The Toasters – Skaboom!


The ToastersSkaboom! Moon Ska (1987)

Many consider The Toasters to be the first important band of so-called “third wave” ska.  This album is probably the best example of how they earned that recognition.  Skaboom! is an extremely fun record of dance oriented cuts.  All things considered, this is probably one of The Toasters’ best albums, if not their very best album.  The songs are campy, adolescent and full of silly, ironic posturing. In other words, it has all the things that draw people to this kind of music.

The lively “Talk is Cheap,” a staple of the band’s shows that was later re-recorded, opens the album.  It’s an energetic track that puts on display the archetypical horn arrangement style of third-wave ska. The group had by this time brought a full horn section into the band–perhaps the only feature that distinguished them from most of the second wave/2 Tone bands.  A re-recording of “Pool Shark” follows, giving the album even more energy behind a rollicking organ riff.  Some of the songs then lessen in quality somewhat.  But even through the lesser material, The Toasters hold on to the things that make the album such a blast to listen to.  Solid tracks like “Manipulator,” “ABC’s,” and “Now or Never” keep the album moving at a brisk pace.

What makes this particular album more enjoyable than later Toasters albums is that the band, eleven members strong, seems to be genuinely having fun.  The film noir embellishments, the melodic quotes and the dub-styled toasting all sound fresh, and they are done without any pretension. It wasn’t long before The Toasters began dealing almost entirely in cliches, becoming stuck in a sort of delusional self-parody mode.

Skaboom! has been reissued numerous times, with the reissues often adding in the entire Toasters/Recriminations EP and some tracks from their debut album Pool Shark.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70 – Expensive Shit

Expensive Shit

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70Expensive Shit Soundworkshop SWS 1001 (1975)

Black President. The Nigerian James Brown. Fela Ransome Kuti. Fela Anikulipo Kuti. By any name, Fela was the king of Afro-Beat. Expensive Shit is one of the most direct and abrasive albums he made, and he made many of those.

A little background may be in order. Fela was one of music’s most outspoken activists. Fela constantly put his own life in jeopardy to let his voice be heard. He declared his house (named The Kalakuta Republic) seceded from Nigeria. His mother died in 1977 after she was pushed out a window by Nigerian soldiers. The government conducted repeated raids hoping to grind Fela into submission. Expensive Shit responds to one such incident. Fela explains, “The men alleged I swallowed some hemp. My shit was sent for lab test. Result–negative. Which brings us to…Expensive Shit.” As the story goes, they tried to plant drugs on Fela and he quickly swallowed the evidence. In jail, he was understandably more popular than the government and was able to avoid leaving any testable “results”. This incident was only one among many.

So “Expensive Shit” and “Water No get Enemy” comprise the album. Fela sang in Pidgin English in order to reach a wider audience, while adding some English and Yoruba at times. He actually developed his unique Afro-Beat music while in the United States. His international travels distinctly influenced his views and music. Fela’s ideal of Africanism (much related to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism) spoke against colonialism and against the abandonment of Yoruba traditions. “Expensive Shit” mocks those who tried to falsely persecute him. With its murky militancy, the song questions acceptance of the values of Nigerian oppressors. Fela was a man willing to put himself at grave risk for his beliefs. He had no kind words for anyone who would do otherwise. “Water No Get Enemy” has the grooviest moments on the disc. Fela sings of water as mirroring the fluid forces of nature interacting with mankind. He desires acceptance. He knows of competing natural forces, but he makes the point that goodness itself is unassailable.

What is more, Afro-Beat is known to be highly addictive. In it, melody is derivative of rhythm. Fela is aware of Western pop music’s melodic vocabulary but keeps traditional African conception in the forefront. Expensive Shit works on both fronts. He used electric keyboards, electric guitars, and saxophones, but he used them to create modern African music (which is to acknowledge that modern = traditional). Fela didn’t want Africanism to become outdated. He wanted African ideal to survive by adapting. His cultural homeland always came first. Though Fela didn’t strictly play music within ancient structures, he did stay within the spirit. Afro-Beat was about coexistence.

