Rhapsody Streamnotes: April 13, 2011

I just spent a maddening month mopping up a Jazz Consumer Guide -- the only relief was occasionally sneaking in something else via Rhapsody, but I didn't dig much deeper than my metafile -- which now at least seems to have a distinctly British bias. (As anyone who buys record guides knows, the majority come from the UK. There also seems to be more music magazines over there, at least per capita, and UK artists sometimes get a jump by releasing their records earlier in the UK, so when Metacritic initially posts their scores UK artists tend to be more heavily reviewed.)

Not much news here: four of the six pictured albums were previously touted in Michael Tatum's A Downloader's Diary and one more first appeared in Robert Christgau's Expert Witness, leaving Lupe Fiasco as the odd record out (with, by the way, a dreadful 59 Metacritic score) -- although if I'd found a cover scan the Beth Ditto EP would be another. (I held a couple more from Christgau back as seed corn, as well as TV on the Radio, which I need to think further on.) Even so, I'm more uncertain than usual that these A- records are unimpeachably above the cusp. The methodology rarely offers more than two plays -- unless I follow up by obtaining a record, as I did with Lucinda Williams, Britney Spears, NY Dolls, and Low Cut Connie -- so first impressions count for a lot, and slow gainers get little chance (although Spears got better -- my first take was in the high B+ range). So more than ever, take the caveat seriously.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on March 8. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Arbouretum: The Gathering (2011, Thrill Jockey): Baltimore group, "stoner metal" is the most credible of the styles AMG attributes to them, although Rhapsody filed them under "folk-rock" -- singer has an Americana-ish twang. Seven songs, not sure of the length, centerpiece is a disorienting cover of "The Highwayman"; best when he shuts up and they just crank out guitar sludge. B

Marcia Ball: Roadside Attractions (2011, Alligator): Started out as a Louisiana blues pianist who could aim to put over a soulful ballad (like "Soulful Dress") but felt more secure at high speed -- two notable album titles were Hot Tamale Baby and Gatorhythms. She keeps getting faster with more boogie-woogie in her stroll, and she's up in Jerry Lee Lewis territory this time. B+(***)

Beady Eye: Different Gear, Still Speeding (2011, Dangerbird): The return of Oasis, minus Noel Gallagher, which was like the biggest band in England in the 1990s, bigger than Blur or Radiohead or, well, whatever else was big over there even when no one in America could care less. Most easily noted trait is vocal harmonies uncannily like the Beatles. Docked it a grade just for that, not that there was much else to recommend them. B-

Anna Calvi: Anna Calvi (2011, Domino): Band-oriented English singer-songwriter, first album, nominated for UK's "Sound of 2011" whatever. Brian Eno dubbed her "the biggest thing since Patti Smith"; also seen her compared to PJ Harvey, but she sounds more like Chrissie Hynde to me. Just hasn't sunk in yet, but she has something. B+(*)

Marshall Chapman: Big Lonesome (2010, Tall Girl): Next big thing, country division, for three 1977-79 albums on Epic, then crashed, righting herself with a pair of self-released albums in 1987 and 1991 back when that was considered desperation rather than smart business, then did a live-in-prison album that rivals anything Johnny Cash released. Three songs co-written by recently deceased Jim Krekel, a couple more laments including one from Hank Williams and one from Cindy Walker. Best thing by far, the live singalong "I Love Everybody" which introduces Krekel at the end -- was cut in 2003, in Belgium. B+(**)

Cornershop: Cornershop and the Double-O Groove Of (2011, Ample Play): This goes deeper into Bollywood than is healthy for an Anglo group, even one rooted in Punjabi. What made them accessible in the first place was that the songs crossed over; crossing back is a daring concern, although it's hard to say foolish given the size of the market over there. Also seems to have less vocal range, but play it a couple of times and you start to notice interesting things in the drums, and that the music can pick you up and drop you back down even when you don't understand it. Judy Sucks a Lemon was similarly thin, but won me over by reminding me how unique they were in the first place. This is unique too, in very different terms. A-

Delicate Steve: Wondervisions (2009 [2011], Luaka Bop): Steve Marion, 23, from New Jersey, mostly plays guitar, has a band at least for touring; hype aspires to "Animal Collective's dense experimentations" with an injection of "African-influenced pop" -- you know, like Dirty Projectors. He does get a wide range d of guitar effects, some tantalizing, but most framed in song structures so minimal they come off like card tricks. No vocals. B

