Saturday, July 31, 2010

Curtis Fuller: I Will Tell Her

Curtis Fuller (trombone; b. 1934)
I Will Tell Her (Capri Records)

Keith Oxman (sax)
Al Hood (trumpet)
Chip Stephens (piano)
Ken Walker (bass)
Todd Reid (drums)

As some may know I am a huge fan of Curtis Fuller and I try to recommend his music to anyone who asks me about jazz. Probably the most definitive document of Fuller's ability is still his debut, The Opener (Blue Note) he continues to record stellar albums without really missing a beat.

Curtis Fuller continues an illustrious career with his new release I Will Tell Her (Capri Records). It's an impressive and expressive double album filled with a nice mixture of mainly Fuller originals and only three standards. The Detroit native has a style built out of the J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding framework. He has worked with host of legends including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell and Benny Golson to name just a few.

I Will Tell Her a killer set featuring a fairly new sextet for Fuller (they had recorded one album previously under saxophonist, Oxman's name). The album is split between one studio recording and one live recording. Both sets move at breakneck speed with the classic Kenny Dorham piece "Minor's Holiday" and Sonny Rollins' "Tenor Madness" as points of upward flight. The title track, "I Will Tell Her" (and the album itself) is a loving tribute to Fuller's wife, Cathy and showcases the distinct beauty and agility Curtis Fuller has built on the trombone.

The live date was recorded at the Denver jazz club, Dazzle. Four of the six songs on the second disc are included on the studio side but these versions are drastically different due to the live setting and the pacing in fierce. On the Fuller original "The Court" Keith Oxman really shines during his solos. I had really heard Keith Oxman before but now that I have he seems to be someone worth keeping an eye on. The live version of "I Will Tell Her" is just as moving if not more. There is more emotion pour into this version (mainly because of the live setting and the inspiration of the audience) that really makes it an extremely memorable moment of the recording.

On "Maze", Oxman again lays down some heavy movements that feel almost like Coltrane. Al Hood also displays some great chops here as well. The band has only been together a short time (since 2005) but it sounds like they have been at for decades. The always romantic piece "I Want To Talk About You" starts to bring the live proceedings to close in comfortable fashion. And the whole disc closes as hot as it began with "Minor's Holiday", this time with some emphatic playing from Chip Stephens and guided by Oxman and Fuller's incredible interplay.

I Will Tell Her is a pristine document of two killer sessions and a loving overture to his beloved wife. I would now say anyone who doesn't own a Curtis Fuller record, you can't go wrong with either The Opener or I Will Tell Her. This is vintage hard bop at its best.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Herbie Hancock: The Piano

Herbie Hancock (piano; b. 194)
The Piano (Columbia; 1979)

Recorded in 1978 and originally only released in Japan, The Piano (Columbia/Legacy Recordings), is one of Herbie Hancock's most introspective albums ever as well as one of the few solo piano recordings he has done.

It was finally released in the U.S. in 2004. The Piano showcases two intimate settings for Hancock, one being a set of standards most popularized by Miles Davis, including "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Someday My Prince Will Come." The second half of the disc includes four Hancock originals which were essentially spontaneous. Combined, this recording gives many listeners (new and seasoned Herbie Hancock fans) a great "fly on the wall" experience into the mind of one the greatest pianist since Bill Evans.

A true masterpiece from a musician who is rarely heard in a solo setting, The Piano is also a wonderful and essential CD to have in your collection. Herbie Hancock is an artist who has had way more high points than lows. The Piano is a traditional standards session that sets Hancock high and above many of others during that time period and is still relevant today.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Roland Kovac New Set: A Blast from the Past

Roland Kovac New Set (early 1970s)

Roland Kovac (piano)
Siegfried Schwab (guitar)
Brian Auger (organ, Love That)
Peter Trunk (bass
, Love That)
Franz Loffler (bass, The Master Said)
Keith Forsey (drums, Love That)
Charly Antolini (drums, The Master Said)

Roland Kovac New Set was an ever-changing collective of European jazz-rock musicians best known for recording far-out production music for the legendary Austrian label Selected Sound. The imprint released 122 library records between 1968 and 1987, ranging from experimental electronic to funky psychedelic to action jazz.

Selections from the Selected Sound catalogue can be heard on the out-of-print, three-volume series Pop Boutique, released by Spinning Wheel in the late ‘90s, and other library comps such as Action Passing from a few years ago.

Having heard and enjoyed some of Roland Kovac’s groovy Selected Sound recordings on various compilations I figured I knew what to expect when I picked up The Master Said and Love That, two full-length albums reissued by Garden of Delights. (By the way, the liner notes indicate that the Austrian musician’s last name is of Slovenian origin and is pronounced “Kovatch”.)

The real surprise, however, is the music. It’s difficult imagining this jazzy psychedelic space rock being used as background filler on radio stations (as the liner notes suggest), but apparently some of it also turned up in movies of the period.

First came The Master Said in ‘71, with Kovac on keys, Charly Antolini on drums, Siegfried Schwab (of Vampyros Lesbos fame) on guitar and bassist Franz Loffler. The centerpiece is the 17-minute title track that fluctuates between funky grooves and spacy jamming. It’s followed by the trippy 10-minute “Birth of a Saint” as well as the much shorter Procol Harum-esque “Eternal Dimension” and mellow closer “David's Dance.” The longer tracks are definitely the attraction, but don't expect tightly constructed library compositions— these are sprawling, episodic, lysergic concoctions.