It is important to remember why Fela made this music. In safe American homes it can be a shock to believe the things he was up against. He didn’t find anything funny about peace, love and understanding. Fela’s message was for the whole world. Even with some isolated progress, he had setbacks. His noble efforts sadly continue to be duplicated around the world. It is illusion to think of a victory. In terms of social consciousness, Fela Kuti instead sought a modern life cycle where perhaps destruction was illusory as well.

The Beach Boys – Friends


The Beach BoysFriends Capitol ST-2895 (1968)

Brian Wilson’s fingerprints indelibly marked the best Beach Boys music. Though the whole band was contributing, Friends comes together under Brian’s guiding hand.

The opener “Meant for You” sums up the album: “As I sit and close my eyes, there’s peace in my mind and I’m hopin’ that you’ll find it too/ and these feeling in my heart, I know, are meant for you.”

Friends is essentially the Beach Boys’ version of a spiritual/gospel record (like Wild Honey was their version of a soul record). The groups’ vocal harmonies made a strong return. What had changed, though, was the overall mood. A calmness and peacefulness had set in with each and every band member. The music reflects all the warmth inherent in the vocals. Friends is practically a childrens record.

The easygoing spirituality of Friends is not its only achievement. The Beach Boys were still amidst their period of greatest creativity. “Transcendental Meditation” with its unusual sax lines even foreshadows The StoogesFun House slightly. The songs don’t have the overpowering dance beats of the Beach Boy’s best-known material but Friends takes a more sustainable approach. Brian’s brilliant producer’s instincts help songs like “Anna Lee, the Healer” all the right notes, all the right timbres, and all the right dynamics. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” runs through Brain’s everyday activities and gives general directions to his Bel Air home. This is a dramatic statement of values. The autobiographical is what is important. His overtures present the classic theme of universal progress (for example, Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”; Jesus: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”). Once there are strong individuals, there can be strong societies. Brian Wilson was certainly doing his part.

Friends is Brian’s personal favorite of all the Beach Boys albums. Everything the group did beginning with Pet Sounds and continuing through (and past) Friends was a (relative) commercial failure, but of course these same albums are the group’s most innovative and enduring works. Friends may not get the fanfare that comes with having hit songs, but it is one of the Beach Boys’ most likeable albums. It’s vulnerable, yet insightful and content–the common characteristics of all of the Beach Boys’ best music.

The Units – Ready For the House

Ready For the House

The UnitsReady For the House CORWOOD 0739 (1978)

So, I want to say that Jandek is the antidote to any ill-conceived notion (sometimes espoused by me) that all the final frontiers of music were crossed in the 1960s.  But, it gets better than that suggests, so read on.  Jandek really perfected meta-music.  This collection of tuneless warbling, credited to “The Units,” seems to show a profound disregard for anything that would appeal to the listener.  This sounds like music recorded in the basement of a very, very empty house, one with an imposing and almost oppressive sense of isolation.  And there is this man, of some sort, playing music there, for his own purposes, whatever those are.  And yet, here you are, listening to it.  This was recorded, released!  So why would you, me, anyone…why would we listen to it?  As the doubters say, are we a pretentious lot, listening to it to be contrarians, or something like that?  I think not.  The key to this, if there is one, is that it’s just brutally honest expression.  It’s naked, daring, bold expression of a type rarely put forth into the public, for the cruel human social structure to critique, attack, put down, or — even if it was a long shot — love and admire.  Philosopher Paul Feyerabend suggested that the only universal methodological rule for the progress of science was epistemological anarchism, that, in essence, nothing is sacred or true and everything is permitted.  Has Jandek proved that for music, and all arts too?  William S. Burroughs said that the function of art is is to remind us of what we know, and what we don’t know that we know.  And so, with Jandek, the reductionist removal of any clear reliance on structure or accepted method has, paradoxically — and awesomely, I may add editorially — exposed some kind of hidden potential for human connection through the sharing of experience, or shared experience if you prefer.  Wasn’t that kind of always something we knew?  And if Ready for the House was insufficient to establish any of this, Corwood Industries has survived as an outlet for scores of these albums to be continuously kept in print.  And long after this was achieved, and Jandek was established as a notably obscure purveyor of “outsider art”, bands emerge to perform this music live.  Folks, this has started to get interesting…

The Misfits – The Misfits Box Set

The Misfits Box Set

The MisfitsThe Misfits Box Set Caroline CAR 7529-2 (1996)

The Misfits.  It’s almost iconic that TV sitcoms and movies are going to show the “rebel” or “delinquent” teenager/adolescent with a Misfits poster in his room, or wearing a Misfits T-shirt.  Yes, watch some old “Saved By the Bell” re-runs to confirm.  Watch David Cross’ cameo in the movie “Men In Black”.  The evidence is there.  For those reasons, I never bothered with The Misfits for a long time, despite the growing number of friends over the years who have loved them tremendously.  When I finally gave them a shot, since my wife had the box set, I could finally hear for myself what it was all about.  And now I love it.