Beth Ditto: EP (2011, Columbia, EP): Obese lesbo from Arkansas, formerly fronted the punk group Gossip through four 2001-09 albums -- never heard them; Christgau panned their second for reasons of basic musical competence, which I imagine is a pretty low bar for a punk band fronted by an obese lesbo from Arkansas, but his evidence includes the lack of a bass player. That's one problem that can be fixed; indeed, on what for now we'll call her Lady Gaga move, the bassist reminds me of no less than Bernard Edwards. Four songs, 3:57 to 7:00. I'm hardly ever satisfied by an EP, but this is one well-rounded appetizer. A-

The Dodos: No Color (2011, Frenchkiss): San Francisco group, primarily Meric Long and Logan Kroeber. Drums are central and unusual, with some African influences, in turn wrapped up in acoustic guitar. The songs don't mean much to me, but the sound is distinctive. B

Dropkick Murphys: Going Out in Style (2011, Born & Bred): Irish punk band, from Boston, tenth album since 1998, first I've heard. Upbeat, so invariably I wonder how any of their albums could be any different, although their rare slow-ups are done with dignity and aplomb. Special for "labor thugs": "Take 'Em Down." B+(**)

FaltyDL: You Stand Uncertain (2011, Planet Mu): Drew Lustman, has at least one previous album, a 35-minute EP, a pile of singles. Electronica, starts uncertain, loosens up and gets catchier midway, picks up some spare vocals near the end, then some worse ones. B+(*)

Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (2011, Atlantic): Without getting into the dirt -- and he's right that Limbaugh and Beck are racists, and that "Gaza was gettin' bombed/Obama didn't say shit" -- he constructs his music out of sung samples that he then riffs on and sometimes blows up, reminding me of Eminem at his best. Not sure how smart this really is, but namechecking WEB DuBois makes me want to hear more. A-

Ellie Goulding: Lights (2010 [2011], Cherrytree/Interscope): Young English dance-pop singer-songwriter, released 10-track debut album in March 2010 in UK, where it went number one and was later reissued with six extra tracks as Bright Lights. Now finally gets a US release, reverting to Lights, with 11 songs, starting with an extra called "Lights" and picking a few others from the Bright Lights extras, including a cute version of "Your Song." B

Sierra Hull: Daybreak (2011, Rounder): B. 1991 in Tennessee, not related to me but reportedly a distant cousin of FDR secretary of state Cordell Hull (formerly a senator, D-TN). Plays mandolin and sings. Second album; looked quite young on the cover of her 2008 debut. Wrote a little more than half of the songs. Has a lofty voice, a sweet-sour drawl, mixes her mandolin in with a lot of fiddle. Comparisons to Allison Krauss are not off the wall. B+(***)

Peter Karp/Sue Foley: He Said, She Said (2010, Blind Pig): Karp, a folkish singer-songwriter from New Jersey, has two previous solo albums. Foley, from Canada, cut Young Girl Blues in 1992, then Without a Warning emerged as the best of a sudden rush of white girl blues singers. He's capable, and she's special. All songs are co-credited, reportedly culled from long-distance emails. The best are up front. B+(**)

Wiz Khalifa: Rolling Papers (2011, Atlantic): Rapper from Pittsburgh, Cameron Thomaz, b. 1987 in North Dakota, third studio album plus some mixtapes. Seems slight, with a soft-edged musicality, a bit of Nelly around the margins. Catchiest tune: "No Sleep" -- a party-all-night anthem paced to make it without a hangover. "Cameras" also makes the flow work. B+(*)

Kid606: Songs About Fucking Steve Albini (2010, Important): Laptronica guy, b. 1979 at Michael Trost Depedro in Venezuela. Has a dozen or more albums since 1998's Don't Sweat the Technics, and has picked on no wave before, as in 2006's Pretty Girls Make Raves, although let's also not forget 2002's The Action Packed Mentallist Brings You the Fucking Jams (on Violent Turd). Pure electronics, rising and tailing off, nothing I can relate to Albini except as afterglow, but pretty listenable as it goes. B+(**)

The Kills: Blood Pressures (2011, Domino): New York duo, guitarist and chick singer, straight chunky rhythms fleshed out with a lot of bass, a sound that as far as I'm concerned makes for timeless classic rock. Don't expect more than the "dance, dance, dance" of "DNA" -- but what more do you really need? B+(**)

Avril Lavigne: Goodbye Lullaby (2011, RCA): Canadian singer-songwriter, had a freak hit in 2002 when she was 17, now up to her fourth album. Sounds pretty adult here, experienced enough for a divorce and some retribution. Most songs pack a charge, with a few barbed hooks. B+(*)

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears: Scandalous (2011, Lost Highway): Austin group, led by guitarist-vocalist Lewis, aims for 1950s r&b sound, hits it sometime, doesn't do much with it when they do. B