 A year later Kovac recorded the equally trippy Love That, joined by Brian Auger on organ, Keith Forsey on drums, Peter Trunk on bass and Schwab again on guitar. The tracks are generally shorter, averaging a relatively tidy 5 minutes each, except for the 9-minute “Genesis.” Regardless of duration, these numbers also sprawl out into spacy jamming. Like jazz tracks, they often start with an idea or riff, move out into improvisation and close with a reiteration of the theme. The melodies never linger, but the contact buzz is fairly intense.

Big props to Garden of Delights for putting these albums on CD as the originals tend to sell for astronomical sums. Unfortunately the master tapes weren't available, so the label resorted to vinyl transfers, but the sound quality is certainly clean and acceptable.

The liner notes break down each track into subsections based on solos, etc., and there are decent pics of the band members. No surprise, the booklet also includes a full color catalog of other psychedelic releases on the Garden of Delights label.

Chances are, Roland Kovac New Set is going to be a real break from the ordinary for most JazzWrap readers, but you're an adventurous bunch so you might want to explore them, especially if you enjoy obscure European acts from the '60s and '70s.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Phronesis: Alive

Phronesis (group; formed 2005)
Jasper Hoiby (bass)
Ivo Neame (piano)
Anton Eger (drums)

Mark Guliana (drums)

The tough part for me is, I had been avoiding Phronesis for the last few years because of the hype (e.g. the next best thing to E.S.T.). Well I have to say I may have seriously missed the bus on this one but I'm glad I caught up at the next stop. Phronesis is a trio born out the London based LOOP collective of musicians whom all have bands of their own but consistently work together for the advancement and experimentation of jazz in England and Europe (and of course everywhere else). The collective is also includes the critically acclaimed groups, Outhouse and Fraud.

While the aforementioned bands explore the more experimental side of the London jazz psyche, Phronesis is more laid back but with a rough vigorous edge in their sound, thanks to Jasper Hoiby's masterful work on bass and direction in composition.

Originally from by Jasper Hoiby, he would later recruit Neame and Eger to from the trio. The group have done an amazing job utilizing the space surrounding them. They fill it with worthy soundscapes that are both tight, poignant and refreshing. On their previous two album, Organic Warfare and Green Delay, Phronesis have definitely shown the spirit of Esbjorn Svensson Trio is still alive but Phronesis are for sure making it their own.

The bands latest, a live album entitled--Alive (Edition Records) is the album fans have been waiting for. Alive is an album rich in mid-tempo rhythms that captivates the listener in addition to highlighting the strength of Hoiby's original compositions. Alive includes material from the bands previous two albums but set in the live format you get a much more expansive and intense experience.

At times early on during this live outing Hoiby sounds like a combination Charlie Haden meets Dan Berglund (of E.S.T.) as on "Abrahams' Gift". "Abraham's Gift" is a number that shifting and fantastic time changes but also lightly balance touch of beauty reminiscent of Haden playing with Jarrett. Ivo Neame and for this date, Mark Guliana on drums also show that Hoiby's writing allows for dynamic improvisation to occur throughout the evenings performance.

"Love Song" is a perfect example of the bands interplay is solid (especially since Guliana is only filling in on this date). "Love Song" is mainly Hoibys piece but Guliana and Neame gently ran counter at just the right moments. Since this is live in the moment the listener truly feels the essence of how this night went down.

Another shining moment is the subtle touches Hoiby employs on "Untitled #2" (and on the iTunes exclusive "Smoking The Camel") in which Neame and Guliana led the trio on beautiful but yet vibrant journeys that showcase a distinct leap forward in the groups material and ability to grab and hold onto the audience at the venue as well as at home on the stereo.

Alive might be the best way to immediately get into Phronesis. They are definitely a group that is on the rise and while I've said recently Neil Cowley is also capable of taking the mantle left by E.S.T., now that I've experienced all three Phronesis albums there is definitely room for two new highly creative voices to fill the void left by the great Swedish trio. You should really check out Phronesis. I'm glad I finally did.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The New Look JazzWrap

Hey everyone. You may have noticed we did a little makeover on the site. We are going to make some additional changes over the next couple of weeks but we hope you like it as much as we do.

All the best,
The JazzWrap Staff

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lee Konitz: Live At The Village Vanguard

Lee Konitz & Minsarah (sax; b. 1937)
Live At The Village Vanguard (Enja Records)
Jeff Denson (bass)
Florian Weber (piano)
Ziv Ravitz (drums)

Lee Konitz has been one of the most prolific saxophonists of the last two decades. He has performed with fellow luminaries as Miles Davis (on the legendary Birth Of The Cool album), Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Lenny Tristano and widely known for his partnership with fellow sax great, Wayne Marsh. He has also worked a wide range of new jazz greats such as Brad Mehldau and Mark Turner. The Chicago native was originally influenced by Benny Goodman (clarinet) before turning his sights on playing saxophone.

Lee Konitz is one those few musicians who can play flawlessly in any setting (ensemble, orchestra, small group, solo). His style has always been describe by the often overused moniker " the Cool" referring to the smooth style that Miles Davis is associated with on the aforementioned album. But Konitz was more than that. He can play it "Cool" but he can also distribute blistering attacks on the horn is very subtle ways. His ability to improvise The essential Konitz album is Motion (Verve; 1961) with Elvin Jones and Sonny Dallas. Motion is a killer set of originals and improvising mastery.

More recently his has recorded with some new up and coming European artists such as guitarist, Jakob Bro and Konitz's new quartet consisting of the trio Minsarah.

