Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Jones Family - "The Door of the Church"

Curtis Heath of the Theater Fire, who recorded this, writes, "I'm an atheist. But this short sermon moved even me. When the music starts, it's like nothing you've ever felt."

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna see Jimi Hendrix's complete performance from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival?

Not as iconic as Monterey or Woodstock, but more together than Isle of Wight and not truncated like Berkeley.


Jimi Hendrix- Atlanta Pop Festival 7/4/70 by carlfia

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Down by the old mainstream 5: Led Zep's "Physical Graffiti"

My friend John Bargas -- whom I call "The Mailman" because he always delivers -- has influenced the way I think about music more than anybody else I'm older than. When I hit the street back in '92, after missing most of the '80s Guarding Freedom's Frontier, Uncle Johnny was the man I went to see to find out what I'd missed. (His reply: "Husker Du, the Minutemen, and the Replacements.") His mixtapes gave me a new appreciation of Dylan and the Fab Four, and his nightly commentaries on the shortcomings of Ken Burns' Jazz made it unnecessary for me to view said doco. So, when John commented on Facebook that "Physical Graffiti sounds like a bag of weed," it got me thankin'.

I was no fan of Led Zeppelin when they were a going concern, at a time when Zep, Grand Funk Railroad, and Black Sabbath were the fave bands of my middle school age cohort. Being an obscurantist weirdo even then, the 'orrible 'oo were my Beatles and Stones (although in the fullness of time, I've come to realize that the Stones have more records I like, if only by virtue of having made twice as many records as the Who in the same time period), and I'd gotten hip to blues roots via researching the songwriting credits on my Stones-Animals-Yardbirds records.

The most trailblazing Yardbirds in particular I idolized, and I revered Jeff Beck's Truth above the first two Zeppelin albums -- the first one of which could be seen as the final album the Yardbirds never got to make, a perception Jimmy Page reinforced by having the board recording of the Yardbirds' '68 Anderson Theater stand in NYC withdrawn within weeks of its '71 release. Of course, this didn't stop me from attempting to emulate Page's wah-saturated tone and violin-bow-on-the-guitar shtick in my first couple of bands. In later daze, I've come to realize that the hidden influence on Led Zep was Lawn Guyland's own masters of bombast, the Vanilla Fudge, who took the London scene by storm when they played there ca. '67, and who were bigger than the Beatles in the 'hood I grew up in, like the Four Seasons and Young Rascals before them, because they were Italian.

Hindsight being 20/20, I can now see that Robert Plant was a new kind of rock frontman -- not superior to, but different from the R&B-aping English guys (Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott, Paul Rodgers) I preferred at the time, and if he paved the way for the histrionics of cats like Ian Gillan, Bon Scott, Rob Halford, and Bruce Dickinson -- a style which achieved apotheosis with upstate New York doo-wop veteran Ronnie James Dio -- his eclectic post-Zep solo career has often caused me to wonder whether he wasn't the real brains behind the operation all along.

If Plant's resistance to a profit-taking reunion tour could be seen as the result of an unwillingness to be compared with his 20something self (tell it to Pete Townshend, who at this point has ceded leadership of the 'orrible 'oo to Roger Daltrey; can cruise ships and fantasy camps be far off?), I choose to believe it's more about enjoying what he's doing in the now, in contrast with studio mastermind Page, who's produced nada of interest since Zep wisely folded the tent upon John Bonham's demise (the Firm, anyone?), and has curated the super-deluxe reissues of Zep's catalog in the knowledge that those artifacts (and not the legend of their excess-ridden touring behavior) constitute his and their true legacy. (From where I sit now, in the iconic photo of a 30-year-old Page swilling Jack Daniels from the bottle in a dressing room, he looks like a child wearing rockaroll clothes.)

Just as surely as (popular Whofan opinion to the contrary) there'll always be an 'oo as long as PT is writing the songs and Daltrey's singing 'em, Led Zep were a true gestalt in the same way the Beatles were, and there could never be a Zeppelin without Bonzo's distinctive crash 'n' thump (although his son has done a credible job of carrying the torch, when given the opportunity, in the same way as Ringo's kid has been the best drummer the Who had since Keith Moon shuffled off this mortal coil). Not only did Bonham hit harder than the rest of his generation of crazy Brit drummers (Moon, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell), he was steadier 'n' sturdier than all of 'em; you could actually dance to some of Zep's music, which is more than you could say for any of the Who/Cream/Hendrix Experience's.