Low Cut Connie: Get Out the Lotion (2011, self-released): Adam Weiner, from Philadelphia, takes his garage rock sound all the way back to Cameo-Parkway, not that he could get away with the expletives of "Shit Shower & Shave" or the allusions of "The Cat & the Cream" in the 1960s. But nowadays, he's obscure enough he can get away with it all -- even some boogie piano. A- [cd]

Buddy Miller: The Majestic Silver Strings (2011, New West): A smorgasbord, showcases two jazz guitarists -- Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot -- not to mention a lot of steel guitar, on a variety of mostly old country songs. Main reason the album never gets much traction is that it juggles various vocalists -- Julie Miller is so striking they could have used her more. B+(*)

Mogwai: Hardcore Will Never Die, but You Will (2011, Sub Pop): Scottish post-rock band, lots of long guitar vamps with few vocals, none of any real significance. Cut their first in 1997 and this makes ten, but the first I've heard. Has a grand scale to it, carrying its weight at a decent pace. I'm fairly impressed. B+(**)

Pharoahe Monch: WAR (We Are Renegades) (2011, WAR): Underground rapper with a big, overground sound, and big ideas, most centered around the half-baked war/renegades concept. B+(**)

Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck (2011, Merge): Much commented on, as one expects much from John Darnielle every time out, but I'm having trouble sorting it all out. Like the idea that this is heavily front-loaded, the first half near-perfect, the second drags -- yet to my ears the most artful song here is "For Charles Bronson" near the end, where the opener "Damn These Vampires" gets sucked up in vampires no matter how tastefully hooked. B+(***)

New York Dolls: Dancing Backward in High Heels (2010 [2011], 429): Third album of the second generation Dolls, now David Johansen's post-Buster, post-Harry Smiths solo vehicle, except that Syl Sylvain shares most of the writing credits. My grades on the first two trailed Christgau's by wide margins, but this one hits too many of my soft spots: girl group pop, dirty-ass retro rock. Two cheap shots -- Covering "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" and recycling "Funky But Chic" -- work better than they deserve to, and not just because they drip with irony. They've never sounded more limited, which helps bring them back to earth. A-

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (2011, Slumberland): New York group, second album, pure shoegaze, overly smitten by the gleam in the polish this time. B+(*)

REM: Collapse Into Now (2011, Warner Brothers): Not a bad band, although I've had stretches where I didn't much like them -- especially the singer, whose voice once drove me up the wall but lately has settled into marginal acceptability -- and exceptions that I couldn't muster any real objections to. Not a bad record, either, but didn't hear anything that makes me want to hear it again. B

Showbiz ft. KRS-One: Godsville (2011, DITC): Rodney Lemay, aka Showbiz or just Show, been around since the early 1990s, usually with AG (André the Giant, né Andre Barnes). Fairly minimal beats, just enough to set off the gravel and gravity in his featured rapper's voice. B+(**)

The Soft Moon: The Soft Moon (2010, Captured Tracks): One-man band, Luis Vazquez; don't know that he has done anything else. Constructivist cover art, believes in tight-mesh machinery, reminds me of Wire but more likely drawn from kevlar, a bit short of humor, vocals buried in the mix with nothing much to say. B+(***)

Britney Spears: Femme Fatale (2011, Jive): Like MIA's Maya, available in two single-disc versions, shorter and cheaper (12 cuts) and longer and dearer (16 cuts): an annoying trend fueled perhaps by the practice of selling digital songs one at a time, or maybe just an economics game of letting customers pick their price, but it laughs at my preferred model, which is that prices have something to do with costs -- the disc and its manufacture and packaging are the same and the marginal cost of more data is zero -- as well as the reviewer's natural desire to only have to deal with one thing and be done with it. I played this first on Rhapsody, selecting the 12-cut version because it was shorter and presumably more prime, then bought the regular edition at Worst Buy because it was $5 cheaper on sale. So I've never heard the four extra tracks (14:32), and have no opinion what (if anything) they're worth. But not knowing otherwise, I say why risk spoiling a perfectly good 44:02 dance-pop album -- easily the best she's ever done. A- [cd]

The Strokes: Angles (2011, RCA): Critics rave in 2001, sort of a grove-centric new new wave band, dropped a couple more records in 2003 and 2006, now return after five years which saw a dreadful Julian Casablancas album bomb. Hard to recall from this why anyone ever liked them: sufficiently upbeat, but the core sound is so soapy it's painful to listen to. Or maybe just damn annoying. C-

Telekinesis: 12 Desperate Straight Lines (2011, Merge): Singer-songwriter Michael Benjamin Lerner, from Seattle, has a band for touring but not what you'd call a group. Second album. Guitar-based, lean and catchy. B+(**)