Konitz recorded a 2008 debut with Minsarah entitled Deep-Lee (Enja) which is a truly sublime and another must. The quartets most recent set is Live At The Village Vanguard (Enja) as it also doesn't disappoint. In Minsarah, Konitz has found a European trio and complements and integrate smoothly with his ability shifting tempos. Live At The Village Vanguard is definitely a group is prime form. Konitz allows the group to really stretch out on Johnny Mercer standard "I Remember You" which Denson and Weber are smokin' to high appreciation of the audience.

Lee show is subtle bebop touch on the self-penned "Subconscious-Lee" with expert interplay from he rhythm section. Konitz again allows the group free reign on Florian Weber's piece "Color" which is a mid-tempo number that builds to joyous conclusion. Konitz rejoins the groups on "Kary's Trance" an original which builds slowly into some fierce phrasing from Konitz and Weber that really tells you this group gets along so well.

Live At The Village Vanguard is definitely a new chapter for Konitz. I personally hope this quartet stays together for awhile because I think they can reach some new heights and really stamp a significant mark on today's scene. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Intersection: Skyphone

The Intersection is an ongoing feature on JazzWrap that looks at artists that have blended jazz and electronics in new and highly creative ways.

Skyphone (group; formed 2004)
Keld Dam Schmidt (guitars, electronics) Mads Bødker (keyboards) Thomas Holst (bass, electronics)

As jazz, electronica and ambient continue to merge and blur the traditional fabric of our conception of any particular genre, some groups are slowing bringing these influences into focus. One such band is the Danish trio, Skyphone. Skyphone have only released two albums so far, but they have quickly developed into a trio with a panache for acoustic and electronic framework that takes the listener on a journey through territory laid out by such innovators as Michael Brook, Steve Riech or Brian Eno. Atmospherics are part of the program here but also melody and themes.

On their debut, Fabula (Rune Grammofon; 2004) the group explored ice cold and emotional aspects consistently associated with other artists from the Scandinavian region (Alog, Supersilent, Food, et. al.) but Skyphone seem to force through enough gentle melodies reminiscent of early Kraftwerk that make this outing slightly different. "In Our Time" and "Mengpaneel" feature the right balance of acoustic and electronics mixed with various tape loops that show an increasing sign of improvisational thinking amongst the trio. "Kinamands Chance" and "Gossamer" are the real standouts for me; with touches of Marilyn Crispell tweaks, blip and pings at the keys and then delicate percussive instrumentation. Fabula is a foundation record with various enlightening themes.

Their second and most recent album, Avellaneda (Rune Grammofon; 2008) is the "fully operational Death Star" so-to-speak. Avellaneda is an album of new found soundscapes that starts with the sprightly "Cloudpanic" an electronic and guitar driven piece that is the perfect transition from Fabula's experimental moments. "All is Wood" has a Spring Heel Jack, Spiritualized, far Eastern ethos about it that is compelling as well as inviting. "Schweizerhalle" and "Quetzal Cubicle" both utilized some nice acoustic guitar work making these two piece feel almost folksy, like instrumental Beth Orton tracks. The atmospheric remain throughout but are tightly layered with the acoustic instrumentation especially on the two closing tracks "Leafchisel" and "Yetispor" in the a manipulated accordion seems to used with great hypnotic effect.

Skyphone are amongst a multi-handful of artists that are exploring what can be done with live instruments and electronics from a jazz/worldly perspective. It's great to know all of them have various different ideas on what to do, making this almost un-categorizable genre fun and interesting and diverse.

Friday, July 23, 2010

John Coltrane: Coltrane's Sound

John Coltrane (sax)
Coltrane's Sound (Warner Brothers; 1964)

Steve Davis (bass)
McCoy Tyner (piano)
Elvin Jones (drums)

In the winter of 1960, John Coltrane record a quick succession of material that would eventually span over three albums (My Favourite Things, Coltrane Plays The Blues and one of my personal favourites Coltrane's Sound). Coltrane's Sound (released in 1964) I feel is a highly overshadowed album compared to his other Warner Brothers albums (e.g Giant Steps, Avant Garde and My Favourite Things) but it is a fantastic and deeply moving album that really stands apart in Warner Brothers years.

Coltrane's Sound is a fully matured and confident John Coltrane in complete command of his new quartet. Coltrane's playing very bold and vibrant. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Steve Davis all demonstrate a solidarity that is effortless throughout this particular session. Coltrane's writing is in superior form at this time. Only two of the original six tracks are covers (The Night Has A Thousand Eyes and Body & Soul).

John Coltrane really sets forth with the blistering opener, "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and carries that through to the now Coltrane standard "Central Park West". which has some lovely interplay between Tyner and 'Trane. "Liberia" and "Body and Soul" but jump and flow with the steady timing of the always emphatic Jones challenge Trane on the pace. The dark, densely paced blues of "Equinox" is intense and almost spiritual. "Equinox" too would become a standard Coltrane piece for generations to come.

Coltrane's Sound is a masterpiece from start to finish and includes a richly textured path of ideas and themes that would eventually get fleshed out further on his Impulse releases. This one of those Coltrane albums you really need to add into your collection. It's beautiful, inventive and reflective. Coltrane's Sound is the perfect album for anyone new to Coltrane and those who are Coltrane fans who don't own it--what's wrong with you!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fred Hersch: Whirl

Fred Hersch (piano; b. 1955)
Whirl (Palmetto Records)

Eric McPherson (drums)
John Hebert (bass)

Fred Hersch has been on the scene for more than two decades. He has become one of the most prolific and consistently creative musicians around. He is not only a great performer he is an unmatched composer and interpreter of the jazz standard songbook. He has recorded material from Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Bill Strayhorn, Antonio Jobim and more. He has recorded with such greats as Joe Henderson (sax) and Stan Getz (sax) among others. He is consistently compared to the great Bill Evans, which is justifiable. Hersch's has a intricate and emotional ability to connect with the listen and the utmost level that you are truly moved by just one piece.

