US album charts, further solidifying Sade’s position as a major player in the confusing 80s music scene. Their refusal to bend to the current trends in the industry paid off once again and continued to set them apart from the madding crowd. If you want consistency and quality in your pop-tinted jazz you need look no further than any of the offerings of this exemplary ensemble of talented musicians.

THE NICE Autumn '67 Spring '68 (aka Autumn to Spring)

Boxset / Compilation · 1972 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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This is the first LP of The Nice I've ever owned and, despite its contents being well over four decades old, listening to it as a Nice virgin makes me feel like I'm 17 again, filled with adolescent wonder over the resourcefulness and ingenuity these guys injected into their art. Where did they come up with such a splendid blend of influences? How did they combine such a non chalant looseness with such impeccable skill? How did they include such a feisty sense of humor without the end result becoming vaudevillian? How did they consistently break every rule of making records without losing their validity? It's a mystery to me but the bottom line is this: If not for the British Invasion the 60s would've been a lot less fun, exciting and liberating for this land-locked naïve native of the north Texas plains. For a kid like me groups like The Beatles, Who, Stones, Yes and Jethro Tull invigorated and challenged me to think outside the Top 40 box constantly. And if The Nice had garnered even a smidgen of radio time in my area I know I would've owned every album they released. Alas, better late than never, eh wot?

By 1973 the Famous Charisma Label had seen more prosperous days. Due to the immense popularity of ELP, repackaging the endeavors of Keith Emerson's former band seemed like an effortless, profitable way to cash in on his fame. "Autumn to Spring" sounded better than "greatest hits" and I figure the execs thought that sneaky ploy might trick some into thinking this was a new recording so, voila, this collection that relied heavily on their first album's material (6 out of the 9 cuts) taped between Fall '67 and Spring '68 showed up in the platter bins. Gotta admit that the simplicity of the cover design with its raised leaves sitting on a white canvas is effective and quite fetching. Kudos to the art department.

"The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack" says everything I’ve ever clumsily attempted to put into words about clever English musicians. It starts like something you'd expect from Petula Clark, then takes an abrupt left turn into a shadowed alleyway. What at first sounds corny and patronizing becomes a very poignant statement of remorse uttered by an older person who, in reflection, "knew that I was right/then everything moved/I wandered out of sight." The juxtaposition of a mindless, dancing-down-Carnaby-Street pop atmosphere against those rueful lyrics is brilliant, especially at the end when they contrast the song's "groovy" theme with the singer's delusional and foolish exhortation of "I'm going back to be young again." It's a great tune I wish I would've heard when it was still fresh. "Flower King of Flies" is next and it opens with clattering wind chimes followed by a stark upright piano and compressed vocals from bassist Lee Jackson. It has a grand, pompous chorus and a chord progression far ahead of its time. On the down side there's a somewhat dated psychedelic guitar ride from Davy O'List and a lot of brittle organ tones to contend with.

"Bonnie K" is a bluesy rocker with a pair of big ones hanging low. More gritty and aggressive than anything Mick, Keith & Co. were putting out there, this was the kind of raucous rock that we puberty-stricken teens were ravenously hungry for and weren't getting from our homies. It ain't complicated and it didn't need be. It's a shame we didn't get proper exposure to this song because it embodies the full-throttle garage band abandon we so craved and we would've eaten this right up. The only track I ever heard on the FM dial from The Nice was their revolutionary take on Leonard Bernstein's "America" from West Side Story and the belated but significant airplay it finally received was yet another reason for this album's appearance. It is nothing short of groundbreaking and should be revered by all jazz/rock connoisseurs. It has a misleading (but gorgeous) cathedral organ beginning that leads to Keith's growling, percussive Hammond that dominates without mercy. The band displays intricate and precise playing throughout, especially the rhythm section of Jackson and underrated drummer Brian Davison. Davy's guitar lead is a bit off-kilter but it doesn't last long and Emerson gets to dazzle for the rest of the way. Their bold, spirited interpretation of this awesome piece of modern composition (with wisps of Dvorak's "New World Symphony" tossed in because they could) is one of the earliest and greatest examples of pure, unadulterated symphonic-tinted rock there is. They unlocked and opened wide a huge door with this one.

"Diamond Hard Blue Apples of the Moon" with its extremely exploratory in nature use of sampled noise to set up the initial beat brings to mind embryonic Pink Floyd but that observation begs to query "just who was influencing who, exactly?" The renegade trumpet is cool and the tune goes tumbling out the same strange way it tumbled in. "Dawn" is next and I must confess I don't like it much because evidently I have a phobia about whispering I didn't know about until I heard this number. It's creepy and this track has too much of it going on for my comfort. It's a queer duck, too. Keith lays down a blanket of classical scales for a while, then it changes over to a spell of some weird kitchen utensil percussion being banged around, it returns to a marching feel, then they collectively fall into a vat of trippy improvisation before Emerson emerges from the melee straddling a harpsichord and knifing out a mess of distorted Hammond organisms. Unable to stand for long, he falls back into a sea of psychedelia and they end it with more spooky whispering. Stop it, man, you're freaking me out. Seriously.

"Tantalizin' Maggie" is so raw and brash that Johnny Rotten must've been weaned on it. This is punk before The Ramones were potty trained! The in-your-face, rebellious, up-your- mother's-nose-with-a-rubber-hose vocal delivery plastered rudely over Keith's electrified, classically-structured progression is a hoot to hear. On the technical end Emerson stretches the limits of what was possible in the studios of that day with numerous overdubs of different instrumentation and the luxurious piano flurries that arise in the finale are outstanding by any measure. "The Cry of Eugene" follows and it's as close to a ballad as they probably cared to venture, keeping their edge intact by allowing O'List's eerie guitar feedback to lurk about in the surrounding scenery. Overall the song is rather dreadful but if you lend an ear to the incredibly brave things they manage to work into the track you'll be impressed by their tenacity, at the least. They finish up this set with a previously unreleased version of "Daddy Where Did I Come From," a riff-driven steamroller of a tune served up with a large spoonful of quirky British humor, complete with shrill, silly voices. The marvelous thing is that the boys in this band (and many of the others hailing from the island regions) had absolutely no self-consciousness or qualms about being goofy blokes on tape. To us in the no-nonsense USA this wasn't music from the mother country, this was hatched on an alien planet in a distant universe! Not one American combo could've gotten away with such irresponsible shenanigans even if they'd thought to try. We were way too uptight to laugh at ourselves.

I'll honestly admit that what I thought this quartet was and what they actually were are two different animals entirely. But it was a "nice" surprise to find that out. I like them in much the same way I have great affection for The Move, that eclectic group of musical asylum inmates that I fell in love with circa 1970. Madmen Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne had the same slightly slanted frame of reference and disrespectful attitude that I find in this collection of tunes and I'm drawn to that mindset like a lab moth to a flaming Bunsen burner. At the same time it's easy to see why Keith Emerson would feel limited by this environment and eventually break free to scale the heights of rock stardom alongside Greg and Carl but it's obvious that he cut his sharp teeth on the tough chew toy that was The Nice in the late 60s and I sadly regret not discovering their charms in a more timely manner. I would've been a rabid fan, no doubt. There may be other Nice recordings that have a lot more jazz influence but this collection is intriguing, nonetheless.

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER The Return Of The Manticore

Boxset / Compilation · 1993 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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The other night I happened to catch a broadcast of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 40th anniversary reunion concert filmed in 2011 and was so delighted to hear how good this trio still is I decided to finally review their retrospective behemoth, “The Return of the Manticore.” I’d been putting it off for years because such an endeavor is daunting to a lazy-boned mammal like me but, being inspired by the vitality they displayed in that show, I decided it was high time to get to it. Most likely due to the 90s being the final decade of the 20th century, almost every band and/or artist that had made even a small ripple in rock music history emptied their vaults and put out elaborately-packaged, steeply-priced box sets of their careers. If you had a fanatic in your family and extra lettuce on hand, birthday and Christmas presents could be covered by gifting them with one or more of these collections and the demand for them seemed to be endless. In fall of ‘93, just in time for the holidays, ELP released this comprehensive overview of their collaborations and it’s one of the better ones you’ll come across. To keep this essay from becoming a weighty tome that would be a chore to peruse I propose this. If a given song is described in a posted review of mine (all of the initial six LPs) I’ll offer only a one-sentence summary. That way if you’re interested in a more wordy dissection of the tune you’ll have that option and I will thus avoid the bane of all writers, redundancy. Keep in mind that there are four full CDs here. I didn’t say it wouldn’t be lengthy but this ploy should keep it reasonable and, hopefully, entertaining.

For the dedicated follower of Keith, Greg and Carl Disc 1 has more “new stuff” than the other three. Ironically, they open with a fresh rendition of “Touch and Go,” a song penned by Emerson and Lake but hails from the largely-ignored “Emerson, Lake and Powell” album in ‘86. I, along with billions of others, didn’t buy that record but it’s a well-written, melodic rocker with Palmer improving it via a stronger rhythm track so I’m glad it got a second chance to be heard. Its spirit harkens back to their early days and sports a concise, to-the-point arrangement. To market extravaganzas like these those involved would try to toss their devotees a bone or two. ELP’s clever idea was to resurrect cuts from each of the 60s outfits they’d been with prior to forming their supergroup and give them an update. Therefore you get a cover of a Tim Hardin tune, “Hang on to a Dream.” Once recorded by The Nice, it’s a beautiful number with a great depth of field surrounding it. Greg’s voice has matured and deepened but it still packs a wallop of emotion. That song fares well but the following two don’t. Lake was a huge part of King Crimson’s fabulous debut but “21st Century Schizoid Man” was never meant to be a three-minute ditty. What you’ll find here is a Karaoke-worthy recap of a prog icon that’s been over-sanitized and cruelly gutted of the indomitable power the original owned, helping that band shake the planet in ’69. To a lesser extent, their cover of “Fire” (Carl played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) is also anemic. The tune isn’t held in the same esteem as the one that preceded it but that doesn’t excuse them for removing all the heat from it. I can’t help but be embarrassed for Lake as he tries to make his voice sound evil and maniacal here. He no longer has it in him.

A brand new studio recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition” ensues and it’s a treat. They pared the Mussorgsky epic down to under 16 minutes while Keith utilized the vast improvements in keyboard technology to pump fresh blood into the piece. I have no doubt that many purists will swear by the ’71 version but I find this presentation makes up for a lot of the excesses that characterized the original live taping while retaining all of the best parts, especially the final movement, “The Great Gates of Kiev.” In stark contrast, they next offer up a new rendition of Greg’s only solo hit from ‘74, “I Believe in Father Christmas.” It’s a nicely-textured update that includes a chorale but it doesn’t add much to his charming ode to crass commercialism. “Introductory Fanfare/Peter Gunn” from the ‘79 “ELP in Concert” album showcases their raw energy and undeniable spunk. Emerson in particular takes the number to places that composer Henry Mancini never dreamed it would go. I’d never heard “Tiger in a Spotlight” from “Works Vol. II” (I’d disowned them after wasting hard-earned money on “Works Vol. I”) and I still wish I’d never heard it. It’s the turd in the punchbowl and it reminds me of how they completely lost their mojo after “Brain Salad Surgery.” Speaking of that landmark LP, “Toccata” follows. It’s a very good arrangement of Ginastera’s abstract Piano Concerto but Palmer’s drum solo and Emerson’s noisy synth-noodling mar it ever so slightly. The brilliant “Trilogy” from the album of the same name is next and all I can say is that when ELP delivered masterpieces like this one no one could top them. “Tank,” from their stunning debut, was the least remarkable number on that disc due to Carl’s unnecessary solo but Keith’s clavinet and Moog work intrigue to this day. They wisely conclude with “Lucky Man.” This simple tune is significant in prog history because it brought the misunderstood synthesizer center stage and gave the trio instant credibility.

Disc 2 begins with the greatness that is “Tarkus,” one of the most concise and complex progressive rock suites ever produced. Next is “From the Beginning,” one of the more unusual Top 40 singles but also one that wouldn’t be denied due to Lake’s irresistible voice. A live performance of “Take a Pebble,” culled from the “Welcome Back My Friends…” set provides a flashback to when these guys were unstoppable. Emerson in particular astounds on the piano but the injection of a stripped-down run-through of “Lucky Man” must’ve been a disappointment to many in the crowd who craved to hear that “weird thing” at the end but methinks they had nowhere else to stick their obligatory hit. The main number’s heavy jazz element probably bored many in attendance but it surely astounded those who were listening. “Knife Edge” from the first record utterly satisfied the rock monster living in my soul at the time and the meltdown ending is still orgasmic. “Paper Blood,” a cut on 92’s “Black Moon,” is an edgy rocker in which Emerson’s Hammond and Lake’s harp make a good pair and it’s reassuring to hear that they still harbor a raucous attitude when called for. Their impeccable rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” that appeared on “Trilogy” follows and it goes without saying that Keith’s proficient work on the mighty B3 does the great composer’s spirited piece full justice. I’d looked forward to having a copy of their unreleased interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s “Rondo” but it fails to thrill. Their wild opening leads to a “normalized” time signature foundation rocking under the central theme that drains it of its magic. It turns out to be an organ-led melee/noise fest that bores me to tears. ‘Tis a pity.

Disc 3 starts off with “The Barbarian,” the 1st cut on the first LP that not only served as an eye-opening intro to ELP but, thanks to the tune’s fine piano interlude, announced to us all that we were in the presence of keyboard deity. “Still... You Turn Me On” was the predictable follow-up to their previous radio hit that’s dated mostly by Greg’s wah-wah guitar work but has managed to keep its peculiar charm intact over the decades. What can I say about “The Endless Enigma” from the outstanding “Trilogy” album? Simply put, it’s a marvelous piece of symphonic prog that will never grow old. They then bring the listener back to earth with “C’est La Vie,” Lake’s overproduced dollop of commercial pop from “Works Vol. I,” and then Palmer’s “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” from the same record that only proves Carl could play a marching cadence. The previously unreleased, group-written “Bo Diddley” is next and it’s a welcome surprise in that it has a lot of proggy meat on its bones. They give it a tight, imaginative arrangement and Greg’s aggressive guitar playing is a plus. “Bitches Crystal” from “Tarkus” is an excellent inclusion because it’s a jazzy, piano-heavy stunner containing a passionate, almost furious vocal. “A Time and a Place,” also from that album, is a typical ELP tour-de-force that takes no prisoners. “Living Sin,” found on the “Trilogy” release is an ordinary rocker and the only so-so track on that exemplary record. The famous “Karn Evil 9” from “BSS” is their most adventurous epic with Impressions 1 & 2 being the most spectacular, leaving the third one to frantically run to keep up. The closer is “Honky Tonk Train Blues” from “Works Vol. II,” a boogie-woogie ditty that has a pulse and some punchy synth horns but still seems uninspired and dull.

Disc 4 begins with the majestic “Jerusalem” from “BSS,” an awesome rendering of that revered hymn that sounds like something they might’ve penned themselves. Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” one of the few bright spots on “Works Vol. I,” rocks hard. The title cut of “Black Moon” projects a familiar beat that gives a respectful nod to Queen’s universal anthem. However, it’s the Genesis-like grandeur enveloping the song that’s most appealing even though it’s not terribly original. By the early 90s ELP had become followers, not leaders, but that was an affliction that infected many of the former giants of prog rock so don’t judge harshly. “Watching Over You” is lifted from “Works Vol. 2” and, while unremarkable, ain’t half bad. It’s a sweet, acoustic guitar-based lullaby that doesn’t offend. The 3rd movement, “Toccata Con Fucco,” of Emerson’s “Piano Concerto #1” on “Works Vol. I” is next. His ambitious but flawed classical foray was the high water mark of that album but realistically it would only earn him a C+ in a Composition 101 course. “For You” is only one of two entries from their dubious “Love Beach” fiasco and they could’ve left it out as far as I’m concerned. It’s an under-produced, iron-deficient power ballad that lacks guts. The previously unreleased “Prelude and Fugue” by Gulda is a gem, though. Keith dazzles on this short but complicated solo piano piece, displaying an incredible range of ability. The second contribution from “Love Beach” is their long-winded, four-part “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman.” Section A starts out gallantly atop a stately structure but suffers greatly from its unpolished feel. The piano-heavy Section B is quite flowery and even interesting at times but when Carl’s drums intrude all panache evacuates the building. Section C is an involved instrumental that’s almost intriguing but Greg’s singing comes off forced and unnatural. Section D offers no climax, just more of the number’s inherently weak musical premise. The pompous “Pirates” from “Works Vol. 1” is, hopefully, an unintended self-parody and a laughable mess that confirmed to me they’d flown south. Thank heavens they end on a positive note. Lake’s “Affairs of the Heart” from “Black Moon” shows that he’s still capable of writing and singing decent folk-influenced songs because this is no disgrace. Emerson fills out the spaces with classy symphonic flourishes that satisfy.

So there you have it. “Return of the Manticore” has enough of the ELP splendor to make it worth having in your collection. I’m more in favor of anyone new to their music getting copies of their first five albums than relying on an uneven box set to educate one’s mind about their progressive jazz/rock prowess but if you’re an ELP aficionado and you should come across this compilation in a used CD bin somewhere it will be a wise investment that you won’t regret shelling out a few bucks for. As far as the jazz content goes, any time Mr. Emerson puts his fingers on the piano ivories you're liable to hear some stupendous jazz erupt from the instrument like skyrockets. Keith was (and is) no slouch and could (and can) certainly hold his own in our esteemed genre.

JIMMY SMITH Midnight Special

Album · 1961 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.41 | 4 ratings
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Out of curiosity I looked up the definition of the word “cool” (as it pertains to art, that is) and soon realized that there is no description of that adjective that completely satisfies me in the modern dictionaries I consulted. So I’ll humbly offer my own and hope it enhances the general English-speaking vernacular. Cool = A coveted state of timeless existence that nothing disreputable or negative can find a way into and where perfection is possible to achieve. Okay, so it’s sorely lacking in scope and/or intellectual integrity but that’s how I feel about what Jimmy Smith and his talented cohorts did on his 1961 release, “Midnight Special.” It is irrefutably “cool.”

Of course, being a devotee of the charms associated with the magnificent Hammond B3 organ may play a big part in my assessment but that can’t be helped. In my book it’s one of the most expression-conducive of musical instruments ever invented and there’s just something about how, in the hands of a professional like Mr. Smith, it can penetrate the walls of my very soul like few others can. Jimmy was one of the very first to realize the Hammond’s vast potential and he successfully demonstrated to all that it belonged in the jazz realm just as much as the saxophone and the guitar. I’m sure the B3 had its haters because it tended to flood any given room with its massive aura, thus drowning out the more delicate tools of the trade in the process, but Smith wasn’t going to let the organ’s inherent obesity keep it out of the mainstream. What he did was to gather some of the genre’s best players in the studio and allow them to curl their artistry around the Hammond’s warm personality in a congenial environment. The result is a sizeable body of work that will endure for centuries to come. All of Jimmy’s albums have something in them to enjoy but I daresay you’ll find none more fulfilling than “Midnight Special.”

The title cut starts things off wonderfully. Don’t let the title fool you. It’s not a hokey instrumental version of the old rockabilly hit but a mature, flowing jazz piece written by Smith himself. Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any “cooler” than this. The vibe that he, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Donald Bailey concoct is so relaxed and smooth that it transports you to another time and place entirely. This is a brand of jazz that really needs no explanation. Turrentine’s “A Subtle One” is next and its infectious melody rides atop a snazzy shuffle laid down by Donald’s kit and Jimmy’s understated bass pedal work. The song also features an intriguing chord progression and Smith utilizes a very muted tone to surround Stanley’s sensuous sax before dialing up some treble to add punch to his outstanding organ solo. The combo’s rendition of the classic “Jumpin’ the Blues” is next and they establish a peppy, playful groove for it to travel in. Turrentine flits atop Jimmy’s creative chording for a while then steps back to let the B3 take command. Smith hunkers down and lets the magic stream out of his fingertips and it becomes crystal clear why the man was such an enormous influence on all who ever sat down at a Hammond. It’s worth mentioning that Mr. Burrell turns in a performance on his guitar that is sleek and sure.

A 1929 chestnut entitled “Why Was I Born?” by Jerome Kern (from the musical “Sweet Adeline”) gets a serene treatment from the quartet that transcends the norm. This old-school ballad begins with just organ and sax before Bailey’s drums slide in almost without notice. Stanley’s tone is like the finest of silk and there’s no showboating or overplaying in the vicinity as Jimmy backs him up exquisitely, taking advantage of the host of subtle variations in timbre that the B3 can offer. Turrentine’s saxophone flourish at the end is to die for. The record ends with a great version of Count Basie’s famous “One O’clock Jump.” Smith shifts his Hammond from cruise mode to a deep growl repeatedly and his pedal-generated “walking” bass line is sublime. The fact is that no one, absolutely no one knew how to manipulate the idiosyncrasies of the B3 like Jimmy did. He was a master.

Smith was one prolific dude, no doubt. He did 40 sessions for the Blue Note label in an eight year period from the late 50s to the mid 60s and this was but one of them. I don’t claim to have heard even a decent fraction of his output during his impressive career but I have yet to hear anything that I’d consider pedestrian. “Midnight Special” may not be the ultimate Jimmy Smith album but if you’re wanting to hear what made him so revered by keyboard players the world over then this album will educate you thoroughly in a little over a half an hour. Personally, I could listen to this kind of “cool” jazz every day.

NORAH JONES Feels Like Home

Album · 2004 · Vocal Jazz
Cover art 3.95 | 3 ratings
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Talk about being in the right place at the right time with the right sound and the right material, this little lady is the poster child for that extremely rare phenomenon. The fact that she had a unique talent to go along with her fortunate timing didn’t hamper her a bit, either. Her astounding 2002 debut took the world by storm and brought dignity and respect back to the art of being a female vocalist. She didn’t need ridiculous costumes or racy lyrics or outrageous stage antics to draw attention to her craft, she simply stayed true to herself and the public couldn’t resist such unadorned honesty. Norah Jones became a star almost overnight. Two years later she released her follow up album, “Feels Like Home,” and speculation about her ability to endure evaporated like tea kettle steam when it sold 1.3 million units in the first week it was made available. Her knack for blending jazz sensibilities with strains of C&W, blues and contemporary Americana is uncanny and her unhurried style appeals to people all over the globe regardless of localized musical preferences. She is one of a kind and that is a commodity that can’t be manufactured.

Like the songs she amassed for “Come Away With Me,” the selection of tunes included on this, her sophomore effort, are pleasant without being patronizing. She opens with “Sunrise,” a serene but rhythmic number that further showcases her incredibly sweet voice and her delicate approach to playing the piano. “What I Am to You” is next and with the help of the inimitable Levon Helm on drums and Garth Hudson on organ (both from the iconic Band) it comes off as a slightly funky, soulful R&B ditty. Tony Scherr’s slippery slide guitar work is also worth noting. “Those Sweet Words” follows, another smooth, effortlessly flowing song that has no obvious indiscretions to report. The first standout cut is “Carnival Town.” It has a quaint feel produced sans drums that makes it very inviting and unpretentious while the silky harmonies and Arif Mardin’s arrangement for the cello and viola are exquisite. Norah moves to the Wurlitzer electric piano for “In the Morning,” and that trusty keyboard generates a darker backdrop to deepen the tune’s overall ambience. The distinctly blues-ish tint involved distinguishes this track from what’s come before and gives it a light Little Feat vibe that I like a lot. Jones then revives a Townes Van Zandt gem called “Be Here to Love Me” and I really appreciate how they left Norah’s vocal naked and natural for this one. The gospel hue she applies to the R&B groove is a nice, classy touch and Garth Hudson contributes his special magic via his accordion.

Jones duets with Dolly Parton on “Creepin’ In,” an up-tempo, bluegrass-influenced song that provides a wise, tactical change of pace moment in the disc’s progression. The subtle, closely-knit harmonies they sing are a treat, thanks in no small measure to Adam Levy’s third part, and Rob Burger’s smoky pump organ adds rich icing to the cake. “Toes” sports another sexy, sultry atmosphere that relocates your mood gently from this crazy world to a rural setting. Norah’s vocalizing is so cool it’s akin to gratefully absorbing a brisk October breeze after a long, hot summer. A basic acoustic guitar foundation that glides underneath “Humble Me” allows Jones’ voice to carry the song solely upon her honest, unforced emotions which are conveyed without apology. There’s no mistaking that “Above Ground” is a Norah Jones production because she is so reliably seductive in her methods. This time Adam Levy provides the scintillating yet tactful slide guitar that gives the track character. “The Long Way Home,” written by the wonderful Tom Waits, is an opportunity for Norah to parade her country/folk roots proudly but she avoids becoming campy by presenting them in a minimalist style. Daru Oda’s flutes are a nice surprise for one’s ears. Jones returns to her acoustic piano for “The Prettiest Thing” and the tune is decent enough but at this juncture I feel that she could’ve taken some kind of risk. However, she exits with flair. Her restructuring of an old Duke Ellington song, “Don’t Miss You at All,” and making it her very own turns out to be the highlight of the album. Employing only her piano for accompaniment, it’s the jazziest thing on the record, expertly exploiting the tune’s gorgeous chord progression and haunting melody.

“Feels Like Home” went all the way to #1 in 16 separate countries around the planet, eventually racking up over ten million copies sold. That’s astonishing. Yet I’m not all that shocked. As the gifted Adele has demonstrated recently, nothing shines brighter in this dimmed dimension we live in than pure, undiluted talent and when it’s delivered without unnecessary fanfare or hoopla the response can be overwhelming. Without a doubt, Norah Jones is going to be around to remind us of that fundamental but easily overlooked tenet for years to come. She refreshes my faith that good, wholesome music will always survive false, corrupting trends.

CHARLIE HUNTER Charlie Hunter Trio

Album · 1993 · Funk Jazz
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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Sometimes I just like to take a wild, blindfolded shot in the dark and listen to a jazz artist that I’ve never heard of to see if, by chance, I can hit anything of note. In the case of The Charlie Hunter Trio they were included in a sizeable cache of music I’ve come into possession of and I had to “go to the Google” just to find out if they were even jazz-related or not. They could’ve been a Hip Hop Polka outfit for all I knew. Anyway, I gave this, their 1993 debut, a fair listen and found it to be pleasant enough but the thing that really stood out for me was the fact that Mr. Hunter’s only cohorts were drummer Jay Lane and tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, inferring that Charlie played both rhythm and lead guitar as well as the bass lines. No easy feat, that. Yet the stunning kicker was when I read that he plays all three SIMULTANEOUSLY. Say what? The skeptic in me immediately consulted You Tube for verification and, lo and behold, I witnessed him doing it with my own eyes. The man is a freak, manhandling a specially-made eight-stringed instrument with such dexterity as to strain description, much less belief. How he does this is beyond me but that awe-instilling talent certainly puts him in a category all his own, regardless.

But you gotta admit, even a one-man band is practically useless if all he can produce is a cacophony of noise so no matter if in addition Hunter played piano with his tongue and blew a trombone with his butt hole at the same time I would still have to judge his trio by the quality of the music they made. As far as this album goes, I deem it to be a good, engaging start to a recording career and nothing more. It begins with “Fred’s Life,” a very dry yet very funky slice of jazz fare that inevitably causes me to wonder if Charlie, Dave and Jay put these songs down on tape as a unit or if Hunter added the bass and/or guitar parts later as overdubs. However they did it, the result is a remarkably tight track. “Live Oak” sports a slinky groove in 6/4 time that’s anything but predictable. Charlie is obviously an extremely gifted guitar virtuoso who’s incorporated a lot of classic jazz techniques into his style. I hear everyone from Wes Montgomery to Chet Atkins in his playing and that’s fine company to keep. On “20,30,40,50,60,Dead” the song’s zippy pacing highlights their individual acumen and confidence. Ellis shows off his more abstract side while Hunter flies and bounces all over his fretboard like a workaholic bee hopped up on diet pills. “Funky Niblets” owns a hard rock foundation that supports Charlie’s “watery” guitar effect that indelibly sets it apart from the other cuts due to his imaginative exploitation of that sound. Hunter goes solo for his interpretation of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” a short tune that he travels across nicely.

Sidemen Scott Jensen on trumpet and Scotty Roberts on congas spice up the Brazilian samba rhythm of “Dance of the Jazz Fascists,” providing the disc with a welcome change of pace at this juncture. One can’t help but be impressed by the cohesiveness the musicians achieve without help from a keyboard of any sort. The apex of the album comes in the form of “The Telephone’s a’Ringin’.” It’s a strange little number with a whimsical atmosphere swirling about it that keeps you constantly on your toes. I admire their playful attitude that assures me they don’t take themselves too seriously (always a self-defeating trait). Charlie allowed guest Miles Perkins to do the upright bass honors (Physical logistics demanded outside assistance, I’m sure. Otherwise visions of Octoped Man are in order.) on “Rhythm Comes in 12 Tones,” an up-tempo song with a trotting bass line over which Lane’s drums and Hunter’s guitar sizzle like butter in a hot skillet. The razor-sharp stops and accents they include are clever and inventive. “Mule” is another of Charlie’s I-can-do-this-all-by-myself-if-you-don’t-mind ditties wherein dense jazz chording and extraordinary guitar licks layered over structurally sound bass runs create a very moody aura. The record ends with “Faffer Time,” a melodically simple but nonetheless complex tune that manages to convey a deceptively carefree mien.

Much emphasis must be placed on this album being their first. I have no doubt that their label and producer had no idea what to expect from this anomaly of nature once they corralled Mr. Hunter and his partners in crime in the studio environment. As an initial collection of jazz numbers it merits a slightly above average rating. It neither singes one’s eyebrows nor transports one to a sleepy dreamland. However, as I remarked the time I heard a one-armed blues guitarist rip some primo riffs on the stage of the Palomino Club in L.A. on a particular amateur night in ’78, “If you can pull it off, by all means, do it!” Charlie Hunter is a phenomenon whether I buddy up to his stuff or not. No one releases 17 records in less than two decades unless they have something to contribute that’s more than worthwhile. I recommend you check him out.

DIXIE DREGS Dixie Dregs: King Biscuit Flower Hour

Live album · 1997 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.93 | 2 ratings
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Back in the wide-open 70s there were always renegade rumors skittering hither and yon about some new guitar wiz who’d just popped up on the radar and most of these urban legends turned out to be grossly exaggerated affairs. But when it came to Steve Morse and his dangerous Dixie Dregs outfit the buzz was warranted. Yet being associated with the southern regions of the states and the dubious moniker “Dixie” in particular didn’t exactly conjure up images of the jazz/rock fusion giants like John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola who’d blazed a scorching trail through popular music so the uninitiated were inclined to approach their work with some trepidation. However, within just a few seconds of hearing Steve and his cohorts ply their wares one had to agree that this was something worth paying attention to. By the time their third album, the outstanding “Night of the Living Dregs,” came out all doubt about their abilities had been effectively squashed flat as a stink bug. They were the real deal.