Beyond that, Bonzo's section mate John Paul Jones understood his instrument's supporting role better than the virtuosi who were his counterparts in the Who and Cream, or the terrible tyro who held the same post in the Experience. And session vet Page used his studio knowledge (and ambient mic'ing) to make them sound HUGE in a way no previous rock rhythm section had. Jones' keyboard dexterity was the icing on the cake, and a lot more functional in a rock context, than, say Entwistle's French horn.

Following the trajectory, Zep I was more about jams than songs, and with its all borrowings from Yardbirds/Willie Dixon/Jake Holmes, it still bore a couple of classic toons ("Good Times Bad Times" and "Communication Breakdown"). Zep II's "Whole Lotta Love" remains a masterpiece of psychedelic production, and only a fool could deny the craft behind a track like "Ramble On." Zep III was notable for a new emphasis on acoustic textures (which had been part of the sonic stew since I's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"), and Page and Plant's jumping the gun on the big beard fad by 40 years.

Their consensus masterpiece, Zep IV has been as inescapable as Are You Experienced?, Who's Next, or Dark Side of the Moon if you've listened to "classic rock" radio in America anytime in the past few decades, and contributed "Stairway To Heaven" to the high school prom canon, at least until it was supplanted by "We May Never Pass This Way Again" a couple of years later. As a result, it's probably going to be more years than I've got left before I need to hear it again. For a long time, I thought Houses of the Holy was Zep's zenith, but the James Brown and reggae piss-takes knock it down a notch. Which brings us to Physical Graffiti, which I traded a stack of unwanted duplicates and records-I-liked-when-I-was-15 for a used copy of the other day.

The first two sides are organized similarly, with relatively succinct rockers giving way to more extended workouts. Besides production, Page's forte is his mastery of riffs, and in the opening combination of "Custard Pie"'s brontosaurus stomp into the off-kilter strut of "The Rover," you can hear him reaching farther from the blues than he generally had earlier on. Live, Page might have worn his Les Paul at knee level, but in the studio, he strapped his Telecaster up high, and tended to submerge his solos in the mix -- a rare example of a guitarist subsuming his player's ego in the overall band dynamic.

Page and Plant excelled at transmogrifying Delta-derived blues into the sound of things falling apart, and "In My Time of Dying" at the end of side one (with Page's slide displaying more melodic imagination than Ron Wood's, if less than Johnny Winter's) serves as a link in the chain between IV's "When the Levee Breaks" (my pick for their greatest recorded moment) and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" on Presence.

"Houses of the Holy" fits better at the top of side two than it would have on the album that bore its name (where it would have been redundant with the similarly groovalicious "Dancing Days"). The appropriately-titled "Trampled Underfoot" integrates funk influences into classic Zep style more effectively than the aforementioned JB pastiche "The Crunge" had. And "Kashmir," as DJ-overplayed through the years as "Stairway," somehow holds up better, even though its form has less variety, marching onward as inexorably as Ravel's "Bolero," its Arabesque atmosphere replete with muezzin-call mellotron.

Side three is probably my favorite, showcasing Zep at their most toonful. The keyboard-dominated "In the Light" starts out all minor key, dark mysterioso, yielding to an ascending guitar line that might be the most uplifting moment in the Zep canon. "Bron-Yr-Aur" is a pastoral, fingerpicked acoustic interlude -- the side of Page I've always found most appealing. "Down By the Seaside" is a gentle evocation of its subject worthy of Them-era Van Morrison, with Jones providing a lush bed of electric piano for Page to extemporize over during the jam sections. "Ten Years Gone" boasts Zep's most gorgeous chord progression since "The Rain Song," with Plant at his most Marriott-esque.