Fred Hersch was diagnosed with HIV in the early '90s and has been a great advocate against the illness. But he is also a symbol for us all on how to cope with adversity. Recently he has recovered from a coma and has come back amazingly strong with his most recent release Whirl (Palmetto Records).

Whirl is about as perfect a piano trio as you'll find. There is something very smooth and free-wheeling about Whirl that hasn't been apparent is his most recent recordings. Tracks like "Skipping" and "Mandevilla" are beautiful and intricately balanced showing a rich upbeat Hersch with superb work from John Hebert and Eric McPherson. The title track "Whirl" jumps with vibrancy and creativity that will surely make new listeners of Hersch stand up and take notice.

Whirl is by far one of my favourite Fred Hersch records. Fred Hersch is still touring (not consistently but he is out there) so if you see his name on the bill at your local jazz club I highly advise you to go. It is a must! Along with Jason Moran's Ten, its definitely one of the best albums by a pianist this year. Fred Hersch continues to paint a beautiful picture of jazz repertoire and standards that will be a monumental legacy for others to follow.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dave Douglas: Spark Of Being

Dave Douglas (trumpet; b. 1963)
Spark Of Being (Greenleaf Music)

Marcus Strickland (sax)
DJ Olive (turntables, electronics)
Adam Benjamin (fender rhodes)
Gene Lake (drums)
Brad Jones (bass)

Many people already know what a big fan I am of Dave Douglas. He has managed to shift between various styles and projects. Each album is different and highly compelling. Douglas has assembled a variety of groups to showcase his prolific and complex themes. His most recent and critically acclaimed group is the sextet Keystone which has a recorded a series of albums since its 2005 debut simply entitled Keystone (Greenleaf Music).

Keystone is a more electronic outfit for Douglas' sometimes more forward-thinking, tripped out explorations. Dave Douglas and Keystone of recorded music for slightly art-house film projects like Fatty Arbuckle and their newest project Spark Of Being (Greenleaf). Spark Of Being is a three part project based around the a the 100 anniversary of the original Frankenstein film. This new celebratory project is a combination of work by Douglas and film maker Bill Morrison. The project includes 3 albums, the first of which is Spark of Being: Soundtrack.

Spark Of Being: Soundtrack is literally that, the soundtrack to the film. But before you think of this as just "soundtrack" music, think again. This is well crafted atmospherics and jazz improvisation led by Douglas on trumpet and electronics as well as longtime collaborator DJ Olive on turntables and electronics. The Keystone rhythm section is superb as always. Highlights for me include the swirling "Observer," "Travelouge," and "Tree Ring Circus", all of which display a Miles Davis Live Evil era experimentalism in the way Douglas melds rock, jazz and avant garde motifs throughout the proceedings.

There are times in which you will truly forget this is a soundtrack to a film. I guess once you see the visual and audio together it will make more sense. But the great thing about Spark of Being is that this soundtrack really does stand alone as another excellent piece of work from Dave Douglas. This is great futuristic stuff from Douglas and I'm totally blown away again by his ability to take divergent ideas and crave them into his own. The second and third installments of this project are scheduled for August and September. Well worth checking out.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fusion Week: Return To Forever

Return To Forever (group; formed 1972)
Chick Corea (electric piano)
Stanley Clarke (bass)
Airto Moreira (drums)
Flora Purim (vocals)
Joe Farrell (sax)

Lenny White (drums)
Bill Connors (guitar)
Al DiMeola (guitar)
Steve Gadd (drums)
Mingo Lewis (percussion)

It's only fitting that we end Fusion Week with the most commercially successful Fusion band of them all, Return To Forever. Unlike their more cerebral contemporaries Mahvishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, Return To Forever were fierce, funky and in the beginning more Latin-tinged. Return To Forever were always a band that was more focused on the masses than the smaller jazz community. I was never a big fan of RTF but I did appreciate allot of their songs; especially "Spain," "Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy," "Sorceress" and "Celebration Suite".

Return To Forever while driven by Corea's intricate passages on keyboards, also relied on the heavy funk bass of Stanley Clarke and the big arena rock sound of Bill Connors (and later DiMeola) and Steve Gadd on drums. Their sound grew from the early Latin flavour of their first album, Light As A Feather (Polydor) influenced heavily by Flora Purim (vocals) and Airto Moriera (drums) to the extremely funky (almost early smooth jazz) of their final album, Romantic Warrior (Columbia) where the group sounds fully formed even if the material was not all co-written.

Return To Forever may not have been the jazz purists favourite but they did push fusion into mainstream which it probably needed. It also made the band members household names. I can't personally recommend a specific RTF album but there are two compilations that would served anyone (including the purist) well. The first is Return To The Galaxy (Verve; 1996) which covers only their material for Universal ('72 - '75) but does include all the important tracks plus some great live performances. The second is The Anthology (Concord; 2008) this covers the same ground but includes material from Romantic Warrior ('76). You can find both of this pretty regularly in the used record shops (which isnt' a bad thing) and you won't be disappointed.