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo (2010 [2011], Matador): Wikipedia warns: "Not to be confused with Kurt Weill." Funny thing that never occurred to me, even though my German is good enough to correctly pronounce Weill's name. Neither Wikimedia nor AMG suggest that Vile might be an adopted name, although it is hard to imagine otherwise. Singer-songwriter from Philadelphia, low-tech, lo-fi, mostly just over guitar. Agreeable stuff, but his melodies don't have the force of Weill, and his words aren't memorable -- I could quote you more Brecht in German than I can recall Vile in English. B

Lucinda Williams: Blessed (2011, Lost Highway): First time through on Rhapsody I was so taken with the cascading guitars and ground-down voice that I rushed out and bought a copy -- actually the "Deluxe Edition" with a second disc that is best reviewed separately. Then I figured I'd take my time, and the second thoughts piled up. Does "Buttercup" mean anything at all? Isn't "Blessed" too ambiguous. Ultimately I opted for sound over content, and decided that worn and weary say something about the human condition -- just far less interesting than Sweet Old World, where she could look at others and not see herself. That sweet old world now seems forever behind her. A- [cd]

Lucinda Williams: Blessed: Kitchen Tapes (2011, Lost Highway): Pay a few bucks extra -- I paid $2 on sale but list is $4 -- and you get an extra disc of the same album in home-recorded demo form. Reminds me mostly of a time when Christgau took me to see her. I opined that she might do well without the band, and cited a couple others I'd seen work alone effectively -- John Prine and John Hiatt. Christgau disagreed, pointing out that Prine and Hiatt are funny, and insisting that she needed the support of a band. By this evidence, he's right. Graded leniently, taking pity on the crack of her voice. Averaging the package out would be unfair, but paying extra for it would be foolish. B+(*) [cd]


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Beach Fossils: What a Pleasure (Captured Tracks)
  • Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis: Come on Board (self-released)
  • The Unthanks: Last (EMI)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Willem Breuker Kollektief: Live in Berlin (1975, FMP): Close to the beginning of what came to be called New Dutch Swing, Breuker played various saxes and clarinets, his Kollektief an 11-piece band that played classical, swing, and avant-garde with uncommon whimsy and an emphasis on the surreal; just how much whimsy isn't totally clear until they knock off a pop song ("Our Day Will Come"), but even the mock-classical "La Plagiata" is strung with laughs. A- [1]

Peter Brötzmann/Fred Van Hove/Han Bennink Plus Albert Mangelsdorff: Live in Berlin '71 (1971, FMP, 2CD): The tenor sax and trombone blister and bluster but at least back off part on occasion to let something develop; Bennink is credited with a long list of percussion including the catchall "home-made junk"; he dazzles on his own, as does pianist Van Hove when the thunder breaks; even the noise can be wondrous for a while, but it does go on too long. B+(**) [1]

Peter Brötzmann/Misha Mengelberg/Han Bennink: 3 Points and a Mountain . . . Plus (1979 [1999], FMP, 2CD): Carefully balanced, with each player writing three songs, much space for the piano without Brötzmann blowing it out of the water, and as wide a range of sax and clarinet as you're likely to find -- although note that at least some of the tenor sax and clarinet is Bennink; a lot of fascinating bits, but a long haul to put them all together. B+(***) [1]

Peter Brötzmann: 14 Love Poems (Plus 10 More) (1984 [2004], FMP): Solo exercises on a range of saxophones and clarinets including a taste of tarogato, all improv except for a bit of "Lonely Woman," mostly modest in tone and dynamics although not without the occasional jarring squelch; anyone serious about Brötzmann might find this a useful lens, as most of his kit is here, in manageable portions. B+(*) [1]

Rüdiger Carl: Zwei Quintette (1987 [1988], FMP): Below the title line: "Two Compositions by Rüdiger Carl"; the two pieces run 40:41 and 36:28, originally on two LPs, not sure that there's even been a CD reissue; Carl plays tenor sax and clarinet, along with Philip Wachsmann (violin, electronics), Stephan Wittwer (guitar, more electronics), Irčne Schweizer (piano), and bass; the first (40:41) piece keeps a repeated riff in play with minor variations, never less than enchanting; the second (36:28) starts stuck in ambient mud, takes a while before more strenuous sax manages to dislodge it. B+(**) [1]

Chris Connor: Chris Connor (1956, Atlantic): June Christy's successor in Stan Kenton's band, famed for her smoky tone, with Atlantic's first vocal jazz album, a hodge podge of band and song styles -- a John Lewis trio, a larger band with Zoot Sims, a welter of period strings; she's credible in all contexts, more so when she gets a Cole Porter lyric. B+(*)