There are three basic components to The Misfits’ sound.  They had the songs, they had the singer, and they had the gimmick.

The group’s debut single is a weird and highly forgettable slab of disco-inflected sleaze rock, with a bad recording of a good song on the B-side.  But they hadn’t found a guitarist yet.  Probably around the time they did find their guitarist, or in any event by around 1978-79, they seem to have written the bulk of their classic songs.  They went on to record and re-record these into the early 1980s, with only some of these recordings seeing proper release.  But the song were always there.  They were propulsive, with a strong sense of melody, and a lethargic, pseudo-lazy, slacker’s sense of rhythm.  Even when the lyrics were stupid or adolescent or both, the songwriting still provided great melodies.  The songs also frequently leaned toward catchy sing-along choruses, a good measure of the reason for the group’s continued cult following.

The songwriting might have been irrelevant had The Misfits not had a great singer in Glenn Danzig.  He was the main difference between The Misfits and so many other punk bands.  Other than Nina Hagen, perhaps no other punk singer had his control and range.  Danzig’s vocals are what allowed The Misfits to actually put into practice their developed sense of melody in a way few others could realize, even if they had the inclination.  So the undercurrents of 1960s East coast doo-wop revival are there in the recordings and are convincing enough as to make them easy to overlook.

The gimmick the band had was a fixation on horror movie themes.  The band logo kind of says it all.  Now, The Cramps certainly were also doing something similar.  But where The Cramps focused on divining the countercultural implications of late-night TV and monster movies (at least up through their early 80s record label feud), The Misfits focused on humoring a kind of comic-book horror aesthetic.  A small but noticeable difference.  Funny though, how those two bands that must have seemed the most trivial at the time have held up so much better than so many other gimmick-less punk bands of the day.  If nothing else, and even if you find no substance in the gimmick, the Misfits’ gimmick gave them a common cause to rally around, and tended to unify everything in their recordings.

As for everything else, the sound of The Misfits triggers associations with kind of the basic elements of punk.  Comparisons to The Damned, or any other notable punk band of the late-1970s makes for a fair characterization of the sounds The Misfits’ banged out of their instruments.  After they had exhausted recording their earliest compositions, the well sort-of ran dry, so-to-speak.  They only really wrote a few great songs into the 1980s.  It wasn’t long before their gimmick stopped being a joke, and they seemed to start making it a grave and serious matter.  By the time of the original group’s final full-length album, only their second, they had turned into a rather faceless, unremarkable punk-metal band (and Danzig went on to Samhain, who were that only much much worse).  What happened to drain them of their creativity and originality makes for a good question, and one that I can’t answer.  The group reformed with a series of often high-profile replacement members.  But who cares.  Fortunately, this Misfits Box Set is only about the original band.

Operating as an independent act, with their own record label, The Misfits had tremendous difficulties releasing material, though freedom from the constraints that go hand in hand with better distribution might have been necessary for them be what they were in the first place.  Despite a number of highly productive recording sessions in the 1970s, they didn’t release much of those recordings during their existence as a functional band.  And what they did manage to release was often the more inferior material, looked at in hindsight.  And so this box set is invaluable.  It’s all pretty damn good.  Listening to the whole thing straight through will find you listening to a lot of the same songs over and over again, but hey, even with a lot of repetition they are still good songs!

If you ask me, and if you’ve read this far you are asking (sort-of), the best Misfits recordings were scattered across singles, EPs, the first of their two albums, and vault-clearing compilations like this box set.  Some of the material released prior to this box set hides behind needless echo/reverb.  Some originally unreleased versions of songs benefit from punchier guitar, even if the vocals don’t jump out front-and-center.  And some songs just feel right at certain tempos.  The great thing with this box set is that you can pick the version of each song that feels right for you.  They are all right here (that is, except for the bulk of Walk Among Us which is the only Danzig-era material not on this box set).