Sometime in 1979 they played a set for the widely syndicated King Biscuit Flower Hour radio program, thus spreading their unique sound into unsuspecting ears the world over and enhancing their reputation. As were many of those tapings, it remained confined to bootleg status for a long time until it was packaged properly and released on CD in 1997. It’s a good thing, too, because the concert captures their unbridled spirit quite well. The recording is very intimate and close up, eschewing studio tricks and embellishments that would often make less-talented bands appear to be better than they actually were. This is more like sitting in a tiny bar, being dazzled by the eclectic combo set up on the little stage in the corner.

After a brief introduction, some reassuring feedback leads to “Freefall,” an incredibly tight, progressive jazz/rock fusion tune that will pin your ears back against your noggin. You are immediately struck by the level of individual virtuosity this ensemble possesses in spades. Rod Morgenstein’s frantic drums start “Country Horse,” an engaging song owning a playful melody that rolls around in your head like a mental whirlwind. The playing is so tasteful it makes you drool. For “Moe Down” Rod’s inventive drumming provides a great change of pace moment early on in the show. The group incorporates a combination of bluegrass and Irish folk influences into the number with highly satisfying results. There’s a mirthful élan surrounding this tune that’s irresistible. “Ice Cakes” follows and it’s one of those instrumentals that’s impossible to label, it’s that eccentric. Morse’s style has so many affectations in it, garnered from his noble heroes and mentors, that it’s an adventure just listening to him perform. It’s obvious that they were admirers of the stupendous Mahavishnu Orchestra but they weren’t a copycat band at all. They had their own way of doing things. “Travel Tunes” is next, a rocker with entertaining quirks that give it a spunky character. Steve shreds like an electric sander on a quilt.

They then play a rousing version of “Night of the Living Dregs.” It’s one of their signature numbers and they tear it up with glee. Andy West’s bass solo is exceptional and I really get a kick out of how Morse and electric violinist Allen Sloan work in tandem with each other on the central melody line. “Night Meets Light” is so good it’s not to be missed. This song shows that they had a softer, more delicate side but don’t worry, there’s nothing pretentious about it. You can tell there’s a genuine cooperative imagination present amongst the members. Sloan’s violin and T. Lavitz’s synthesizer conjure up a very serene atmosphere during the first half, while the latter section achieves true magnificence as the instruments dance around each other in an intricate aural choreography. “Punk Sandwich” marks a return to their more rowdy, hard-driving instincts. Everyone gets to get their ya-yas out on this one but I’m most intrigued by the fact that they don’t have to rely on ear-splitting volume to get the job done. “Cruise Control” is another highlight. It’s hot rock & roll poured over a funky bass line that’ll twist your curlies. As a unit they zip right along at light speed but they fudge nary a beat as they take turns glamming the folks in attendance and out in Radioland. You gotta admit that there’s some pretty damn astonishing stuff going on between these guys. They end with “Take It Off the Top,” a killer encore tune that touches every conceivable base.

In essence, if you’re a fan of impossible-to-duplicate jazz/rock fusion and also enjoy hearing it played expertly in a live setting then this is your ticket to Nirvana. These boys took a back seat to no one and they consistently fed off of each others’ enthusiasm as they pushed the limits of what they could accomplish every time they alit on the stage. At least that’s what it sounds like to me as evidenced by this scintillating performance caught for posterity.

PAT METHENY Letter From Home (PMG)

Album · 1989 · World Fusion
Cover art 3.21 | 14 ratings
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The more I hear of Pat Metheny the less sure I am of what kind of artist he is. I realize that I’m catching up with most of his albums decades after they were released and, therefore, they’re bound to be dated to some extent but I still have to call ‘em as I see ‘em and they tend to run the gamut from intriguing to insomnia-curing. My earliest exposure to his aural art came in the form of his partnership with keyboard wiz Lyle Mays that culminated in 1981’s exciting “As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls” album. By contrast, his namesake group’s ’84 offering, “First Circle,” is as boring as watching paint dry while the very jazzy “80/81” record is so complex at times that it makes my head spin. So who is Pat Metheny? After listening to “Letter from Home” several times I still have no definitive answer to that question. Let me make this clear, though. Just because I don’t cotton to everything he produces doesn’t mean he’s not an extremely talented musician. He’s a monster guitarist. Period. The bottom line is what emotions his music elicits in the listener and I can only speak for myself in that regard.

The disc opens with “Have You Heard.” Pat and his merry men had been dabbling heavily in South American flavors for years so it’s no surprise that a lively Latin aura surrounds this song, setting the tone for what’s to come. Metheny zips all over his fretboard as if to flash his impressive credentials up front and then Lyle Mays injects hot pizzazz into the final section. It’s a great way to start an album. “Every Summer Night” is next and it’s a light jazz tune that alternates between 4/4 and 6/4 time signatures seamlessly. It sports a very elegant atmosphere but it’s also quite predictable. If not for the outstanding solos by Pat and Lyle it would’ve been branded as mall muzak. “Better Days Ahead” is contemporary, Sergio Mendes-styled Brazilian fare that passes without making any impression on me at all. “Spring Ain’t Here” follows, a moody number they dedicated to Stanley Turrentine. It’s a very subtle piece of music and they keep it low key for the full seven minutes. I’m beginning to think that Metheny’s association with Mr. Mays is the best thing that ever happened to him because the stuff I like most is the stuff Lyle either wrote or helped to write. “45/8” is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of festive Rio that’s over in less than a minute whereas “5-5-7” takes a little more time to unfold. Mays’ synthesized whistle effect gives this relaxing song a breezy vibe. Pat’s guitar ride is smooth as silk but the track morphs into something much more fascinating when Lyle takes over and changes it into a flowing fantasy of musical colorings. He is truly the progressive thinker of the bunch and he makes a huge difference.

An up-tempo Bossa Nova pulse drives the perky “Beat 70” relentlessly. The piece features a clever accordion melody that gives it a unique aspect but it’s the fluid piano and guitar leads that I find most gratifying about it. Percussionist Pedro Aznan adds spice to almost every cut while also serving duty as the band’s part-time vocalist. “Dream of the Return” is a lovely ballad that he contributed Spanish lyrics to and, while it’s romantic and all, it’s a tad too mushy for my tastes. Perhaps if I was in seduction mode it would come in handy but those days are long gone nowadays and it just makes me sleepy. Speaking of Lyle Mays, however, his “Are We There Yet” is the finest tune on the record. It has a funky but wonderfully quirky and complicated melodic foundation that not only captures but steadfastly holds your attention from beginning to end. Mays’ synth solo is scintillating before he gracefully transforms the piece into an ethereal soundscape that’s as deep as the trenches of the Pacific Ocean. It’s hypnotic and well worth the price of admission. Aznan’s “Vidalia” follows. Its mysterious intro leads to his lonesome singing over a semi-tribal drum pattern that is reminiscent of what Peter Gabriel was investigating in that era. It’s all a bit strange here and there but I do like its sense of adventure and the group’s collective courage to go where it leads them. “Slip Away” adopts a peppy pace that’s semi-inviting but the song’s glossy veneer is too slick for me. I know what they’re doing isn’t child’s play but I always hope to be surprised by something that pops up along the way. Unfortunately, nothing does on this one. Glad to report that they end on a classy note. “Letter from Home” is a gorgeous, soothing piano piece that Lyle presents with quiet but powerful passion.

This album ended up winning the Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance at the 1990 awards ceremony, the same trophy the Pat Metheny Group had garnered for each of their three previous discs, so it’s obviously held in high esteem by many who know a lot more about jazz fusion than I do. All I can tell you is that it is immensely better than the dull-as-dirt “First Circle” and has moments of greatness to savor if you are patient. Some of it is overly tame yet it never stoops to patronization. South American-tinted jazz can grow tiresome for those who like to be pleasantly shocked from time to time but the band tosses in just enough imaginative detours to keep it from slipping into Exotica territory.

PARLIAMENT Live: P.Funk Earth Tour

Live album · 1977 · Funk
Cover art 1.10 | 2 ratings
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I have a well-respected musician friend who related in an interview a few years ago that when he was in his early teens he thought that playing bass guitar “funky” meant playing the instrument badly. His story of youthful naiveté is hilarious for the innocent irony involved but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Yet if one was to judge the entire musical genre known as funk by Parliament’s “Live: P-Funk Earth Tour” double album one might draw a similar conclusion. I won’t mince words. It’s one of the worst in-concert recordings I’ve ever encountered. I can hear the excuses already. It was 1977. Folks just wanted to party. Funk was a legitimate movement that was infiltrating R&B, jazz and rock by leaps and bounds and Parliament’s head honcho George Clinton was simply basing his unique form of satire upon that foundation and capitalizing on its growing popularity. Therefore it’s just a glimpse into a wild & wooly era that won’t be repeated and should be viewed as nothing more than a historical curiosity. I’ll readily agree to all of that. But there’s no excuse for sloppy musicianship. I recall that Frank Zappa did much the same thing as Mr. Clinton with his sarcastic brand of humor yet on stage he and his cohorts steadfastly maintained the same high level of professional integrity that they insisted on in the studio environment. I expected to hear something equivalent to that mindset when I sat down to listen to this album. I was wrong to do so.

The show begins with over 6 minutes of "P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)," a loose jam in which the band members seem to be slowly finding their assigned spots while the drums, trombone, sax and electric piano vamp without a trace of urgency. Their leader George delivers a rambling spoken introduction to the mumbling crowd that eventually leads to an ensemble-warbled chorale that’s hard to understand. An imperceptible segue to "Dr. Funkenstein's Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication Medley" ensues. It sports the same lazy vibe but this time a thumping bass guitar is more involved as it becomes obvious to me that the audience participation aspect of the presentation is going to take precedence over the music. That’d be fine if this was a video but that’s not the case. My ears are all I’ve got to go by and they’re starving already. At least on “Do That Stuff” the drums lay down a solid beat for the bass to lock onto and the song is a tad more organized but the group as a whole is still stuck in a stifling, one-dimensional rut. "The Landing (Of The Holy Mothership)" is next and it’s a snippet-filled, mostly pre-recorded comedy routine that’s impossible to follow, much less to find anything to laugh about. Maybe the stage props gave it relevancy. I hope so. For "The Undisco Kidd (The Girl Is Bad!)" a pattern surfaces that involves the rhythm section laying down a basic funk base but, alas, it never evolves into anything engaging. Instead, you get a long soliloquy punctuated by a hook line chorus that’s pointless unless you happened to be there that night and were able to merrily join in the communal sing-along. Those of us wanting to hear some great musicianship are out of luck, I suppose.

"Children Of Productions" is the shortest cut and that’s a shame because it’s the apex (relatively speaking) of the album. It’s a unison chant with brassy horns and decently layered harmonies but it passes by like a rare cool breeze in the middle of August and is gone. "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" is a rowdy jam that rumbles behind a repeated refrain and features enthusiastic exhortations aimed at the audience. After a long spell the track inexplicably evaporates into the ether and then fades back in as "Swing Down, Sweet Chariot." The same gospel-tinged mantra continues but a male vocalist scats on and on for a full five minutes till you reach the number’s noisy ending. That’d be okay if it was special but it ain’t. Suddenly you’re whisked away from the live festivities and treated to a studio take of "This Is The Way We Funk With You." It’s vaguely reminiscent of what Sly Stone was up to in the early 70s but it’s also not terribly original or inspiring. Monotonous describes it best. We’re then returned to the scene of the crime to endure a quarter of an hour of "Dr. Funkenstein." Due to the gathered throng’s reaction there must’ve been some kind of visual stimuli happening to enhance the moment but aurally it’s a lot of the same old shtick involving a crowd-sung chorus echoed ad nauseum. There’s a solo from the guitarist and an ARP ride to fill up some space but I found myself drifting into a coma waiting for something entertaining to occur. "Gamin' On Ya!" actually resembles a tune and by now that’s a plus. The full horn arrangement is very Famous Flames-worthy but all that does is cause you to yearn for James Brown’s inimitable charisma to give it life. Next comes their "Tear The Roof Off The Sucker Medley" and it’s an admirable rendition of one of their more recognizable ditties but it does sound very different from the rest of the album which begs the question “Is it live or is it Memorex?” At this juncture I don’t care but the suspicious fade-in to the closer, "Night Of The Thumpasorus People," gives the inquiry credence. By now the well-oiled show attendees are in a stimulant-induced frenzy so, while there’s plenty of excitement in the hall for the reveler in you to soak up, there’s not much for the jazz enthusiast to celebrate. It’s just another rave up that goes nowhere near interesting.

Released in the Spring of ’77 when George Clinton’s eclectic entourage was enjoying tremendous popularity in urban markets all across the civilized world, this 2-disc set sold and went gold. If you were one of the spunky pups who got to witness one of their stops along the P-Funk Earth Tour then I have no doubt that your memory of the event is a fabulous one. I wasn’t there but it was undoubtedly a hoot to treasure forevermore even if the music had to take a seat in the back of the bus. However, this album doesn’t do it any justice on one side or the other. Future generations who want to sample what went on at one of those concerts will not conclusively find out what the fuss was about from listening to this discombobulated mess. As a rule, a little bit of craziness goes a long, long way and then it quickly becomes ridiculous and a waste of valuable time. This proves it. To use their own grossly overused term, “What the funk?”

MILES DAVIS Tutu

Album · 1986 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 2.91 | 24 ratings
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We humans, to a normal extent and often too much, place importance on numbers when it comes to years passing by. In particular, the beginning of every 12-month period with a zero tacked on the end of it has significance for our lives one way or another as does entering one’s twenties or thirties upon reaching a particular birthday. Sometimes these occasions are met with eager anticipation and sometimes they’re greeted with dread and/or apprehension, depending on one’s circumstances. (Having been born near the start of a new decade myself, the two events always coincided for better or for worse.) In the case of the esteemed Miles Davis, it was the latter happening he was dealing with when he made “Tutu.” The brilliant trumpeter and jazz pioneer had just turned 60 years of age in ’86 and I have no doubt that he’d naturally taken an inventory of his career at that point. Much like Alexander the Great, he probably realized there were no more virgin territories for him to conquer but, instead of crying about it, he just set out to develop more territory to plant his flag on. He viewed his impending seventh decade as a golden opportunity to expand his own horizons, taking the innovative studio tools that were constantly transforming and rejuvenating R&B and funk in the 80s and melding them into his unique vision of the realm of modern jazz. In other words, Miles didn’t let growing old stop him from growing.

The album had initially been planned as an intriguing cooperative project between Davis and pop icon Prince but we’ll never know how that might’ve turned out because they couldn’t get their schedules to mesh. Instead, Miles paired up with the multi-instrumentalist/composer Marcus Miller (Marcus penned and arranged the majority of the songs) to create a jazz album that would be an homage to Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Significantly, the record was the first in Miles’ extensive catalog of work to utilize programmed drums and sampling devices. In the hands of someone else such a move could’ve resulted in a woeful disaster but with Davis having the final say on each track it wisely avoids the perilous pitfalls that could’ve doomed the endeavor.

By opening with the title tune Miles makes a bold statement about his frame of mind at 60. He hadn’t lost a step. “Tutu” features dynamic punches that herald a stately theme befitting the man who inspired millions worldwide. The number sustains a respectable Weather Report-ish atmosphere throughout in that there are a myriad of ear-attracting facets and incidental sounds going on to keep things from getting stale. Fierce synth accents punctuate the presentation repeatedly. Davis co-wrote the next song with Miller, “Tomaas.” A subtle but motivating funk action streaming underneath propels this tune impressively. It’s obvious that Miles’ trumpet has misplaced none of its tendency to mesmerize and his emphasis on spotlighting melody (not just on this track but characterizing the disc in general) makes it very accessible to a broad spectrum of individual jazz tastes. “Portia” follows and here Davis courageously adopts the most up-to-date trends in 20th century jazz at that time yet pushes them one step farther by lending his inimitable horn to the deep ambience the tune is meant to convey. Marcus’ spectacular work on both bass guitar and soprano sax will give you an idea of how talented this artist is and why Miles wanted to join forces with him. “Splatch” has a harder funk foundation that provides it with a playful, almost frivolous vibe. It’s pretty much just a joyous, spirited jam that lightens the mood.

George Duke and producer Tommy LiPuma distinguish George’s “Backyard Ritual,” allowing the album to present a refreshing change-of-pace moment midway through. The song’s mysterious onset leads to a strong rock beat with funky overtones to give it pizzazz. Once again Davis’ well-seasoned recognition of the role essential melody lines play in making jazz compatible to the average Joe’s sensibilities allows this tune to have universal appeal. The group Scritti Politti composed the next number, “Perfect Way.” It’s another example of Miles and Miller taking then-current R&B attitudes and manipulating them to erect a crisp, pristine track that could’ve been too sanitized if not for them detouring into shadowy alleyways, providing several aural surprises for the attentive listener. “Don’t You Lose Your Mind” offers a slight Jamaican groove that distinguishes it from what has come before. There’s an infectious, somewhat wild aspect lurking in this song that keeps you wondering what will happen next. The album closes with another tribute, “Full Nelson,” dedicated to the honorable Mr. Mandela. A bouncy funk drive establishes this tune as a true toe-tapper. I detect a delectable Sly Stone influence rumbling through the track that puts a smile on my mug every time I hear it.

I haven’t mentioned it much in this review but I assure you that Davis’ magnificent trumpet playing is as spectacular from the Alpha to the Omega on this record as it ever has been. The man was magic and his gift of holding you spellbound by his artistry hadn’t dimmed one iota at this juncture in his existence on Terra Firma. Some purists may have reservations about his using synths and machine-generated drums on “Tutu” but I have none. There are so many recordings available for those who prefer his more traditional jazz fare that those so inclined will never run out of material to drool over. I consider it a treat to hear how Miles creatively interpreted and incorporated technological advances in the musical arts toward the end of his life. He was showing us all that in music it’s no sin to be open to change as long as one maintains one’s core integrity. “Tutu” is a very cool record brimming over with integrity.

RAY CHARLES Genius + Soul = Jazz

Boxset / Compilation · 1961 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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I once saw an interview with the accomplished actor Morgan Freeman in which he expressed how much he disliked being referred to as a black actor. “I’m an actor,” he stated flatly. In the same vein, if Ray Charles was still with us I expect that he’d prefer not to be revered as a blind, black musician but simply as “a musician” in the broadest and most respectful sense of the term. Yet his importance can’t be overstated. Beginning his career in the midst of an era when the color barrier in America was still as strong as steel he played a big part in punching some sizeable holes in that wall simply by carrying on as if it didn’t exist. He refused to be quarantined in any particular niche of music and certainly didn’t limit himself to just being a soulful R&B singer. This is especially remarkable considering he’d just set the world on fire with his first big hit tune, “What’d I Say,” as the revolutionary 60s started up. His new, game-changing contract with ABC-Paramount records had granted him unparalleled artistic freedom and he wasn’t about to squander the opportunities it afforded him. “Genius + Soul = Jazz” offers proof positive that he felt he could successfully do any style he felt a passion for because most of the songs included are jazzy instrumentals. The man was a phenomenon. And he was fearless.

In December of 1960 Ray went into the studio with a slew of musicians borrowed from Count Basie’s renowned ensemble and, along with the experienced arranger Ralph Burns as well as the heralded up-and-comer Quincy Jones, knocked out a host of dynamite songs that featured him comfortably seated in front of the incomparable Hammond organ. I guarantee that if you’re even a casual fan of big band jazz you’d be doing yourself a huge favor by acquiring a copy of these sessions. What these tunes lack in technical proficiency they more than make up for in unbridled excitement and raw enthusiasm. If you didn’t know Mr. Charles had this side to him then I urge you to explore “Genius + Soul = Jazz” ASAP. It’s quite unique and a hell of an entertaining listen.

Ray comes out with guns ‘a blazin’ for his cover of “From the Heart.” It’s an excellent, aggressive jazz orchestra performance that lets the budding prodigy (Charles was but 22 years old at the time) show off his skills on the mighty B3. He was no stranger to its aural charms, so it seems. This album is not without a few vocal numbers and their bawdy rendition of the blues standard “I’ve Got News for You” is priceless. Ray belts out this classic as well as anyone ever has and the bold horn section kills without remorse. They follow with a strong, in-your-face version of “Moanin’” and then spring into “Let’s Go,” an energy-filled number possessing tightly-knit horn harmonies and a handful of blistering solos from selected boys in the band. The light Bossa Nova rhythm they build “One Mint Julep” upon provides a nice change-of-pace and I always love it when the hired help gets to vocalize en masse as they do from time to time here. Charles mans the microphone once again for “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” and his young, unfettered voice is impeccable as he fronts this devastatingly great and confident collection of seasoned professionals. Ray’s organ solo sizzles and pops like bacon grease frying in a hot cast iron skillet.

A traditional big band groove propels “Stompin’ Room Only” gracefully through a series of ascending key changes that hoist your mood up along for the climb. A walking bass line pushes “Mister C” relentlessly and the brazen brass arrangement is loud and sassy. “Strike Up the Band” is more high-quality stuff. They just don’t put ‘em together like this anymore, ya know? They take a much more subtle approach for “Birth of the Blues” and you’ll be mesmerized by the lazy momentum that lopes underneath the lush horns. This repackaged CD also includes several vocal pieces from that same era of Charles’ distinguished career, starting with his gruff but delightfully jazzy cover of “Alabamy Bound.” For “Basin Street Blues” Ray slides over to his trusty piano and does the old gem true justice. The disc ends with “New York’s My Home” where his playful, conversational vocal breakdowns showcase Charles’ uncanny phrasing and God-given technique to the max. It’s not to be missed.

In various biographies it’s been documented that during this period Ray was intent on further exploring his interpretative side by taking on some of the recognized chestnuts of big band jazz music and adding his own personal twist to them. As good a bandleader as he turned out to be, I can’t say enough about the crackerjack arrangements scored by Burns and Jones, though. The blasts jump right out of the speakers at you and make you feel like you’re right there in the cozy studio with the fellas. The release of the original LP didn’t exactly set the world ablaze but I’m sure that Charles didn’t mind for he didn’t do it for the moolah it would bring in. He did it because he had no doubt it would be worthwhile and, more importantly, because he could.

STEELY DAN Alive in America

Live album · 1995 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 3.00 | 4 ratings
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For us Steely Dan freaks the empty 80s were rendered even more depressing by the dissolution in ‘81 of the partnership of Donald Fagen & Walter Becker, the men that comprised the core of one of the most influential musical entities in all the world. They had made the 70s even more exciting by delivering a string of albums that defined in clever abstract our generation’s ever-changing attitudes while still capturing the pure essence of what it was like to be young and vibrant growing up during that amazing decade. The sole blessing found in their self-imposed hiatus was that they didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being forced to come up with shallow, petty videos to promote their songs as their contemporaries had to do in order to extend their careers. By the time the 90s arrived we’d wistfully pull out our copies of the likes of “The Royal Scam” and “Aja,” sing along and reminisce about how wonderful it had felt to be intrigued by every fresh offering Steely Dan would give us back in the day. Then, in ’95, it was announced that the duo had finally realized that not only was there gold in them thar hills but that modern concert technology made it possible for them to attain in person the high fidelity standards they’d insisted on in the studio environ. They’d last performed live in ’74 when, frustrated with the myriad of hassles involved, retired from the stage. Reports that their shows were nothing less than scintillating happenings encouraged their loyal following to dream of a permanent reunion between the two and the subsequent release of “Alive in America” confirmed that they hadn’t lost their ability to thrill. We fans ate it up like Bananas Foster.

When Fagen and Becker recorded “Pretzel Logic” they’d jettisoned the “combo” concept and expanded their options and creative potential by allowing studio cats to contribute exactly what was needed on a given tune. In the years that followed receiving an invite to a Steely Dan session became a coveted honor among professional musicians so when Don and Walt put together their backing ensemble for their first tour in 21 years they were able to pick and choose from the best. Anybody who was anybody wanted in on this project. Therefore, from the starting notes of “Babylon Sisters” onward the listener is treated to the sounds of one of the finest groups one can ever hope to hear. Any Steely aficionado would understandably expect flawless renditions of all the gems included on this album but the live ambience that permeates the venue they’re in humanizes both the creators and their creations, resulting in a wholly gratifying experience on many levels. One is reminded of their unique genius when the spellbound audience responds enthusiastically to this song’s signature “You got to shake it, baby” refrain. It’s a chill bump moment to treasure. “Green Earrings” is next and the punchy horn section really gives this tune a huge energy boost. I love the stirring piano solo and the sizzling sax ride that electrify the tune as well as the exceptional guitar lead (supplied by either Georg Wadenius or Drew Zingg) in the last segment. They then segue directly to the greatness that is “Bodhisattva” and deliver a powerful, driving version of one of the coolest compositions in their arsenal. They kick serious tail and the guitarist not only matches Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s memorable solo on the original but actually takes it to an even loftier level. The group’s astounding performance of this classic on that particular night is worth the price of this CD alone. It’s that good.

“Reelin’ in the Years” has been so overplayed that I’ve lost all perspective on it so I was pleased that they took liberal liberties with the number, beginning with the clever piano tease at the onset. A decidedly jazzy slant gives the song a new, more vibrant personality as they allow both the guitar and the sax to vamp freely during the spirited jam. In addition, the brash horn arrangement is killer. Their too-faithful recreation of “Josie” is the only disappointment I encountered along the way in that there’s nothing to distinguish it from the studio treatment. (Okay, I’ve never been that crazy about the song at all. Sue me.) I appreciate that they tossed us a bone by interjecting a brief drum break but it’s not enough to make up for Becker’s pedestrian axe work in the latter half. The only non-Dan inclusion comes in the form of “Book of Liars” from one of Walt’s solo efforts. The tune’s sweet, jazzy flow is hard to resist, the melancholy aura it possesses compensates for Mr. Becker’s unremarkable turn at the microphone and the sax and piano rides elevate the tune from run-of-the-mill status to memorable. The glorious “Peg” is next and they don’t veer far from the blueprints on this one, either, but the vim and vigor supplied by the tight rhythm section fuels the ensemble’s performance strikingly and the guitar lead burns a hole in the stage floor. Face it, “Peg” is too perfect to try to improve in any way. “Third World Man” follows and I’m so happy it’s on here because the song is one of their most overlooked and deserves to get out of the Dan house more often. The lazy groove is hypnotic and the piece’s stunning dynamics are to die for, making for awesome aural contrasts rarely detected in modern times.

“Kid Charlemagne” is yet another one of their stellar songs that doesn’t need embellishment and they do it complete, uncompromising justice from top to bottom. Next up is “Sign In Stranger,” a less-recognizable-but-no-less-entertaining ditty whose eclectic words conjure up imaginative visions of shady goings-on. A loping, playful Caribbean beat propels this number and I admire how they changed things up just enough to keep even the most dedicated of fan on the edge of his/her seat. The hot piano solo is brilliant and the horn section breakdown is euphoria-inducing. They end the set with the magnificent “Aja.” At this juncture the question isn’t if they can master the intricacies of this landmark composition but whether or not the drummer (either Dennis Chambers or Peter Erkskine) can pull off Steve Gadd’s incredulous, bar-setting performance preserved forevermore on the original LP. On this evening, at least, it’s up to snuff and everyone in attendance is fully satisfied. The subtle variations that Fagen & Becker throw in from time to time give it a distinct flavor not anticipated.

“Alive in America” went to #40 on the charts, a respectable plateau for any live album in any era, and that success spurred Don and Walt on to reconciling their petty differences and returning to making notable new music together. Whether it was the lure of box office receipts or just the opportunity to see if the flame of creativity still burned between them, that tour and this record were the catalysts that brought Steely Dan back from dormancy and gave the “group” a new lease on life. I was fortunate enough to finally catch them in concert several years ago and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever witnessed. This disc comes pretty close to replicating the charisma-filled sound I heard that night but you really need to see them in person to get the full effect. It’ll be money well-spent. 4 bright stars.

JONI MITCHELL Court and Spark

Album · 1974 · Vocal Jazz
Cover art 4.06 | 5 ratings
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With the stunningly pensive “Blue” album in ‘71 Joni Mitchell began to evolve out of her fragile, naïve flower-girl-folksinger-on-a-stool phase, showing a more adventurous side of herself to the world while wisely avoiding alienating any of her enraptured fan base in the process. The “For the Roses” LP was a good but somewhat predictable continuation of her musical expansion but, after a brief tour of that record, Joni took almost a year off to further develop and nurture her steadily increasing fascination with jazz. In January of 1974 she unveiled the results of her sabbatical in the form of “Court and Spark” and her impressive growth as a singer/songwriter and musician couldn’t be denied. Even conceited musicians who’d previously thought of her as a lightweight had to stop and take notice. With the help of pros like Tom Scott and Larry Carlton she was further developing a unique brand of aural art that didn’t sound like anyone else’s in the wide-open music scene that was flourishing in the mid 70s. In fact, this album would be the last that could even be figuratively related to her folksy past as subsequent releases would find her boldly (and some would say recklessly) venturing into highly eclectic and sometimes abstract territories that fewer and fewer of her flock could or even desired to comprehend. Therefore, while it may or may not be her masterpiece, “Court and Spark” unquestionably represents the apex of Mitchell’s popularity.

The title song opens the disc by displaying that Joni was still shifting her emphasis from the acoustic guitar to piano, thus widening her scope and her canvas. You can catch a glimpse of her folk roots in the tune’s melody but more obvious is her fearless combining of a myriad of genres. The number’s jazz presence is elevated by her inclusion of the great Milt Holland on the vibes. “Help Me” did wonders to advertise the album as the infectious song scaled the singles charts and peaked at #7. It’s a contemporary mixture of jazz and pop sensibilities that displayed her ongoing maturity as a lyrical songstress not hesitant to reveal her inner yearnings. Despite its many quirky kicks and accents the track maintains a nice structural flow that’s hard to criticize. “Free Man in Paris” was the FM radio equivalent to “Help Me” in that it soon found itself in heavy rotation in that (at the time) still-untamed realm. With this tune it became crystal clear that she now felt more comfortable in an ensemble setting while managing to avoid the formulaic traps so many of her contemporaries were falling into by asserting her highly individualized, bohemian creativity. Please note the delightful Spanish guitar flavors injected into the song’s atmosphere by guest musician Jose Feliciano. The slightly retro “People’s Parties” is the first tune on the record to feature an acoustic guitar up front and center along with her signature self-sung three-part background harmonies. It ends with an abrupt segue into “Same Situation,” a piano-heavy waltz that sports a jazzy chord progression and some light orchestration that adds a mysterious dimension to the mood it sets. A stronger, more aggressive groove propels the beginning of “Car on a Hill” but then it suddenly takes a strange turn midway through that’s difficult to describe. The whole song is a bit of an enigma.