Chris Connor: He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (1956, Atlantic): I certainly don't like Ralph Burns' strings anywhere near as much as the jazz groups on part of her debut, but midway through I focused on nothing but voice on "Suddenly It's Spring, then dismissing the orchestra was surprised to find them robust in "About the Blues"; Rhapsody's song order is shuffled from the one listed in AMG, but the treatment is so consistent is must be acclimatization either way. B+(**)

Chris Connor: I Miss You So (1956-57 [1958], Atlantic): Title song her only chart single, not big but a memorable one; again, strings dominate, this time with Ray Ellis conducting, and again Connor overcomes them on the stronger songs; the one odd song out is "They All Laughed," done with a crack jazz group, a first taste of what became her best album, Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song. B+(**)

Chris Connor: A Jazz Date With Chris Connor (1956, Atlantic): Like most of Connor's Atlantics, cut in three sessions with slightly varying groups, this one centered around pianist Ralph Sharon, with occasional sax (Al Cohn, Lucky Thompson), trumpet (Joe Wilder), flute (Sam Most), guitar (Joe Puma), vibes (Eddie Costa), even a bit of conga (Mongo Santamaria); nice to escape the strings, but Connor sings much as before, making little of the extra freedom; Rhapsody picks this up from a twofer reissue, tacking Chris Craft -- reviewed separately below -- on to the end, a pretty good deal. B+(**)

Chris Connor: Chris Craft (1958, Atlantic): With Stan Free on piano and Mundell Lowe on guitar, Percy Heath of George Duvivier on bass, Ed Shaughnessy on drums, this group has some snap to the rhythm, and Connor responds, showing fine timing on the fast ones, her usual vocal depth on "Lover Man." B+(***)

Chris Connor: Sings Ballads of the Sad Cafe (1959, Atlantic): Only nine cuts, they run a bit long as well as slow, with strings arranged by Ralph Sharon sometimes giving way to a big band borrowed from Count Basie -- Stan Free is the pianist, but the roster is full of Basie-ites from Frank Foster to Sweets Edison to Freddie Green. B+(*)

Chris Connor: Witchcraft (1959, Atlantic): Richard Wess conducts, sometimes dipping into the strings, more often letting a pretty sharp big band get in its punches; neither approach works all that well, except as they frame Connor's voice; however, she sings as authoritatively as ever, which is key here (e.g., "Just in Time"). B+(***)

Andrew Cyrille/Peter Brötzmann: Andrew Cyrille Meets Brötzmann in Berlin (1982 [1983], FMP): Duo, with Cyrille on drums and Brötzmann rotating between tenor sax, baritone sax, tarogato, and E-flat clarinet. Not sure which of the latter is responsible for an extended high-pitch barrage, but it's a bit much to handle. Brötzmann is no less combative on any other horn, but the others make more sense, and draw Cyrille out more. Won't make him any new friends, but very impressive as these things go. B+(***) [1]

Globe Unity Special '75: Rumbling (1975 [1991], FMP): Alexander von Schlippenbach's avant-orchestra, formed back around 1967, cut down to an octet here (plus a dog, unnamed in the credits) -- Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, and Gerd Dudek on reeds; Kenny Wheeler and Albert Mangelsdorff on brass; Peter Kowald and Paul Lovens rounding out the rhythm section; starts with a Misha Mengelberg march, portending mischief, and ends with Lacy on Monk; in between abstract sounds improbably colliding for something more than noise. B+(***) [1]

Noah Howard Quartet (1966 [1993], ESP-Disk): Short (29:35) debut album for the New Orleans-bred alto saxophonist, with Ric Colbeck on trumpet and bass-drums players I've never run into again; Colbeck, who had one album and two more side-credits by 1970, jousts gamely with Howard; note that Rhapsody has this album listed under its last song title, "And About Love." B+(*)

The Noah Howard Quartet: Schizophrenic Blues (1977 [1978], FMP): Alto saxophonist from New Orleans, may be why he never lost his party sense even while testing the limits of ESP-Disk's "only the artist decides" rule; rools the upper registers with Itaru Oki's trumpet never far behind, and sounds like he's been listening to then-recent Ornette Coleman. A- [1]

Noah Howard Group: Berlin Concert (1975 [1977], FMP): Group includes a pianist I've never heard of (Takashi Kako), bass, drums, and percussion; don't have the song credits, but "Olé" would be Coltrane's, and the alto saxophonist shows more inclination to take the Trane than anything else; toward the end he dominates the album and it just lifts up and sails away. B+(***) [1]

ICP-Tentet: In Berlin (1977 [1979], FMP): Stands for Instant Composers Pool, the Tentet later renamed Orchestra, still extant thirty-some years later, still led by pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Benink with cellist Tristan Honsinger the only other name still in the group; the horns are delirious in unison, rooted in old European pop, but they can also clash violently -- this was, after all, the group's enfant terrible phase. B+(**) [1]