Return To Forever gave no surprises throughout their career. They were always here to funk for the masses not explore. And for that expansion of fusion to a new audience we must be grateful.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fusion Week: Can

This week JazzWrap will take a look at some of the important (sometimes forgotten) groups that have helped shape and expand jazz fusion, prog and jazz rock over the last 40 years.

Tago Mago (1971)
Holger Czukay: Bass, Engineer, Editing
Michael Karoli: Guitar, Violin
Jaki Liebezeit: Drums
Irmin Schmidt: Keyboards, Vocals,
Damo Suzuki: Vocals

The legendary German band Can isn’t often lumped in with jazz fusion groups, but the freewheeling, intensely experimental group did have a penchant for improvisational jamming, and it is best demonstrated on the third album Tago Mago (1971).

Tago Mago is the first of three+ Can albums to feature Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki, who replaced American Malcolm Mooney. It’s a sprawling double album with seven tracks, two of which are sidelong cuts (the groove monster “Halleluhwah” and the trippy “Aumgn”).

The first two sides of the original LP contained the “conventional” rock material, including the hypnotic opener “Paperhouse”, the apocalyptic funk of “Mushroom”, the motoric space rocker “Oh Yeah” and the aforementioned breakbeat gem “Halleluhwah.”

As hallucinogenic as Tago Mago’s sides A and B are, things get really weird on sides C and D. “Aumgn” is a sprawling sonic nightmare that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Dali-esque dreamscape. There is no tune to speak of, just improvisational experimentation with a fair amount of electronic treatment and post-production assemblage. Amazingly, it works. The weirdness continues on the 11-minute “Peking O,” which benefits from a quick electronic pulse after a few minutes of aimless jamming and vocal gibberish, but never quite coalesces. The psychedelic closer, “Bring Me Coffee or Tea,” is a bit more melodic, albeit meandering and ultimately less memorable than the earlier tracks.

Interestingly, most music critics regularly rate Tago Mago as a five-star masterpiece, but I’m guessing that’s based on the strength of the first three sides, because the fourth side is – IMHO – three-star material. It’s still an essential album, just make sure you’re fully baked by the time the sixth and seventh tracks riddle your eardrums. ;-)

On Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, Can’s next two outings with Damo Suzuki on vocals, the band delivered more focused, shorter songs. The core members, Czukay, Schmidt, Karoli and Liebezeit, still demonstrated more experimental mojo than most bands, but they were clearly honing a more direct approach that became more pop-oriented on subsequent efforts, such as Soon Over Babaluma and Landed.

After flirting with reggae in the late ‘70s, Can split up until recording a modest reunion album with Malcolm Mooney in the late ‘80s. The band’s influence on electronica and indie rock warranted a massive reappraisal of their work during the ‘90s. There came a better-than-average collection of remixes (Sacrilege) and an invaluable box set (Can Box) that includes a thorough book, a double CD of previously unreleased concert recordings, and a VHS tape featuring a documentary and fascinating Damo-era concert performance (the VHS material was later reissued on DVD).

While dubbing Can a jazz fusion band is a stretch to say the least, the band (and many of its Krautrock contemporaries, such as Faust and Neu!) often employed improvisatory techniques that are closer in spirit to jazz than to rock. While the band eschewed blazing virtuoso solos typically associated with fusion bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, an album like Tago Mago wouldn’t sound out of place played back to back with the funky fusion work of Miles Davis. Good company indeed.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fusion Week: OM

This week JazzWrap will take a look at some of the important (sometimes forgotten) groups that have helped shape and expand jazz fusion, prog and jazz rock over the last 40 years.

OM (group; 1972 - disbanded 1982)
A Retrospective (ECM Records)

Urs Leimgruber (sax, flutes, percussion)
Christy Doran (guitars, synthesizer)
Bobby Burri (bass)
Fredy Studer (drums)

OM were a quartet from Sweden who gained wide recognition after a blistering performance at the 1974 Montreaux Jazz Festival. They were quickly signed to ECM Records and recorded a four fantastic albums for the labels Japanese imprint JAPO. They freely admit that they started as a rock band trying to get jazz. While they did this with what looks like great ease.

Inspired and influenced by the string of electric jazz of time (Headhunters, Bitches Brew, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra), OM set out to combine their jazz inspirations with their desire the capture the essence of what Hendrix had left in his wake of musicians--a sense of structure within a whirlwind of ideas. This combination of jazz and rock was also fueled by the one more large and legendary figure--John Coltrane, and the album for which the band derived its name, OM (Impulse Records; 1965). OM was one of Coltrane's more spiritual and deeply textured pieces. It's no wonder that this album would have a profound importance on the groups development.

They were a band that even in the beginning with their first album, Kirikuki (ECM/JAPO; 1976) were exploring both rock idioms with sparse rhythmic/ambient patterns that would later evolve on their final album Cerberus.

OM's four albums are extremely hard to find. And if memory serves these are not on CD either (someone please feel free to correct me on that one). But we are lucky that just a few years ago, ECM Records released Retrospective, a stellar collection spanning material from all four of their Japanese only albums. Retrospective features some great tracks like the rugged and raucous "Rautionaha", the delightfully introspective "Dreaming Of People." the funky almost Abercrombie-esque "Earworm" and the Bitches Brew-Headhunter filled free-jazz-funk-out of "Holly" and "Lips" These tracks as well as the rest of the album make for the premier on one of the truly under discussed bands of the '70s fusion era.