While things up to this point have been entertaining enough to satisfy, the second half of the album is even better, starting with the cool “Down to You.” Her somber solo piano intro is wholly captivating yet, rather than keeping things predictable, she coyly introduces other instrumentation and jazz vocal harmonies tactfully to let the track blossom and then breathe freely on its own. This tune demonstrates her billowing artistry as well as any in the catalog of her work culled from this era. A savory jazz aroma envelopes “Just Like this Train” and that classy influence is presented in a very accessible format that’s almost R&B-ish at times. (Don’t get me wrong. Mitchell will never be mistaken for Aretha Franklin, that’s for sure!) Next is the playful “Raised on Robbery.” I don’t think Joni’s ever rocked this hard before or since but the Andrews Sisters’-styled harmonies give the song a pleasing nostalgic slant and an unavoidable charm. This cut, too, garnered a lot of airplay on the FM dial. “Trouble Child” follows and its surprisingly growling riff offers a real change of pace at this point yet it’s in no way a betrayal of her noble perspective or sound. She and her studio musicians concoct a darker, more mischievous tone that provides an essential depth to the proceedings. Mitchell finishes with her first cover, Annie Ross’ “Twisted,” and it’s a sparkling gem. Joni manages to channel Ella Fitzgerald competently here, flawlessly delivering one of her most impressive vocal performances ever. Not even the goofy utterances of then-trendy comedians Cheech & Chong can dull the tune’s brilliance. And, as a bonus, Chuck Findley’s muted trumpet is perfection.

“Court and Spark” was a resounding success. It soared up to the #2 spot on the album charts and stayed locked into that position for four weeks running, solidifying her status as a major player in the industry. As I intimated before, though, it also conclusively marked the end of Mitchell’s formative years. The clout she garnered from this record’s success presented her with a choice that many artists on her talent level must face. Either stay the cautious course and keep feeding her followers more of the same in an effort to remain in the spotlight or use the rare freedom it affords to strike out in new, riskier directions that some of their adoring crowd might not approve of. To her credit, Joni took the latter, less-traveled road and listened to her muse more closely than her accountant. Talk about a pivotal album in someone’s career, none can claim that label more honestly than “Court and Spark.”

NORAH JONES Come Away With Me

Album · 2002 · Vocal Jazz
Cover art 4.40 | 6 ratings
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Amusing how we of the masculine species too often assume that humans belonging to our gender are the principal trend-setters in music when history plainly shows that females are more than equally capable of drastically altering the popular currents and do so with regularity. And it’s not usually via introducing some radical element into the mainstream but, rather, by re-teaching all of us that it’s the simple things in life we’ve somehow lost sight of and wandered too far away from. Sade burst onto the screwed up, MTV virus-infected scene in the mid 80s and entranced millions with her back-to-the-basics, no-nonsense approach that eschewed all crass gimmicks and trickery. Jaded folks everywhere flocked to her. Most recently Adele has gathered the world to her feet by writing and elegantly performing tunes that reach right into people’s hearts and souls with amazing ease while her jealous contemporaries still insist on glamorizing their shallow offerings by majoring in inane catch phrases and ridiculous, over-the-top stage antics. In the early goings of the new millennium, Norah Jones did the very same thing as Sade and Adele with “Come Away With Me” and it makes you wonder why more artists can’t figure out that the adage of “just keep it simple, stupid,” is no empty expression.

In a continuation of the inclinations established during the nomadic 90s, modern music was all over the place as civilized men and women entered the 2000s when this petite daughter of Ravi Shankar suddenly appeared and reminded the planet of the subtle power poignant music can wield on society at large. Released in February ’02, this record was just what the doctor prescribed and folks gravitated to it without hesitation. Raised in the cosmopolitan yet rural-hued Metroplex of Dallas/Fort Worth and educated in the jazzy environs of the respected University of North Texas, Norah benefited from being exposed to a virtual potpourri of musical influences that ranged from R&B to blues, Indie rock to C&W. Her skillful, delicate blend of those seemingly contradictory styles made her music bob above the rabble like a cork on a lake and she made the entire music industry take notice. A star had undoubtedly been born.

You can decide within seconds of hearing the album’s opener, “Don’t Know Why,” if this is your cup of Celestial Seasonings or not. The coy lady lays her sweet wares right out there from the get-go and doesn’t waver from her passion. This song underscores what I’ve been trying to say in that sometimes the effectiveness of a modest motif is absolutely astounding in its profundity. You’ll notice Jones’ sensuous voice needs only a quartet of piano, bass, guitar and drums to provide the appropriate surrounding scenery and the result is intoxicating. “Seven Years” follows and you’ll find no fancy studio slight-of-hand at work here, just an honest performance of a lovely number. The Dobro ride is exquisite. Her stunning rendition of the old Hank Williams chestnut, “Cold, Cold Heart,” is next and it’s as if she was able to channel the spirit of the great Peggy Lee. Norah’s sly, jazzy delivery gives this country classic an entirely new personality. A gentle, loping drum beat guides the pleasant “Feelin’ the Same Way” down a lazy river and you’re happy to float along without a care because by now you’re either fully invested in Ms. Jones’ deal or you’ve turned it off. Norah penned the classy title cut herself, a ballad with a slow, extremely hypnotic sway that’s difficult for inexperienced musicians to maintain but her backing combo of pros never shies away from the challenge for a nanosecond. As a plus, the guitar solo is gorgeous.

“Shoot the Moon” is a pretty song that upholds the consistent ambience of the record with integrity. “Turn Me On,” providing a tactful turn at this juncture, is a mix of countrified blues and gospel in which Jones takes the opportunity to stretch her voice a bit. She leans into Bluegrass territory ever so slightly on “Lonestar,” adopting an Alison Kraus & Union Station-ish mien to do the song proper justice. A true highlight of the disc is “I’ve Got to See You Again.” There’s more of a jazzy, mysterious atmosphere at play here and it makes the number enticing and fairly exotic. The addition of Jenny Scheinman’s violin is a stroke of genius. “Painter Song” owns a nostalgic tint with a French twist supplied by the accordion that wafts in and out of the track. It’s very nicely done. Delicious piano leads you into “One Flight Down” and disarms you immediately. This is another exemplary tune. Graceful songs about birds rarely fail to entrance and Norah’s “Nightingale” is no exception. The interplay between her piano and Jesse Harris’ guitar is a blessing to one’s ears. The been-around-forever tremolo guitar effect can be annoying when misused but, in the hands of an expert and crafted properly, it can be immensely soothing as it is on “The Long Day is Over.” The whole band turns in a beautiful performance. Jones ends with a true gem from Hoagy Carmichael & Ned Washington, “The Nearness of You.” It’s a fitting finale as she sends the sidemen home early and serenades you with only her trusty piano for accompaniment. It’s a blissful moment to savor.

Without dishonoring Ray Charles’ bold adventure he undertook in the early 60s, this album could’ve been aptly named “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in the 21st Century” and few would protest. Norah proved once again that jazz and traditional Americana song structures were not equivalent to oil and water but could be magical when allowed to commingle without pretense. This debut record went to #1 in almost every country on planet Earth, stayed on the Billboard charts for 161 weeks, has sold over 22 million copies to date and garnered 8 Grammy awards (including the coveted Album of the Year trophy) so I really don’t have to defend my affection for it. Here’s the bottom line: A record doesn’t have to be perfect to be a masterpiece, it just has to be perfectly genuine. And “Come Away With Me” is the real McCoy.

SADE (HELEN FOLASADE ADU) Promise

Album · 1985 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 4.18 | 7 ratings
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The fabled sophomore jinx is no myth. The road to fame and fortune is littered on both sides with the rusting remnants of one-and-out artists and groups that were in the right place at the right time with the right vibe when their first album was released but found out all too swiftly how difficult it is to hit pay dirt twice in a row. More often than not it’s a natural result of their producer presenting the very best songs amassed over the act’s gestation period up front and then, for the follow-up, having to either delve into the leftover (and inferior) material or write new tunes from scratch in a hurry. In most cases their artistic weaknesses are blatantly exposed and word spreads like wildfire that the magic that labeled them as “special” is gone for good. Therefore, the pressure to avoid said hex alone is often more than a human being can handle. There are exceptions, of course. The truly talented souls pay the curse no mind at all. In fact, they’re so busy taking advantage of the golden opportunity afforded them by their initial success they consider record #2 but a fortuitous chance to get their aural art into even more ears, not a trap for failure. Sade Adu and her namesake band are one of those gifted entities who snubbed their noses at the sophomore jinx in passing. Their impressive debut was a virtual oasis of hope that, thank the heavens, appeared in the middle of the desolate desert that was the MTV virus-infected 80s so hopes ran high that the group was for real. Released in late December 1985, we fans weren’t disappointed with “Promise.” In many ways “Promise” is even better than “Diamond Life.”

For the unconvinced that viewed Sade as just a slick, overly-contemporary, easy-listening outfit the album’s stunning opener was a revelation. “Is It a Crime” is a dynamic tour-de-force that’s anything but mild-mannered. The song’s a brilliant show-stopper that highlights Adu’s ability to alternately employ both subtlety and power as needed to make an impact on the listener. Bright horns are used sparingly but effectively throughout and Andrew Hale’s piano solo is perfection. This number is one of their all-time greatest and it made a bold statement to the skeptics who didn’t believe they had more ammo in their arsenal to deliver. “The Sweetest Taboo” is next and the reason it shot up to #5 on the singles charts is because it embodies what this combo does so well, enveloping Sade’s silky voice in an enticing, jazzy atmosphere and allowing it to cast an intoxicating spell over your mood. Simplicity is deceiving. Thing is, if it was easy everyone could (and would) be doing it but few can do it like this group. “War of the Hearts” follows. Usually a drum machine-generated rhythm courts disaster but, wisely, they don’t let it dominate the proceedings. Rather they use it to enhance the track as they erect a haunting demeanor for the tune that’s somewhat hypnotic. Sidestepping the predictable pattern, they then present “You’re Not the Man,” a jazzy ballad that builds slowly but surely from its humble beginnings into a moving, passionate expression of honest emotion. I personally wouldn’t have placed the delicate “Jezebel” right after that one but there’s no denying that it stands on its own regardless of the timing involved. It’s a beautiful ballad put forth sans drums, permitting the saxophone, jazz guitar, electric piano and upright bass to support Adu’s seamless vocal. It owns a gorgeous melody made even more memorable by her skillful improvisations and sultry runs.

“Mr. Wrong” is a great change of pace moment. Its spooky jazz groove in 6/8 time is a departure from the other cuts. Paul Denman’s rolling bass line rocks and the punchy percussion is well worth paying attention to. “Punch Drunk” is a slower, sexy instrumental with bluesy overtones that proves they weren’t content to be conservative in their approach. It’s obvious that the musicianship within this tight band grants them the freedom to step out from the background with confidence. “Never as Good as the First Time” is another one of their incredibly catchy songs that explains better than words their universal appeal. This tune crept into the Top 20 for a reason. It’s very hard to resist the funky, flowing current that glides through this number while Sade’s sensuous voice floats like a butterfly atop the waves. “Fear” is a genuine detour from their normal routine. A deep, mysterious aura swirls behind Adu’s inimitable singing in the beginning and then the song briefly takes an unexpected turn into a semi-military march feel before returning to the track’s original lush motif. It’s not wholly successful but nevertheless it’s an ultra cool move on their part to experiment like that. “Tar Baby” has a light Latin lilt that pushes it along steadily. The tune’s excellent arrangement brings out the more admirable aspects of what is ultimately an average composition. The closer, “Maureen,” also belongs in that category. It’s a crisp, MOR piece that’s pleasant enough to ease you out of the record without protest but fairly unremarkable overall. They were smart to put the finest stuff front and center (a common sense tactic that many artists never figure out).

One look at the stats will tell you how popular this album was. It topped both the UK and the US charts, achieving double platinum sales in the former and an astounding quadruple platinum level in the latter. Hordes of jaded people in that confused era were hungry for top-flight, mature music presented to them without gimmicks or silly videos that emphasized grace over gloss and “Promise” was a Godsend in that regard. This is still how jazzy, R&B-flavored pop is done properly and it holds up amazingly well over two and a half decades down the line. This kind of music just doesn’t become dated or stale.

SANTANA All That I Am

Album · 2005 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 2.91 | 3 ratings
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The saying goes that the third time’s the charm but that adage doesn’t apply to sequels. (Logic will tell you that if the first in a series of artistic endeavors wasn’t the principal “charmer” then there is no need for even a single follow-up.) In fact, the odds are stacked heavily against #2 causing nearly as much of a stir, much less #3. In Santana’s case their comeback album “Supernatural” was such a smash success on all fronts at the end of the millennium that any attempt to duplicate its worldwide popularity was doomed to pale in comparison but that didn’t stop Carlos and his record label from going for it anyway. The band had been making albums since the late 60s but they’d fallen into a rut over the decades and were no longer a major player in the biz when they signed with Arista. “Supernatural” was different in that it was a Clive Davis brainstorm featuring a host of guest artists joining in that had no affiliation with the famous outfit other than growing up with their music playing constantly on classic rock radio. It was the right ploy at just the right time and it deserved all the accolades and Grammys it received. And, in the group’s defense, the equally star-studded “Shaman” that came out over two years later was no mongrel dog. It debuted at #1 upon its release and spawned a top ten hit so to call it a failure is ludicrous. However, when three years later they employed the same approach for “All That I Am” it became obvious to Santana’s legion of fans that they were going to milk this particular formula for every drop they could and the “been there done that” malaise started to take effect. We were now onto their predictable game.

Having said that, even an average Santana record is usually vastly superior to 99% of the aural schlock foisted upon the public in any given year and “All That I Am,” while far from being a masterpiece, still contains moments of excellence to enjoy. “Hermes” gets the album off to a fine start with Chester Thompson’s unexpected retro organ sound and then it explodes into full Latin locomotion complete with a bold horn section and the band’s trademark ensemble chanting. It’s an exciting cut with everything that makes Santana a great musical entity included in it. On “El Fuego” Carlos stays true to his festive Mexican heritage and native language by presenting an emotionally-charged song that sports passionate singing and punchy percussion emanating from Karl Perazzo and Raul Rekow. If they’d stayed with that fiery motif then this would’ve been an intriguing departure from the previous two records but at this point with “I’m Feeling You” they tried to manufacture a hit song (never a good idea) and this is where the album begins to lose momentum. Michelle Branch’s impressive vocal style had pushed 2002’s “The Game of Love” into the top 5 of the singles chart so I guess they were hoping lightning would strike twice. No go. It’s a poppy number, alright, and Branch’s chirpy voice dominates but the songwriting is somewhat plain vanilla and it petered out at a disappointing #55. It becomes apparent that the tracks Carlos personally produced (almost half of the disc) represent the best of the bunch while the majority of the rest (“I’m Feeling You” included) give the impression that the other producers assigned to this project put the tunes together as they saw fit and had Carlos come in at the end to sweeten them up with his signature guitar licks. I could be wrong but that’s how it comes off to me.

One unfortunate trend that tagged along with Santana’s return to prominence in ‘99 was their allowing hip hop influences to taint their image. (Sorry if that’s your cup o’ tea but I just don’t like it.) “My Man” is an example of what’s wrong with 21st century R&B. Rhythm & Blues is a genre of music I used to enjoy but nowadays have a lot of difficulty embracing. I appreciate the talent of Mary J. Blige and her innate singing ability but Big Boi’s hip hop injections severely and immediately suck out whatever potential the song might’ve had. I love Steven Tyler’s voice but the familiar Santana motif that abounds in “Just Feel Better” frames it in such an alien format from Aerosmith that I find it impossible to completely surrender to the premise. The tune is okay and Carlos’ playing is decent but it falls just short of the mark. Will.i.am is the visiting star of “I Am Somebody” but the song is more of the unsettling blend of Latin inflections with modern R&B attitudes that does nada for me. Numbers like this one leave very little room for Carlos to do his thing efficiently so by now the album is on the skids and needs a shot in the arm. Carlos produced the next cut, “Con Santana,” and the contrast in energy is like night and day. It’s a return to the Spanish vibe he obviously feels most comfortable working in and his guitar playing is much more fluid and melodic accordingly. “Twisted” is a pleasant surprise. Its infectious groove is irresistible via its sexy sway and lazy gait carrying you along. Anthony Hamilton’s cleverly intertwining vocal lines and the track’s overall atmosphere help to set this song apart from the rest. “Trinity” looks promising on paper with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett joining Carlos for a guitar romp and the duo almost pull it off. Alas, it’s no more than a slightly interesting jam over two repeating chords that never reaches the heights one would anticipate hearing from virtuosos with such dissimilar yet undeniably powerful approaches to their instruments.

“Cry Baby Cry” is the absolute pits. Sean Paul’s monotonous, inane rapping had me tuning out before I even had a chance to hear the normally entertaining Joss Stone jump into the questionable fray. Frankly, this stuff is boring and demeaning. Enough already! Anything would be an improvement over that cow pie at this juncture and “Brown Skin Girl” goes beyond the call of duty. It’s a slice of traditional R&B-hued pop that rock & roller Bo Bice bolsters with strong, confident singing and the tune benefits from a dynamic arrangement that permits the potent Latin percussion and Carlos’ hot licks to spice up the proceedings spectacularly. “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” (penned by the spunky Los Lonely Boys) is next. Drummer Ringo Garza's boisterous beat drives this tune relentlessly throughout while Carlos lets loose with a string of penetrating runs. Santana closes with “Da Tu Amor,” an energized Spanish rocker that showcases all of the more favorable and admirable ingredients this record owns, wrapped up in an explosive, enthusiastically-presented instrumental package.

Released in the fall of 2005, “All That I Am” soared up to the #2 spot on the album charts but, lacking a galvanizing single (like the phenomenal “Smooth” was for “Supernatural”); it slid out of the realm of must-have status in short order. One can only straddle the fence between doing what you’re gifted at and striving to be trendy for so long before you lose credibility and that’s the main flaw in this record. When it’s good it’s very good but when it’s bad it’s dreadful. Hopefully this will mark the end of their once-marketable “let’s-bring-in-everybody-and-their-cousins-to-assist-us” approach to making music and Carlos and Company will stun the planet by reviving the innovative, adventurous spirit that gave us landmarks like “Caravanserai” and “Abraxas.” Hope springs eternal.

FOCUS Hamburger Concerto

Album · 1974 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.26 | 3 ratings
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I'm not very knowledgeable about this band. You might say I'm somewhat out of focus. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) But a lot of folks whose opinions I respect think rather highly of them and I figured it was long past time for me to get more familiar with their music. To be brutally honest, other than harboring fond memories of the mind-bending, yodelistic stylings of their radio staple "Hocus Pocus" that sat prettily in FM's heavy rotation in the mid 70s and a dubious wild night I had in Denver that involved one of the sides of their album "Moving Waves" playing on eternal repeat (a popular feature in those days) on a lithe and willing sirens' turntable (a sobering tale of youthful debauchery that I elect to forgo telling for now), I'm but a neophyte guppy when it comes to these Dutch masters. Therefore when I spotted "Hamburger Concerto" taking up space in some used record bins recently I remembered that this platter is considered by many of their fans to be their best and decided to start my focused education at the top.

Just to throw you off balance a tad they open with 1:12 of an air entitled "Delitiae Musicae," an arrangement of a traditional song from days gone by (a fancy way of saying it's a tune so old that no one has a clue as to which caveman came up with it and, thusly, no royalties need be paid). Using classic acoustic instrumentation, it's nicely done but not at all representative of what's to follow. "Harem Scarem" is more like what I expected in that it's an upbeat rocker from front to back in which the piano and Hammond organ of Thijs Van Leer and the guitar of Jan Akkerman combine to create a light-hearted ditty that's fun to listen to. (I'm wondering why it didn't receive a lot more airplay since it seems to be borne of the same cloth that made "Hocus Pocus" such a monster hit but perhaps it was due to a lack of grease-the-program-director's-palm-with-payola-and/or-nose-candy being supplied by the PR pukes at the label.) It's a happy-go-lucky boogie-woogie song that flies in the same stratosphere as Traffic's smile-inducing "Glad" does but it distinguishes itself with a more involved and complex structure. The funky breakdown just past the halfway point gives bassist Bert Ruiter a chance to stand in the spotlight and he doesn't shy away from making the most of his opportunity.

The album's apex comes in the form of "La Cathedrale De Strasbourg." The number begins with a flurry of dramatic piano stylings ala Chopin that lead to a delicate melody performed in a duet with Jan's guitar. In the 2nd part of the piece the group adopts a slow, bluesy groove whilst Thijs breaks into a brilliant whistling foray that would make a Texas mockingbird jealous. It's a cool surprise and Akkerman's jazzy guitar solo that follows is impressive. Overall it's a well-composed, moody instrumental that takes the listener through several different musical textures and emotions with ease. I can't say the same for the labored "Birth," however. It starts out with promising harpsichord trills but when drummer Colin Allen rambles in with his floor toms a 'rolling the unremarkable main theme emerges and the track enters the dreaded realm of the mediocre. There's a nifty flute ride (and later on a spirited recorder spasm) that pleases the Tull fan in me but Jan's sloppy guitar phrases leave me cold. I realize that this tune might have been the bee's knees in '74 but the decades haven't been kind to this cut and now it's as dated as a paisley Nehru jacket.

The LP's six-movement namesake and claim to fame is, obviously, the side-long "Hamburger Concerto." While unfortunate moments of inconsistency and hum-drum plague this opus there are enough spots of genuine euphoria erupting to rescue it from the dregs. "Starter" possesses the kind of grandiose and stately attitude that I like to hear and Bert's intricate bass lines distinguish themselves in particular. It's big and prog rock as all get out. Perfect. Don't change a thing. "Rare" is a continuation of that processional aura but it does belie a tuft of gray hair poking out from under the tiara (Careful with that ARP, Eugene!) in that the synthesizer is as thin and buzzy as a gnat's aria. Yet a large- scale intervention from the mighty Mellotron saves the day. "Medium I" (get the bun pun yet?) features some clever vocal hijinks from Van Leer that keep things from getting too heavy-handed/serious (always a good thing, their sense of humor being one of their more endearing traits) and when he mounts the Hammond organ and drives it like a dirt bike for a spell he demonstrates that Wakeman and Emerson ain't got nothin' on him. Thijs also ends this segment with some swirling, tasty flute roll-ups that will tickle your eardrums.

On "Medium II" it's the guitar's turn to shine from center stage but it seems there's a short in the floodlights. Jan's jazzy noodling at first is intriguing but when he dials up the volume/distortion his tone becomes brittle and it sounds like he's searching desperately for places to take his solo. To add insult to injury he's not helped in the least by the tired descending chord progression that's droning underneath him. It's intolerably unimaginative and entirely too been-there-a-zillion-times patronizing. I understand that it's intended to be a simple platform for Akkerman to shock and awe atop of on the fretboard but he fails to do so and it becomes no better than a flabby Lynyrd Skynyrd-like jam that can't end too soon. What I'm saying is that if a guitarist is going to fill up 5 minutes of vinyl he'd better tear the roof off the sucker or it's just filler. Enough already! He finally plugs his cord into the Leslie speaker cabinet and switches to a friendlier riff to pull this bus out of the ditch. "Well Done" takes us into a stained-glass sanctuary for a large dose of Catholic mass-ish chantings before a heavy rock motif ensues and things get back to being both entertaining and challenging. "One For the Road" is the finale and it doesn't back away from being delightfully over-the-top. Glad to hear it. They construct a fittingly colossal wall of sound accentuated by a fatter ARP synthesizer setting and the mountainous climax is stupendous and gratifying. You know, the kind of stuff that drove punk rockers to stick safety pins through their cheeks.

It's important to point out that there's very little jazz going on here but I never thought of them that way in the first place. While Focus may not occupy the penthouse suites in the prog rock condominiums that house the likes of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis they do reside comfortably in the same high-rise and there's a lot to be said for that. They were extremely talented, to be sure, but they weren't necessarily innovative and that's the essential characteristic that separates them from the giants. "Hamburger Concerto" is a pleasant listening experience that affords a clear look into precisely what was going on in the mid 70s in commercial prog rock and on a jazz site it deserves only a barely-above average rating. Enjoy it for what it is but don't expect too much.

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER Works Volume 1

Album · 1977 · Third Stream
Cover art 2.30 | 7 ratings
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This is what happens when rock stars start believing their personal downloads don't have an offensive aroma. After conquering the progressive jazz/rock world with their legendary "Brain Salad Surgery" album in '73 and extensively touring the planet performing it for their adoring fans, the boys in the band were way past being sick of each other's company and took a long vacation. During that break a funny thing happened to the group. It ceased to exist. In its place stood three individuals, each convinced that they were the lone genius responsible for the group's fame/fortune and no longer obliged to heed any suggestions or criticisms about their songwriting from their conceited coworkers. Their triumphant solo career would prove it. However, legal representatives were able to convince them that the hassle of getting out of their contracts with each other was far, far worse than releasing their separate works of art under the bankable banner of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Thus, we unsuspecting supporters (who had waited 4 years for new material) trustingly plopped down our hard-earned moolah for a pricey double LP in anticipation of being blown away by our heroes as soon as we got it on our stereos. We got royally shafted big time.

Going in their customary alphabetical order you get Keith Emerson's contribution first. He offers up his "Piano Concerto No. 1" even though you didn't ask for classical music at all. If you enjoy symphonies as much as I do you know there's a proper time and place for them but usually not in the first nineteen minutes of a rock and roll record. It's a gallant effort all right but it's not Gershwin, Mahler, Copeland or Khachaturian quality by any stretch of the imagination. (And if you're going to enter your pet project at that level of the science fair you'd better be ready to take on the nuclear physicists if you know what I mean.) It might've had a slim chance of acceptance in that genre if Emerson had only thought to include the most important ingredient: A memorable theme. In all fairness to Keith, though, it's the highlight of the album (what does that tell you?) and would earn him a passing grade in freshman Composition 101.

Greg Lake, the voice of the band's greatest songs, gets his 22 minutes in the spotlight next and it quickly becomes apparent that since the last album he has morphed into a Las Vegas crooner. "Lend Me Your Love Tonight" sounds like one of Elton John's obscure filler tunes and is a prime example of spoiled overindulgence. With sexy words like "You'll feel my senses spin and soar/you will become my meteor/divine and universal whore/complete me" what woman could resist? "C'est La Vie" is very much in the vein of the hits "Still. You Turn Me On" and "From the Beginning" and it's a pleasant tune although the orchestration comes on entirely too strong towards the end. (The unplugged version on "Works Live" is a lot better). "Hallowed Be Thy Name" follows and it's an ugly mess. First of all Greg sings like he's imitating The Who's Roger Daltrey and lyrically you get inane lines like "but many a drunk got drunker/and mostly a thinker, thunker" that insult your intelligence. "Nobody Loves You Like I Do" is a lame mimicry of Bob Dylan as Lake tries to copy his phrasing and his harmonica-driven style. Greg warbles "you can change the world/but if you lose control/they will take away your T- shirt." Say what? His last song is the worst, however. "Closer to Believing" is a mushy Jimmy Webb rip-off and you half expect Richard Harris (of "McArthur Park" fame) to join in on vocals at any time. And talk about drippy, they don't have this much syrup in all of Vermont! I don't know how Lake managed to sing "I need me/you need you/we want us" with a straight face. If it weren't so tragic it'd be hilarious.

After that fiasco you'd think Carl Palmer's side would be an improvement but it's not. "The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits," an excerpt from Prokofieff's "Scythian Suite," is okay sound-wise but really only proves that Carl can play a march. It's hard to put into words how lousy "L.A. Nights" is. It has a dull, rolling beat that turns into a standard blues shuffle along the way and you wish that guest guitarist Joe Walsh would've had the guts to tell Palmer that the song blows. Somebody needed to. "New Orleans" follows and it could pass as the theme for a corny TV sitcom. After those two stinkers almost anything would be a step up and his treatment of J.S. Bach's "Two Part Invention in D Minor" is just that. Carl's performance on the Vibraphone is surprisingly good but it only lasts for 2 minutes. "Food for your Soul" is a stab at something I can't identify (jazz maybe?) and the drumming is downright atrocious from beginning to end. A remake of "Tank" is Palmer's finale. It gets a Glenn Miller-ish big band treatment and it's actually listenable. Whoever played the soprano sax earned his studio fee that day because he provided the side's only trace of emotion.

You have to trudge through all that mediocrity before you finally get to some music that actually sounds like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Their interpretation of Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" is a step back in time when these guys would knock your walls down and leave you begging for more. (Take note, Keith, THIS is what a symphonic theme sounds like!) They stay close to the original score, then Emerson jams out raucously for about 5 minutes over Lake and Palmer's rumbling rock shuffle till reaching the dynamic end where they return to the classic arrangement. "Pirates" has an orchestral beginning that is promising and gets your hopes up briefly but then it turns into unintentional self-parody. Just imagine if you'd been watching Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in 1977 and the hosts Donny and Marie Osmond breathlessly inform you that Greg Lake and the cast of the smash Broadway musical "Shiver Me Timbers" are now going to perform a rousing number from the show on the street in front of Radio City Music Hall. That's exactly how this comes off. You'll shake your head in dumbfounded puzzlement.

I never bought another ELP recording. I may be a fool but I'm rarely a fool twice. If I were to be stranded on an island with just this album to listen to I'd play their cover of "Fanfare" and, on occasion, Emerson's brave little piano concerto and ignore the rest forevermore. It's still inconceivable to me how such an incredibly popular (and talented) group failed to realize how cruelly they were insulting their followers by allowing them to spend money on their egomaniacal drivel.

CHICAGO Chicago XIV

Album · 1980 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 0.57 | 2 ratings
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The fateful tale of Chicago’s trek through the glorious 70s was a classic riches to rags story. They’d come bursting in as one of the most promising, adventurous American bands of the era by bravely melding rock & roll with a big band jazz mentality better than any ensemble ever had before and their music appealed to an amazingly wide spectrum of the population of the world. After a few years of a lot of blood, sweat and tears (wry irony intended) they arrived at the top of the heap. Slowly but surely, however, their escalating addiction to hit singles and the steady cash flow they brought with them eroded their rebellious, risk-taking attitude to the point where they no longer challenged themselves or their audiences. With the exception of their brilliant VII LP released in ‘74 they consistently played it so safe it got to the point where, by the end of the decade, they’d lost their fan base, their reputation as innovators and their reason to exist. Losing the fiery Terry Kath along the way was a tragedy but rather than honoring his legacy by using his death as a spark to reignite their original flame of creativity they responded by becoming even more conservative. As the 80s began some (but not all) of the aging 70s groups facing the end of their viability and the onslaught of the New Wave and Punk movements simply called it quits and wisely left the “biz” for good. Considering what a waste of time XIV turned out to be, perhaps Chicago should’ve done the same.