Peter Kowald/Wadada Leo Smith/Günter Sommer: Touch the Earth -- Break the Shells (1979-81 [1997], FMP): Bass-trumpet-drums trio, the bassist literally fleshes such out an amazing range of sound he threatens to reduce the others to accents, but neither reduce easily; Smith's spare eloquence is typical of him in this period; Sommer has a rapid roll to his drums, more rolling thunder than random lightning, but that all leads back to the remarkable bass work. A- [1]

Steve Lacy & Evan Parker: Chirps (1985 [1991], FMP): The two giants of modern soprano sax in a duo; I would have expected more stylistic clash, but they're very attentive to each other, up and down and in and out, more like birds dancing than chirping; of course, the sonics are limited to the instrument, which is difficult to play and difficult to listen to over the long haul. B+(**) [1]

Carmen McRae: Carmen Sings Monk (1988 [2001], RCA Bluebird): A singer renowned for her studious fidelity to the lyric sheet, in many ways the polar opposite of Jon Hendricks, who wrote seven of thirteen lyrics here -- or more accurately, slapped them on the sides of bebop riffs like hit-and-run graffiti. McRae doesn't do Hendricks justice; she does him a big favor, not so much taking the words seriously as tucking them so neatly back into Monk's bent tunes newbies may not realize how out of joint they are. Also helps that the band, including the redoubtable Charlie Rouse -- Monk's main man on tenor sax -- handles the music with the proper respect. A-

Carmen McRae: Sarah: Dedicated to You (1990 [2003], RCA Bluebird): Sarah Vaughan, of course -- McRae never had a problem looking up to the other greats because she was too modest and proper to be one herself. Nothing here by Vaughan, none of her trademark phrasing or scat. Even the songs I know from Vaughan I know just as well from others, so while the tribute is sincere, this could just as well be McRae's own show, and really it is, not least because she's managed to clean up all the ego and fetishism that made Sassy so difficult and annoying. By the way, the exceptionally talented pianist who holds this together is Shirley Horn, who declined to sing. B+(***)

Misha Mengelberg/Han Bennink: Eine Partie Tischtennis (1974, FMP): Dutch piano-percussion duo, hooked up in the mid-1960s and have been inseparable ever since; the pianist flirts with boogie but prefers a sharp attack, especially on the high keys; the drummer will attack anything, with logs and woodblocks among his more common victims; too sharp, shrill, and loud to really enjoy, but it does rivet your attention. B+(*) [1]

Misha Mengelberg/Steve Lacy/George Lewis/Harjen Gorten/Han Bennink: Change of Season (Music of Herbie Nichols) (1984 [1986], Soul Note): Nichols cut three CDs worth of material for Blue Note in 1955-56, a bit more or Bethlehem in 1957, then fell out of sight and died young in 1963. Trombonist Roswell Rudd studied under Nichols and made a number of efforts at reviving his music, including Regeneration, an exceptional 1982 album with Steve Lacy, Misha Mengelberg, Kent Carer, and Han Bennink, which was split with one side of Nichols' compositions, the other of Thelonious Monk tunes. This follows up with an all-Nichols program, with Lacy, Mengelberg, and Bennink returning, George Lewis replacing Rudd at trombone, and Harjen Gorter instead of Carter at bass. The soprano sax and trombone contrast strongly while tracing out the contours of the music, while the Dutch avant-swing section picks the rhythm apart. B+(***)

Misha Mengelberg/Steve Lacy/George Lewis/Ernst Re˙seger/Han Bennink: Dutch Masters (1987 [1994], Soul Note): Two Lacy pieces, two by Mengelberg, two by Thelonious Monk who remains a mainstay of both leaders; don't understand the spelling of ICP's longtime cellist's name -- it's Reijseger everywhere else; while the Dutch provide the oddball swing here, the prime sound masters are the Americans. B+(***)

Sam Rivers: Portrait (1995 [1997], FMP): A solo showcase: first surprise is that he starts off on piano and makes a credible showing; moves on to tenor sax (mostly), soprano sax, flute, and finally back to piano; it's tough to make solo anything work, much less tenor sax, but he's steady and ingenious throughout. B+(*) [1]

Heikki Sarmanto: A Boston Date (1970 [2008], Porter): Finnish pianist, bills his quintet as The Serious Music Ensemble, plays advanced freebop with Lance Gunderson's guitar tightening the rhythmic weave and Juhani Aaltonen's tenor sax waxing eloquent; Aaltonen is one of the world's most underappreciated saxophonists -- young then, still active 40 years later -- and this is his showcase. A-