Retrospective isn't available to purchase physically in the US but you can get on iTunes (globally too) for download. OM were not a hard hitting force like some many of their American counterparts but they left a brief time capsule that everyone should definitely experience. Rich and highly involved stuff.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fusion Week: Stark Reality

This week JazzWrap will take a look at some of the important (sometimes forgotten) groups that have helped shape and expand jazz fusion, prog and jazz rock over the last 40 years.

Stark Reality
Now (Stones Throw)
Monty Stark (vibes, vocals)
Phil Morrison (bass)
Vinne Johnson (drums)
John Abercrombie (guitar)

Carl Atkins (sax)
Stanton Davis (trumpet)
Alan Reed (bass)
E. Dwellingham (drums)

Recorded for use on a 1970 Public Television show for kids, Stark Reality's reinterpretation of old timer Hoagy Carmichael's '50s-era children songs must be heard to be believed. It's funky, it's free, it's psychedelic. It just might blow your mind.

Monty Stark, player of the most fuzz-distorted vibraphone you are likely to ever hear, led the charge, joined by wah-wah wicked guitarist John Abercrombie, groovy electric bass player Phil Morrison and funky drummer Vinnie Johnson (and sometimes horn player Carl Atkins). Together, they create an alchemical prog-jazz-funk blend unheard before or since. The performance is raw, often dissonant, and takes well to adventurous ears, but not so kindly to ears tuned to sweeter sounds.

Given that these are Hoagy Carmichael songs, the tracks tend to feature whimsical lyrics sung in an artless sing-songy manner typical of musicians who are primarily instrumentalists. However, the vocal bits tend to be relegated to the middle or latter sections of the tracks as the opening bits tend to lean heavily on acid-drenched jamming.

For years this album (Originally titled Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael's Music Shop) was sort of (use that term loosely) a "holy grail" among funk and jazz fusion collectors. This CD reissue combines that album with a previously unreleased session (now titled as Stark Reality 1969) and a 7'' only release. All together is gives a strong, fun and absolutely wierd experience into a one-off jazz fusion experiement which has since turned into an underground classic (of sorts).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fusion Week: Mahavishnu Orchestra

This week JazzWrap will take a look at some of the important (sometimes forgotten) groups that have helped shape and expand jazz fusion, prog and jazz rock over the last 40 years.

Mahavishnu Orchestra (group; formed 1970 - disbanded 1987)
John McLaughlin (electric, acoustic guitar)
Billy Cobham (drums)
Jan Hammer (keyboards)
Rick Laird (bass)
Jerry Goodman (violin)

So I have to admit I never really got into Mahavishnu Orchestra when I was a kid. I'm not really sure why. I think at the time the sheer cavalcade of instrumentation was just too much for me. For whatever reason it took until somewhere in my early adult years to actually appreciate Mahavishnu; which is odd considering all the groups that they influenced I really dig.

The mastermind behind the group was guitar legend John McLaughlin. He had just completed recording with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew a few years earlier. Mahavishnu's combination of rock fortitude and jazz improvisation was something that took fans of both genres by surprise. The bands blend of both worlds quickly turned them into the grandfathers of Jazz Fusion and then the envy of rock music fans everywhere.

Since I wasn't a huge fan originally I can't speak with full verve but I can say the group's first album, The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia) is by far the album to own and experience. The full-on assault of guitars, keyboards, drums and violin is unbelievable to hear coming out of your speakers. "Meeting Of The Spirits," "The Dance Of Maya" and "Vital Transformation" demonstrate the unique and highly visceral vision Mahavishnu would pump into each recording. The exploration of sheer force and gentle beauty as displayed "You Know You Know" and "Awakening" remind of me of King Crimson circa In The Wake Of Poseidon--excellent stuff.

Mahavishnu Orchestra would recorded another brilliant follow up Birds Of Fire (Columbia) before going through lineup changes and internal battles before disbanding late in the '80s but their legacy lives on and they have become the benchmark of almost every jazz band wanting to combines the ethos of rock, world and improvisation. Well worth re-examining for your listening pleasure.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fusion Week: Nucleus

This week JazzWrap will take a look at some of the important (sometimes forgotten) groups that have helped shape and expand jazz fusion, prog and jazz rock over the last 40 years.

Nucleus (group; formed 1969 - disbanded 1983)

Original Lineup: Ian Carr (trumpet) Chris Speeding (guitar) Brian Smith (sax) Karl Jenkins (electric piano) John Marshall (drums) Jeff Clyne (bass)

Formed surprising around the same time as prog legends King Crimson, Nucleus utilized jazz as their platform for experimentation. Guided by the deft hand of Ian Carr on trumpet, Nucleus would quickly catapult into the public eye through a series of live show culminating at the Montreaux Jazz Festival 1970. Nucleus started as Sextet and will evolve to various sizes over the course of two decades plus. The group would features such future jazz luminaries as Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Chris Speeding (guitar), Alan Holdsworth (guitar), Tony Levin (drums), Norma Winstone (vocals) among others.

Nucleus could be called one of the British reactions to Miles Davis' series of electric fusion records from 69 - 71 (In A Silent Way, Flies de Kilamajaro, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson). The mystical, ethereal approach Miles had captured on the aforementioned records seemed to have had some effect of Ian Carr and his fellow band members.

Don't think that Nucleus were just some Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Tony Williams clones. NO! Nucleus took things one step further by fusing and stretching the idea of jazz and rock into a melodic journey with some funky yet highly improvised stops along the way. The music was first and foremost a jazz sextet that beautifully synced up well together. They also had a level of psychedelic brilliance that outside of what was going on in Germany (e.g. Can, Kraftwerk, Neu, Amon Duul) and America (Miles, Headhunters, Mahavishnu, Weather Report) at the time, was completely different in the UK. Also of note, some members would later join the other important British jazz rock band Soft Machine.