Their opening the record with the only decent tune they had at their disposal, Robert Lamm’s “Manipulation,” is the only thing positive I have to say about this album. It owns an energetic track that’s built upon a forceful guitar riff played by session cat Chris Pinnick (the blasé Donnie Dacus had been jettisoned) and the number was decent enough to inspire a ray of hope in me that a reinvigorated Chicago might emerge. The horn section and Danny Seraphine’s drums punch the accents with gusto and Pinnick shreds his fretboard with passion. Alas, the fun bus runs out of gas as soon as the song ends and is promptly looted and set ablaze before being abandoned on the side of the highway. The vague sense of optimism that first cut cultivated dies the second “Upon Arrival” reaches your ear drums. Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera penned this sappy-as-a-grove-of-Maple-trees ballad that’s utterly devoid of anything even approaching passable status. They follow that odorous turd with Cetera’s ridiculously mushy “Song for You,” a 12-string acoustic guitar-dominated, gather-by-the-campfire love song that sours your stomach and demonstrates beyond a doubt that these guys had been neutered and were now as inert as elderly bulldogs. They’d brought in renowned producer Tom Dowd to oversee this album but he must’ve had second thoughts as soon as he heard the tunes they’d brought to him because they had so little potential. Peter’s vapid “Where Did the Lovin’ Go” lopes along like a high school orchestra’s first rehearsal with absolutely no feel or emotion to be found. My reaction to Seraphine’s “Birthday Boy” was one of disbelief that they’d string four slow, laborious numbers in a row. Holy moley, they’d flushed every semblance of their once-mighty mojo down the toilet! This song is a dirge-like turkey that shines a glaring light on the group’s dearth of basic common sense and self-respect. They repeat the line “Good days are coming” but Chicago desperately needed them in the present tense at this juncture, not in the future.

One of the many problems with XIV stems from glamour boy Cetera having become the predominant songwriter. He was talented in many areas but not in the role of composer. His “Hold On” is an anemic “rocker” (I employ that term loosely here) that frankly made me embarrassed for the band. It makes them appear about as cool as middle-aged geezers wearing “hip” threads to attract the ladies but not having a clue as to how foolish they look. Next is Peter’s “Overnight Café.” I knew it was bound to happen and here it is. Chicago tried to be trendy by incorporating a New Wave vibe into their sound and it’s a shameful disaster. It’s yet another hefty file in the dossier of evidence proving that their well of creativity had run bone dry and they were accepting any material available from the members without discretion in order to fill up two sides of vinyl. Robert, Peter and Danny teamed up to concoct “Thunder and Lightning” and, this far into the swamp, I was at least grateful for an upbeat groove and a few jazzy inflections interspersed in the arrangement but the tune is still too weak to make a lasting impression or make much difference. Lamm’s “I’d Rather Be Rich” is so lousy that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d tossed scraps of paper in a jar with chords written on them and put the piece together by pulling them out at random. It has no backbone or focus; it just lays there like a lump of dead notes. Trombonist James Pankow, formerly a river of interesting ideas and concepts, contributes the closer, “The American Dream.” This political protest ditty lacks conviction or purpose and comes off as a bunch of high-rollers sitting around, complaining about how unfair life is. It’s pathetic and demeaning.

I find the cover to be highly appropriate. Sometimes at a crime scene the victim’s face is so disfigured or mutilated that the corpse can only be identified through fingerprint analysis. That’s the case here. XIV is so dismal that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to being a product from the vibrant group that shook up the music scene when they broke out of the Midwest in ’69. Whereas their earlier LPs had shot up into the upper regions of the charts like rockets this one struggled to reach #71 and then disappeared into oblivion. It was not only their last record with their long-time label but the story goes that Columbia actually paid them to leave! Ouch! While I still consider the pretentious “Hot Streets” to be the nadir of their career, this one seriously rivals it. The only good news I can convey about Chicago’s state of the union in the summer of 1980 is that they were soon to do something smart and beneficial by hiring the multi-talented Bill Champlin to finally fill the gaping hole left by Terry Kath’s passing. They’d never again be the influential force in progressive jazz/rock they once were but at least they’d start making R&B-flavored pop music that was listenable. XIV isn’t.

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER Brain Salad Surgery

Album · 1973 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.66 | 11 ratings
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Beginning with their stunning debut in 1970 Emerson, Lake & Palmer had steadily drawn more and more music enthusiasts into their camp with every new studio release and supporting tour. With a hit single under their belt from "Trilogy" they were ready to unveil the album that would propel them to the top of the rock heap. Utilizing fantastic, revolutionary cover art by H.R. Giger, a 12"x12" full-color folded insert that included individual portraits and millions of dollars worth of ads and marketing salvos from their own label's distributor, Atlantic Records, ELP would change the progressive jazz/rock landscape forever with "Brain Salad Surgery."

While "Jerusalem" may be as familiar as "Amazing Grace" to Englanders, it's a relatively obscure song in the states so (as far as we were concerned) they may as well have written it themselves. It sure sounds like something they could have penned. Anyway, it's a grandiose opener with Greg Lake's stately vocals and Keith Emerson's terrific organ and synthesizer sounds augmenting a regal melody. This is followed by "Toccata," Keith's arrangement of Ginastera's 1st piano concerto and a fine example of modern composition. It's what ELP does best instrumentally with its tight, intricate segments that weave a dizzying tapestry of musical hues. The first half is excellent, then Carl Palmer performs a tympani solo before he moves to the drum kit. Keeping in mind that in the early 70s synthesizers were still a novelty, the noisy display of annoying electronic sounds still gets to be a bit much before it's over. Next up is Greg's "Still. You Turn Me On," which has the same aura of their previous single, "From The Beginning," but is just as alluring. The lyrics seem to convey that, despite the craziness and intensity of life as a rock star, the singer is still "turned on" by the audience. It's a well-written tune but some of the quirky guitar effects haven't aged well and now sound understandably dated. ELP was notorious for injecting cornball detours from time to time and this LP was no exception. "Benny The Bouncer" is a fluff piece about a ferocious club doorman who finally gets the crap beat out of him and ends up with a hatchet in his head. Not exactly standup comedy material but I guess it was funny to the trio. In their defense the music isn't horrible, the honky-tonk piano work by Keith is authentic and they even throw in a false ending to boot. However, one has to believe that by then they surely had better songs than this meaningless ditty to include.

"Karn Evil 9" is the focus of the album and their most adventurous epic. "1st Impression" is nothing short of amazing. Divided into two sections on the LP, the second part is the one that became the most recognizable due to its being ushered directly onto the heavy rotation of FM radio stations all over the free world. I personally prefer the first part but, along with tunes like Yes' "Roundabout" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," "Welcome Back My Friends." is one of the essential classic progressive rock songs that keeps the genre on the aural map of the general populace generation after generation. And for that progheads should be grateful. Greg's guitar work is surprisingly adroit but everyone in the group is performing at the top of their game here as they flawlessly deliver this supercharged segment about computers being introduced as the benign saviors of mankind. "To take their sorrow from this odyssey/to help the helpless and the refugee/to protect what's left of humanity." Lake and Peter Sinfield (of King Crimson fame) contribute brilliant lyrics to describe the resulting amoral scene after the machines have taken over everything, including entertainment. For example, religious sacredness has been debased to a trick as they demonstrate "with our hands behind our backs/we pull Jesus from a hat!/get into that/get into that!" and nature has been ravaged to the point where "there behind a glass/is a real blade of grass/be careful as you pass/move along, move along." Truly disturbing images.

"2nd Impression" is Keith's instrumental creation and it is phenomenal. Starting with sublime jazz piano and evolving into an energetic Latin rhythm complete with synthesized steel drums, it's an exhibition of Emerson's immense keyboard talents. After a quieter yet ominous bridge the band breaks into a high-speed piano-led section that will leave you breathless. "3rd Impression" is a return to the rock format with a big dose of dramatic vocalization from Greg. To my ears this is the weakest of the three impressions but only because the first two are so spectacular. There's a rather mundane synthesizer segue before the stirring organ comes back and Palmer's tempo is, shall I say, "variable" at times. The story line here is that the computers now rule mankind, much to the regret and chagrin of human beings and, though there is a rebellion, the machines win in the end. The feeling I get musically is that the band was building up to a huge finale with the concert audience in mind and we'll never know what it might have sounded like if they had followed their muse rather than what they thought the live crowd would want to experience. The saga ends with the computer exclaiming, "I'm perfect! Are you?' and then proceeding to demonstrate its idea of music by performing a programmed pattern that can only repeat itself over and over as it accelerates as fast as it can go before stopping on a dime. In this nightmarish vision of the future human emotion has been purged from art.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer would never attain this level of excellence again. The adoration and popularity that came after this album would eventually tear them asunder and cause personality clashes and ego-fueled rifts that would diminish their ability to work together efficiently as a team. But nothing can take this achievement of progressive jazz/rock away from them (or us) and future music archaeologists will admire it just as much as we do now. It's not a complete masterpiece but it's a landmark nonetheless.

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER Trilogy

Album · 1972 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.05 | 12 ratings
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Right up front I have to confess to possessing a considerable amount of favorable bias towards this album through no intentional fault of my own. You see, as an adventurous young buck on the NTSU campus in the autumn of '72, I surreptitiously snuck (with her consent, of course) into Cathy O's dorm room via her window one night in quest of hands-on, advanced research concerning the carnal arts (if you know what I mean and I think you do). On her stereo's auto-repeating turntable this admirable and desirable lady had her brand new copy of the "Trilogy" LP. Throughout the course of an intense, study-filled evening neither of us had any interest in changing the record so I heard side 2 of this exemplary album over and over for... Well, let's refrain from bragging, shall we? Suffice it to say that life doesn't get much better than that particular scenario (music & passion) and even now when I listen to ELP's "Trilogy" it summons pleasant memories so it's hard to be critical and/or objective in that state of mind. Happy thoughts aside, however, it would more than hold its own as a stellar example of progressive jazz/rock, regardless.

With "The Endless Enigma, Pt. 1" a quiet heartbeat accompanied by some eerie synthesizer notes starts things off in a mysterious mood before the space is interrupted by startling piano spasms and wild bongos. Soon the splendid, driving triad of organ, bass and drums intrude, leading you through a very dynamic song structure that climbs to Greg Lake's commanding "Please, please open their eyes!" exclamation that is breathtaking in its massive scope. Things then calm down with Emerson's lone, delicate piano and just let me say here that no one records acoustic piano any better than engineering whiz kid Eddie Offord. It's like you're sitting in the room with a Steinway. "Fugue" reminds me very much of Keith's stellar work on their debut album but this time Lake ably joins in on bass to create a fantastic duet. "The Endless Enigma, Pt. 2" is an obvious continuation of the basic theme but here they employ a deep, cavernous sound that includes clanging mission bells, culminating in a grand ending. Let me tell you, this is one marvelous piece of music.

"From the Beginning" is one of the more unusual hit songs ever in that it climbed to #39 on the singles chart due more to its alluring atmosphere than to some kind of catchy hook. The smooth guitar lead and curious synthesizer tone also contributed to the tune's popularity, as well as Greg's soothing, radio-friendly voice. These boys loved to throw in some levity on their albums (with mixed results) but "The Sheriff" is one of their better whimsical ditties. Featuring a surprisingly syncopated and complex structure beneath the frivolous "cowboy western" lyrics, this song distinguishes itself by incorporating a growling Hammond B3 organ sound layered with an odd piano effect to produce a unique aura. The manic honky-tonk, saloon-style piano work in the coda is a hoot.

What better way to honor one of the 20th century's greatest composers than to perform a bang-up version of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" segment from his incredible "Rodeo." It's an amazing rendition where Emerson displays his mastery of the virtues of the B3 organ as he employs the many variations of the settings it has to offer. No wonder it was such a concert staple for them. It rocks.

As I explained earlier, side 2 of the LP is branded on my brain forevermore but that's a good thing because it begins with the album's namesake song. (Hey, Cathy could have been heavily into Engelbert Humperdink. Imagine having THAT dude's crooning tattooed on your subconscious!) "Trilogy" features a beautiful opening with Lake singing brilliantly over Keith's piano as they deliver a modern jazz chord progression and an intricate melody. Emerson gracefully segues into a heavy 5/4 riff where his spirited synthesizer ride blows you away. They return to a harder take on the original melody before Keith assaults your senses with another sizzling synth solo as Greg and Carl lay down a remarkably tight rhythm section underneath. When these guys played like this no one could top them. Period.

If there's a lull in the proceedings it comes in the form of "Living Sin." Composed somewhat along the lines of "Knife Edge," it's a riff-based rocker with an odd structure and stabbing accents at the close. It's not a bad number by any means but when compared to the rest of the album it's less than memorable. Synthesizer technology was evolving by leaps and bounds in those days and, on "Abaddon's Bolero," Emerson expertly showcased the state-of-the-art in that division of modern rock music. By adopting the steady layer-by-layer construction technique of Ravel, Keith tastefully introduces a myriad of sounds and textures as the number builds inexorably to its inevitable and definitive CLIMAX. (I know, I know) And don't overlook Lake's inventive bass work despite the implied restrictions he and Palmer are stuck with due to the format. Also keep in mind that in 1972 this was groundbreaking, awe-inspiring stuff that made every keyboard player on the planet yearn to acquire a Moog.

I still consider their stunning debut and the unbelievable "Brain Salad Surgery" to be their masterpieces but this one ain't far behind. While "Tarkus" seemed a bit bogged down and forced at times, "Trilogy" showed that Emerson, Lake & Palmer were not going to be fading away or evolve into some kind of "cult" group anytime soon. Their appeal was widening to include more than just progheads. Even blonde seductresses with gorgeous, waist-length hair like Cathy O were digging on their music and that acceptance flung the marketplace doors open for this talented trio. They had arrived at the shores of the Promise land.

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER Tarkus

Album · 1971 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.43 | 12 ratings
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After bedazzling the music world with their brilliant debut, this terrific trio set out to do something even more challenging. Follow it up with an album that was just as good. And, to their credit, they almost did. "Tarkus" is a well constructed record that further advanced their reputation as progressive jazz/rock music trailblazers in the early 70s. You gotta admit, no one else was doing it quite the same way as Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Side one of the LP consists of the adventurous and legendary "Tarkus" suite. The first segment, Keith's "Eruption," is one of the most intense, jam-packed 2 minutes and 43 seconds in jazz-related rock. The 5/4 track is tighter than Pavarotti's waistband and it is a textbook case of organ, synthesizers, bass and drums working together like a well- oiled, high-torque machine. On top of all that its extremely complex arrangement will make your head spin. Few albums start this splendidly so it's not a big surprise to find that the next phase, "Stones of Years," struggles a bit to keep the momentum rolling on that spectacular level. It's a heavy, slower-paced tune with Greg singing cryptic lyrics about a metallic armadillo but, while Emerson's organ solo is interesting, things take a much-appreciated swing upward when they rip into Keith's "Iconoclast" and tear it up again. It's got a supercharged riff that they steer through difficult and intricate changes, showing how amazing these guys are when they're in sync.

Next Greg sings "Mass" with conviction yet it's the staccato organ lead that gets your attention as the spicy interplay between Keith and Carl grabs the spotlight. After the short-lived "Manticore" section we get a brief taste of Lake's still-developing electric guitar skills that mark a low spot in the proceedings (He would get much better in the years ahead, thank heaven). The pity is that his amateurish noodling takes away from the majestic theme of "Battlefield" going on beneath it. An unusual Moog sound performed over a marching drum beat takes us into the finale of the piece, Emerson's "Aquatarkus," which also reprises the stupendous 5/4 power hook of the opening salvo that got things off to such a wild, driving start. The big finish is suitably flamboyant but somehow I get the feeling that the side-long saga just didn't come off as well as they had hoped it would. Having said that, however, if they would have had six weeks to polish it in the studio instead of six days I have no doubt that it would be near perfect.

Displaying what would become a distracting habit for this band, "Jeremy Bender" is a detour into corny playfulness that stumps me to this day. It's pretty much a nutty saloon-style drinking ditty complete with honky-tonk piano and silly limerick phrases that must have amused them no end. Whatever. At least the next song redeems them as it's one of the highlights of the album. "Bitches Crystal" is a jazzy piano-driven number that benefits greatly from tasteful synthesizer work and mood-changing dynamics to create a fascinating kaleidoscope of musical colors. On top of that, Greg's passionate and almost furious vocal is strikingly arresting and shows a completely different side of Mr. Lake.

"The Only Way (Hymn)" has Keith manning a huge cathedral organ as Greg sings some virulent anti-religion lines that include a strange reference about God losing six million Jews before telling us that we have to do it ourselves (or something). Emerson manages to throw in a little bit of Bach to liven things up halfway through but the best thing occurs when they segue into "Infinite Space," a 7/8 piano-led instrumental that moves at a fast clip. As much as I like Keith's organ virtuosity, his skill on the eighty- eights is often breathtaking and that's the situation here. Excellent job. The mighty Hammond B3 makes a triumphant return on "Time and a Place," a typical ELP tour de force that rumbles like a freight train for three thrilling minutes. "Are You Ready Eddy?" is a stress-relieving, spontaneous session outtake aimed at their burgeoning engineer, ending the album on a lightheartedly loose but undeniably rock & roll note.

I can't help but think that this record might have sold a few more copies if it weren't for the horrendous cover and inside liner art. It's ugly and it certainly made me (and probably others) think twice when I first saw it in the racks in 1971. When compared to the other beautiful and stunning pictures that adorned their debut and the incredible one for "Brain Salad Surgery," this cartoon-ish nightmare looks like it was done by a kindergarten toddler. Inexcusable. Anyway, as far as the dreaded sophomore jinx goes, "Tarkus" beats that superstitious myth to a bloody pulp. While it's not the acme of their career, it still has the ability to make your hair stand on end time and time again. You could do a lot worse than to spend forty minutes with this impressive collection of progressive jazz/rock, that's for sure.

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Album · 1970 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 12 ratings
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I was in my very early 20s when this album came out in 1970. But I was in no way, shape or form able at that time to fully appreciate the brilliance of the revolutionary music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. (I dare say I wasn't alone among my peers in my immaturity, though.) I'm not telling you that I didn't become an instant fan or that I didn't enjoy it. On the contrary. It's just that I probably lifted the needle over the very best parts a hundred times in order to get to the "heavier" stuff that the headbanger in me craved. It's only in the many decades since then that I have come to understand just how amazing and timeless this album is. First things first, however. I have to point out the fact that the painting on the cover by Nic Dartnell is one of the all-time classics. But you already knew that.

"The Barbarian" is a perfect four and a half minute introduction to ELP. They throw everything at you including a fuzz bass and a very intense, snarling organ from Keith Emerson. His piano interlude midway through is exhilarating and soon you know you are in the presence of a truly gifted keyboard virtuoso. "Take a Pebble" is one of those songs I would jump over in my youth but I was only cheating myself by doing that. Greg Lake's distinctive voice starts things off singing a nice melody with simple lyrics about how each individual act can have a rippling effect on one's entire life. Emerson's piano takes over and literally takes your breath away. Then comes a folksy acoustic guitar segment from Lake that is gentle and spacious, ending with handclaps and whistles as if they were sitting around a campfire. Next you get another dose of wonderful piano alongside Carl Palmer's jazzy drums before Lake finishes the song with another poignant vocal. "Knife Edge" more than satisfies the hard rock monster in us all with its hard, piercing organ and gutsy vocal over some very strong drums. And the cool meltdown ending is just what the doctor ordered. There's no excuse for my years of skipping over the apex of the album, "The Three Fates." What was I thinking? Just testosterone-fueled impatience, I guess. The enormous sound of the Royal Festival Hall Organ is magnificent and the piece, "Clotho," would be right at home in a gladiator movie soundtrack. And I mean that in a good way, too. It is epic in scope. Emerson next treats you to "Lachesis," a truly outstanding solo piano composition and performance that blew away 99.9% of the keyboard players in rock at that time. It is nothing short of awesome. After a brief return to the cathedral organ the drums enter and Palmer and Emerson go into the stirring 7/8 time "Atropos" that would impress even the great Gershwin. It's fantastic. "Tank" is probably the least remarkable track here but that's only because of the obligatory (at that time) drum solo contained within. Even then the clavinet at the beginning and the Moog noodlings at the end are intriguing. All this being said about the album, if it wasn't for Lake's ironic anti-war anthem "Lucky Man" it's debatable as to whether the group would have attained the huge success that was to come. This song got them noticed. It's a very catchy ditty to begin with and Greg's unique voice is a definite plus but it was Emerson's Moog rising like a phoenix toward the latter part of the tune that made everybody reach over and crank up the volume on their radio. It wasn't the first time the public had heard this new instrument but it was the first time it was the STAR OF THE SHOW and even the most conservative listener couldn't get enough of it.

The high fidelity of the sound is surprising until you notice that the engineer was none other than Eddie Offord (who would go on to produce most of Yes' finest albums). In particular, the piano sounds so crisp and clear it's like it's in the room with you. So, if you haven't procured a copy of this cornerstone of progressive jazz/rock by now, do yourself a favor and add it to your collection. It is unquestionably one of the greatest debut albums ever and the music is still as fresh and relevant today as it was when it first appeared on the record shelves. Just don't be like me and skip over the best parts.

CREAM Live Cream, Volume 2

Live album · 1972 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.12 | 6 ratings
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Cream’s astonishing popularity took a long time to wane. Three years after their “Goodbye” album served as their official headstone and epitaph, demand for their music was still running unbelievably high so in March of 1972 ATCO assembled yet another collection of in-concert recordings and put it on the market. It promptly rose to #27 on the LP chart, proving once again that the public, usually possessing a very short memory, couldn’t seem to get Eric, Jack and Ginger out of their minds and that’s another telling testimony to what an indelible impression this threesome made on civilized culture in their two and a half years together. They were able to bring the basic concept of jazz improvisation into the volatile world of rock & roll more efficiently than most any other group of that era and that trait is never found to be as evident as it is in their live performances that were, thankfully, captured and preserved.

One contrast between this one and the first “Live Cream” album (released almost two years earlier) is that all of the recordings on that disc happened before they’d decided to disband in mid-’68. On “Volume II” half of them were taped in October of that year so it’s my opinion that the first three cuts reflect a lame duck band that was, to some extent, dutifully fulfilling their contracted obligations and had no long-term aspirations or a pressing need to impress their audience. I’m not accusing them of mailing it in, I’m just convinced that, human nature being what it is, there’s a notable difference in the energy being generated in that half of the numbers. It’s no secret that Bruce and Baker weren’t even speaking to each other after they’d opted to call it quits so it stands to reason that those two weren’t exactly focused on providing the tight rhythms that can be heard on the live cuts contained on “Wheels of Fire,” for example.

The disc opens with the three weakest tunes, recorded in the fall of ’68 at an arena in Oakland towards the end of their final American tour. Jack’s “Deserted Cities of the Heart” starts things off and, while the studio version (one of my favorite songs on “Wheels of Fire,” by the way) has an exceptional amount of drive pushing it there’s also a tactfulness involved that gives it a cool personality. On stage it turned into a virtual steamroller that lacked any semblance of dynamics. With the exception of the brief jazzy interludes there’s not much finesse to be detected, just an all-out assault on the gathered throng’s ears. At this point in their career the crowds that bought the tickets justifiably expected to hear the band’s big hits recreated for them and few tunes were more in demand than the radio staple, “White Room.” They provide a bland but decent rendition of the song and Bruce takes some interesting vocal liberties with the melody line but the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. The blend of guitars and drums in particular seems to undulate erratically and it detracts from the impact the recording may have had. Jack’s “Politician” is next, one of my top five Cream numbers due to its creative meld of blues and rock. It gives Clapton a chance to riff all over the place in the spaces between Bruce’s snarky vocal lines and he does a swell job here but I prefer both the original studio take and the exhilarating in-concert rendition included on “Goodbye” to this one simply because they’re both more cohesive and powerful.

The last three cuts were taped pre-dissolution in March of that same year at the Winterland in San Francisco and the difference their still-striving-to-please attitude makes is striking. Eric’s iconic “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from “Disraeli Gears” is performed with gusto. They play a deliciously heavy-handed version and it shows the dramatic presence they regularly projected from the stage into their audiences, especially when you hear them improvise freely as they do toward the end of the number. Whereas the earlier “White Room” is practically devoid of excitement, their performance of their signature song, “Sunshine of Your Love,” is electrifying in comparison. It’s a faithful rendition of the tune structurally but Eric tricks it up a bit by abandoning his well-known guitar solo and taking off on a more spontaneous tear in the middle. The elongated wall of sound ending is immensely intense and galvanizing. These guys could knock down stone fortifications with their collective fury. But the best, because it’s the most authentic, is saved for last. Their almost 14-minute cover of James Bracken’s blues instrumental, “Steppin’ Out,” contains everything that made Cream so worthy to be included in any discussion of the evolution of jazz/rock music in the 60s. No doubt, this song was intended to be a time-filler that would allow the acknowledged guitar God Clapton to stretch his wings and give the folks what they came to witness. It begins as a spirited jam but after a while both Jack and Ginger drop out as Eric continues to shred his fretboard unabated as if he was oblivious to whether the other two members were backing him or not. It’s here that you get a chance to realize what a spontaneous and utterly melodic guitarist he was. Baker slowly eases back in behind him and commences to embellish and enhance every lick that Clapton unleashes from that moment on, resulting in some of the most spectacular and aggressive off-the-cuff vamping you’ll ever experience. It’s jaw-dropping good stuff.

It’s hard to convey to the younger generations the enormous influence that bands like The Beatles, Stones, Who and Cream had on those of us who came of age in the 60s and how important they were to our well-being. We took bands like this VERY seriously. When this trio broke up it was a tragedy on par with the assassination of JFK and it took us years to get over it. Perhaps albums like “Live Cream, Vol. II” will give you hints as to why we adored them so. On stage they created magic out of thin air and took us on journeys that stimulated and fed our passion for music that knew no restrictions or boundaries. While this album is inferior to its predecessor, there’s still enough in its grooves to make it worth your while.

KING CRIMSON Three Of A Perfect Pair

Album · 1984 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.31 | 15 ratings
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When King Crimson disbanded in the mid 70s I somehow got over that tragedy, moved on with my life and, out of spite, didn't bother to sample any of the recordings they made after they got back together a few years down the line. I guess I felt I'd been betrayed and, therefore, they deserved my eternal scorn. A few years ago I came across this LP sitting by its lonesome in the bins and, in a gesture of forgiveness, decided to check it out. On the first listen I jumped to all sorts of conclusions and began to rub my hands together like Snidely Whiplash in anticipation of skewering it mercilessly as being a sad specimen of yet another progressive jazz/rock giant falling victim to the cursed MTV virus of the 80s that nearly obliterated the genre altogether. I envisioned how I would amuse readers with pithy, sarcastic prose in which I would spew out clever metaphors right and left, equating it to Picasso opting to raise some quick moola by churning out a slew of fluorescent-paint portraits of a scantily-garbed Selma Hayek posed as a busty Latino Wonder Woman slaying a fire-breathing dragon on black felt. And that was just for starters. But then something happened that I hadn't anticipated:

The damned thing grew on me like lichen on a boulder.

Seriously, for about a solid week I didn't want to hear anything else. Once I peered under the album's deceivingly glossy coat of metal-flake that merely reflected the era it was created in I found the rebellious, unconventional heart of King Crimson alive, intact and beating like a jackhammer. This group never stood still and to hear that they morphed and continued to grow even during the most stifling and constrictive of times restores a lot of my admiration for this brave band. While most of their peers were trying to figure out how they could best dumb down their imaginations and make entertaining videos, these guys were busy trying to incorporate ever-advancing recording technology and digital innovations into their own unique brand of aural art. And, like most KC product, it doesn't sound like anybody else.

Take the opener. "Three of a Perfect Pair" is so far removed from what the group did on "Red," for example, that it took me a few spins to adjust my mindset. Mainly due to the vocal stylings of Adrian Belew. It's light-years away from the ghostly crooning of John Wetton. Not bad, just different. What the dream team rhythm section of drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Tony Levin do with the standard 4/4 of the verse is delicious and the way they smooth out the 7/8 time signature of the chorus is just as savory. The lead section is wonderfully weird, allaying any notions that this is some kind of profit-mongering sell-out. And Adrian's lyrics about a volatile, dysfunctional and ultimately hopeless man/woman love relationship are intelligent and sharp as a razor. "He has his contradicting views/she has her cyclothymic moods/they make a study in despair/three of a perfect pair," he sings.

Like its predecessor, "Model Man" has a straight rock beat on the verse and then another 7/8 jaunt for the chorus but there the similarity ends. Belew's voice is a strange but pleasing hybrid of Jeff Lynne meets David Byrne and the guitar mannerisms are fabulously atypical yet not annoying. Their minimalist approach to this song is endearing while they maintain a healthy respect for their eclectic heritage. "Not a model man/not a savior or a saint/imperfect in a word/make no mistake/but I give you everything I have/take me as I am," Adrian humbly intones. "Sleepless" follows and, despite Tony's crisp, alarming bass tone and the slurring guitars that unleash a palpable suspense, it proves to be the low point of the album. Here the New Wave influence is too dominant and I get the feeling that they may've unintentionally weakened and succumbed to current trends on this track. Nonetheless, the abstract words go a long way in retaining a modicum of integrity. "Silhouettes like shivering ancient feelings/they cover my foreign floors and walls/submarines are lurking in my foggy ceiling/they keep me sleepless at night," Belew warbles with just a hint of unease.

"Man with an Open Heart" is next and it has a slightly twisted oriental flavor that burrows into your brain like a hungry zombie earwig. Levin's dry-as-toast tone is exactly what was needed to compliment the elusive guitar spasms that flitter about like orphaned moths. Add to that the tune's memorable melody and a chanting refrain that they probably surreptitiously ripped off from a bunch of tipsy Oompa-Loompas during happy hour at the Wonka Bar and you've got a winner on your hands, folks. The lyrics describe a smitten man who loves his lady unconditionally. "Her wild and wise womanly introspectiveness/her faults and files of foolishness/wouldn't matter to a man with an open heart," he croons. "Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)" is the first of four instrumentals to come down the pike and its wispy, synthesized mimicry of the trusty Mellotron is a bit of a throwback to their earliest offerings without degenerating into a nostalgic cop-out. Tony's bass creates a bubbling, oozing sensation akin to sidling up to the La Brea tar pits, stirring up a primordial aura that is hypnotizing and Bruford's electronic percussion is intriguing as it bounces along beneath Fripp's meandering guitar lines. The impression the piece leaves behind is dense and guttural.

Clocking in at 7:22, "Industry" is the album's longest cut and it's more of what I expected from this incarnation of King Crimson. With a pulsating throb in 9/8 as its foundation and airy synths drifting overhead like clouds of lethal smog, this number builds slowly but surely in a "Starless and Bible Black" sort of way with ripping, grinding noises providing the climax before it drifts away over the horizon. There's an overriding malevolence implied in this music that contains all the greed, cruelty and inhumanity that the song's title encompasses. It's mesmerizing. "Dig Me" at first seems an exercise in cacophony run amok but once you realize that it's coming from the point of view of a once-proud high-end luxury automobile that now finds itself rusting away in a junk yard "unhinged and sleeping in the jungle of motor block manifolds and metal relics" it begins to make perfect sense. It's like a musical version of one of the aforementioned Pablo's synthetic cubist renderings. The arresting arrhythmia of the verses is followed by a slick, smooth chorus in which the anguished sedan cries out "I'm ready to leave/I wanna get out of here/I'm ready to ride away/I don't wanna die in here/I'm ready to ride." (Never thought I'd feel sympathy for a Ferrari.) Say what you will about this track but boring it ain't. It's fascinatingly original.