If you hear a few Misfits songs and like them, go straight for this box set and save yourself all the trouble of attacking them piecemeal.

Antipop Consortium – Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp

Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp

Antipop ConsortiumAntipop vs. Matthew Shipp Thirsty Ear THI57120.2 (2003)

As one of the smartest and most talented musical groups of their day, Antipop Consortium broke away from the self-imposed restraints of hip-hop on their last full-length album. Antipop made a stand for music as music, with no fixed forms or techniques. They explored something more jazz than hip-hop and more hip-hop than jazz, maybe best termed hiprovisation or something of that sort. Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp may be highbrow, but, adopting Matthew Shipp‘s “jazz as boxing” concept, it is a well-executed confrontation of the forces shaping the future of hip-hop (and jazz). This fluid and engaging album is easy on the ears.

Antipop Consortium’s debut Tragic Epilogue showed a lot of promise that they have certainly made good on in following years. They did manage to incorporate electronic styling into hip-hop on their superb Arrhythmia. The British IDM (so-called “intelligent dance music”) scene seemed an ironic place for a new school (new wave?) hip-hop troupe like the Antipop Consortium to fight hip-hop’s stagnation, but it seems to have helped them incorporate improvisation into their vision of hip-hop. Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is the final album from the Antipop trio of High Priest, Beans and M. Sayyid as they each pursue solo efforts. Apparently the group actually fell apart quite literally during the recording process, with Beans coming through to finish off the last tracks with Shipp after Sayyid and Priest departed. Though the breakup marks the end of a great group, they accomplished a lot in their brief existence.

Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp explores the interface between the toxic recontexualization of hip-hop and the individual expressionism afforded by improvisation. It is a program of continual redefinition for the individual performers as well as for the group dynamic. From hip-hop, they show a reorganization of musical elements lain out by circumstance. From improvisation, they develop transparency in the process. The developing interface allows spontaneous selection of what from the past might still be valid in the present.

The ambitions of this album get the better of Antipop at times. But these few errors are but part of a bigger success. Spontaneity breaks the typical rhythmic time constraints of hip-hop. Antipop’s control is not yet complete, but the day when the total clarity of vision they contemplate appears to be fast approaching. They propose new attacks and counterattacks with fluid succession, and their lackadaisical raps add a random factor that codifies the interface of hip-hop and jazz. Antipop’s mere presence on this interface is itself a statement of defiance and creation.

One extraordinary quality of Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is the spectacular lyricism. Antipop have that down. “Coda” goes: “You used to/ move like the breath of truth/ you used to . . . Your eyes/ just like mine . . . Suddenly, death/ something inside of me is gone/ Antigone how did we end up like this?”

Matthew Shipp’s crew brings an array of skills to bear. They send jabs and hooks at Antipop where the result can emerge from the flow of the fight. “Staph” makes full use of Guillermo E. Brown‘s powerful, shifting rhythmic sense to bolster Antipop’s lyrical platform. Brown’s lyrical and textural drumming colors the sound enough to keep the structure from ever sounding like a limitation. His style is certainly an outgrowth of the Max Roach school of thought. “A Knot In Your Bop” takes the rhythmic textures to their highest point of the album, as fuzzy rides on the cymbal contend with dark, pounding chords from the piano. Later, “Monstro City” puts the synchronous rhythms of Brown and bassist William Parker front-and-center to keep the album moving forward (at what seems to be 9/8 time).

“Staph” is a standout because Antipop never do too much. Their restraint is important. They know when to stop. As such, the album concludes with “Free Hop” reaffirming the Shipp crew’s input.

There is still plenty of room to diversify, which makes this a vital release in the continuing discovery of how man relates to his world. Antipop know that 4 = 4, but they also know that 3 x 3 – 5 = 4. Inputs from Shipp’s crew make the mathematics suitably meaningful, making the album a revelation.   Antipop understand the complexity of the equation and the alternative ways of reaching its incontrovertible balance. They can envision arriving at that equal sign by more significant than swift measures.