Nucleus released its first two albums, Elastic Rock (Vertigo; 1970) and We'll Talk About it Later (Vertigo; 1970) to monumental raves. The blistering work by Speeding on guitar, magical intoxication of Jenkins on keyboards and Carr's mastery on trumpet pull you kicking and screaming into the soundscape they have just constructed. Songs like "Elastic Rock," "1916," "We'll Talk About It Later" and the bombastically funky "Song for a Bearded Lady" are excellent statements of the early era of the band. Definite must listens for fans of Miles Davis, Can, Mahavishnu, et al.

Nucleus would record another 8 albums over the next two decades with various lineups. All of which are quite good and tend to get a little more funky as guitars and keyboards started to dominate the outings. Their is an extremely (and I mean extremely) great but hard to find compilation of their first six album for Vertigo called Direct Hits, that is well worth checking out. I don't have one but I would love a copy if anyone has one (yes, I'm begging).

Recently, there has been a series of live CDs spanning almost each configuration of the bands existence. Obviously the bulk of them cover the 70 - 71 lineup but each is still worth taking a listen. If you can't find these at record stores. I have seen them available for download at Amazon and iTunes. My personal favourites are Hemispheres: Live In Europe 1970/71 (Hux Records). It's got excellent sound quality and features and awesome version of "...Bearded Lady" and a Miles/Hancock scattered funk of "Snakeships Dream".

The other favourite is UK Tour '76 (MLP) is another soundboard recording and features a much later lineup dominated by keyboardist, Geoff Castle, guitarist, Ken Shaw and saxophonist, Bob Bertles, whom all stir up some nice fierce funk throughout this date. UK Tour '76 was recorded at what would be the end of Nucleus as a group (recorded during the tour for their final album Alleycat) as Ian Carr would also assume the Nucleus name more as a solo artist with guest musicians.

Nucleus never wanted to be compared to Miles' bands but fortunately or unfortunately they are. But that should not lessen the opportunity for you to check them out. Nucleus hold a strong place in the development of jazz fusion during the 70s and its important the story is continually told.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Philip Glass

Philip Glass (piano, composer; b. 1937)

So this is a short entry today. Philip Glass is one most interesting and prolific modern composer alive today. While many living composers are still trying to write the next Mahler Symphony, Philip Glass has spent almost 50 years writing original, complex and challenging material which has been performed by ensembles like Bang On A Can, Kronos Quartet and multiple symphony orchestras around the world. Not to mention his own Glass Ensemble. While his music is revered and refiled by different quarters, there is no denying that he is consistently looking at new ways to move classical music forward his sometimes and unfortunate stagnation to its great (and I do mean GREAT) history.

I recently stumble upon two collections that I think would be perfect for the uninitiated. The first is Philip Glass iTunes Live In Soho . This live performance at an Apple store in NYC is a great overview of some of the major pieces by Glass including "Metamorphosis," "Knee Play No.2" and the wonderful "Wichita Vortex" featuring Ira Glass.

The iTunes Live set was nice but the other cool thing I just stumbled upon was a 21 track sampler from Philip Glass' own label called Orange Mountain Music. The Orange Mountain Music Sampler covers material he has writing over a large majority of his career (solo compositions, film music, orchestral and more). It is heavily edited so this isn't really for the Philip Glass aficionado. It's for the new comer and I personally think it fits the bill nicely. Not every track is a winner but Orange Mountain Music Sampler is FREE from the Amazon MP3 store so its well worth checking out just for that. I'm not sure this offer will be up very long but I thought it was fantastic that Amazon offered it. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Miles Davis and Hip Hop

Miles Davis (trumpet)
Doo Bop (Warners; 1991)

I said before the Miles' latter period (1985 - 1991) still needs to be re-evaluated by jazz fans and the outside listening public. Far to often it is shoved aside by the the monumental recordings that presided them (Rebirth of the Cool, Steamin', Workin', Kind Of Blue, Bitches Brew and On The Corner). But I think anyone who is going to listen to Miles' recordings has to eventually get to the point of "what's next?" "what do I listen to after the big records?"

Well, I think covering the final years of his life is a good idea. Not every record is great but they all do tell a story of what Miles was thinking and the direction he was looking towards. One such album is his final recording just before his death in 1991, Doo Bop (Warners).

Now for those who know this was a very incomplete record at best. Miles had been interested in R&B and Hip Hop for quite a few years at this point. He had actually recorded material with Prince a few years earlier. This material remains unreleased (or rumoured released on Prince's Black Album). So the idea and concept of Miles record a "street" dedicated album was really not out of the question. It was more "when" and "what" would it sound like.

I have to say 18 years later, Doo Bop sounds slightly dated but if you place yourself back in that time period, you know full well Miles was on to something. The album was recorded in few short weeks. The not all the material was even complete. In working with his collaborator/producer for the album, Easy Mo Bee, Miles felt a younger contemporary. This was someone he could drop some knowledge on as well learn more about the Hip Hop movement.

The opening "Mystery" with the infectious muted trumpet combined with muffled drum n' bass rhythm was Miles setting down a new marker for a new decade. You felt the futuristic street vibe Miles was searching for. That pounding message would carry through to "Chocolate Chip" with its slowed down mid tempo funky drummer beat and some excellent samples thrown in for good measure. A nice dance floor filler.