Side four's the cats 'n' dogs, opening with the soulful "Night Flight," continuing with the hard-hitting and (again) appropriately-titled "The Wanton Song," which just might be the most archetypal Zep track of all. "Boogie with Stu" is a jam with the Stones' offstage boogie woogie piano master -- a reminder of Page's roots in the early '60s Brit R&B scene -- while "Black Country Woman" is merely an acoustic throwaway, the kind you find on the fourth side of a double album. Page, Plant and Co. take it on the run with "Sick Again," a nice but undistinguished compendium of signature moves.

Like all the great rock double albums (Blonde On Blonde, the White Album, Electric Ladyland, and Exile On Main St. before, London Calling, Zen Arcade, and Double Nickels On the Dime after) manages to deliver everything you dig about its creators, and lots of it. (In the CD era, only Uncle Lou's Ecstasy comes close.) The arty sensibility that first emerged on Houses of the Holy and reached full fruition with the band's, uh, swan song In Through the Out Door gets ample space here, balanced by the muscular rock, blues grit, and folky pastoralism that were their trademarks.

Four decades on, when Black Sabbath has become the most musically influential band of its day in the same way the Band has become the most sartorially influential, it's hard to believe that a band with as varied a palette as Zeppelin's was could once have been the most popular in the world. But it was. And today, the bag of weed, the ride in a Chevy van, the six-pack of Budweiser, the red pack of Marlboros, all the signifiers of our misspent yoof, are conjured whenever this music is played.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Yells At Eels' "In Quiet Waters"

It's hard to believe that Yells At Eels has been a band for 15 years now, since bassist Aaron Gonzalez and his brother, drummer Stefan Gonzalez, coaxed their father, the internationally renowned trumpeter-composer Dennis Gonzalez, out of musical retirement. In that time, the three have released a plethora of recordings with an impressive array of guest artists, from eminences of the AACM and the European free improvisation scene to lesser-known (but no less worthy) lights.

In recent years, the sons have stepped out of their father's orbit to do yeoman work with others: recording a trio album with pianist Curtis Clark, touring with guitarist Luis Lopez's Humanization 4tet, forging their own metallic jazz-rock sound with the electrifying trio Unconscious Collective. On his own, Stefan has played in bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten's Texas-Chicago supergroup, Young Mothers.

These studio and live recordings, released on the estimable Polish label For Tune, date from 2013. For the studio dates, the musos in Yells At Eels agreed to "tame down" their intensity. This allows the listener to better appreciate the wealth of detail in their sound, and places YAE in the same sacred and ritual space that Dennis often visits in his visual art, and that his sons frequently inhabit in Unconscious Collective. The result is an atmosphere of gentleness and tranquility, but one with an undertow of dread. For proof positive, hear Dennis and Stefan (on vibraphone)'s unison melodic statements on the opening "Lorca," underpinned by Aaron's trembling arco counterpoint, or the confluence of Dennis' muted trumpet, Stefan's vibes, and Aaron's talking pizzicato line on "Restless Debauchery I."

The beautifully registered live recordings, from a house show in Deep Ellum, are something entirely other. While there's no shortage of live YAE on disc, this is the first time we've been able to hear the full visceral impact of their performance with such immediacy: the casual virtuosity with which Stefan tosses off jaw-dropping patterns and fills (and a solo on "Hymn for Julius Hemphill" -- a tune YAE first recorded in 2002 -- that's an album highlight), the sheer muscularity of Aaron's pizzicato attack (this is no hyperbole; I've seen his shredded fingers after a show), their father's burnished tone and the way he responds melodically to their challenges, the vocalized communication between the players, the audience's ecstatic response.

In Quiet Waters ranks among the very finest recordings from the Gonzalez family. (My list would include The Hymn Project, Scapegrace, A Matter of Blood, Welcome To Us, Catechism, Namesake, and Unconscious Collective's Pleistocene Moon.) Cop via Amulets.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Jack Dejohnette's "Made In Chicago"

Back in the mid-'70s, when I was just dipping a toe into the jazz pool, Jack Dejohnette's Directions, with their pastel take on Miles Davis' dark mystery, provided a more listenable alternative to the rest of their fusion contemporaries' soulless chops-mongering. The leader-composer, who'd drummed with Miles on Bitches Brew, used negative space effectively in his compositions and employed a guitarist (John Abercrombie) that leaned heavily on a volume pedal to conceal his attack, resulting in a sound that flowed like water where John McLaughlin's raged like fire.