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)

At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)

Johnny CashAt Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition) Legacy 88697 32742 2 (2008)

The “Legacy Edition” of Johnny Cash’s iconic At Folsom Prison (1968) presents the two (!) complete concerts used as the basis for the original album together with a documentary on DVD and expanded liner notes.

Michael Streissguth, author of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, provided the liner notes and coordinated the documentary.  He does a great job digging up valuable information about Cash, his music, the recording of this album, and the people who made it happen–including the inmates.  Bonus DVDs have become a familiar way for record labels to inflate the cost of an album, but often provide only grainy home-video quality concert footage or what seems like the security tape footage from studio recording sessions.  They are so often not worth it!  But this DVD is an exception.  Not only is there live footage from the shows that were recorded for the album, but there are interviews with former Cash associates, audience members, and surviving family members reflecting on contributions of the deceased.  One inmate interviewed, Millard Dedmon, offers some pretty amazing insights on what it meant to be locked up in prison in 1960s America, and how the inmates welcomed Cash or anybody who took enough interest in them to make an appearance.

Many perhaps assume that the original At Folsom Prison album is the complete concert Johnny Cash played January 13, 1968.  That’s wrong for many reasons.  There were two morning shows that day.  Two were thought needed to ensure that enough suitable takes would be captured.  The recording was a project Cash had wanted to do for a while.  He had played prison concerts a number of times previous, and knew the setting would make for a great recording.  Knowing that a recording was being made, there were rehearsals of course.  During rehearsals, he learned a song by then-current Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, “Greystone Chapel,” passed along on a demo tape.  In the second show, they play that song multiple times.  But surprisingly, almost all of the original album was culled from the first show, with the exception of “I Got Stripes,” “Give My Love to Rose,” and some between-song prison environmental ambiance. Cash of course plays one of his most famous songs: “Folsom Prison Blues,” which actually lifted the melody and lyrical structure of Gordon Jenkins‘ “Crescent City Blues,” with the famous line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” adapted from Jimmie Rodgers‘ “Blue Yodel (T for Texas),” “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma/just to see her jump and fall.”

Some of the little “flubs” in the concert recording are actually planned gags, like when June Carter (she married Cash less than two months later) jokes, “I’m talkin’ with my mouth!”  She says the same thing in both shows, and it seems a lot less charming the second time you hear it.  Cash’s question, “Is this water?” and quip about drinking some that had “run off” something is also the same joke he delivered in July of 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival.  He also manages to forget the words to songs at times and generally miss the mark on his vocals.  But that’s more noticeable in the second show.  It’s possible now to wonder, though, whether he planned to do it.

The way the original album came together seems all the more impressive after hearing the “Legacy Edition.”  The original trimmed out the weaker performances and kept a remarkably good flow, more so than either of the original shows.  This expanded edition actually takes away some of the mystique.  Still, “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” is nice to have (though it was previously added as a bonus track to reissue editions starting with 1999’s At Folsom Prison).

As an aside, it’s worth noting that prison populations were quite different in the late 1960s than at this writing over four decades later.  Since then, prison populations have soared 600%, and there was a distinctly racist element to the so-called “war on drugs” started by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s that put mostly (poor) black men in prison for reasons other than criminality (read sociologist Loïc Wacquant for more detail).  In other words, the crowd in Folsom that January day in 1968 was mostly more serious criminals, like bank robbers (Glen Sherley), armed robbers, kidnappers and rapists (Millard Dedmon), and probably worse.  Cash still empathized with the audience.  He made efforts to advocate for prison reform.  He had lobbied along with Reagan and Billy Graham to get Glen Sherley paroled, and then took on Sherley into his troupe for a while.  Although strangely some people write Cash off as a typical country redneck, or maybe a typical rural populist, he actually wasn’t much like any of those things.  Although there was somewhat of a sneer whenever mixing art and politics came up, Cash did do so repeatedly.  Most of Cash’s brand of “activism” was just about the notion that everyone deserves a fair shake and should be treated with dignity–even convicts.  That of course put him at odds with the American political establishment built upon a very different foundation, notwithstanding some pretensions to the contrary.  So he couldn’t help but be “political” in bristling with the way things were.  But he also wasn’t just another rural populist, with views that chafed against the situation for ordinary folks in urban centers.  Cash often sang about the industrialized North, and someone writing in the Village Voice years ago hypothesized that Cash was a little more “liberal” than your average country star because he grew up on a New Deal farm in Dyess, Arkansas.  Cash called the town “a socialistic setup” in his first autobiography.  It also may have been relevant to this album’s popular success that it came out in 1968, a pivotal year in history, when progressive and liberal social norms made breakthroughs into wider acceptance.  None of that matters a whole lot to Cash’s own attitudes — though he was, in a sense, positioning himself as the exception to rural ambivalence and hostility to the New Deal.  What did matter was that despite how big a star he became, Cash could always pull off a country-simple charm that stuck with him just about his whole life.  For At Folsom Prison, that charm was paired with a raw energy and palpable sense of connection with the audience that makes this a one-of-a-kind document.