They end with back-to-back instrumentals beginning with "No Warning." The electrical tension generated at the front of this tune is intriguing but it soon turns into an unscripted free-form expression of random impulses and the result is basically three and a half minutes of chaos. I think I know what they were aiming for but it does nothing for me at all. "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III" serves as the finale and a fine one it is. Robert's frantic guitar runs escalate into a 7/8 rocker with hard accentuations and punches that knock you off your feet. After they hit you with a diabolic guitar break they drop down into a driving groove that stalks beneath what sounds like a cosmic puma with its tail caught in a steel bear trap. It's terrifying and exhilarating at the same time and wholly worthy of its namesake.

Seems like every time I think I've got a handle on what King Crimson is, was and always will be they show me a side of their collective personality that I didn't know existed and that's exactly what they did on "Three of a Perfect Pair." Their music has always been for the more adventurous of music lovers in general and I can see why many of their diehard fans dismissed this album as being too accessible. I beg to differ with that appraisal, though. When I consider what tawdry shape the music industry was in when they released this record and how everything seemed to be aimed squarely at the public's lowest common denominator I only wish I'd found this album about a quarter of a century earlier. I would've celebrated the fact that it proved progressive jazz/rock music still had a pulse in 1984 and I would've played this LP till the diamond-tipped phonograph needle dulled itself to a nub.

DAVE BRUBECK Time Out

Album · 1959 · Cool Jazz
Cover art 4.65 | 54 ratings
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I confess. I’m bonkers for Brubeck. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have very many of his albums because I’d be listening to his music way too often and that would hinder me from discovering and learning about other artists. But when I put on a record like his “Impressions of New York” every muscle in my body relaxes, my mind clears and I bathe in a brand of jazz music that goes right to my very soul. He is a giant among titans and deserves every accolade that has ever been tossed his way. And the quartet he put together in the 50s has to be ranked with one of the greatest of all time. I offer the incredible “Time Out” as proof.

1959 is acknowledged as a watershed year for our preferred genre. While it’s true that the American public was still enamored with light pop ditties such as Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy” and Johnny Preston’s novelty item “Running Bear” in the jazz world Miles Davis released the game-changing “Kind of Blue,” John Coltrane put out his stunning “Giant Steps” and Ornette Coleman shook the place up with his “Shape of Jazz to Come” LP. And, on December 14th of that crucial year, Dave and his cohorts put the cherry on the sundae with “Time Out.” It was a record that specialized in utilizing unorthodox time signatures and featured a racially integrated group causing Columbia Records to entertain some worry but, perhaps due to the stir aroused by the aforementioned vinyl discs, they decided to let the public decide what they were ready to hear and the result was astonishingly positive. They weren’t just ready for it; they ate it up like chocolate cake.

Dave and his bunch couldn’t have opened with a more sublime tune than “Blue Rondo A La Turk.” Despite its playful 9/8 pattern this song’s infectiousness made common folk realize that jazz could retain its complexity without being discordant, weird or off-putting. The great Paul Desmond’s saxophone tone is like rich butter and Brubeck’s piano work is sly as a fox. I could play this number for a person who’d never heard a lick of jazz in his life with full confidence that they would be intrigued. “Strange Meadow Lark” begins as a gorgeous, flowing piano piece that entrances for over two minutes before Eugene Wright on double bass and Joe Morello on the drums enter to lay down a seamless shuffle as Paul takes over on sax and paints an impressionistic scene with deep pastel colorings. But this is, after all, Brubeck’s baby and he eventually guides it deftly to a graceful ending.

Is there a more iconic jazz tune than “Take Five”? I doubt it. It may have equals in worldwide familiarity but no superiors. Simply put, it has one of the most recognizable jazz melodies ever conceived and this magical gem from the mind of Paul Desmond hasn’t lost an iota of its charm and seductive nature in well over half a century. The fact that it rose to #25 on the pop singles charts will tell you volumes about what it did to make jazz even more palatable to the masses. And Morello’s inventive drum solo is one for the ages. “Three to Get Ready” is next and its clever abutment of 6/4 and 8/4 measures is remarkable because they made it sound as natural as a thankful sigh. I’m fascinated by how Dave and Paul inject their individual personalities into their performances as the tight rhythm section holds the track together expertly. The melodic structure of the number is rapturous.

A smooth-as-silk groove draws you into “Kathy’s Waltz,” and then the band crosses over into a sultry 3/4 feel for Brubeck and Desmond’s rides to cruise atop. Dave’s basic piano theme disguises the immense depth that this song possesses. “Everybody’s Jumpin’” follows and it’s the most aggressive tune on the record. They create tension through the use of staccato phrasing and then bridge the contrasting sections together with a friendly, swinging shuffle beat. If you don’t know how much of a master of dynamics Joe Morello was on the trap kit then give this cut a listen and you’ll get educated post haste. The quartet walks with long strides through the closer, “Pick Up Sticks.” I find it enthralling to hear how Dave and Paul so consistently complimented each other’s styles without ever being at odds. And, as an added treat, the song has one of the more unusual and yet cool endings you’ll ever come across in jazzland.

“Time Out” is a masterpiece of modern jazz. It’s intellectual yet personable. It’s challenging while putting you completely at ease. It’s unquestionably unique and what it did for jazz music in general can’t be calculated. (Not to mention the striking cover art by S. Neil Fujita that altered forevermore the status quo in the area of how to market this kind of music visually and grab the attention of the average Joseph.) While it took some time to integrate itself into the mainstream this record was not to be denied and peaked at #2 on the album charts in 1961. Planet-wise it has sold well over a million units and several of its themes continue to be heard often no matter what direction popular music takes. Dave Brubeck deserves your respect and you owe it to yourself to investigate his genius. I can think of no better place to start than with “Time Out.”

CHICAGO Chicago 13

Album · 1979 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 1.07 | 3 ratings
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As regards the history of this group, it’s time now to share a shred of good news. Chicago XIII is better than Chicago XII (otherwise known as “Hot Streets”). I must issue a note of caution, however. In this case the word “better” must be buffeted with an enormous amount of perspective being applied. It’s the equivalent of announcing in April 1912 that, unfortunately, the Titanic is still nestled at the bottom of the Atlantic but they did manage to recover some bodies. For those of us who’d hoped that the ocean liner Chicago, contrary to rumor, had merely sprung a serious leak on their long journey this was hardly consolation but at this juncture we’d gladly take any positive information we could get. Their once-glorious ship had been taking on water ever since album VII but the untimely death of guitarist Terry Kath had proved to be their dark iceberg. They’d been given the opportunity to make crucial repairs and shock the world by emerging from that tragedy with a renewed jazz/rock fusion-fed spirit of adventure yet they’d failed to do so. All they did was save themselves by hopping into the convenient boats of commerciality and watch from afar as what was left of their legacy sank below the waves.

The miniscule improvement I speak of is in the overall fidelity of the recordings. The band had brought in experienced producer Phil Ramone (replacing the out-of-touch James Guercio) for the previous album but he must’ve been handcuffed by certain elements in the membership because it sounded completely flat and lifeless. For XIII he was able to give the tracks a slick, inviting sheen that at least makes listening to the material less of a chore and for that I’m thankful because the tunes, for the most part, are low grade. In an attempt to inspire everybody to get fully involved in the endeavor they allowed each man to contribute a minimum of one number but that ploy rarely results in a cohesive collection of songs and it didn’t in this case, either. The album has all the earmarks of a group of individuals that have no clue as to what they’re supposed to do next.

Chicago’s final LP of the 70s opens with drummer Danny Seraphine’s “Street Player,” a nine-minute foray into the land of a thousand dances. It’s glossy west coast R&B from the word go but, in its favor, it does have some redeeming qualities. Their heralded horn section is crisp and punchy and the tune projects a friendly Boz Scaggs atmosphere insofar that it flirts with stepping over into disco territory but never completely surrenders its soul to its mind-numbing lure. Bringing in Maynard Ferguson to deliver a hot trumpet solo was a very good idea as well as having the gifted Airto Moreira assist in the percussion department. The breakdown section in the second half, punctuated by a spirited flurry of horns, is entertaining yet the number’s blatant attempt to draw in the Saturday Night Fever crowd is nonetheless unnerving. The rolling pop rock motif of bassist Peter Cetera’s “Mama Take” isn’t degrading in itself but the song is just too weak to be memorable and nothing occurs dynamically to distinguish the presentation. Once again they’re guilty of playing it way too safe. Kath’s replacement, Donnie Dacus, wrote “Must Have Been Crazy” and it, more than any other cut, highlights the identity crisis the group was caught up in. It’s a cookie-cutter copy of what a host of other boring rock groups of that era were putting out and it most definitely doesn’t sound like Chicago at all (which could be a good or bad characteristic when you think about it). Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane cooked up “Window Dreamin’,” a mild rocker with a highly predictable arrangement. The white boy funkster approach never worked too well for them in the past but evidently they were determined to keep trying even if it evoked nausea in the listener. This is poor with a capital P.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s role as principal songwriter had dwindled to next to nada over the years but, to his credit, he delivers one of the few bright spots on XIII in the form of his “Paradise Alley.” While it does have a questionable Caucasian funk foundation he included enough of a jazzy edge to make it worthwhile. The tight horns add spice and, by playing around a bit with the time signature, they manage to create something relatively decent. Seraphine’s “Aloha Mama” owns a New Orleans flavor that is slightly refreshing yet one can’t help but feel that they had a golden opportunity here to spring loose with some stimulating jazz excursions. Sadly they didn’t, seemingly content to tread complacently in their tepid comfort zone. A discouraging disco throb resonates throughout Lamm’s contemporary rocker, “Reruns,” dating it horribly. Once again the anemic composing dooms the track as the tune goes nowhere and does nothing on the way. Cetera’s “Loser With a Broken Heart” is a dreadful ballad delivered without a trace of the horn section to be found (perhaps they were smart enough to call in sick that day and steer clear of this turkey). It comes off like an unfinished demo and Ramone should’ve had the balls to step in and stop this turd from ever going public. Conga man Laudir De Oliveira at least offers a breath of oxygen at this point via the jazzy feel his “Life is What it Is” has but it’s extremely lightweight and hasn’t a chance in hell of saving the album from itself and its trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy vibe. James Pankow’s “Run Away” sports an aggressive beginning but soon the number takes a familiar path and all that potential excitement goes swirling down the drain. It’s mediocre pop that’s so lacking in anything interesting as to render itself woefully irrelevant. It brings to mind the motto of the crusaders in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Run away, indeed.

To say Chicago was drifting aimlessly at sea without a rudder as the 70s came to a close is a gross understatement. The record fell short of breaking into the top 20 on the album charts and spawned nary a hit single so within the ranks panic was on the verge of erupting. AM radio fare had become their bread and butter during the decade and now even that profitable aspect of their art was fading fast. Like many groups, they started to point fingers at everyone except themselves and hirings and firings were soon to be in store. I find the pretentious cover art significant. The band had all the outward appearances of being a sturdy skyscraper but the building was almost vacant, built on shifting sand and could topple at any moment. Chicago XIII isn’t as putrid as XII but, in retrospect, what does it matter?

JOHN COLTRANE Coltrane's Sound

Album · 1964 · Hard Bop
Cover art 3.97 | 9 ratings
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This John Coltrane album is an average one for him. By that I mean it is excellent because the man was one of the finest horn players of all time and he just didn’t record substandard material. The sessions were held in October of 1960 but didn’t see the light of day until June of 1964 because he’d switched record labels soon after taping these songs and Atlantic didn’t bother to commit them to vinyl until Coltrane’s rising popularity in the early 60s made it profitable for them to put it out. Since they owned the rights to the album they didn’t need his permission so it was a no-brainer move and, besides, the music he and his trio of sidekicks created is so good that it would’ve been a travesty to withhold it from his fans and the world at large.

John certainly kept high-caliber company. The musicians that took part in this endeavor were none other than McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Steve Davis on double bass. That lineup alone should tell you volumes about what “Coltrane’s Sound” contains. It’s such a pleasure to hear gifted artists working in harmony to produce the finest music they can.

They begin with the jazz classic written by Jerry Brainin and Buddy Bernier, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (not to be confused with the ‘63 pop hit of the same name by Bobby Vee). What can I say except to expect to be blown away by a plethora of amazing saxophone thrills emanating from Coltrane as he runs freely over the tight combo of piano, drums and bass. McCoy’s piano ride is equally inspiring but there’s something about John’s style that holds me in a unique spell. “Central Park West” is like a peaceful stroll under what I envision to be a cool Autumn sky in New York. Both Coltrane and Tyner give off the same relaxed vibe and you’ll never hear a more gorgeous piece than this. They follow that with “Liberia.” An unusual rhythm pattern from Elvin in the opening makes for an ethereal aura but then they lock into a fast-paced jaunt wherein the quartet performs like a well-oiled but abstract machine. McCoy’s suspensions on the keys add tense dynamics to the tune and it’s downright fascinating to hear how he and John interact instinctively.

On “Body and Soul” Jones and Davis coast smoothly under the complex melody and its corresponding chord progression and, in the process, offer a beautiful contrast for your ears to ponder. I can’t say enough about the delicious piano excursions that Tyner takes the listener on. And Coltrane? Well he’s just being John here. ‘Nuff said. Fittingly, there’s a lush tropical climate established for “Equinox” by McCoy, Elvin and Steve that instantly turns the room warm and humid. It’s a number totally unlike anything else on the disc. Coltrane’s saxophone is so expressive it’s like he’s singing through it and Tyner’s touch is delicate yet never fragile. The song in its entirety is a step out of ordinary existence into a dimension of sultry exotica. McCoy’s piano disappears for “Satellite,” a tune in which John vamps over a taut groove. Here Jones really gets to improvise and get creative with his accentuations delivered in conjunction with Coltrane’s melodic explorations. Davis’ bass does an exemplary job of keeping up with both of their ever-changing moods.

“26-2” is a bonus track from the same sessions. Elvin and Steve shuffle along below what sounds like a stream-of-thought rant by John in which he never repeats the same lick twice. Tyner is once again superb as he dives into and soars across the keyboard. The real surprise is toward the end when Coltrane comes back in on a soprano sax. It’ll give you goose bumps. An alternate take of “Body and Soul” ends the album. It’s more traditional in approach than the earlier version, not nearly as wild. I get the sense that they were just warming up and the tape was running. However, it’s no dog.

“Coltrane’s Sound” is just splendid jazz music and nothing else needs to be added to that assessment. I will add that recordings like this one point out the fact that the improvements in home hi-fi equipment in that era really worked in jazz music’s favor. The studio engineers were able to capture the essence of small bands like John’s clearly because there was no need for overdubs or technical effects to get in the way of the music and that honesty translated well when reproduced in living rooms all across the planet. Half a century has passed and now we listen to the likes of Coltrane on tiny Ipods but that uncorrupted purity still comes across without hindrance.

KING CRIMSON Beat

Album · 1982 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.37 | 17 ratings
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From reading through some of the opinions about this album I half expected it to be the aural equivalent of Fripp & Co. squatting and excreting a massive, smelly, oozing turd smack dab in the middle of the ornately decorated banquet table that is their career. Not so. One of the many things I most enjoy about the reviews that I've read regarding it is that, for the most part, they are honest. Sometimes brutally so. With that in mind I hope I don't stir up the ire of those who truly detest "Beat" but I'm going to be one of the few who'll be contributing an upward dent in the grading curve for it. I like this record. It's no KC masterpiece by a long shot and not even as interesting as the one that followed it but, once again, when I take into account the rapidly deteriorating health of music that was in hell-bent decline in '82 I have to give this brave group of musicians a few miles of slack.

What disco and punk rock had not demolished in the distinguished world of fusion during the late 70s, new wave and the emerging MTV Ebola virus effectively ground into fine dust as the 80s began. By then most of the giants of the formerly robust fusion movement had either disbanded or vainly attempted to morph into a more trendy entity (usually with embarrassingly despicable results). It was downright ugly, folks. But with "Beat" I find a plucky King Crimson that was opting to pronounce an intelligent, thought-provoking commentary on what was happening in modern music at the time. Instead of selling out, they held on to their identity and their integrity by painting an abstract work of art in their usual unorthodox style but utilizing the popular hues and gaudy colors that were in vogue at the moment. In other words, I guess they took an "if you can't join 'em, lick 'em" attitude. Having said all that, the bottom line is always whether or not I like what I'm hearing and I find "Beat" to be anything but dull, boring or insulting. As in most King Crimson product, in its own odd little way, it's good and kinda fun.

They open up with the engaging "Neal and Jack and Me," another in a long line of life-on- tour-themed songs that seem to thrive in every era of songwriting no matter the genre. Energy-filled guitar patterns give the impression of non-stop movement while Adrian Belew's somewhat plaintive voice expresses the ennui one must endure when, in the midst of stress, there's nothing to do. "Hotel room homesickness/on a fresh blue bed/and the longest-ever phone call home/no sleep, no sleep, no sleep, no sleep/and no mad video machine to eat time," he complains. Tony Levin's ever-inventive stick work is the glue that holds this track together masterfully. "Heartbeat" may well be the closest to a "normal" love song that I've ever encountered from this group. Robert and Adrian's chromium guitar tones put a bright sheen on the number and Belew's sincere vocals keep it from becoming too schmaltzy as he warbles lines like "I need to land sometime right next to you/feel your heartbeat right next to mine." It's a well-written song in which they adroitly avoid trying to do too much. They manage to restrain their customary rebellious nature and keep it simple for a change.

An instrumental, "Sartori in Tangier," follows and though the intro is effectively pensive and hypnotizing the segment that evolves out of that is quite tame despite Tony's invigorating bass thumping. For a combo that specializes in shocking the listener out of his/her shoes I find this cut to be surprisingly mediocre. The world-beat feel of "Waiting Man" is a nice change of pace. Here we finally get to hear drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford do something other than imitate a metronome and that's a big plus. Multiple key changes and Adrian's harmonizing with himself keep the arrangement from growing stale and Fripp's strange guitar lead is uniquely creative. The repetitive, predictable lyrics about yearning to get back home are tiring, though.

"Neurotica" is the best track on the album. It's an impressionistic portrait of hectic big city life in all its discombobulating madness and it's nothing short of an amusement park thrill ride through metropolis. Belew's rapid-fire, adrenaline-fueled radio voice provides the perfect overlay as he spits out gems like "Say, isn't that an elephant fish on the corner over there look at that bush baby mud puppy noolbenger rhinodermia marmoset spring peeper shingleback skink siren skate starling sun-gazer spoonbill and suckers" with nary a glitch or pause in enunciation. The quieter bridge segment is like bending over and taking a deep breath in the midst of a marathon run and the group is as tight as the backseat of a cheap cab throughout. They then return to the fray with gusto and the bustling track gains incredible momentum as they fade into the distance at the end. "Two Hands" is next and it's another ethereal ballad from a band that rarely indulges in such blatant romanticism. It floats like a cloud atop rhythmic percussion and you're treated to an uncommonly light touch emanating from the mysterious Frippertronics here. Margaret Belew penned the almost-too-mushy words but at least they don't patronize. "I am a face in the painting on the wall/I pose and shudder/and watch from the foot of the bed/sometimes I think I can feel everything," Adrian sings with proper conviction.

"The Howler" features a more anticipated rude approach from these rambunctious guys and it arrives in the nick of time. Belew's smooth delivery stands in stark juxtaposition to the wild sounds wafting up from the complex mayhem being manufactured below his vocal lines. "Here is the sacred face of rendezvous in subway sour/whose grand delusions prey like intellect in lunatic minds," he croons. While I can appreciate the edgy intent of the tune in general it just doesn't work cohesively for me when all is said and done. "Requiem" is more along the lines of what I've come to expect from this talented foursome. This dense instrumental starts with humming guitars shimmering behind Robert's inimitable sustained and piercing fretboard riffing. Levin and Bruford slowly wade in as if testing the muddy waters before diving in head first. The two guitars of Fripp and Belew become increasingly like two wailing mourners as the whole shebang grows more and more frantic and out of control. This manic cut makes me proud to be a KC fan because, even as the powers-that-be of that age insisted that all their contracted groups churn out three-minute pop ditties and cute videos like a Skittles factory, King Crimson was not afraid of unleashing their passion for and skill at powerful improvisation. The tune's subdued and somber fade out is exquisite.

As always, I've learned to expect the unexpected from this ensemble no matter who is included in the lineup and this was no exception. They never sound like anybody else and they've taught me to keep an open mind whenever experiencing even one of their older projects for the first time. I can understand why so many find "Beat" to be a let down but I just don't share that view. This quartet was thinking outside the box when that wasn't kosher and barely tolerated by the jet set wannabes. I truly think they were doing the very best they could to survive and yet remain true to themselves in an atmosphere that had become polluted with greed and glamour. They may have bent ever so slightly but they didn't break.

JIMMY SMITH Dot Com Blues

Album · 2000 · Jazz Related Blues
Cover art 3.76 | 3 ratings
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There are literally thousands of types, models and brands of modern electronic keyboards. Most of them come and go quickly as new innovations and technology makes last year’s model passé or obsolete. But there’s one instrument in that category that has endured since its inception. The Hammond B3 organ. Yes, it’s been imitated and many of today’s state-of-the-art synthesizers can mock its signature sound to the point where it’s very difficult to tell the difference but most players will tell you that there’s nothing equivalent to sitting before the real thing, switching on those whirling Leslie speakers and letting the beast roar in its natural habitat. And any discussion of its versatility will always be incomplete unless one brings up the man who, more than anyone else, brought it out of the church sanctuary and into the shadier but more expressive world of jazz music. Jimmy Smith. Jimmy didn’t just use the instrument as a stepping stone to being a well-rounded cat on an array of keyboards, he dedicated himself to becoming recognized as the undisputed master of the Hammond B3 who would not only inspire organists for generations to come but to show them exactly how it’s done.

I first became intrigued by the instrument when I heard Dave “Baby” Cortez’ “The Happy Organ” blaring from tinny AM radios in the late 50s. As I got older I realized that Cortez was only exploiting the novelty of the B3 and that, if I wanted to hear its true magic, I needed to procure some LPs by Smith. I did (and wish I still had them) but soon after the British invasion commenced and I started hearing the Hammond in bands as diverse as The Animals and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown I sorta forgot about Jimmy. When prog rock burst upon the music scene in the late 60s and blossomed throughout the 70s I could hear Smith’s techniques surfacing in the playing of Keith Emerson, Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman (just to name a few) with regularity. Jimmy never stopped making music but he stayed in the background for the majority of his life, content to perform regularly in his own night spot in California and to take part in sessions occasionally with some of the biggest names in jazz. He died in 2005 and was awarded the NEA Jazz Master award (America’s highest honor) for his substantial contributions to the cause. His last major album was “Dot Com Blues” released in 2000 and it’s significant on many counts. He was in his mid 70s, it was his first record in over 5 years and, because of the luminaries who were honored to take part in its creation, it’s the most vocalized disc Smith ever put out.

The album opens with “Only in it for the Money,” a song by Dr. John that the composer also sings in his inimitable rasp. It’s a swinging shuffle with a big band backing and you can tell immediately that Smith’s B3 is the genuine monster, not just some plastic plank’s fancy LED screen setting. He makes it talk tough and stroll with a confident swagger. The tune’s constant key changes keep it from getting stale. The hot, funky groove for “8 Counts for Rita” sizzles like frying bacon under Jimmy’s Hammond-isms and the jazzy chords on the turnaround are a treat. Russell Malone’s guitar solo is remarkably George Benson-like. “Strut” is a blues shuffle brought in by Taj Mahal and his husky voice and the cool stuttering in his phrasing make the track a standout. His guitar ride is penetrating and just what the song requires. The lazy vibe surrounding their rendition of the old standard “C.C. Rider” is nothing to write home about but several spirited organ and guitar leads make for a pleasant listen. It’s somewhat comforting to sit back and hear seasoned professionals doing their thing so effortlessly. Smith is joined by Etta James for their energized version of “I Just Wanna Make Love to You.” It’s another swinging shuffle feel but Etta’s contagious sass and the background chorale (that reminds me of Lyle Lovett’s in his Large Band) elevate this song to the status of greatness and Jimmy responds on his B3 with some electrifying runs. This cut alone is worth the price of admission.

Their cover of “Mood Indigo” is next. It’s extremely subtle and sexy, glowing like a candle on a dark night. The deft touches from the musicians involved are sumptuous but not without a sprinkle of levity tossed in from time to time to keep things from making you drowsy. Slowly but surely the intensity increases by increments until the end when they drop back down to the original vibe. Jimmy demonstrates that, despite his age, he hasn’t lost a single step and once again Malone’s guitar work is superb. Keb Mo’ is on hand to jump into the festivities for his tune, “Over and Over.” It’s a nice blues number with some interesting quirks that distinguish it from average fare. The horn section adds quiet class to the track and the backup chorus is way cool. On “Three O’ Clock Blues” B.B. King shouts “da blooz” in his unmistakable fashion. It’s good for what it is, the understanding being that these fellas could do this in their sleep. “Dot Com Blues” is a jazzy jam with perky atmospherics and tight accents punctuated by Harvey Mason on drums and Reggie McBride on bass. What you get here is a lot of fiery licks popping out of the Hammond and Russell’s guitar while Mason gets downright adventurous on his trap kit. This kind of fun is what I came here to hear. “Mr. Johnson” is feverish funk at its best, goaded by Chris Stainton’s speakeasy joint piano and a full horn ensemble. There’s a deliciously sleazy sax solo and Stainton delivers a passionate ride followed by Malone’s tasty guitar lead but then Jimmy takes over and conducts a clinic on how to wring the most from the Hammond B3’s ample guts. He ends with the sultry “Tuition Blues” that starts with a gospel-styled intro on the organ and leads to his pulling every nuance out of the instrument. Russell’s guitar solo is somewhat unorthodox but never boring and you can’t help but be impressed by the tightness of the rhythm section.

What really sticks out above all the fine performances you’ll encounter inside this record is Jimmy Smith’s unequivocal expertise on his instrument of choice. He glides over the double keyboards like an Olympian skater and he knows just which set of levers to pull and push in order to provide the perfect tone for each individual song. Luckily for us he left behind a vast catalog of his music to treasure for centuries to come and it’s my hope that his noble legacy will never be allowed to fade into obscurity. This album is a fitting tribute to him and one I’m glad was completed before his death. The old man still had it. Not a bad disc to put on when you’re not sure what you’re in the mood to hear because Jimmy Smith can always make you feel better.

KING CRIMSON Starless And Bible Black

Album · 1974 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.18 | 22 ratings
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Not completely satisfied with the results they were getting in the studio, King Crimson decided to take some of their live recordings, remove all audience noises/responses and use those basic tracks as the foundation for five of the eight songs on this album. Only this band would do something radical like that and have it come out sounding as good as it does. Since there's no mention of this process on the LP cover, I wondered for decades how they had managed to get such a raw, in-the-moment atmosphere to surround this project and now I know. "Starless and Bible Black" is one of the group's most underrated efforts and I've never understood why that is because it's just so damned intriguing.

"The Great Deceiver" kicks the door down from the get go with its compressed, tightly- wound hard energy but then turns into anti-rock as soon as the unorthodox verse begins. Bassist John Wetton frantically sings twisted lines like "Health food faggot with a bartered bride/likes to comb his hair with a dipper ride," provided by lyricist Richard Palmer-James and you know you're in Crimson's wicked world immediately. As strange as the song may be the catchy chorus of "Cigarettes, Ice Cream, Figurines of the Virgin Mary" will stick to your brain like some kind of macabre nursery rhyme. "Lament" is next and it is one of their most engaging tunes ever. It's about a former rock idol looking back on his overnight success and the inevitable decline that followed. The melody is simple yet profound at the start, then the tune develops into something more dramatic. It's a song made up of different segments and ideas separated by a recurring musical sigh portrayed by an augmented guitar chord. In the end the singer has no regrets and has humbly accepted his reduced role in the rock and roll biz. "I like the way the music goes/there's a few good guys who can play it right/I like the way it moves my toes/just say when you want to go and dance all night." Exquisite. "We'll Let You Know" follows and the instrumental's deliberately slow buildup has always caused me to envision a disassembled robot pulling himself together piece by piece. It finally rises and takes a few clunky steps before his battery runs down. It's a great example of how these four musicians could work together on a very avant-garde experiment without ever stepping on each other's toes.

Speaking of imagery, to my seasoned ear the beginning of "The Night Watch" has always sounded like nostalgic music composed to accompany an old-time silent movie with its sad but beautiful melody. (The fact that it was recorded on stage only adds to its magic.) Inspired by Rembrandt's famous painting, Palmer-James' lyrics bring the master's art to life with lines like "The smell of paint, a flask of wine/and turn those faces all to me/the blunderbuss and halberd shaft/and Dutch respectability." The descriptive words, Wetton's restrained vocal delivery, Robert Fripp's tasteful guitar work and the reverent attitude of the group as a whole make this cut a true gem. Next, after an extremely long fade-in, you are treated to the sublime serenity that is "Trio." It features David Cross on violin and viola, Fripp on guitar and Mellotron and Wetton on bass. It's a musical glimpse of heaven and you owe it to yourself to hear it before you depart this mortal coil. I haven't mentioned the greatness of drummer Bill Bruford yet but he's been lurking just below the surface (except on the last tune, which he tactfully sat out). On "The Mincer" he opens the song with a cool, jazzy feel but then things start to wander a bit. For one thing there's no melody to speak of for several minutes as Robert's guitar and his "devices" create eerie sounds and effects seemingly at random. Suddenly John starts singing along with some three-part harmony and then the whole thing just abruptly stops. It's an odd duck of a tune, for sure.

The title song is a little over nine minutes in length and if you are patient and attentive in your listening you will be richly rewarded. After some airy layerings of guitar and keyboard sounds Bruford finally enters to establish a basic beat with the tambourine, then Wetton's bass starts kicking at the bars erratically like a caged beast. Bill's drums relieve the incredible tension as they corral the bass monster and initiate some serious funk underneath the guitar and Mellotron. It all winds down eventually with reluctant dying spasms as Cross' somber violin lays it to rest. "Fracture" is an aptly titled jazz/rock fusion piece that actually has an identifiable riff to follow but it's far from the normal two-step as it coasts along (for a while) in 6/4 time. The tune has a lot of starts and stops with Bruford even adding some rare percussive vibraphone before David's fierce violin playing gives it a slight Mahavishnu Orchestra glow. After a quieter section that nearly lulls you to sleep Fripp's stark guitar awakens you rudely as they tumble into a rock beat and accompany an ascending melody that leads to a loose ending. If this were any other band the last two instrumental songs would be beyond comprehension but for King Crimson it's just another highly constructive day at the office. Er, studio. Er, stage. Whatever.

