A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: April, 2006
Recycled Goods (#30)
by Tom Hull
Two sizable clusters this time, both representing label revivals, both under the original owners (more or less). Avant-garde jazz in the '60s found a welcome home at ESP-Disk, whose slogan was "the artist alone decides what you hear." Some artists took that as a challenge and tried to see how far they could push it, and a large slice of the '60s avant-garde cut loose on an album or two there. Some names: Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, Paul Bley, Marion Brown, Milford Graves, Noah Howard, Leroy Jenkins, Steve Lacy, Giuseppe Logan, Frank Lowe, Sunny Murray, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Simmons, Sun Ra, Charles Tyler, Frank Wright. A couple of non-jazz names too, like the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine. Since ESP-Disk initially folded, their records have been licensed to various European labels, so they've never vanished, but the revived label has finally done some remastering and found some unreleased material.
The other big cluster is from ZE, which produced some of the most interesting new wave records to come out of New York in the late '70s/early '80s: James Chance, August Darnell, Don Was, and various aliases, permutations, and associates thereof. The label has been revived in France, where co-founder Michel Esteban came from and returned to, and they've started to expand beyond their original catalog (see Lio, below). Still missing are the Kid Creole and the Coconuts albums, which seem to have slipped through ZE's licensing fingers. A particular favorite is Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, last seen on some Universal subsidiary way off the beaten path.
The few other clusters will be obvious. The pick hits are sui generis.
American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939) (, Revenant, 2CD): The late John Fahey's label pursues primitivism for its own sake, generalizing the misfit's rather dubious rule that if something's obscure it might be interesting. They brag that the names collected here -- Geeshie Wiley, Elvie Thomas, Nugrape Twins, Homer Quincy Smith, Blues Birdhead -- are "too obscure even for Harry Smith." It's more true that Smith, and Allen Lowe in his even more catholic American Pop, had the whole field open and no qualms about fame one way or another, so they helped themselves to recognized classics, and established a few little-knowns along the way. Dean Blackwood, by digging deeper here, performs a useful service in recovering this lost history -- despite the title dates, only one minstrel song is older than 1926, but the sonic challenges are no less for that. But one reason it holds together better than you'd expect is that while the names are obscure the melodies have much in common with songs you've heard from Smith and Lowe. Maybe these unknowns weren't such misfits after all. B+
Cabruêra: Proibido Cochilar: Sambas for Sleepless Nights (2003 , Piranha): More forró than samba, which makes sense given the group's roots in Brazil's torrid northeast. But this rocks harder than any forró I've ever heard, even before they get to the drum 'n' bass remixes at the end. It wasn't too long ago when Brazilian music could be catalogued in a handful of regional styles, but especially in the last decade the world's second largest music market has exploded in a vast round of cross-polination with music all around the world. And not just music: they pick up a lyric here from that legendary Frankfurt team of Horkheimer and Adorno. If the nights are sleepless, it's because there's so much shit going on. A-
Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label (1964-68 , Numero Group): For people of a certain age, like mine, any scrap of '60s soul, no matter how obscure, is likely to sound like manna from heaven. The last few years have seen dozens of excavations into soul strata I missed back in the day and hadn't heard of since, and this is no exception. Deep City was a small Miami label run by Clarence Reid, whose later work with TK records finally put Miami on the map. The label's discoveries include Paul Kelly and Betty Wright -- the latter twelve years old at the time -- but they never had more than local hits, and their only LP was by journeywoman Helene Smith. The music is little more than second-rate Motown, all the way down to a Four Tops clone called the Moovers. And there's nothing eccentric about it. Still, it taps into that moment. B+
Herbie Hancock: The Essential Herbie Hancock (1962-98 , Columbia/Legacy): Hancock's career splits into three segments. From his first record at age 22 in 1962 into the late '60s, both in such Blue Note albums as Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage and in his tenure with the most famous of all Miles Davis quintets, he established himself as the most cosmopolitan of hard bop pianists. Then he switched to electric keyboards and fusion -- the bulk of his career, counting the hard electro-funk albums he recorded well into the '80s. Finally, he returned to acoustic jazz, tentatively at first with his reunion group V.S.O.P. in 1977. This career spanner evenhandedly touches all of those bases -- score it for history. The first disc opens with six cuts from the '60s, including one with Sonny Rollins and one with Davis, that succinctly establish his reputation. But the tautness of his early work dissolves on the seventh cut, an early electric piano piece, and never returns. Fusion is usually thought of as a merger of jazz and rock, or at least electric instrumentation. Hancock never achieved this, perhaps because he was always too tidy to pass for a rocker. But his electric period is distinguished mainly by its relatively high jazz content. The two Verve cuts at the end, plus a 1977 trio and a 1979 V.S.O.P., remind us that he never really lost the knack. B+