Miles was also influenced by vocal sounds of hip hop, so he incorporated rap into some of pieces (provided by Easy Mo Bee and J.R.. The rap pieces don't really work more because the lyrics are really weak and don't seem throughout well at all. The music itself compliments Miles very well. Miles and Easy Mo Bee do add a lot of though into the musical arrangements throughout Doo Bop. "Blow" has a "Pacific State" (song by English techno band 808 State) vibe to it that is very interested (despite the average lyrics laid on top).

Towards the end of recording sessions Miles had visited the hospital for some treatment. It would be turn out that Doo Bop would be the last record Miles Davis would record. The album was completed by Easy Mo Bee and since has received lukewarm reviews. In listening to Doo Bop again and again for this piece I realise there is a lot hear to absorb and I've been enjoying the adventure of going track by track. It's definitely an incomplete experience but its the insight into a legends way of thinking.

If you own the album take a listen again and think about some of the hip hop, techno that even some of the soul jazz that would come (Guru's Jazzmatazz, Branford Marsalis' Buckshot LeFonque, Roy Hargrove's RH Factor, et. el) --Miles was still ahead of the game.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kris Davis: Free Jazz In New York

Kris Davis (piano)

In just a short span of under 10 years, Kris Davis has become a significant figure in the New York and European jazz community. Born in Canada but residing in New York, Kris Davis was classically trained on piano but quickly turned to jazz after moving to New York in the late '90s. She has built an impressive and eclectic career through her unconventional arrangements and the establishment of solid core of musicians she regularly performs with.

When listening specifically to Davis during some of her recordings I hear echoes of Cecil Taylor or Keith Jarrett (trio era), which may or may not be the case but the complexity of the compositions and the quality of the performance call to mind these legends. While not necessarily a frequent live performer, when does step to the stage you can expect a deeply intense and imaginative outing with free flowing tempos and challenging chords from her piano and her rhythm section.

Kris Davis has recorded on three albums under her own leadership (Rye Eclipse, Slightest Shift, Lifespan) all for the Fresh Sounds/New Talent label. They are highly accomplished free jazz selections that should not be missed. While Kris Davis does have an album coming out later this month called Good Citizen (Fresh Sounds/New Talent), her most recent album is a Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed; 2010) and its an absolute feast for the free jazz fanatic.

Paradoxical Frog features a trio of Davis, Ingrid Laubrock (sax) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). All three musicians are equally dominate throughout the proceedings. Davis contributes the three pieces to the recording, including the beautifully improvised and chaotic opener "Iron Spider" which travels big beat tempo and introspective bliss with tight wire ease.

Tyshwan Sorey contributes two tracks including the almost extremely quiet yet complex "Homograph" which makes Davis and Sorey seem distant and remote in it audible range but works incredible well when set in with the rest of the recording. Ingrid Laubrock almost Coltrane-esque performance throughout is marvelous on the title track and "Ghost Machine" in which she brings a dynamic that makes a yearning for the aforementioned legend but also the crazy rhythmic structures of Henry Threadgill or Charlie Mingus shine in my head while listening.

Paradoxical Frog is powerfully dynamic work that will not be everyone's cup to tea but its modern American free jazz at its finest coming from downtown New York. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Branford Marsalis: Steep Tradition

Branford Marsalis (saxophone; b. 1960)

Branford Marsalis is the oldest brother of the very famous Marsalis musical family. He has built his impeccable catalog of recordings in pop, rock, classical, hip-hop, film and university teaching. He and his quartet also had a brief stint on television as Jay Leno's house band on The Tonight Show when Jay first took over from Johnny Carson. But at the end of the day Branford Marsalis is and will always be a jazz musician. Not just a jazz musician but one of the leading, most respected, innovative and versatile of his generation.

Branford came to prominence in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers along with brother Wynton. He also performed and recorded with the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. His first debut as leader was Scenes In The City (Columbia Records, 1983). Scenes definitely shows Branford's growth as a musician. He would continue to carve out his own direction and identity through a series of phenomenal albums including Royal Garden Blues, Random Abstract, Trio Jeppy, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born and The Dark Keys.

Branford during this time would also perform with Sting and The Grateful Dead on the pop and rock side, and record soundtracks for Mo Better Blues and Sneakers. He also followed in his brother's footsteps by recording a number of classical releases, including another favorite of mine, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra entitled Creation. A full and diverse musical resume to say the least. In the late '90s Branford started his own label simply called Marsalis Music to develop various projects for himself and other artists (including Harry Connick Jr.).

One of my favourite albums of recent years is his most recent, Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music). Metamorphosen is a return to form of his earlier records--vibrant and rich in melody and invention. Tracks like "The Return Of The Jitney Man," "Jabberwocky," and "Samo" all have the tradmark Branford wit and composed brilliance that has set him apart from the rest of his generation of saxophone players.

With a catalog that includes over a dozen albums, you may be wondering were to start. The best place would be the very well crafted compilation The Steep Anthology (Columbia). The Steep Anthology covers a good selection of his best jazz albums from his years with Columbia. Highlighting some important and outstanding Branford staples; "Doctone," "Royal Garden Blues," "Spartacus," and "The Dark Keys"--it's a great overview of his playing style from cool and collected bop to more complicated melodic rhythms. Well worth the purchase and it will definitely put you in the right direction for finding which album to buy next.

One of the greatest jazz musicians of the last 25 years, Branford Marsalis will certainly will be mentioned in the same pantheon as legendary saxophonists, Coltrane, Hawkins, Rollins and Gordon in the next 25 years.