I used to wonder how Atlantic Records approached marketing these guys. The King Crimson dossier probably got handed down to whomever was the newest member of the staff in advertising as a "let's see what you can do with THIS, genius" welcome-to- the-club present. They never got played on the radio (except for their classic debut), they didn't appear on or host television concert shows and they sure as hell didn't care what some record executives thought they should or shouldn't be doing. What they did have was a horde of loyal fans that bought enough of their records to justify their contract year after year and that's why we have albums like "Starless and Bible Black" to ponder, decipher and contemplate till kingdom come. Thank God.

JONI MITCHELL For the Roses

Album · 1972 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 3.05 | 2 ratings
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In my review of Joni’s “Blue” album I noted that it marked a slight deviation from her folksinger roots and a branching out into jazzier, more eclectic areas. “For the Roses” is a continuation of that migration as she matured not only as a vocalist but also as a poet. I also mentioned in my assessment of “Blue” that my callous dismissal of Mitchell’s music in the early 70s did nothing to endear me to the heart of the beautiful girl I had a close relationship with at the time. This record is the one she played most often and I recall turning up my nose at the mere sight of the cover. I wish, for many reasons, I could go back to that era in my life. One of the things I’d change was my snobbish attitude towards a lot of artists like Joni. Truth is, I never gave her an unbiased listen and thereby only deprived myself of witnessing her talent as it evolved and became more ground-breaking. Without a doubt she was a major player in determining the role women would have in affecting the course of musical expression. But I was a young turd and thought I knew everything. I have better perspective now.

She opens with “Banquet,” a song that takes up where Blue’s closer (the exquisite “The Last Time I Saw Richard”) left off with her using piano as the sole accompaniment behind her voice, further evidence that her transition from folk stardom was progressing steadily. The tune’s structure is certainly not folkish and her words reveal an artist unafraid to comment on the lack of fairness that surrounds us all. “Who let the greedy in/and who left the needy out?” she asks. A bluesy sway underneath “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” serves the track well. On this number she brought in Tom Scott to provide some smart soprano sax riffs. His tactful injections and her dense vocal harmonies add a mysterious edge to counter her angelic singing style. “Someone's Hi-Fi drumming Jelly Roll/Concrete concentration camp/Bashing in veins for peace,” she intones. Her song about a truck stop, “Barangrill,” displays her creativity by employing a chorale of Scott’s flutes and recorders to bounce over the track’s upright bass line. “Three waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings/Talking about zombies and Singapore slings/No trouble in their faces/Not one anxious voice/None of the crazy you get from too much choice,” she sings. A lush piano backs her confident vocal on “Lesson in Survival,” a tune that demonstrates how her melodies could be delightfully complex without being superfluous. Here she remarks on her utterly human tendencies. “I came in as bright as a neon light/and I burned out right there before him/I told him these things I'm telling you now/Watched them buckle up in his brow/When you dig down deep you lose good sleep/And it makes you heavy company” she confesses.

The best cut on the album is “Let the Wind Carry Me.” The segue from the previous song is so seamless you may not realize it’s a different tune but Tom’s soprano sax returns (along with his bank of flutes) to establish its separate identity. Joni erects her jazziest one-woman chorale for this one but all these ingredients are used sparingly as highlights to add dynamic tension to her unique compositional idea. She can be brutally open about herself as she is here. “I get that strong longing and I want to settle/and raise a child up with somebody/But it passes like the summer/I'm a wild seed again.” I’ve read that the title cut was intended to be a “see ya later” message to the “biz” but, luckily, her hiatus didn’t last more than a year. The tune’s acoustic guitar/vocal approach is familiar but not a full retreat back to the “innocent waif” phase that characterized her early stuff and it’s just quirky enough to be unorthodox. “Just when you're getting a taste for worship/they start bringing out the hammers/and the boards/and the nails,” she complains. In “See You Sometime” the piano/voice motif grows repetitive but her avoidance of being a commercial sell-out is still so refreshing I can accept these “stream of thought” pieces for what they are. Often she delivers zingers about love that strike into the soul. “It seems such a shame/we start out so kind and end so heartlessly.” The light percussion that graces “Electricity” is a welcome change of pace at this point and once again she brightens up the track with her close-knit, jazzy harmonies. “She don't know the system/Plus, she don't understand/She's got all the wrong fuses and splices/She's not going to fix it up too easy,” she relates.

In a sarcastic response to her record label’s urging her to manufacture a hit single, Mitchell cranked out “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.” Lo and behold, this odd little country/folk ditty caught on and became her first Top 40 trophy winner. Part of its charm is contained in snarky lyrics like “I know you don't like weak women/you get bored so quick/and you don't like strong women/'cause they're hip to your tricks.” “Blonde in the Bleachers” is deceiving because its piano/vocal mien sounds much like earlier fare at first but then drums and bass appear out of nowhere to give it vitality. Her views on the macho rock & roll lifestyle and its ever-present groupies are dead on. “It's pleasure to try 'em/it's trouble to keep 'em/'cause it seems like you've gotta give up such a piece of your soul/when you give up the chase/feeling it hot and cold/you're in rock & roll/it's the nature of the race/it's the unknown child/so sweet and wild/it's youth/it's too good to waste” she chortles. On “Women of Heart and Mind” a 12-string guitar, bass and congas flow under her icy voice as she croons “You know the times you impress me most/are the times when you don't try.” At the end you’re treated to yet another piano/vocal number, “Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune),” and you realize that when Joni’s words came first she’d then sit at the keyboard and mold the music to fit her melodic narration. Having said that, flutes, airy harmonies and a small chamber orchestra pop up unexpectedly and make things interesting. I gotta hand it to her for not being complacent and for sprucing up her arrangements so colorfully. She exits with strong words of defiance and encouragement. “You've got to shake your fists at lightning now/you've got to roar like forest fire/you've got to spread your light like blazes all across the sky/they're going to aim the hoses on you/show 'em you won't expire/not till you burn up every passion/not even when you die,” she sings.

As I noticed on “Blue,” the jazz leanings in her voice were slowly starting to become more pronounced during this period of her career and it’s principally in the role of a jazz vocalist that she appears on this site. “For the Roses” is the overlooked record that made it possible for her popular “Court and Spark” album (released over a year later in early ’74) to gain widespread acceptance. Here, by further weaning her fans off of the sweet cream that had attracted them during her “pretty folksinger” stage, she was preparing them for the meatier diet of jazzy art rock that would dominate her later work. Don’t discount “For the Roses.” It’s a fine listen and further proof that Joni Mitchell will never be confused with any other artist. She was, is and always will be one-of-a-kind.

CHICAGO Hot Streets

Album · 1978 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 0.55 | 5 ratings
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With “Hot Streets” Chicago didn’t just drop the ball. Again. This time they lost it. Talk about an opportunity missed, the group had a chance to either reinvent itself or return to being the bold, innovative entity they’d started out as. They did neither. First, they’d jettisoned their overlord producer who’d gradually steered them away from their jazz/rock fusion foundation and, secondly, they’d tragically suffered a death in the immediate family that shook them to their core. In January of ’78 guitarist Terry Kath accidentally shot himself and left a huge gap for the band to try to fill. What they did do was make a pop record. My thinking is that a more respectful tribute to Terry would’ve been to make their next album a wildly eclectic affair with lots of unconventional forays into uncharted fusion territories and perhaps bring a host of guest guitarists in to celebrate Kath’s influence on modern guitar trends. They were a well-established group so they could’ve done this and their legion of fans would’ve understood the sentiment. Instead, they acted more like cautious high-schoolers who’d decided to now emulate the popular jocks and male cheerleaders, shunning their role of being dangerous rebels when their ringleader was suddenly transferred out of the district.

They replaced Terry with a journeyman axe-wielder who’d been working with the likes of Stephen Stills and Boz Scaggs, Donnie Dacus. It’s hard to criticize them for that move because he was versatile enough to perform their catalogue of material passably, was able to sing on key and didn’t pose a threat to the status quo. I’m fine with them hiring Donnie but the other things they did to try to be “hip” and look like dudes John Travolta would hang out with were a disgrace to their signature faceless legacy that had always let their music do all the talking. The cover shot of them cavorting around in loud shirts and gaudy britches is as goofy and laughable as watching Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd doing their “wild and crazy guys” bit on SNL. Change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea in any situation. Yet I would’ve been able to dismiss that crass trespass if the music had been so splendid as to make that discretion a moot point. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. What Chicago did was to unashamedly woo the reigning Miss Commerciality with their intent being to wed her and co-parent a houseful of chart-topping offspring that would take care of them in their golden years. And, as we all know, those kinds of wide-eyed, rushed-into marriages rarely survive in the long run.

They showcase the “New and Improved” Chicago by opening with a moronic disco groove for “Alive Again,” an action that doesn’t bode well. You’d surmise that with the experienced Phil Ramone helping to produce the record it would at least sound pretty good but the overall fidelity is surprisingly thin, another bad omen. On one hand this song written by trombonist James Pankow wisely abandons the disco aura early on, smartly avoiding that lethal viper pit, but, on the other hand, it then falls into the equally-constricting rut of contemporary “light rock” mediocrity. It contains nary a hint of dynamics in the mix as all of the music blends into the bland background for the sole purpose of supporting bassist Peter Cetera’s “solid gold” voice. It’s a mystery to me how a tune so unremarkable could climb into the Top 20 on the singles chart but it did. (Payola, perhaps?) Drummer Danny Seraphine had penned some half-decent songs for the group in its recent past but “The Greatest Love on Earth” ain’t one of them. It’s as if the band had decided to compete with The Carpenters! Scary title aside, this tune has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (believe me, I looked hard) and is an odorous pile of mush to be skipped. Peter Cetera contributed the next cut, “Little Miss Lovin’,” a guitar riff-based rocker that only goes to show how much they were missing Terry’s grit. Kath may have been insanely over-the-top and extremely noisy at times but at least he was rarely boring. The presence of the Brothers Gibb in the harmonies and the trendy “New Wave” vibe they inject into the tune both fail to convince the listener that they were revealing anything resembling a fresh angle to their sound.

Keyboard man Robert Lamm tries to concoct a Doobie Brothers style of west coast R&B for the song “Hot Streets” but it’s not their forte and it’s not nearly strong enough to prop up the tune’s weak melody. Still, for what it’s worth, it marks an improvement over the first 3 tracks. Walter Parazaider’s flute solo and the ever-reliable horn section are the best assets the number possesses while Dacus’ guitar ride, aggressive as it may be, is a bit sloppy. Trumpeter Lee Loughnane’s sappy “Take a Chance” is next. Something about this pseudo samba brings to mind pastel leisure suits and gaudy gold chains and it’s not a welcome sight. I can’t imagine anyone deeming this to be quality music under any circumstances. It’s as cheesy as ballpark nachos. Donnie does his best to doctor it up but I sense that they were letting him give it a shot simply because he was a change of pace from Terry, not an upgrade by any means. Cetera’s “Gone Long Gone” is an acoustic guitar-strummed rocker with thickly-layered vocals typical of that era. It’s not awful but it sounds as if they were attempting to manufacture a hit single instead of expressing anything profound. Therefore it comes off as contrived and terribly average.

The low-altitude apex of the record comes via the Dacus/Seraphine composition, “Ain’t It Time.” It’s yet another riff-heavy rocker but this one actually has some genuine punch and an engaging structure. It’s far from greatness but at this point I’ll take any ray of light, however dim, I can find. The cheap thrill doesn’t linger, though, as Lamm’s “Love Was New” follows. It’s a glossy little number with some light jazz overtones but the progression is so predictable and conservative as to be indistinguishable from shopping mall muzak. Peter, Lee and Danny joined forces to pen the #14 hit “No Tell Lover” but this schlocky ballad sounds like a deliberate copy of many of their mid-70s chart toppers and has about the same effect on me. It’s too formulaic, too safe and utterly demeaning to their proud history. Seraphine’s “Show Me the Way” is the closer. This plodding song, despite its weird crowd-chant ending, confirms that they were, until further notice, to be quarantined in the “easy listening” section of the record store. A pity.

In wake of Kath’s untimely and sad demise, the surviving members decided to act like the invigorating band that created several stimulating albums (II, III and VII in particular) had been interred with Terry’s remains and, therefore, wouldn’t be coming around anymore. They’d effectively squandered their fat chance to challenge and transcend themselves, preferring to venture forward walking carefully, smack dab down the middle of the road. And, by the way, their followers and the public at large weren’t buying into their new slicker image, either. It was the first LP since their debut that didn’t crack the top ten list and their return to the Roman numeral system for XIII proves that they realized they weren’t going to sell any product on account of their good looks. Alas, their commercial attitude and inclination remained intact. I could no more recommend this album than I could one by The Chipmunks.

KING CRIMSON Larks' Tongues In Aspic

Album · 1973 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.61 | 35 ratings
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Some smart guy named Eric Hoffer once wrote that "It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities" and, in the case of this particular version of the inimitable King Crimson group, I think that quotation is dead on. The talented musicians that mastermind Robert Fripp assembled for 73's "Lark's Tongues in Aspic" had one thing in common: They had each tasted a modicum of success in other bands/venues and found the fruits of the promise land to be unfulfilling. They all yearned to resurrect and revitalize their naive, unspoiled inner adolescent and set the boy free to run without confines on the playground that is the recording studio with other restless Peter Pans like themselves. The album they put together just may be the prime model of what is referred to, in theory at least, as progressive jazz-related rock. It has no identifiable precedent. Comparisons to other forms of music, even within the prog arena, are futile. It stands forevermore as an enduring work of late 20th Century aural art.

I must alert the reader to the fact that, like a lot of fine albums that populate this eclectic and liberal branch of the jazz building, it ain't for everybody. You won't want to slap this on the stereo at even the most casual of dinner parties unless you want the guests to depart the premises in a stampede. It's not top-down, cruising-down-the-interstate-with-a-nasty-redhead-by-your-side, yodeling "I Love L.A." fare, either. In all likelihood, your significant other will probably despise it and you for subjecting them to its radical musical ideology. It's anti Top-40. Don't overreact to those warnings, however. It's not some kind of dissonant/boring/confusing everyone-play-whatever-they-want-and-we'll-call-it-jazz free-for-all. No way. There's a calculated method to this madness. It has a planned structural integrity and a designed purpose. At the same time it sounds like nothing else you've heard. Robert, Bill, David, John and Jamie left all preconceived notions of convention out in the busy street and proceeded to manufacture magic. A copy of "Lark's Tongues in Aspic" belongs in every progressive jazzer’s stash. Period.

Okay, that was pretty uppity/snobbish and I must admit with a red face that I was guilty of intentionally avoiding this album until 2009 when a reviewer whose taste in music I greatly respect gave it his highest rating. So I put it on my wish list and my son gave it to me as a gift. I expected it to be good, no doubt, but this is so astoundingly inspired and genuine that it'll strain my ability to literately describe it. Yet I'll give it the old college try. It's my calling in life. (Or so I tell myself.)

"Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part One" draws back the curtain to the strains of a percolating Kalimba accompanied by an odd assortment of light percussion items. It's like entering a stranger's room through a doorway of hanging hippy beads (the abode of that mysterious, exotic siren you just met at the bar, perhaps?). The lighting is slightly surrealistic and there's a faint odor of some kind of spiced incense in the air. You're not scared; you just know for sure that you're not in your mom's house. Soon an intriguing electrical white noise arises as if you're being guided through a huge mass of neurons excitedly exchanging impulses. This is followed by some tense violin bowing from David Cross that graduates to a heavy metallic riff performed by the full ensemble. They segue to a dense rhythmic groove, then John Wetton cranks up a wah-wah bass solo surrounded by frenetic Fripp guitarisms, Bill Bruford's rumbling drums and Jamie Muir's wild percussion. Suddenly the number drifts into a sad, mournful violin piece that slowly becomes agitated and angry in its mood before leveling out into a strange oriental aura. Then, without notice, the whole thing detonates and disseminates like nuclear fallout. Exhilarating is the closest I can come to doing it justice.

At this juncture you might think you've been irrevocably altered, but along comes "Book of Saturday" to clear your head. Robert's delicate chording and phrasing on his fretboard is beautiful and John's adventurous bass lines never distract, only compliment. The song's memorable melody is delivered by Wetton without unnecessary affectation in his customary fool-on-the-hill style and David's violin injections (both backwards and forwards) are exquisite. Since long-time wordsmith Pete Sinfield had left the think tank in a snit after the previous KC album, former Supertramp Robert Palmer-Jones was enlisted to supply lyrical content and his splendid contribution to the project shouldn't be overlooked. "Reminiscences gone astray/coming back to enjoy the fray/in a tangle of night and daylight sounds," John intones with a melancholy slant. Profound? No, but poetic nonetheless.

The ironic "Exiles" creeps in like an ominous fog from which the cries of unidentified, tortured creatures can be heard in their vain attempts to escape, then the landscape clears briefly for Wetton's moonlit vocal to reassure before said dark mist returns. I love the way Cross' violin twines around the melody without choking it. The inventive bridge with its graceful piano is a revelation. Here the insightful words capture the very essence of what this incarnation of King Crimson was all about. "But Lord, I had to go/my trail was laid too slow behind me/to face the call of fame/or make a drunkard's name for me/though now this other life/has brought a different understanding," John sings without a trace of bitterness. The tune ends with a fantastic mixture of guitar, violin and the Mellotron dancing atop Bruford and Wetton's intricate rhythm track.

The sarcastic "Easy Money" begins with what sounds like a chain-gang of inmates chanting cheerily-but-not-really as they slog down a muddy road on their way to a day of hard labor. That may not seem like something that would interest even the most dedicated of broad-minded jazzers but somehow it entertains. It's that cool. The song features one of the more unusual verse/chorus compositions you'll ever encounter, adorned as it is with Muir's eccentric "allsorts." (I didn't make that term up; it's what he's credited as playing in the liner notes.) The group collectively snubs their nose at the trappings of rock star fame and fortune and its obligatory indenture to the record company moguls. "And I thought my heart would break/when you doubled up the stake/with your fingers all a-shake/you could never tell a winner from a snake/but you always make money/easy money," John sneers. The number's extended musical interlude ebbs, flows and breathes like some sort of primordial life form in which Fripp displays the unconventional approach to lead guitar playing that justifies his genius labeling. The song comes full circle to reprise the convicts' hymn as well as another verse/chorus go 'round (this time with full-throttled gusto) before it all collapses into a fit of canned, taunting, demonic, impish laughter that'll send a chill up your spine. He's laughing because there's always a price to be paid for stardom. And it's steep. Easy money, indeed.

A ghostly wind blows across a desolate plain infested with carrion-eating flies as barely- perceptible fingertip rhythms initiate a steady pulse for "The Talking Drum." David's stark violin steps in and Robert's eerie guitar springs up alongside him like a new species of wildflower. Suddenly a growling, menacing bass guitar effect bursts in boisterously as all the combined elements finally rise up and reach a fevered crescendo after which destitute lemmings scream in crazed delight as they race toward the ragged precipice of the beckoning cliffs. This instrumental track is a perfect example of cultivating tension through patient manipulation of dynamics.

The album's finale, "Lark's Tongues in Aspic, Part Two" is not just some weak regurgitation of the opener. Surely you jest. The tune's extremely heavy, dense metallic theme dominates without mercy, and then the band descends into a hypnotic 9/16 rock pattern before repeating that sequence. Jamie's incidental sound effects rival those cleverly instigated without caution by the Beatles at their most imaginative and free. Cross' mean-spirited violin solo sounds like it was transcribed by Ol' Scratch himself and I could swear that Muir and Bruford are tossing their drums down a staircase to achieve the sublime cacophony they were striving for. It all ends in a fat, gloriously noisy finale that distills slowly into one single solitary note.

The musicians that comprised this short-lived form of the entity known as King Crimson knew coming in that they were walking away from everything safe and secure in order to find liberation from the shackles of commercialism. Their aim was not to shock, denigrate or assault their fans. They simply wanted to create something totally original yet comprehensible and satisfying to thinking, open-minded human beings. If I'd bought this recording when it came out in '73 I doubt that I would've had the maturity or patience to recognize and appreciate its brilliance. It would've required that I tune out the world and still myself long enough to absorb its powerful subtlety and the superlative uniqueness of this cooperative conception. As my esteemed fellow reviewer told me, there's nothing to compare it to and he's right. Most music is a derivative of something but this album has no ancestor. It's a towering Sequoia without roots; an anomaly. It's a bonafide masterpiece, everything progressive jazz-related rock (a subjective label if there ever was one) is supposed to be, and an example of why this band’s brand of avant garde music can bore its way into your soul in ways no other can.

MILES DAVIS Kind of Blue

Album · 1959 · Cool Jazz
Cover art 4.89 | 107 ratings
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In the first two months of the year 1959 several significant things occurred. Alaska became the 49th state of the union, Fidel Castro became the head honcho in Cuba and, on February 3rd, Buddy Holly (along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper) perished in a plane crash in Iowa. It was a tragic event, to be sure, and a popular song it later inspired caused it to become known as “the day the music died.” If that’s so it didn’t stay inert for long. Early in March Miles Davis took his immensely talented sextet into the studio for the first of two sessions that would forever alter the direction of not just jazz but music in general. One might rightly refer to 3/2/59 as the “day the music rose again” in a new form. We all know that perfection is impossible to achieve this side of heaven but Miles and his posse came awfully close on “Kind of Blue.” There’s a reason that albums such as this one are so universally revered and honored. It is a masterpiece. In my book that word means something that cannot be improved upon. This record can’t.

Davis and his band had gained substantial recognition as one of the elite hard bop combos on the scene but one glance at the group’s stellar personnel will tell you that none of the members would’ve ever been content to stand still. Miles and pianist Bill Evans had been toying with a less formal, more modal style of jazz for a while but “Kind of Blue” was the first full immersion into that compositional concept. What they accomplished is so transcendent, so sublime, so spiritually uplifting as to be indescribable. But I’ll give it a shot and, if my humble review by any measure will lead you to give this album an unbiased listen, then I’ll feel that I did a good deed today.

From the moment Paul Chambers’ sly, subtle double bass riff punctuated by a trio of delicate horns reaches out and arrests your undivided attention you’re captivated by the enduring magic of “So What.” Davis’ trumpet solo and the sax rides that follow it from giants Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and John Coltrane run the entire gamut of human emotions and effectively transport you to another plane of existence. In the end Evans’ piano and Chambers’ bass conjure up exactly what’s needed to gently draw you back to reality. At this point you know you’re in the presence of true geniuses. In the bluesy “Freddy the Freeloader” the complex performances delivered atop the framework of its remarkable simplicity epitomize the very heart of jazz improvisation. One is also struck by the incredibly relaxed atmosphere they’ve brought into the sterile confines of the studio. This sort of aura can’t be manufactured, it either happens or it doesn’t, but when it manifests itself as it does here it’s a wonder to behold. Drink from it. Bathe in it. Miles, Cannonball and John each touch the fringes of nirvana with their individual solos and you’ll have to stifle the urge to applaud them as they finish and back out of the spotlight one at a time. The mood they sustain during “Blue in Green” is so sultry and melancholy as to qualify as an aural definition of those words. Bill’s piano is so graceful and expressive it makes your eyes get misty and the way the trumpet and both saxophones tiptoe across the top is mesmerizing. This piece of music would be right at home in a smoky bar or in a fancy concert hall. Its ability to unlock the dark, hidden rooms of your soul and fill them with the healing power of music is amazing.

The second half of the album was recorded seven weeks later but it sounds as if not a nanosecond of time elapsed in the interim because there’s no change in the creative climate to be detected at all. Davis’ classic “All Blues” approaches like a slow train in the distance as the sextet’s unique combination of gifted horn players implant the tune’s classic melody directly into your subconscious where it plants a flag. The never-intrusive Jimmy Cobb’s drums give this number a living, breathing swing groove that fuels some of the best individual solos you’ll ever hear. Miles, Cannonball, John and Bill soar freely like eagles in a crisp autumn sky and to be able to sit with one’s eyes closed, absorbing their art without interruption, is one of the joys of existence. The technique of applying a muting device to a trumpet’s bell has never been more properly displayed or wielded as skillfully as Davis does on “Flamenco Sketches.” Listening to the band perform this song is like watching great painters at work side by side, creating a stunning impressionistic mural with every color imaginable. While you’re caught up in the majesty of this astounding tune you get the feeling that there’s no place you’d rather be at the moment than in the same room (figuratively, of course) with these virtuosos. This caliber of jazz can alter your frame of mind and instantly transport you to a better world. The disc I own has an alternative take of this number and, while it’s not quite as wistful, it still stands on its own with no asterisk necessary. It goes to show how playing “in the moment” was more important to this ensemble than dutifully following some prescribed chart of chords and directions. It’s the same song in structure but it possesses a wholly different ambience and feel.

As I tap out this essay on the 53rd anniversary of the initial session I stand in awe of how a handful of flesh and bones musicians could make so huge an impact in the evolution of music. This record marks a definitive turning point in its glorious history. What makes it even more miraculous is that Miles Davis gave his cohorts the barest of instructions about what they were to play, desiring only that they summon every ounce of their creativity and let it flow into the music unencumbered by the regimen of a score. Usually a first-of-its-ilk album has some rough edges. Not this one. No wonder “Kind of Blue” is one of the top-selling jazz records of all time and considered a vital cornerstone disc in any collection. The number of musicians influenced by this album is incalculable. Its strains can be heard in all genres, from rock & roll to modern classical movements and will continue to reverberate throughout the music trends of generations to come. Is it the greatest jazz album? That’s up to the individual to decide but there’s no denying that it is far beyond reproach and deserves to be held in the highest of esteem by all mankind.

KING CRIMSON Lizard

Album · 1970 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.97 | 27 ratings
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After the amazing debut and the not-quite-as-amazing follow up, my friends and I wondered as 1970 was drawing to a close just what the revamped lineup of King Crimson would produce with LP #3. If we harbored any ideas that they would continue making exactly the same kind of music as before those thoughts vanished within the first few minutes of listening to this. Of all things considered we never anticipated so much brass and woodwinds and what we quickly realized was that going forward we should only expect the unexpected from this group. For, while most bands were desperately trying to find and establish a bankable identity, Fripp and his cohorts were doing everything they could to force us to abandon our preconceived notions of what we thought they were or should be.

As the album begins a cheerful, tinkling piano fools you into thinking pleasant thoughts as bassist Gordon Haskell's cold voice slowly rises from what sounds like a darkened cell. Soon Andy McCulloch's drums introduce the ominous Mellotron melody that will accompany you throughout your tour of the "Cirkus." Peter Sinfield's confounding, macabre lyrics and Mel Collins' demonic saxophone fills join to create a menacing atmosphere that's surprisingly intimate and not as cavernous as previous albums were. Robert Fripp's distorted electric guitar has been replaced by an acoustic but it still has very sharp teeth. There's a palpable experimental jazz flavor here that was only hinted at before and it mesmerizes as the song's insane carnival aura builds to a dissonant ending. Sly, funky horns lead us to "Indoor Games" and more familiar territory. It is reminiscent of "Cat Food" from "In the Wake of Poseidon" but not as captivating. By now it becomes obvious that a little of Haskell's singing goes a long way and that he's not close to being in the same league as his predecessor, Greg Lake. He holds this tune back. The satiric message gets through but the music drifts a bit before Collins' twisted sax finally adds some spice.

"Happy Family" is next and it is sarcastically aimed right at the Fab Four who had broken up about a year earlier. I detect a clever innuendo of "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "She's So Heavy" in the recurring theme of the song but the jazzy ambience stops it from turning into an unfair lampoon of The Beatles. The flute and electric piano blend is very creative and the fact that they electronically manipulate the vocal keeps Gordon from becoming an albatross around the neck of the proceedings. "Lady of the Dancing Water" is a short, serene song that fascinates by uniting acoustic guitar, flute and Nick Evans' uncharacteristically delicate trombone to slow the pace. Now that you've sampled the appetizers it's time for the main course, the impressive "Lizard." It was a stroke of genius in recruiting Yes' Jon Anderson to lend his angelic vocals to "Prince Rupert Awakes" but at the same time it shines a glaring light on the shortcomings of Haskell as a singer. It's a welcome change to say the least. Keith Tippet's subdued but intricate piano swims just under the surface as the song's minor key verses give way to the major on the engaging chorus. Fripp's reversed guitar lines and gushing Mellotron create a magical feel that permeates the tune. At one point the drums begin to tap out a soft marching beat. The group rides it to segue seamlessly into "Bolero-The Peacock's Tale." This is the album's acme. Mark Charig's cornet, Robin Miller's oboe and cor anglais along with the trombone construct a jazz/rock fusion classic that's part big band, part Dixieland yet arranged in an unorthodox manner that only King Crimson can deliver. Their timing is immaculate, evolving through different phases even though the drums never stray from the underlying bolero rhythm. This is great stuff.

"The Battle of Glass Tears" ensues with "Dawn Song" rerouting things down a more sinister road. Haskell is back with his shaky intonation but his return is blissfully brief as they transition into the fierce conflict that is "Last Skirmish." Here McCulloch does his best imitation of previous drummer Michael Giles and mimics his play-all-around-the-downbeat style admirably. The heavy Mellotron is a throwback to earlier works but the wild flute and trombone spasms keep the tune from becoming a retread. As songs depicting war go, this one is suitably noisy and unnerving. Fripp finally trots out his electric guitar for the somber "Prince Rupert's Lament" and it's well worth your wait. As if the prince is mournfully walking among the bodies of his slain soldiers, the throbbing bass emphasizes Robert's wailing cries that he squeezes out of his strings. It is stark and stunning. Then, almost as an afterthought, you are reminded that life can be a bizarre midway filled with warped mirrors and gruesome clowns as the surreal strains of "Big Top" float about, then fade away into the distance.

You could search for a very long time and never find another album that is as individually unique as this one is. Mastermind Fripp wasn't in the music trade to win popularity contests, he was earnestly trying to express what he heard in his head. This is his abstract art. And love them or not, that's what made King Crimson the most eccentric group of the modern rock era. "Lizard" may not be a masterpiece but there are masterpieces to be found within.

DAVID SANBORN Hearsay

Album · 1994 · Funk Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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This album is more along the lines of what I expected from David Sanborn as a solo artist. The first record of his that I heard, however, wasn’t. It was his surprising “Another Hand” from 1991 wherein he gathered up a contingent of legendary jazz musicians and took part in making a record of music that honored their craft and their heritage splendidly. “Hearsay” is much more contemporary in nature but it’s no dog, either. What this tells me is that Sanborn can adapt to any style as easily as a chameleon changes skin color and that his central aim is to maintain a lofty standard of excellence. There’s an art to creating light jazz fare that doesn’t end up being so predictable that it bores you to tears and I’m happy to report that this album avoids that pitfall by being consistently lively and by including a great deal of variety.