Heikki Sarmanto Quintet: Counterbalance (1971 [2008], Porter): Same group, give or take a bassist, but a different sound and gestalt, more fusion with Sarmanto's tinkly electric piano, rarefied but not quite ethereal with Juhani Aaltonen restricting himself to flute. B+(*)

Alexander von Schlippenbach: The Living Music (1969 [2002], Atavistic): A septet, more a stripped down version of Globe Unity Orchestra than anything else, with two brass (Manfred Schoof on cornet, Paul Rutherford on trombone), two reeds (Peter Brötzmann on tenor sax, Michel Pilz on bass clarinet, both on bari sax), enough horn power to raise the roof, with the piano-bass-drums tending to slash and bang, quite dramatic but surprisingly coherent, breaking new ground. B+(**)

Schlippenbach Quartet: Hunting the Snake (1975 [2000], Atavistic): Really unheard music, broadcast on Radio Bremen then shelved for a quarter century; with Peter Kowald on bass on top of the pianist's regular trio -- saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Paul Lovens -- for four 20-minute (two more, two less) pieces; somewhat unfocused as a whole, but each player does remarkable things throughout. B+(*)

Schlippenbach Trio: Elf Bagatellen (1990, FMP): That would be pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, working with Evan Parker (soprano and tenor sax) and Paul Lovens (drums); Parker's sax runs scratch at the surface, tearing it down rather than trying to build something on top -- an effect both self-limiting and bravely tenacious. B+(**) [1]

Cecil Taylor/William Parker/Tony Oxley: Celebrated Blazons: The Feel Trio (1990 [1993], FMP): I count 18 records for Taylor on FMP from 1988-91, an intense outpouring that dominates the later half of is career; several were Feel Trios, with longtime bassist Parker shoring up spectacular fireworks from the others -- a rare record where the drummer gets in even better licks than Taylor. A- [1]

Keith Tippett: Mujician I & II (1981-86 [1988], FMP): Solo piano, cut in two widely separated sessions but pretty much seamless, mostly fast rhythmic fluttering although some of it sounds rather fishy, like the piano has been tampered with -- low parts with a lot of stringy reverb or just lots of rumble, high crystal clear. B+(*) [1]

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:

Patricia Barber: Monday Night: Live at the Green Mill Vol. 2 (2010 [2011], Fast Atmosphere): Appears to be download-only, same for the first volume which dates back several years. Barber sings and plays piano, with guitar-bass-drums. Seems under the weather at first, hard to sort out, but fares better with songs I recognize, closing with her own "Post Modern Blues" followed by "Smile," "The Beat Goes On," and "Summertime." B

Han Bennink Trio: Parken (2009, ILK): With Simon Toldman on piano and Joachim Badenhorst on clarinet/bass clarinet: their names and instruments are on the cover, following Bennink's, but most sources attribute as above. The New Dutch Swing idea is reinforced with three Ellington pieces, passages running wistfully sweet as well as cacophonous, and some fancy unorthodox drumming. Ends with the title song with a vocal by Qarin Wikström -- has a bit of Robert Wyatt flare to it. B+(***)

Agustí Fernández Quartet: Lonely Woman (2004 [2005], Discmedi): Spanish pianist, b. 1954, hangs in avant-garde circles; AMG credits him with 7 albums since 2000, which is way short -- doesn't include this one, or two recent ones I was looking for, or, well, his website lists 32 solo, duo, trio, and leader albums since 1987, plus 9 collaborations. Rhapsody gave this one a 2010 date, fooling me into putting it on, and it was good enough I let it spin. Quartet with sax (Liba Villavecchia), bass and drums; don't have song credits but some (most? all?) come from Ornette Coleman -- "Lonely Woman" and "Virgin Beauty" I recognize, and "Latin Genetics" is irresistible. B+(**)

Charlie Haden Quartet West: Sophisticated Ladies (2011, Decca): Just a quick impression here -- I'm rather surprised not to have been serviced on this, something that no doubt can be remedied easily enough. New drummer in Quartet West, Rodney Green, doesn't have much to do. Ernie Watts' tenor sax is as delicious as ever, but 6 of 12 tracks are given over to pianist Alan Broadbent's string orch, and 6 of 12 (the same save one) have guest vocalists, spread out with instrumentals. The ladies: Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Ruth Cameron, Renee Fleming, Diana Krall. The one I did a double take on and had to look up: Fleming. Which isn't to say that I didn't prefer Jones and Krall. Ends with the quartet alone playing "Wahoo" -- something I could have used a lot more of. Not sure how many Quartet West albums this makes -- at least a half-dozen, plus a best-of, since 1986. At best a terrific group, given to gimmicks, like patching vocals by Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford into Haunted Heart. Haden's a soft touch, and he's never been mushier than with this group. I could see loving this, as I do Haunted Heart, or not. B+(***)