As the decade drew to a close, Dejohnette ditched the guitar and, under the rubric Special Edition, developed a gift for writing horn polyphony that, while not as exalted as, say, Julius Hemphill's, gave individuated soloists like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Chico Freeman (all composers and leaders in their own right) an engaging framework in which to showcase their abilities.

On his new album, recorded at the 2013 Chicago jazz festival on a day Mayor Rahm Emmanuel designated in his honor, Dejohnette presides over a quintet that includes three leading lights from the Windy City's uncompromisingly avant Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians: pianist-paterfamilias Muhal Richard Abrams and reedmen Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. (Before decamping for the East and West Coasts, Dejohnette -- who started out as a pianist -- was a college classmate of Mitchell and Threadgill's, and he was the first, but hardly the last, of their cohort to join Abrams' Experimental Band, which evolved into the AACM.) Bassist Larry Gray completes the lineup.

Historically, Dejohnette's groups have primarily played his own material (although they've also performed his reimaginings of tunes by Coltrane and Monk), but all the members of this "Special 'Legends' Edition Chicago" have compositional as well as improvisational input -- emblematic of the mutual respect between these men -- and their multi-instrumental versatility gives the unit a wide and varied tonal palette.

Mitchell's "Chant" opens with Abrams providing counterpoint to its composer's repeating triad, then spinning out intricate variations on the theme. Dejohnette opens up the time behind Mitchell's soprano solo -- a circular breathing tour de force -- with Threadgill offering more laconic commentary on top. Abrams' "Jack 5," which follows, is a moody tone poem with solo statements from Threadgill, Dejohnette, and Gray, segueing into Mitchell's similarly contemplative "This," featuring both reedmen on flutes and Gray on cello.

The leader's "Museum of Time" opens with swirling arpeggios from Abrams, punctuated by harmonized comments from Mitchell and Threadgill's altos. A beautiful, arcing melody emerges, with lengthy expositions by the pianist and Threadgill (on bass flute). Here and elsewhere, Dejohnette's traps provide a sense of forward motion without attempting to dominate the proceedings while the soloists intertwine their extemporizations. The music flows seamlessly into Threadgill's "Leave Don't Go Away," which has some of Mitchell's most impassioned playing here.

Dejohnette and company conclude the program with the relatively succinct collective improvisation "Ten Minutes" (which only runs about five minutes, title notwithstanding). The audience roars its approbation, and the whole performance is a testament to the creative vitality of men in their seventh and eighth decades -- once pioneers, now elder eminences of a music that continues to thrive and evolve.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Dove Hunter's "Black Cloud Erupt Us"

Damn, has it really been six years since the debut Dove Hunter release? Well, five and a half, at least. But now these vets of little-and-Big-D band wars are back with a sophomore CD, and it's a corker: imagine Physical Graffiti if Led Zep had cut their teeth at the Argo Club and Fry Street Fair.

Since recording The Southern Unknown, Dove Hunter has added ex-Jet Screamer axe-slinger Will Kapinos, who gigs solo as one-man bent-blues band Dim Locator. Kapinos weaves his slashing slide and stinging single-string lines (like the lysergic fuzz ride on "I Can Be More") seamlessly with ex-Mandarin frontman Jayson Wortham's inventive fretwork to create one of the hottest twin-guitar tandems you're likely to hear today. They're not flashy or showy; rather, they make their crystalline-toned axes chime and ring, but with enough blues grit and occasional dissonance to put one in mind of vintage Page at his multitracked best.

Similarly, Wortham's vocalismo recalls R. Plant in a fever dream (minus the scream; a good thing) -- dig "This Creek Will Rise" or "One Foot On the Horizon" for proof positive -- and the whole thing is made even more impactful by the rock-solid engine room (heard to best advantage on "Don't Hurt Myself" and the climactic "No Shelter"), in which Doosu vet Chad DeAtley's bass rumbles like a subterranean dynamo and Quincy Holloway brings the Bonham-esque crash 'n' thump in the manner one would expect from the only muso in dub juggernaut Sub Oslo that never stops playing.