He opens with the invigorating “Savanna.” It rides atop a striding funk groove supplanted by Ricky Peterson’s growling Hammond B3 organ, one of my favorite instruments of all time. Its signature ambience is featured in abundance throughout the proceedings and that alone makes “Hearsay” a fine listening experience. David’s saxophone is crystal clear and cuts cleanly like a knife through butter. The subtle horn section he employs here and there as well as the song’s tactful percussion breakdown keeps things on the up and up. I especially like its upwardly mobile key changes and the track’s consistent energy level. “The Long Goodbye” is the apex of the disc. Its soft, bluesy jazz feel and the sneaky B3 lurking in the background are hypnotic. The tune’s depth of field is warm and dreamy yet the number never gets lazy due to timely and punchy accentuations. The melody’s large-scale presence is powerful and seductive. The aggressive shuffle drummer Steve Jordan applies to “Little Face” is hard to ignore and once again the Hammond’s distinctive aura gives it a regal glow. The song’s crisp big band atmosphere will have you tapping your toes and the interplay between Sanborn’s expressive sax and Robben Ford’s top-notch rock/blues guitarisms are exhilarating.

“Got to Give it Up” is like walking into a festive party in full swing. An unpretentious, carefree attitude inhabits this number and it’s the kind of song that can lift you from even the sourest of moods. Nothing complex to be found here, just a bouncy jam that’s more than dance-worthy. “Jaws,” with its strong funk foundation, brings to mind the Headhunters in a respectful way but Peterson’s sensuous B3 fills up the spaces and allows the track to develop its own personality. Marcus Miller’s bass guitar work is commendable and David smartly opts to not overplay his hand, choosing to be more of an aural overseer who adds flavors to the mix only when called for. “Mirage” is sultry, sexy and slightly mysterious with Latin percussion and dense keyboards distinguishing the tune. The number flows smoothly and possesses an undeniable Herbie Hancock hue that gives it a cool elegance.

“Big Foot” has a slight techno-funk coloring that sets it apart from what’s come before. The sizzling guitar injections give this song some oomph and the charms of the multipurpose Hammond organ are exploited expertly to provide an amiable backdrop. Miller’s popping bass lines boost the momentum repeatedly. “Back to Memphis” utilizes a beefy R&B drive to get its point across and I half expected Al Green to jump into the fray at any moment. The tune’s arrangement, the superb engineering and the deft mix one finds here are all of the highest order so I recommend that you just sit back and enjoy the track’s excellence without over-analyzing it. He ends with “Ojiji,” a real change of pace. A generous dash of hot Brazilian spice supports this unusual piece and it’s further bolstered by a very enthusiastic rhythm section. More so than at any other time on the album, Sanborn doesn’t try to stay as under control and cuts loose with some spirited sax spasms that’ll tickle your eardrums.

While “Hearsay” won’t bowl anybody over it won’t send discriminating jazzers running for the exits, either. It maintains an impeccable air of professionalism gleaned through years of experience on the part of everyone involved but that’s to be expected. What makes it such a pleasant record to listen to and separates it from the run-of-the-mill is, as always, the caliber of the material presented. The nine cuts are all good songs and each one has something unique to offer so it makes it difficult to say anything negative about the album. Well done.

KING CRIMSON In The Wake Of Poseidon

Album · 1970 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.22 | 25 ratings
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King Crimson's debut was so incredible that their legion of fans could hardly wait for the follow-up to hit the racks. Unbeknownst to most of us there was more drama going on within the band than a TV soap opera with members coming and going constantly. When I learned later on about the personality conflicts and constant strife the group was enduring while trying to record this album it's a wonder it got finished and even more surprising that it's as good as it is.

The Poseidon adventure starts with a simple theme that will recur from time to time, "Peace - A Beginning," with Greg Lake singing the melody solo. Those of us who aurally devoured the first LP couldn't help but smile as the beginning of "Pictures of a City (including 42nd at Treadmill)" gave us a needed taste of what we loved about this band. It features a gutsy crawling blues progression from Hell and Lake's snarling rendition of Pete Sinfield's subliminal lyrics ("Concrete cold face cased in steel/stark sharp glass-eyed crack and peel"). Peter Giles on bass and his brother Michael on drums combine to make an outstanding rhythm section and it's nowhere as obvious as it is here. Many characteristics that made "21st Century Schizoid Man" so alluring are included in the arrangement of this song and that's not meant as a detriment at all. It's great. However, the next tune, "Cadence and Cascade" makes you realize that something is askew in the Crimson household. Some guy named Gordon Haskell weakly sings this dismal ballad that is about as intriguing as day old dishwater. Some nice flute from newly acquired Mel Collins is welcomed but it's not enough to save this toadstool. A return to familiar territory is desperately required at this point and "In the Wake of Poseidon (including Libra's Theme)" is a step in the right direction. It's vaguely akin to "Epitaph" yet not quite as good. Robert Fripp does a decent job of replacing Ian McDonald on the Mellotron, Lake turns in another excellent vocal performance and Michael Giles adds his interesting crazed drum fills to the finale but there's an underlying stress weaving throughout the song that can't be ignored. The short "Peace - A Theme" is a sweet acoustic guitar return to the original melody that further displays Fripp's versatility. "Cat Food" is a cool, hip tune and the most commercial sounding in the band's history. I picture in my head some big cheese at Atlantic (after reviewing the success of the 1st album) shouting "Now we just need those boys to give us a hit!" and this is the result. I've always loved this song personally because, even though it kinda reminds me of the riff from The Beatles' "Come Together," there's no way this group could play it straight. Keith Tippet's wild piano spasms and Greg's snide crooning of Sinfield's sarcastic lines like "Goodies on the table/with a fable on the label/drowning in miracle sauce/Don't think I am that rude/if I tell you that it's cat food/not even fit for a horse!" create a fun five minutes for the listener. (Imagine what Pete thinks of today's processed foods!) And the last two minutes get delightfully weird with everybody taking a turn or two at contributing a moment of strangeness.

Next is a little over eleven minutes of Robert Fripp and, as it lists in the credits, his "devices." With one of the longest Mellotron fade-ins in history, "The Devil's Triangle" establishes a musical theme played over a marching drumbeat. "Merday Morn" is a continuation of the same melody as it grows more intense and discordant. Manic piano runs can be heard in the mix, then things reach cacophony. "Hand of Sceiron" is just howling wind noises and then what can only be described as arrhythmic taps before "Garden of Worm" returns you to more bizarre avant garde dissonance in which you'll hear a short snippet of "The Court of the Crimson King" whiz by your ears. The song is adventurous, to be sure, but it doesn't do much for me in the long run. "Peace - An End" bookends the album with the same air you heard in the beginning. This time Lake sings softly over an acoustic guitar, bringing the album to a serene finale.

I've always found that tiny sample from the debut swirling inside "Garden of Worm" to be significant. It's as if Robert Fripp was bidding farewell to the attitude and sound created by that initial collection of musicians because KC would never sound much like that again. The 3rd album would find the band going down a wholly new path with different personnel and never looking back. While this sophomore effort is flawed and has less of a jazz presence than any of their albums, it still deserves merit for a couple of outstanding songs and the determination it must have taken to get the album in the record bins at all.

KING CRIMSON In The Court Of The Crimson King

Album · 1969 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.05 | 29 ratings
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Before I knew of this group I read in a music magazine that Pete Townsend of The Who had pronounced the first King Crimson album as being "an uncanny masterpiece." Coming from one of my heroes I considered this an overwhelming endorsement and looked forward to hearing it. In late 1969 many of us young rock music aficionados felt that we had "heard it all" and there was nothing new under the sun but we were dead wrong. Once this album was unleashed we knew there were still vast, uncharted territories out there to explore as we entered the next decade.

"21st Century Schizoid Man including Mirrors" (no one, absolutely no one had song titles like these guys!) hit the still free and unsanitized FM airwaves like an aural sledgehammer with its stunning combination of saxophone and distorted guitar blasting through the speakers. Greg Lake's electronically altered vocal was additionally effective in creating what could only be considered "new music." As the song progressed into passages featuring Michael Giles' maniacal drum patterns and Robert Fripp's bizarre guitar riffs we knew that this band was unlike any other on the face of the planet and it was exciting beyond description. The stark contrast they presented with the next cut was definitely straight out of left field. "I Talk to the Wind" is a quiet, peaceful tune that features a gorgeous flute solo from Ian McDonald and a subtle guitar lead. Giles, instead of laying down a normal beat for a ballad, doesn't stay still and plays deftly all around the song but never interferes with the cool ambiance. Huge Mellotron chords draw us into "Epitaph including March for No Reason & Tomorrow and Tomorrow." This is Lake's finest vocal on the album and the lyrics supplied by Pete Sinfield on this tune were the easiest to relate to. It was a turbulent year for the planet and words like "The fate of all mankind, I fear, is in the hands of fools" rang disturbingly true for most of us. After a brooding dirge from the woodwinds we hear Lake's mournful "I feel tomorrow I'll be crying" repeated over and over. Giles' jazzy drum work is extraordinarily unconventional throughout the record but especially toward the end of this song. By now we thought we had a bead on this group but not so. "Moonchild including The Dream and The Illusion" is yet another sharp curve in the road. Starting out as another peaceful ballad, Fripp then surprises us all with a delicate jazz guitar passage, then a long give-and-take sequence with the drums and vibes. It's totally unexpected and brilliantly performed. "The Court of the Crimson King including The Return of the Fire Witch and The Dance of the Puppets" is the fifth and final tune and what a monster it is! McDonald's massive Mellotron sound creates a cavernous atmosphere, Giles continues to fly all over the skins, and Lake provides an ominous vocal as this signature song moves in like a swirling, hot sand storm. It has everything that makes this album unique yet accessible. A Mellotron lead, another fantastic flute performance, a false ending and a calliope precedes the return to the memorable chorus melody featuring Giles' most energetic moments on the drums. Spectacular.

To call this a landmark album is an enormous understatement, especially in the genre of prog rock. It influenced countless musicians and opened up minds to a myriad of possibilities. Unfortunately, this particular lineup would not survive their tour of the USA and one can only wonder what they might have created beyond this. As we now know, King Crimson was to become a temporary harbor for many talented musicians in the years to come and we learned to always anticipate the unexpected from Mr. Fripp & company for better and for worse. More and more Robert was inclined to let his jazz leanings influence the direction the band would go in, much to the chagrin of his record label that wanted something a bit more commercial. The jazz quotient on this record is lower than it would be in the albums that followed so I can only give it 4 stars for that reason. However, only a handful of albums can claim to have shocked the music world as much as this one did.

CHICAGO Chicago XI

Album · 1977 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 2.45 | 4 ratings
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After Chicago peaked with their excellent VII album in ’74 they became satisfied to be a pop group that occasionally drifted near the outskirts of jazz/rock fusion rather than the other way around. Some of their subsequent albums sounded decent but none of them were particularly progressive or adventuresome and XI is no exception. Like many bands who’ve managed to stay intact for a decade or more, they fell into comfortable, safe ruts that guaranteed them a respectable amount of sales and allowed the gravy train to keep on ‘a rollin’ unimpeded. I’m not excusing them from strapping their saddle atop the commercial cash cow but it’s yet another example of human proclivities trumping free creativity and diminishing the impact an entity can have in their chosen field of art once a little success creeps into the picture. In the late 70s my feelings about this outfit, formerly one of my favorites, had evolved from admiration to apathy that stemmed from repeated disappointments in their vinyl offerings. I finally had to accept that the dangerous lions of the Midwest had now become a litter of harmless kittens.

Guitarist Terry Kath’s “Mississippi Delta City Blues” starts things off in a loose but lively way with a funky, Sly & the Family Stone-styled motif. The song shows promise early on mainly because of the tight track they laid down under it with drummer Danny Seraphine playing more distinctively than he has in years. The crisp horn arrangement, as usual, is the icing on the cake but I still can’t give the tune more than a so-so rating. Any hopes for something exhilarating to happen are dashed on the jagged pop rocks about two seconds into bassman/crooner Peter Cetera’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise.” By now they were routinely capitalizing on their carefully-calculated image of being mainstays in the upper regions of the Top 40 charts due to their unending stream of lush ballads so this is hardly a surprise at all. I appreciate that they spent time on the string score and the layered vocal harmonies (with Beach Boy Carl Wilson assisting) but it only made a schmaltzy song even more overly-saccharine and hard to digest. Trombonist James Pankow’s “Till the End of Time” is next and it’s a case of doo-wop nostalgia gone bad. It grows tiresome quickly and is so predictable as to be patronizing. Simply put, they do nothing to put a fresh spin on their venture into the past. Things look up slightly with keyboard player Robert Lamm’s “Policeman” because they present the tune with a light Latin feel that’s very welcome at this point even though the jazz aspect is extremely contemporary in nature. Kudos go out to the horn section for adding some highlights and elevating the track’s class quotient.

One thing that makes this album stick out in their catalogue is the fact that Seraphine, not known for his composing skills up to this juncture, contributes the best numbers on the record, beginning with a song that expresses what many of their fans had been wishing they’d do for a long time, “Take Me Back to Chicago.” The tune has different elements to enjoy and a few nifty detours off the beaten path that remind me of what I loved about them in the first place when they were willing to take risks. Bringing in Chaka Khan to supply some soulful singing doesn’t hurt one bit, either. The growl of Lamm’s Hammond B3 organ is the only interesting thing going on in his “Vote For Me.” It’s a mix of rock, R&B and funk that doesn’t quite gel mainly because the song’s basic structure is too weak to make much of a mark. It comes off more like a handy vehicle to voice a political statement about how candidates lie (what else is new?) than a well-thought-out idea. Kath’s “Takin’ It on Uptown” is a riff-based funk/rock ditty that doesn’t benefit from its intentional rough character and suffers greatly from a dearth of dynamics. While Terry tears it up pretty good on the guitar I question the wisdom of leaving the horn section out of the proceedings.

Trumpeter Lee Loughlane’s “This Time” has a Motown-ish groove that’s inviting but it takes a lot to impress me when someone dips into that particular genre and they come up short, as do most. It’s no embarrassment but it does pass right on by like everyday traffic. As intimated before, Danny outdoes himself on this album. The last three cuts are splendidly intertwined and he had a lot to do with their creation. “The Inner Struggle of a Man” is a short symphonic piece by Dominic Frontiere with ominous overtones ala Aaron Copland and then Seraphine’s “Prelude” serves as a segue to “Little One.” The number’s jazzy but floral atmosphere might be a bit too romantic for some but in light of what they’d been putting out on the last few LPs it at least has some intricate parts to ponder. Loughlane’s trumpet solo is excellent and the cohesive triad of tunes in general makes me wonder why they’d become so hell bent on doggedly downplaying their jazz side when it was what put them on the map back in ‘69.

Released in September 1977, the album went up to #6 but very few of the original followers they’d captivated and cultivated in the early years were still paying much attention. The abandonment of their jazz/rock fusion roots was no temporary phase and the likelihood of them doing an about face was, therefore, growing slimmer by the record. Of course no one knew that one of their strongest assets was soon to depart this mortal coil and change the complexion of the group forevermore. Terry Kath took his own life in a tragic gun accident and a huge part of what was left of their rebelliousness went with him. He represented the rock half of their initial jazz/rock fusion persona and his gruff voice added a unique dimension to their sound that couldn’t be replaced. This was also the last album to be produced by the overbearing James William Guercio and, by not having to answer to him any longer, the door was wide open for them to do something innovative and exciting. Whether they’d be brave enough to do that was yet to be determined.

SADE (HELEN FOLASADE ADU) Diamond Life

Album · 1984 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 3.98 | 5 ratings
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In light of Adele’s phenomenal success in recent times I was reminded that Sade made a similarly astonishing splash when she and her namesake band burst upon the music scene in the mid 80s. Like Adele, Ms. Adu shocked the populace not with blazing pyrotechnics, gaudy costumes or blatantly outrageous lyrics but with high-quality songs she’d played a big part in writing sung with passion and presented with a regal aura of class. Funny how the normally-fickle public at large will respond so enthusiastically to the basic ingredients of greatness when they’re delivered to their ears in an honest package and without unnecessary or distracting frills. Right in the midst of the suffocating MTV-instigated plague of phoniness a bright light of elegant reality rose from the confused morass music was mired in that defied all the trends and brought some sanity with it. That beam of hope was Sade and a sizeable host of us grabbed onto them like shipwreck survivors clinging to a life raft.

Still, it took a while for the record industry pukes to recognize the obvious fact that this group was special because of their basic simplicity. Their debut album, “Diamond Life,” was released without fanfare in England in July of ’84 but it wasn’t until February of the following year that the clownish powers-that-were in the USA caught on and put it out for stateside consumption. By that time it’d topped the charts in most European countries and was a #2 disc in the UK so we here in the states were, by default, the Johnny-come-lately’s to the Sade bandwagon not due to being snobbish but because of a lack of vision on the part of the shortsighted overlords that ran the labels. But once we got to experience what most of the rest of the civilized world had already discovered we embraced Sade’s charms without blinking and they became a sensation overnight. One listen to “Diamond Life” will tell you why.

On the disc I have the album opens unassumingly with “Cherry Pie” wherein Paul Denman’s bass line initiates a strong Latin funk groove, laying a firm foundation that introduces what will distinguish the band’s sound from that of their plasticized competitors, svelte front woman Helen Folasade Adu’s inimitable voice. The group’s clever arrangement does a lot to beef up an average composition, allowing it to develop slowly into a more aggressive track. “Frankie’s First Affair” is better. It’s a smooth-flowing semi-ballad bolstered smartly by driving drums and percussion and where Andrew Hale’s piano and Stewart Matthewman’s sax coyly compliment Adu’s assertive singing. “Hang On to Your Love” is next; the first cut that truly showcases their dance-inducing ability to cast a spell on their listeners, carrying them relentlessly along like an ocean current. The tune’s hook line imbeds itself in your brain and sets up permanent residence while Stewart’s bright keyboards add a touch of excitement. For “I Will Be Your Friend” a swaying samba influence is employed. It’s hard to criticize a number that contains such high fidelity but it fails to make a lasting impression.

On “Sally” a sultry mood places emphasis on Sade’s knack of conveying genuine emotion and she doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to display the many facets of her vocal gifts. “Smooth Operator” follows and, as they say, it had hit written all over it from the first note onward. It climbed to #5 on the Billboard singles chart (it’s also worth mentioning the accompanying video that provided a breath of fresh air on MTV) because of its irresistible beat and the infectious melody lines that snagged you the moment you heard it. It’s a classic that actually deserves that connotation. “When Am I Going to Make a Living” has a perky feel and striking vocal harmonies that effectively set this track apart from the rest of the album. There’s a palpable South African atmosphere running through this song that I find constantly alluring. The only cover tune on the record is their take on Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Forceful congas propel this R&B number and the Hammond-like keyboard punctuations make things interesting for a while but the track never really kicks into gear. Sade’s voice is unusually thin, which doesn’t help matters, and I must entertain the thought that it was some record exec’s brilliant idea to include this and not the group’s. (FYI, a fine rendition can be found on Steve Winwood’s 2003 “About Time” CD.) They close out with the sublime “Your Love is King,” another impossible-to-ignore song made so via its complete capture of Adu’s sexy personality and her inherent coolness. It’s a wonderful example of how a singer’s intuitive phrasing can make a huge difference in the impact a tune can create. Then and now Sade continues to prove herself a master at that particular art.

“Diamond Life” restored my faith that sometimes (but not always) the cream will find a way to ascend to the top. Circa 1985 I was thoroughly disillusioned by the cocky posturing and rampant insincerity that was thriving and proliferating in the popular music universe. Worse, it was being nurtured by a jaded public that just couldn’t seem to get enough of the inane videos they voluntarily tuned in to ogle 24/7. I was so disgusted that I started listening to talk radio on my way to and from work. Sade’s success gave me reason to believe that somewhere underneath all the glam and glitter real music was still being written, performed, recorded and appreciated. “Diamond Life” is no masterpiece but that can’t diminish its huge significance in music history for arriving in the nick of time to remind us in the jazz-related community that all was not lost.

ART TATUM Piano Starts Here

Boxset / Compilation · 1968 · Swing
Cover art 5.00 | 2 ratings
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For most of my life Art Tatum was just another name to me. I worked in a few record stores back in the 70s to make ends meet (during spells when my chosen field of work, creating music, didn’t) and he was just one on a list of long-gone artists who populated the jazz bins. It wasn’t until I saw and heard a brief snippet of him in Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on the genre that I got a taste of his piano wizardry. As I eagerly absorbed all I could of that in-depth history of jazz I was introduced to a myriad of great artists that I knew little about but none electrified me the way Mr. Tatum did. I simply couldn’t fathom what I was listening to and knew that I had to hear more. It took a while but I finally started my journey of discovery when my son gave me “Piano Starts Here” for a Christmas present. Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed in what it contains.

I understand why this giant of jazz may not be familiar to you. Born in Toledo in 1909, he had everything going against his ever being successful, much less noticed. He was a black man, he was almost totally blind, he was overweight, he played strictly by ear and most of the time he worked solo in an era when jazz was still considered a novelty unless it was being presented in a big band format. But even before he turned 20, by word of mouth, Art was acknowledged as a genuine prodigy and luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong went out of their way to see him whenever they toured through Ohio. While backing singer Adelaide Hall he made his way to New York and, in 1933, recorded four tunes for the Brunswick label. After that what had been rumor grew to become an accepted fact among pianists from both the jazz and classical sides who knew a unique virtuoso when they heard one. Many concurred that Art Tatum was the greatest piano player who ever lived. I know that’s a lofty designation but it’s one confirmed by the likes of Oscar Peterson and Vladimir Horowitz. As respected music critic Leonard Feather wrote in ’68, “We are fortunate to have lived in a century that could produce even one Art Tatum.” Lend an ear to the 13 tracks on this CD and you’ll better understand the cause for his praise.

It starts with his first studio sessions from March of ’33. At first glance “Tea for Two” might cause you to smirk sarcastically but his rendition reminds me of a memorable scene in the movie “Amadeus.” Court composer Salieri toiled for weeks to prepare a short piece in honor of Mozart’s anticipated visit to the king’s palace but after hearing it only once the young man vamps on the simple theme grandly, elevating it into a much more complex and intricate etude on the spot. Salieri is floored in awe. I have no doubt that many proficient pianists felt likewise upon hearing his spectacular version of this old chestnut. During “St. Louis Blues” I detect no delay or interruption between what Art’s imaginative mind envisioned and what his nimble fingers produced. His jazzy, impressionistic intro for “Tiger Rag” throws you for a loop before he suddenly roars into the number with the ferocity and blinding speed of a fighter jet. His take on Ellington’s classic “Sophisticated Lady” is so graceful yet so inventive that if he’d been playing it in a restaurant you were dining at you’d never have gotten around to eating because you would’ve been so thoroughly entranced by his elegant mastery. It’s hard to believe that this brand of jazz was recorded in 1933.

The remaining nine cuts were taped live in the spring of ’49 at the “Just Jazz” concert held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. If anything he’s even more phenomenal! Opening with “How High the Moon,” he demonstrates that his smooth articulations had deepened, his harmonic daring was breathtaking, he was still quick as a spooked hare and his innate timing is beyond belief. When he performs Dvorak’s “Humoresque” he utilizes all 88 keys equally and I confess that I’ve never heard anyone else’s phrasing that can top his fluid approach. He could change the entire mood at the drop of a hat. Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” follows and his introductory flourish gives the impression that he’s either amusing himself or toying with the audience (or both) but what he does with one of my all-time favorite melodies defies description. On the gem “Yesterdays” his uncanny gift for dynamics is on full display as incidental trills, brisk runs and abstract intrusions come zipping in from all directions without warning. By the time you get to “I Know That You Know” it sinks into your brain that you’re experiencing the talents of a bonafide keyboard savant doing things effortlessly that 99.99% of his peers could never pull off on their best day. Of this number Feather commented, “He tears into the standard at a breakneck pace, later halves the time and finally doubles up again, with a tongue-in-cheek ending that shows the sly sense of humor that informed so much of his work.”

“Willow Weep for Me” is the next classic song to receive the Tatum treatment as he decorates this oft-covered ditty with unbelievable showers of glittery arpeggios. As if he’d gotten bored, he plunges headlong into his own “Tatum Pole Boogie” with its eight-to-the-bar and octave-jumping bass patterns that’ll make your head spin like Linda Blair. It’s speed-demon stuff, for sure, but one is struck by the delicate touch he applies that stands in clear contrast to the heavy-handed techniques of the boogie-woogie pioneers. The calmer “The Kerry Dance” is the shortest cut but it’s also the most humorous in that it’s like he was sharing an inside joke with the crowd. The liner notes relate that it was often employed as a playful encore for his club act when the patrons wouldn’t let him go. He ends with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” wherein he stupefies all in attendance with cascades of notes that thrill and delight. His was an amazing artistry, indeed.

Feather told of hearing Art one particular night in the mid 40s at New York’s tiny Three Deuces packed with pianists. Duke Ellington was there and “declared himself too overwhelmed to express his feelings.” Eddie Heywood, one of the top piano names of the day, was quoted as saying “The more I hear him the more convinced I am that I’d better quit playing and drive a truck.” None other than Charlie Parker once took a job as a dishwasher at a joint in Harlem just so he could hear him improvise nightly. At one point Tatum tried to expand his visibility by forming a trio but found no drummer or bassist that could keep up with him so he resigned himself to being a one-man force of nature. Art died of kidney failure at age 46 but thanks to the preservation of recordings such as this one we can share in his genius. Feather put it bluntly. “The feeling then, and it prevails to this day among thousands of musicians, was that Art Tatum represented the apotheosis of jazz improvisation. He was the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument.” Chew on that a while and then get this CD. You’ll probably find yourself agreeing with his assessment.

CHICAGO Chicago X

Album · 1976 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 1.91 | 4 ratings
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Being a fan of Chicago has been at times an extremely rewarding attraction and at other times an incredibly frustrating one. After hearing them initially in ’69 when they opened up a Jimi Hendrix concert I attended they quickly became one of my favorite bands and I almost wore the grooves out of their first three double LPs because they were so progressive-minded and innovative. I developed a real sense of kinship with them. But, like all extended family members can, they began to test my patience. My Chicago cousins started to delve into realms they were unsuited for, moves I found perplexing and, on occasion, downright idiotic. Instead of continuing to develop their unique ability to fuse rock with jazz they foolishly wandered into other genres because they liked them, not because they were talented at working in them. It happens. I get it. But it’s one thing to admire, say, The Rolling Stones, quite another to incorporate their sound into yours without coming off as a cheap imitation. I attribute the uneven nature of albums V and VI to that tendency. The courageous return they made to their fusion foundations on VII was cause for exuberant celebration but just one year later they plunged to rock bottom with the dull, lifeless VIII, leaving me scratching my head in confusion. So in 1976 they were at a crucial fork in the road and I wondered which path they’d take. Finally, after 15 months of waiting (and not being appeased by a greatest hits package in the interim), I got my answer in the form of number X. Unfortunately it didn’t bode well as to where their future endeavors would be headed.

They begin with guitarist Terry Kath’s “Once or Twice,” a tune that can’t be categorized as being anything other than full-frontal rock & roll with no apologies offered. While not all that memorable the enthusiasm they exude at least makes it appear that all eight members were on the same page once again after looking like F-Troop rejects on the mess that was VIII. Trombonist James Pankow’s “You Are On My Mind” fosters hope for better things. It’s a jazzy little number with a subtle Latin feel and a funky middle section that provides a healthy amount of contrast. Both Pankow’s vocal debut on the track and his ever-reliable trombone make a good impression. His “Skin Tight” is next, a slice of contemporary funk with a big band attitude where the bright horns and Kath’s spunky guitar really stand out. At this point I felt pretty optimistic about the direction they were going in but that bubble of anticipation burst as soon as Peter Cetera’s schmaltzy “If You Leave Me Now” commenced to play. I realize this wasn’t the first time they’d waded into the pop ballad pool but it was the first time they’d so blatantly bathed in it. What I’m saying is that inside songs like “Wishing You Were Here” and “Color My World” there were still ingredients that identified it as being a product of Chicago but this tepid tune could’ve been done by Barry Manilow and no one would’ve known the difference. I’ve read that they had serious misgivings about it and that it was their overbearing producer James Guercio who insisted they include this saccharine cup cake on the record but, in the end, they have to take responsibility for giving in to his demands. Despite the fact that the song became their first #1 hit single the damage it did to their already fading reputation as rebels was devastating. From that moment on they ceased to be viewed as serious jazz/rock fusion explorers.

Trumpeter Lee Loughnane’s “Together Again” follows, a lukewarm specimen of “lite rock” that drifts in and out of flowerland without ever finding a place to stake its claim. Lee tries his hand at singing lead but his voice is unremarkably pedestrian and the tune’s drawn-out ending is uneventful. Dipping their toes into Caribbean waves on keyboard man Robert Lamm’s “Another Rainy Day in New York” is a welcome change of pace but the results are mundane at best because they generate zilch in the excitement department. Cetera contributes “Mama Mama,” a song propelled by a halfhearted R&B groove blended with pop sensibilities that water down a tune that had the potential to transcend the norm if they’d taken a more aggressive tact. A hard funk/rock beat generates a spark under Lamm’s “Scrapbook,” providing a brief respite from the mediocre. The track’s rowdy horns and Terry’s playful guitar solo give the number character while the nostalgic lyrics of “Jimi was so kind to us/had us on the tour/we got some education/like we never got before” strike a chord. Robert’s “Gently I’ll Wake You” is hard to label. It starts out as a low-key, piano bar sing-along kinda deal but then it escalates into something bigger. It does show they were trying to push themselves a bit yet the composition isn’t strong enough to make a lasting impression. The apex of the album is Lamm’s “You Get it Up,” a sexy, motivating, mostly instrumental piece that features a group-sung chorus and contains more oomph than anything else on the record. It sounds like they were giving their egos a night off and letting themselves have fun recording it. Kath’s heartbreak song, “Hope for Love,” is the closer, a simple tune they unwisely over-produce and, in the process, drain it of any emotional impact it might’ve had before it evaporates into nothing, just like my hopes did for the band to reinvigorate themselves.

In some circles X was viewed as a success. It went to #3 on the album charts, won three Grammys and gave them the elusive Top 40 topper their record company had dreamed of them delivering to them for seven years. Guercio was proven right but his commercial tactic only serves to remind me of the scripture that warns of gaining the whole world at the expense of losing one’s very soul. Chicago would go on to become one of the most enduring and affable acts on the planet but in June of ‘76 with the release of this, their eighth studio project; they officially forfeited their “coolness.” The signs were there on VIII but this confirmed their willful decision to never rock the boat again and just go with the popular flow. They had become, sadly, satisfied with being average musically but profitable financially. The establishment they once railed against had devoured them.