Erik Lawrence & Hipmotism (2007, CDBaby): CDBaby describes this as acid jazz, but while most of the songs offer (or can be adapted to) funk grooves, and the bassist (Rene Hart) and drummer (Allison Miller) try to go that way for the first half-plus of the album. The horns have more leeway: the notes cite Lawrence on baritone sax and Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet; can't swear they stick to them. The two Lawrence originals break out into relatively free jazz, and their take on Fats Domino's "Going to the River" is as stretched out as their Pink Floyd ("Shine On You Crazy Diamond") is compressed. Toward the end you can feel the future Honey Ear Trio trying to break out. B+(*)

Misha Mengelberg Quartet: Four in One (2000 [2001], Songlines): Homework, as I try to get some deeper sense of the Dutch pianist and ICP Orchestra leader. Not much of his several dozen albums available through Rhapsody, but this item popped up: a quartet with Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brad Jones on bass, and Han Bennink hitting things (credit says: percussion). Three Monk pieces in the middle of a lot of originals, many recycled (Monk-like) from earlier efforts. The trumpet seems a little thin, but the piano is cagey, darting in and out unexpectedly. A-

Misha Mengelberg: Senne Sing Song (2005, Tzadik): Piano trio, produced by John Zorn with Zorn's house rhythm section, Greg Cohen on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums. Without the strings and horns of ICP Orchestra to compound his mischief, the pianist has to step up and carry the tunes, which he does. I don't often find a review worth quoting, but Dan Warburton at AMG has this one figured out: "Mengelberg's music remains a quintessential example of how recognizable idioms -- from Baroque counterpoint to the Duke-ish left-hand thunks and Monk-ish whole-tone runs -- can be extended (and subverted) into something both musically profound and profoundly musical." A-

Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis: Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles (2009 [2011], Blue Note): Pretty simple, the Marsalis quintet (Walter Blanding on tenor sax, Dan Nimmer on piano) play twelve obvious songs from the Charles songbook for a live audience with Nelson and Norah Jones trading vocals -- sometimes Jones has a bit of trouble getting on track, but Nelson is always right in the groove. Nothing wrong with the horns, either. Still, a pretty unnecessary album. B+(**)

Don Pullen: Plays Monk (1984 [2010], Why Not?): The last pianist to work for Charles Mingus is an odd choice to play Monk, and I suspect he gave little thought to the project; he keeps wanting to work in his trademark flourishes, dazzling of course, but excess baggage especially when playing songs that hide their odd note choices in a cloak of primitivism. B

Heikki Sarmanto/The Serious Music Ensemble: A Boston Date (1970 [2008], Porter): Parsing the cover: "The Serious" is in much smaller print than "Music Ensemble" so maybe I shouldn't take that so seriously; the title is also followed by "1970" which is useful but far enough off I omitted it from the title. Other references vary. Quintet, led by Juhani Aaltonen's tenor sax, really superb free bop. Cover appears to show Sarmanto on an electric, but his piano sounds more acoustic, with sharp accents and smart bridges. Guitarist Lance Gunderson also helps connect the dots. Not sure where in Boston this was recorded, but starts with a piece called "Top of the Prude" -- I'm guessing that means the Prudential Center. A-

Heikki Sarmanto Quintet: Counterbalance (1971 [2008], Porter): Nearly the same group as on A Boston Date -- Pekka Sarmanto plays bass replacing George Mraz (who was probably a one-shot replacement in Boston; he was a student attending Berklee at the time) -- but the sound and gestalt is markedly different, with the leader playing tinkly Fender Rhodes and Juhani Aaltonen forsaking his saxophone for flute. I should have cited his flute on my Downbeat ballot -- by any fair measure he's one of the best jazz flute players ever -- but I'd rather he give the instrument up. B+(*)

Heikki Sarmanto: Moonflower (2007, Porter): Finnish pianist, b. 1939, discography at Wikipedia lista 38 albums since 1969 but misses this one (AMG has 7 including this); his website claims 30 and shows 21 (but not this). I ran across him on a fusion album by Eero Koivistoinen, but that seems to have just been a 1970s phase. Porter, which reissued Koivistoinen's 3rd Version, has several albums by Sarmanto, so I was expecting more of the same, but this appears to be a new recording. Quartet, with Juhani Aaltonen on tenor sax, brother Pekka Sarmanto on bass, and Craig Herndon on drums -- just plays acoustic piano here, nicely setting up Aaltonen, who makes his usual big impression. B+(***)


Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd (but made most sense to review here)
  • [1] streamed from Destination Out