Billy Joel: My Lives (1965-2003 , Columbia/Legacy, 4CD+DVD): A tunesmith of undoubtable skills, he probably as a worthwhile hits compilation somewhere, not that I've researched the subject. Early on, he nailed his feet to the floor so effectively as "Piano Man" that I've never thought of him as anything else. But I figured this box might be a good way to catch up, even if it was certain to be overkill. Turns out it's no help, but it's not lethal either. It's just trivia on a grand scale: juvenilia, demos, alternate takes, B-sides, live shots, bait from soundtracks and tributes and comps, and some piano padding with titles like "Opus" and "Elegy." The first disc, sumarizing the '70s, at least sketches out his schtick in crude strokes. The third disc, moving on to the '90s, offers little but covers, never more than competent. On the other hand, I hadn't noticed this lyric from "Goodnight Saigon" before: "We came in spastic/like tameless horses/we left in plastic/as numbered corpses." B-
Lio: Les Pop Songs (1980-1991 , ZE); Les Ballades (1980-1996 , ZE): Born Wanda de Vasconcelos in Portugal. Raised in Belgium from age six, then at seventeen scored a hit in France ("Le Banana Split"), taking her stage name from the comic Barbarella. More hits followed, plus film roles, plus a stint as a fashion designer. Unrecognized in the US, she is reportedly a big star in France -- big enough, anyway, that the reconstituted ZE label has latched onto her catalog big time: they've reissued seven albums with bonus tracks, available separately or as Pop Box: 25 Years in Pop with a DVD of video clips, plus these two comps: one fast, the other slow, both new wave more/less danceable synth pop, approximating the niche Madonna pioneered over here. But not so compelling, and I suspect not just because I have trouble following the French. Les Pop Songs: B+; Les Ballades: B
Maximum Joy: Unlimited (1979-83 , Crippled Dick Hot Wax): As best I recall -- I no longer have the relevant vinyl to check -- the Pop Group was a post-punk ensemble far better in theory than in praxis. But I guess they were more infamous than the Glaxo Babies, who contributed as many musicians to this group, so the line here is that Maximum Joy, like Pigbag and Rip Rig + Panic, is part of the Pop Group's diaspora. One thing those groups do have in common is a fondness for horns, not just to punch up the sharp angles of their dub-mangled beat, but also to inch into jazz. But only Maximum Joy had Janine Rainforth, who played violin and clarinet, and gave them a voice that suggests a more generous comparison, like one of the Slits backed by the Gang of Four. A-
A Quiet Revolution: 30 Years of Windham Hill (1980-2005 , Windham Hill/Legacy, 4CD): What do you call non-vocal music that's too static for jazz, too informal for classical, too polite for electro-rock, and too indistinct for world? Someone proposed Contemporary Instrumental Music, but the less descriptive New Age seems to have won out. The attributes I gave above are negative, subtractions from other genres that have leaked into New Age, but some of this music started off as utilitarian, meant to facilitate meditation, relaxation, healing, spiritual discovery -- none of which offer any more promise to alert listeners than the shortcomings. Consequently, I know less about New Age than any other semi-popular form on earth -- excepting CCM, heaven forbid, but that's more a matter of aversion than disinterest. But I do know that Windham Hill was one of the genre's keystone labels, and that it concentrated on small scale acoustic works -- guitarists like Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, and founder William Ackerman; pianists like Liz Story and George Winston. The first three discs here do a fair job of plotting out this low-keyed music, making for pleasant background. The fourth disc ("Excursions") is corporate sprawl -- mostly vocal pieces by old agers who inadvertently got caught up in the label's fly trap -- Janis Ian, Cesaria Evora, Bobby McFerrin, Tuck & Patti. In the booklet but curiously not on disc: Bluesiana Triangle, one of Art Blakey's last records, with Dr. John and Fathead Newman. It's the only Windham Hill album I know and love, but the message doesn't fit so well here -- "I do believe that when you're dead you're done." With New Age you can die and look pretty forever. B-
Sonny Simmons: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1966 , ESP-Disk, 2CD): Simmons was past 30 when he cut his first two albums. Both feature his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, the first in a quintet with a young John Hicks on piano, the second a sextet with Michael Cohen on piano and Bert Wilson on tenor sax. Before arriving in New York, Simmons had played alto sax mostly in r&b bands, but he had an exceptional sense of the connections between Parker, Coleman and Dolphy, and he sums them up with fierce logic and cunning, even advancing the state of the art a bit. A few years later he returned to the West Coast, fell on hard times, lost his family, became a homeless junkie, scratching for change playing on the streets. He finally got a gig from someone who remembered these albums, cleaned up and came back with a vengeance, turning in his finest work at an age when most people hope to be retired. Both discs are padded with interviews, but the man's got history. A-
In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: American primitives, sleepless samba, eccentric soul, quiet lives, rough guides, worldly kids, treasure troves from recently revived underground labels (ESP-Disk, ZE), and much more (44 records).
Copyright © 2006 Tom Hull.