FRANK SINATRA Sinatra at the Sands

Live album · 1966 · Vocal Jazz
Cover art 4.05 | 2 ratings
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What can one possibly say about Frank Sinatra that hasn’t already been said? The man is one of the undisputed heavyweight icons of 20th century music. In my book he’s only topped by The Beatles and Elvis Presley due to the fact that he wasn’t as much of a game-changing innovator as those rebels were but Frank certainly played a major part in bringing jazz further out into the open and making it a viable alternative to the cutesy pop that often ruled the airwaves in the 40s. That alone would’ve been enough to secure his place in history but he also discovered ways to fit his natural charisma into the film and burgeoning television realms, creating a multi-media niche for himself that few have equaled. Yet he never abandoned his penchant for performing and found the hotel ballrooms and nightclubs of bawdy Las Vegas to be the venues where he could most be who he really was, an immensely magnetic and gifted singer who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.

Face it, live albums are a dime a dozen. But few truly convey the authentic atmosphere of the room they were taped in as well as this one does and it also benefits greatly from exceptional sound quality on the technical side. I was in various rock bands in the 70s and one of my hobbies was to record our sets as often as I could not only in order to critique our deficiencies so they could be corrected but to try to preserve the moment for posterity. Musically speaking some turned out better than others yet the ones I treasure most are those that captured the realness of the evening via the stage patter and the unplanned interactions between we artists and our admirers, making me feel like I’ve been transported back to that very night. Because this disc hasn’t been sanitized or heavily edited it retains all of those special quirks I so delight in. What you get with “Sinatra at the Sands” is Frank’s show from start to finish, honestly conveying the genius of his inimitable, confident style and the superb caliber of the musicians he surrounded himself with in his mid 50s, the circa ‘66 era when I feel he was most comfortable with his notoriety.

After a grand introduction the famous Count Basie Orchestra (conducted by none other than Quincy Jones) kicks right into “Come Fly with Me” and Sinatra enters as casually and relaxed as if he just strolled in from a dip in the pool. He then shows off his unique vocal phrasing acumen on “I’ve Got a Crush on You” as his trusty pianist Bill Miller floats notes up from behind and the ensemble eases into the song’s lazy gait seamlessly. While some headliners might be irritated by audience distractions, Frank is a master at using them to keep the mood spontaneous and the momentum never flags for a second. During “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” the band’s riveting dynamics are so good they actually upstage the star. Their rendition of “The Shadow of Your Smile” is very sultry and jazzy with light vibes adding a cool accompaniment to Sinatra’s crooning. On “Street of Dreams” the sexy lope generated by the drums and bass supports a strong horn section but the apex of the set comes in the form of “One For My Baby.” Frank describes it as a classic “drunk song” and then proceeds to paint the scenery while Miller plays softly underneath. Here Quincy wisely keeps the orchestra out of the number, allowing the intimacy Sinatra creates to reign unadorned. The walking feel established for “Fly Me to the Moon” leads you right into Jones’ fabulous arrangement that compels this tune to soar. When Frank disappears offstage Basie’s bunch skips nary a beat, leaping into a short burst of “One ‘o Clock Jump” to keep things on the up and up.

When Sinatra returns he gives the musicians a break by treating the crowd to about 11 minutes of wisecracks. As I said, one of this album’s charms is that you get the whole package of what it was like to attend one of his appearances. “You Make Me Feel So Young” is a fine swinging deal that builds and builds to a climactic end after which Sinatra once again leaves things in Quincy’s hands so the orchestra can deliver a dynamite version of “All of Me.” One can’t avoid being impressed by what a tight, cohesive group they were as they pepper the song with sharp accents and brassy punches. A dramatic intro quiets the room for “The September of My Years,” letting Frank work his spellbinding magic on those gathered. “Luck Be a Lady” sports a coy beginning featuring crisp horns and then it drops into a peppy pace suitable for snapping your fingers to. Another zippy tempo turns “Get Me to the Church on Time” from a dated oldie into something modern and extraordinarily hot. For “It Was a Very Good Year” Jones’ tactful arrangement fits the lounge climate perfectly without losing any of the poignancy or class of the lush studio version. “Don’t Worry About Me” is a bar ballad you can tell is one of Sinatra’s favorites. I love the brash, glamorous horns that shine brightly and keep it from being a downer. After a clever opening by the Count and his boys the ensemble delivers a rousing instrumental cover of “Makin’ Whoopee!” where the inventive score and the muted trumpet in particular kill. When Frank returns for “Where or When” he and the musicians are so in their element they make what they do sound deceivingly easy. A mellow lead-in colors “Angel Eyes,” a dandy specimen of jazzy blues wherein Sinatra tells a sad story using the song’s delicate melody to enhance the lyrics, followed by the happy swing of “My Kind of Town,” the set closer they could’ve played in their sleep without charts. The encore consists of Frank graciously thanking his crew and a brief reprise of the tune, peaking in a huge finale.

“Sinatra at the Sands” was his first concert LP to be released commercially so you know it had to pass all of his stringent requirements. If you don’t have any of Sinatra’s records this might be a place to start because you not only get a slew of some of his best and most well-known songs but you get his one-of-a-kind personality as a bonus. If you’re a fan but don’t have it already, buy it today. The Count Basie Orchestra performs marvelously throughout as Frank beguiles as only he could and when it’s over you feel like you’ve been right there, sitting at a front-row table and soaking it all in. “Ol’ Blue Eyes” may be gone from this mortal coil but, thanks to recordings such as this, you can experience a fair semblance of what it was like to be in his presence. This is everything a live album should be.

PAT METHENY 80/81

Album · 1980 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.60 | 11 ratings
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I’m finding out that Pat Metheny wears a lot of hats. Some are impressive, some are not. The same guy who created the intriguing “As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls” album with the talented Lyle Mays also produced the dull, pedantic “First Circle” disc with his eponymous group that bored me no end. Therefore, it’s dawning on me that listening to one of his records for the first time is akin to indulging in a brown morsel from one of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. “80/81” doesn’t lie somewhere in between those two aforementioned albums, either. It’s more like another point on a triangle, distinct and equally distant from the other terminals in most respects. While I can’t substantiate my suspicions with solid fact I surmise that Pat was presented with an opportunity to enter into the studio with four respected jazz masters and he wisely seized the moment without giving it a second thought. I mean, how often does one have the chance to be in sessions with Charlie Haden on double bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and both Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone? I have no doubt that Metheny pinched himself and then plunged ahead with the project knowing that even if the result wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of jazz he’d have and be able to learn from an experience never to be repeated in his lifetime.

The first cut is the almost 21-minute “Two Folk Songs (1st, 2nd).” Beginning with Metheny’s prominent, aggressively-strummed acoustic guitar, Brecker breaks the ice by playing an optimistic melody line that gives you the false notion this is to be some kind of light, contemporary jazz piece. Soon the atmosphere gets altered as the quartet settles into a spirited jam where the saxophone gets unruly and abstract for several minutes, followed by the rhythm section of Charlie and Jack stepping forward to restore some order and to draw Michael back to the original theme. However, it ain’t long till more noisy mayhem ensues. DeJohnette eventually turns in an entertaining drum solo, leading to a much more ethereal, quiet setting where Haden vamps unaccompanied on what sounds like an old gospel song till Jack eases back in and Pat guides them all to the finale with some beautiful acoustic guitar. Overall the number has a few moments that I like but more often than not it goes to places that unnerve me and make me want it to be over sooner than later. “Every Day (I Thank You)” follows, a slow, jazzy ballad featuring a dreamy mix of guitar and saxophone backed by the tactful rhythm section strolling behind. The tune owns a gorgeous ambience and a very inventive arrangement that’ll hold your attention. Brecker really shines throughout this cut and Metheny further relaxes the climate with an acoustic guitar ride soothing as a mental massage. They close this long piece with a reprise of the initial melody and a reinforcement of the serene mood it implants in your psyche.

Next is “Goin’ Ahead,” a much shorter track where Pat entrances all by his lonesome on acoustic guitar. Here his performance figuratively glows due to his flawless technique and confident execution. On “80/81” an underlying peppier pace drives this scat-like number nimbly as Dewey Redman finally joins the festivities. Metheny switches over to his fat electric and proceeds to dazzle with his dexterity, flying like a hawk over the frets while DeJohnette does a fine job of anticipating and accenting his every nuance. Pat then backs out and lets the other four cruise along uninhibited until they finish the song with the saxes and guitar playing the tune’s sprightly theme in tandem. “The Bat” has a much slower aura surrounding it. In the early going Metheny and Haden carry the load over a somewhat complex yet melodic structure and then Charlie breaks off on his own for an upright bass ride consisting of instinctive feel at its finest. Dewey and Jack fall in at the three quarter mark and proceed to delicately build upon the song’s focused peacefulness. For their cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Turn Around” Charlie instigates a sly, jazzy shuffle that seems to bring out the best in DeJohnette’s drumming. Leaving the sax players out, Pat glides and amazes via his unique style that contains very little repetition, if any. The rhythm section is incredibly tight as if of one single mind, especially during their shared moment in the spotlight.

The copy I have is the single CD edition so there’s a whole ‘nother side of what was included on the double LP set that I have yet to hear (and most likely never will). Nonetheless, this album, with the exception of the volatile first cut, makes for stimulating listening as it ventures into the softer side of jazz/rock fusion. For some the epic “Two Folk Songs” may be the portion of the record they’re most attracted to so there’s no way that I’d dare knock or impugn its integrity just because I don’t cotton to its wild side. I honor and subscribe to the “different strokes for different folks” rule and that certainly applies in this case.

CHICAGO Chicago VIII

Album · 1975 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 1.50 | 4 ratings
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While it’s thankfully a rare occurrence, we’ve all at one time or another had to witness a drastic plunge in a band’s creativity level from the loftiest of heights down to the grisliest of dregs that can manifest itself even within the brief span of two consecutive albums. To a true fan this phenomenon is so confounding and maddening as to make a manic depressive’s low look like a bad hair day in comparison. After putting out a series of uneven but still above average records in the early 70s Chicago released their hip, jazzy VII in March of 1974 and it remains one of the finest albums (if not their acme) in their hefty catalogue of works. It took a lot of intestinal fortitude to go against the grain and produce a double LP set filled with songs that took so many chances with their pop/rock image but the risk paid off. The record proved so popular that its persistence in holding a respectable position on the charts actually delayed the release of this, the follow up disc. That’s why trying to rationalize the spell of incompetence and musical myopia that took hold of the group in the interim is as frustrating as attempting to find a sliver of sunshine in Chicago VIII. To put it more succinctly, WTF got into these guys?

Having a whole year to further explore the intriguing jazz/rock fusion territory they returned to and embraced on the previous album as well as adding a full-time employee, percussionist Laudir de Oliveira, would, one should think, invigorate and encourage the ensemble to be even bolder than before. Yet, in defiance of all intelligent reasoning, they got lazy and fell back into old habits, taking the easiest path possible as exemplified by the opening tune, Peter Cetera’s “Anyway You Want.” He was the sole member who objected to their adopting the jazzy motif that characterized VII and one wonders if, by letting him lead off the new record, they were collectively trying to make amends for hurting his little feelings. Whatever. Tame as it is, the song isn’t as frail as what is encountered further into the record, though, and its nostalgic, swinging rock & roll beat is slightly disarming. The understated vocals don’t adhere to the standard Chicago approach but they’re not off-putting, either, especially in light of the carefree atmosphere that surrounds this number. If their aim was to start with a more relaxed, less challenging climate this time around they got the job done. James Pankow’s “Brand New Love Affair, Part I & II” is next and it’s the best cut on the album by far. The first half of the song possesses a small jazz club’s sultry aura and features some cool Rhodes piano and muted horns flowing behind Terry Kath’s smoky vocal. The 2nd movement evolves into a decent, laid-back shuffle where Peter croons and the brass dominates, brightening the mood. Hope is falsely elevated that great things may be in store.

Robert Lamm’s “Never Been in Love Before” follows, a ballad bathing in a warm Latin current that helps it to avoid its boring, schmaltzy fate, becoming a passable piece via some interesting Jimmy Webb-style transitions and detours. Unfortunately things take an ugly turn after that, beginning with Cetera’s pitiful “Hideaway.” It’s a sloppy foray into hard rock completely lacking in focus or definition that sounds more like a demo than a finished product. In fact, the fidelity of this recording has serious problems that can’t be excused and that condition says volumes about the group’s unforgivable lapse in maintaining objective oversight. Terry’s “Till We Meet Again” is an acoustic guitar-driven ditty that’s inoffensive but very short and forgettable. The band did score a #13 hit with Robert’s Randy Newman-ish “Harry Truman,” a throwback tune with a “good old days” political theme. I appreciate it for what it represents and Walt Parazaider’s clarinet offers a breath of fresh air at this point yet the song seems out of place here, further evidence of the album having no definite direction. Next comes Kath’s ridiculously self-indulgent “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit.” After a cosmic opening, you’re exposed to a big dose of Hendrix-inspired, electronically-affected vocals layered over phased guitar chords but the main body of the song is a meandering, poor imitation of Jimi’s inimitable way of creating abstract dreamscapes. Slowly the tempo increases in increments to support an unstructured and overly noisy ending to this trite, time-wasting track.

Lamm’s “Long Time No See” is a non-descript rocker that spotlights the record’s dearth of noteworthy compositions, underscoring the impression one inevitably gets that they were content with mediocre, “good enough” performances rather than reaching for any semblance of perfection. Their trusty funk monster is brought out of hiding for Robert’s “Ain’t It Blue?” and, while it’s nice to see the ogre make a belated appearance, even he can’t make this weak number dance. James’ “Old Days” turned out to be a top five hit thanks in no small part to its familiar, patronizing “Saturday in the Park” vibe but this tepid tune is so vanilla that I’ve never been able to pay it any attention at all. Its plainness is exasperating when compared to what these musicians were capable of producing.

Chicago VIII hit the record bins in March of ’75 and, while it did reach #1 on the album chart, it didn’t stay there long and completely disappeared from the Hot 100 list within weeks. In other words, even their fair-weather fans could see that the emperor was naked as a jaybird on this anemic platter of black vinyl. To dazzle the public and the music world so exquisitely just a year earlier and then to so shamelessly defecate on their loyal following by squeezing out this lump of underachievement and expecting them to eat it up soiled their reputation indelibly. Someone in the band should’ve had the balls to stand up, say that this was beneath them and insist they go back to the drawing board but evidently no one cared enough to take that courageous stance. Too bad, because many of their former admirers were never able to look at them quite the same afterward. They had failed both us and themselves.

ORNETTE COLEMAN The Shape of Jazz to Come (aka Le Jazz De Demain)

Album · 1959 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.56 | 23 ratings
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I suspect that Ornette Coleman was a genuine nonconformist from the moment he emerged from his mother’s womb in Ft. Worth, Texas. God bless him because we need as many of those individuals as we can get. For in all fields of human-produced art it is the rebellious that instigate drastic, needed change in the accepted patterns via their refusal to accept the status quo as law, preferring to rely on their own compass instead of standard issue. This is usually not because they frivolously opt to be square pegs in a round world but because they have to. Ornette is one of those people. The farther up the jazz ladder he ascended in the 50s the more his unorthodox techniques and radical approach to music in general garnered attention. His peers were somewhat divided in their opinions. Some thought he was a trouble-making maniac while others considered him a vitally important catalyst for releasing the genre from its self-imposed shackles. The passing of time has proven the latter view to be correct.

After two eyebrow-raising LPs on the Contemporary label (each of which created quite a stir in the jazz community) Coleman signed with Atlantic and proceeded to rattle even more cages with this, his landmark “The Shape of Jazz to Come” in ‘59. The record is now acknowledged as one of the first avant garde jazz albums ever unleashed upon the public and it effectively opened the flood gates for the “free jazz” movement to blossom in the 60s. Eschewing the obligatory piano altogether, Ornette put together a quartet consisting of his alto saxophone, Don Cherry’s cornet, Charlie Haden’s double bass and Billy Higgins’ drums and went into the studio on May 22, 1959 to make history. Keep in mind when you listen to the exploratory sounds they made that, while even relatively bold jazzers were suspicious of him and his cohorts, they scared the average American Joe of that era to death. The consensus deemed their music incomprehensible claptrap, that they were just making an infernal and intolerable racket for no reason. One glance at the top of the pop charts that year will tell you why. Johnny Horton’s hokey “Battle of New Orleans” was #1 and teen idols Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka had singles ranked in the top five. No wonder this record was vilified by many on the political right as being outrageous, semi-demonic and a detrimental influence on the youth of America. Just like Elvis.

With Coleman’s eclectic reputation in mind and the fact that unconventional jazz fare usually does very little for me I bravely ventured into “The Shape of Jazz to Come” with some trepidation. However, my fear was unfounded. What I discovered is an intriguing bridge over the river dividing the old regime’s boundaries and the more modern borders that jazz as an art form found itself running between as the 50s came to a close. The album begins with “Lonely Woman” and from the get-go I could tell that I’d entered a room in the jazz mansion where Picasso was the interior decorator. While not dissonant per se, musical notes bend and warp rather unnaturally and the effect is kinda discombobulating. Call it the funhouse effect. While still trying to digest that tune the next cut, “Eventually,” starts and its lightning-speed pace catches me totally off guard. Yet it isn’t frantic or unnerving at all. Ornette’s sax wails like a disturbed bird of prey and Don’s cornet zips and zooms like an excited hummingbird. My favorite song on the disc follows, “Peace.” The horns establish a much calmer atmosphere as they perform a complex melody while Charlie’s bowed bass soothes. The fact that there’s no solid chord structure to be found took some getting used to but there’s something quite alluring about what they’re doing that kept me tuned in. The song soon morphs into a more traditional “walking” rhythm but Billy’s drums are so subdued (on purpose, I’m sure) you can hardly tell he’s there so it’s not your average shuffle by any means. Coleman’s saxophone solo is seductive as a cobra and Cherry’s ride is as cool as a cone of shaved ice on a summer day. The number exits with the odd start & stop theme it made its entrance with.

Following an initial flurry of sound, “Focus on Sanity” opens with Haden stepping forward to assert his presence backed by Higgins’ sneaky tubs. In an abrupt startle, the horns blare and the rhythm section suddenly takes off in a full sprint as if hoping to stay a step ahead of Ornette’s dangerous sax before slowing up a bit to jog alongside Don’s cornet. Billy finally gets a chance to shine toward the end. The strange, off-the-reservation structure of “Congeniality” typifies what this record is all about. Yet, like all the music found here, there are enough vestiges of traditional jazz sensibilities involved to make it palatable for even the most conservative connoisseur. Coleman’s solo is very melodic while clearly maintaining independence from the norm and the same goes for Don when he takes his turn at the mike. Higgins’ drums are significantly inventive while maintaining a low profile. “Chronology” is characterized by cleverly positioned outbursts of notes and a busy foundation flowing underneath. The saxophone and cornet exude a certain scat mentality in their deliveries that’s both engaging and captivatingly rhythmic at the same time. Exhilarating comes closest to describing the song.

As a child growing up during the 50s I recall that music this “out there” was only heard when TV comedians were making fun of it, its practitioners or a combination thereof. But “civilized” society didn’t single out abstract trends in jazz exclusively for their ridicule. Those popular parodies extended into the fields of painting, sculpture, fashion and even folk music with equal amounts of sarcasm. Being an impressionable kid, though, I thought of it all as being wonderfully provocative and inspiring because all that craziness belonged to “my generation” and we were going to take things to places and levels unimagined by our stodgy parents. Their silly mimicry only made me want to hear the real thing. So when experiencing “The Shape of Jazz to Come” revel in the knowledge that it was pioneers like Ornette Coleman that had the guts to force new life into jazz when it most needed it, making it possible for the genre to not only revive and thrive but to expand exponentially.

THELONIOUS MONK Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane

Album · 1961 · Bop
Cover art 3.95 | 10 ratings
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One of the most fascinating things about the history of the great jazz musicians is how freely they floated about in the collective music stream like buoyant leaves, bunching together with others for a while, separating to drift alone for a brief period and then sidling up to yet another grouping almost at random. This tendency was never more prevalent than during the timeframe of the mid to late 50s and into the early 60s when these folks were simply trying to eke out an existence that would allow them to continue to practice their craft. In that era there was a community of incredible players that individually went wherever the paying gigs were, hooking up with whoever else was lucky enough to get the call. The music that came out of these usually short-lived gatherings (mostly trios and quartets) is of such a cooperative and somewhat spontaneous nature as to make each instance gratifyingly unique. It’s normal to expect a disc like “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane” to be superb (and it is) but when sitting back and listening to it I try to picture in my head the recording session as it unfolded with each participant doing their very best to compliment and bring out the best from the others, knowing full well that they might never get a chance to create together again once they left the studio. Some of the finest jazz of the 20th century was generated via these ad hoc coagulations of virtuosos and it just goes to show how sharp, versatile and quick-to-adapt these geniuses were and how fortunate we are to have albums like this one preserved for ourselves and the generations ahead to enjoy.

Following several years of not being able to ply his trade in New York due to having his cabaret card suspended (he refused to testify against a fellow musician regarding a drug bust and suffered the consequences) Monk at last got his permit reinstated early in 1957. Soon after he was offered what would turn out to be a six-month engagement at the Five Spot Club so he promptly put together a band consisting of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wilbur Ware on double bass and Shadow Wilson on drums. While still in rehearsal for the job an opportunity arose to take the quartet into the studio. Funny, what we now regard as a momentous occasion involving two icons of jazz was probably nothing more than business-as-usual for them both and for the other cats involved. Considering the results, I can only imagine how tight and cohesive their combo became after months of performing together night after night. It must’ve been breath-taking to hear them live.

Opening the album with Monk’s romantic and oft-covered “Ruby, My Dear” gets things off to a wonderful start. It’s a slightly sultry number with a beautiful, sexy melody line designed to entrance and seduce. Coltrane’s saxophone solo is exquisite, containing lighting-fast runs that emanate straight from his heart and directly into his instrument. Thelonious’ piano ride is equally satisfying, as well, and the whole tune has a sumptuous aura that’s hard to describe. “Tinkle, Tinkle” follows and it’s a playful, up tempo tune wherein John darts and dashes hither and yon like an industrious honey bee collecting nectar. Every time I hear him emoting in his element (as he is here) I’m awestruck by his amazing skill. Monk, by necessity, is more controlled during his solo but that’s because he’s solely responsible for holding the chord structure together while embellishing the central theme. The rock-solid rhythm section of Wilbur and Shadow never falters for a nanosecond throughout this recording. Next is another standout song, “Off Minor.” Here they’re joined by Gigi Gryce on alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax and Ray Copeland on trumpet to form a formidable horn section while Wilson lets the great Art Blakey sit in on the drum kit. Coltrane’s lead is brash and Copeland’s is tasty but it’s Thelonious that keeps you on the edge of your seat during his solo. This is an energetic and highly entertaining number.

They go back to the basic foursome for “Nutty.” Its friendly melody line leads you into a tune that’s anything but typical. John’s impassioned ride will leave you shaking your head in disbelief as he soars like a confident circus acrobat working without need of a net. On piano Monk messes with the basic theme just enough to let you know who wrote the piece and who is ultimately calling the shots. For “Epistrophy” (a classic of early modern jazz composed in ’42 by Thelonious and Kenny Clarke) Copeland and Hawkins return to punch up this splendid specimen of big band badness built upon a relaxing swing beat. Coltrane and Ray both turn in blistering rides but it’s Shadow’s expressive drums that add a magical dimension to the arrangement, elevating the song from the status of merely above-average fare to the extraordinary. The album ends with an extended rendition of Monk’s solo piano number, “Functional.” He fluidly displays his remarkable mastery of the instrument as he glides effortlessly from one feel to another yet he never leaves the listener behind as he improvises repeatedly. Thelonious had a real gift for taking you through a leisurely but altogether captivating journey at times and this performance stands out as a prime example of that special ability.

Although the session happened in April of ‘57 no one in the public sector got to hear the recordings until 1961. At the time Monk was signed to Riverside Records but Coltrane was still under contract with Prestige and the inevitable contractual conflict kept these cuts locked up for four years until the Jazzland label was finally allowed to release the record. The important thing is that the tunes didn’t fall through the cracks and tragically disappear into oblivion. This is the kind of stuff that has no expiration date and never gets stale. If you have an affection for either of these legendary giants or just want to indulge in and be healed by some primo sounds heralding back to a simpler era when jazz musicians just instinctively knew what to do and when to do it, then this is precisely what the doctor ordered.

CHICAGO Chicago VII

Album · 1974 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 4.14 | 7 ratings
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By 1973 the Chicago mob was undoubtedly aware of the spectacular advancements being made in the realm of jazz/rock fusion. One of the most popular groups on the planet, Santana, had brazenly eschewed their “hit machine” image via their landmark “Caravanserai” LP, Mahavishnu Orchestra had brought ferocious avant garde jazz out of cult status, stunning packed rock & roll arenas with it and exploratory groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters were not only revolutionizing the fusion genre but cultivating enthusiastic audiences, making them hungry for more. Since Chicago’s brassy rock competitors (Blood, Sweat & Tears in particular) had evaporated into the ether one by one they found themselves in a position somewhat like Alexander the Great in that there was no more land to conquer. Hit singles no longer thrilled them and touring the globe had long ago lost its glossy veneer. Eyeing the fun their jazzy peers were having, they yearned more and more to return to their fusion roots, find similar fulfillment and reignite the creative flame that, as the 60s drew to a close, had thrust them into the vanguard of a fresh chapter in the evolution of jazz.

Evidently they’d been leaning toward doing a jazz-laden record for some time, developing material in rehearsals and sound checks that would justify such an undertaking. The results were so invigorating that when it came time to go back into Caribou Studios they were excited about making a new album, more than they’d been in years. Despite the presence of a pair of Chicken Little party poopers (bassist Peter Cetera and producer James Guercio, both of whom predicted a veritable apocalypse should the group dare challenge their fans by presenting them with anything more complicated than “Color My World”) the ensemble stuck to their guns and followed their hearts instead of their pocketbooks. They ended up with so many excellent tunes on tape that they were forced to return to the double LP format they’d abandoned after their third studio album in order to get it all out there in front of the public. Their determination and resistance to being artistic conservatives paid off. The record is one of their best efforts and one that they have every right to be proud of.

Speaking of Santana, the first time I lowered my needle onto the black vinyl of Chicago VII I thought there must’ve been a disc swap-out at the factory. Stickman Danny Seraphine’s “Prelude to Aire” consists mainly of congas, muted drums and Walter Parazaider’s flighty flute, not their usual routine. More surprises ensue in Walter and James Pankow’s “Aire,” a jazz instrumental built on a delightful swing in 7/8 time where the involved horn score belies a healthy respect for their big band ancestors. Guitarist Terry Kath’s extended ride is one of his finest and Parazaider’s fiery flute runs help make this a stunning ear-opener. Walt and Danny’s “Devil’s Sweet” has a fusionistic beginning that’s jaw-dropping in its utter disregard for commercial appeal. The drum solo is striking and dare I say that the segment that follows is wildly abstract? I kid you not. There’s a palpable Miles Davis aura that slinks around this complex number, proving they were dead serious about doing something radical this time around. Guest percussionist Laudir de Oliveira’s congas and some spunky synth noodlings lead to Robert Lamm’s “Italian from New York.” The fact that we’re this far in and have yet to hear anyone sing a note is very strange, indeed. The talented horn section is once more the focal point but Terry does inject a peppy, “talking” wah-wah guitar lead. Robert’s “Hanky Panky” is mostly a drum-fueled, intricate intro to a jazzy jam where James’ trombone impresses. They then segue to Lamm’s “Life Saver.” After laying down a funky groove and crowning it with a sleazy-in-a-good-way horn arrangement, they finally start to sing. Yet they throw another twist in the dough by electronically altering the lead vocal and, to top it off, adding a quirky, Beatle-ish repeating chorus.

The false start for Peter’s “Happy Man” is a throwback to their earlier days, the song’s light samba feel fits the romantic mood perfectly and the jazzy chord progression is alluring. Pankow contributed the tune that most personifies the album. “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” was a genuine head-turner that immediately captured the fancy of everyone who heard it because it was so superior to the average AM radio fare of that era. Not only does it touch on a subject that strikes home with millions but its blending of lush symphonic orchestration with a growling synth bass line in the second half is incredibly memorable. James’ “Mongonucleosis” is a spirited, Latin-flavored instrumental delivered with mucho enthusiasm. The 3-man horn section never sounded better or more unified than they do on this cut and that’s saying a lot. The album takes a nap during Kath’s “Song of the Evergreens,” though. It’s a slower-paced, loping tune that retards the momentum. It does perk up later on but the whole thing is fairly disjointed. Terry’s “Byblos” is an improvement. The Bossa Nova vibe is pleasing and it’s comforting to hear their silky harmonies floating in the background. It’s not a great number but kudos to them for staying with the record’s jazzy motif and for their willingness to experiment with their “pop act” persona.

A waves-on-the-shore sound effect launches Cetera’s wistful ballad, “Wishing You Were Here,” one that benefits fantastically by having a trio of Beach Boys intertwine their expert vocals into the arrangement. The unexpectedly punchy bridge offers a stark contrast, setting it apart from the majority of their soft-as-butter hits. Trumpeter Lee Loughnane didn’t write much but his “Call On Me” is not only a catchy tune but it charted highest (#6) of the singles culled from this album. Continuing the Latin beat mindset, this staple of “lite rock” gets a jolt from the bright horns that color the background along with Seraphine’s spiffy drum fills. Robert’s “Woman Don’t Want To Love Me” is a case of Curtis Mayfield-styled funk receiving the Chicago treatment, making for a fun romp. Kath turns in a playful wah-wah guitar solo and the boisterous ending is in-your-face rowdy. Lamm’s “Skinny Boy” is the closer, a soulful jaunt that’s very cohesive. The decision to bring in the Pointer Sisters to pump up the chorus was pure genius. The song doesn’t sound like anything else on the record and its uncharacteristically loose ending is appropriate for an album that takes a lot of risks.

The band, usually fast as jackrabbits in the studio, completely invested themselves and their time into four months worth of sessions for this courageous project and probably suffered through demeaning landslides of pre-release criticism, negativity and end-of-career warnings for its content. Yet the great ones don’t sit on their laurels. Rather, they try to elevate the musical consciousness of their followers by giving them something they’re not accustomed to hearing and, by bowling them over with quality material, they lead their flock into greener pastures and expand the group’s freedom to be versatile. After two discs in a row that portrayed them as a band without a focused direction, Chicago VII was a treat for those of us who’d been waiting for these guys to unleash their jazz dragon and scorch us with their top-notch musicianship on more than just a couple of cuts. The nay-sayers were wrong. This record, despite a higher price tag, rose to #1 and remains a favorite of Chicago fanatics who just knew they had this kind of album in them.

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