With Black Cloud Erupt Us, Dove Hunter demonstrates that there's still vitality left in guitar-based, unhyphenated rock. And I'll bet this stuff sounds even better live, where the players' capacity for invention allows them to reshape the material in the moment.

ADDENDUM: Will Kapinos informs me that I misattributed the guitar solo in "I Can Be More" to him, rather than Jayson Wortham, who played it. Mea culpa.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Paul Kikuchi's "Bat of No Bird Island"

"When the children don't know what happened to the house -- that's when a family dies."

My mother spoke those words to me a couple of years before she died, when I told her I didn't know what had happened to my paternal grandfather's house in Honolulu.

I remember when I was young, my mother seemed to remember everything -- the names of all the families that lived on the street where she grew up (on a sugar plantation in Kohala, on the big island of Hawaii, that they used as a set for the Julie Andrews movie Hawaii), as well as all the family members' names; the names of every child in her class of every grade in school; stories about her growing up in Hawaii and coming to the mainland, intending to continue on to Europe before she met my father and wound up settling and raising a family on Long Island. I wish I had recorded some of her memories when she was still lucid. Her last few years were spent afflicted with dementia, traveling around in time through her life. My father had a similar fate, although in his case, I was able to learn more about him in those last couple of years than I had in the previous 50, when he hadn't liked to talk about the past.

My middle daughter, who studied Japanese in college, tells me I'm the worst Japanese person in the world, because I grew up so assimilated, on hamburgers and comic books and rock 'n' roll. I started eating sushi -- the food my mother labored for days to prepare every New Year's, that I wouldn't eat -- when I was 50, because I was in a band with a Japanophile.

But since my parents' passing, I've developed more of an interest in the ancestral homeland I'd never taken much of an interest in (even when I spent four days there going to and coming back from midtour leave from Korea when I was in the Air Force). I devour Akira Kurosawa films, and read books like Marie Mutsuki Moffett's Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. And now, one of my favorite sound artists -- known for his site-specific improvised performances -- has a new work that speaks very directly to the Japanese immigrant experience in America.

On Bat of No Bird Island, percussionist-composer Paul Kikuchi takes inspiration from a memoir written in English by his grandfather Zenkichi Kikuchi -- an early 20th century Japanese immigrant to the Pacific Northwest, whom the composer never met -- as he reimagines songs from his great-grandfather's collection of 78 rpm records to create a song cycle that pays tribute to that immigrant generation. The work is released in three formats: a 10-inch EP that juxtaposes two of Kikuchi's reimaginings with the original recordings that inspired them; a CD and digital download that include all of the studio recordings associated with the project; and a website (link above) that contextualizes the project with memoir excerpts, photographs, and original 78 rpm recordings. Kikuchi will spend part of this year living in Japan on a JUSFC Creative Artist Fellowship, searching for additional photographs, stories, and artifacts to add to the piece.

Zenkichi left Japan because his impoverished family couldn't afford the price of a college education. In America, he worked on the railroad and as a farmer, marrying a "picture bride" (my paternal grandmother was also one) and raising a family before being evacuated and interned in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The music his great-grandson uses to tell his story manages to evoke both the ancient country Zenkichi left and the frontier land to which he came. The string-heavy ensemble, which includes the estimable violist Eyvind Kang as well as the composer's regular collaborators, trombonist Stuart Dempster and guitarist Bill Horist, plays with great sensitivity and delicacy, and their sounds are seamlessly integrated with the electronic sounds of 78 rpm records and walkie-talkies.

Being rooted in one culture and having to develop an identity in another is the classic immigrant story, and a very American one. In exploring the experience of his great-grandfather's generation, Paul Kikuchi has created a work of exceptional depth and resonance.

The heaven always side with just and hard working men, it is proven without doubt in before our eye. We must go without fear, without doubt, without hesitation by honest, hard work, building up our life. Educate our children, thus contribute something to our community and nation. I tried to be fair to all of person personally I like or not.
- Zenkichi Kikuchi