Miles Davis – Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess

Miles DavisPorgy and Bess Columbia CL 1274 (1959)

Bold and uncategorizable, outside the scope of translation, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a visionary’s upheaval of the rule of the mundane and stagnant. Any cursory look to American music must include it. Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ rendition is among the most enduring. For use as a film treatment’s soundtrack, Miles collaborated here with his alter ego Evans who conducts the orchestra, handles all arrangements, and contributes a song of his own. There are volumes written on Gershwin’s masterwork and this rendition (because this is an instrumental rendition, excluding all singing, it is fair to exclude Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s contributions to Porgy and Bess), but no outpouring of words captures the impulsiveness of the performance.

Many believe that 20th Century composition began shackled by Euro-classical conventions. The important things had already been done, leaving little of interest. The odds of success were certainly slimmer than before. This prompted many to follow the lead of Arnold Schönberg or those developing various just intonation and conceptual systems of music. However, George Gershwin–and subsequently others like Eric Dolphy–shows that it never had to be strictly about systems and rules but could be about divining the poetry of exceptional circumstance. If the vision fit in simple forms, so be it. Porgy and Bess conveys the common things of life in a most uncommon way.

Gershwin was a wild card among American composers. His firm belief in the value folk music opened untold avenues. He stirred up wonderful human traditions in colorful sounds. Steve Reich has said, “the human construct we call music is merely a convention–something we’ve all evolved together, and which rests on no final or ultimate laws. And it sails, in my mind, like a ship of light down an endlessly dark corridor, preserving itself as long as it can.” (“Steve Reich In Conversation with Jonathan Scott,” New York City 1985; from the liner notes to The Desert Music). Reich’s own views on music make plain Gershwin’s insight, even though, on the surface, Gershwin doesn’t appear particularly serious. He was popular after all. Well, Erik Satie wrote cabaret songs–great ones. Gershwin may not have fashioned his own language, but he found, as expressed in the heart of his works, unspoken beauties. His respect and humanity shine through every note. Academics are simply irrelevant.

As for the Miles/Evans recording, it is a success on every level. Miles plays a little trumpet and a little flugelhorn. His Harmon mute often appears to lend biting sincerity to his solos. His touch is soft and remarkably smooth. A particularly memorable rendition of “Summertime” is a favorite with Miles’ dry, swaggering sense of rhythm.

The centerpiece truly is “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)”. Gershwin, Evans, Miles and the orchestra all communicate as one. Miles’ horn raises a soaring angelic voice above the churning rumble swelling about him. Pleading and sincere, Miles plays his brightest. At the dénouement, he draws back into a husky state of exhaustion.

After such a vigorous song, the challenge to follow it is immense. Gershwin builds slowly with “Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab.” The subtleties in the flow of Porgy and Bess seem effortless.

Miles later recalled (in his autobiography Miles) the two of the most challenging songs he had played were “I Loves You, Porgy” here, and “KoKo” back with Charlie Parker (reputedly, Dizzy Gillespie took over on trumpet for at least part of that recording). “I Loves You Porgy” makes a touching expansion of the emotional range of the record.

Evans manages to maintain the intimacy of a small combo with the larger orchestra. He uses tubas, flutes, French horns, and clarinets to their full potential in the orchestra. Some of what Evans does is not so fluid though. The inclusion of an Evans original, “Gone,” is nothing short of shocking. Not to say it’s a bad tune, but its inclusion is a significant change–much more so than doing an instrumental rendition of an opera. The Gershwin score certainly isn’t rigid. At the outset the results are indeterminate. But placing “Gone” in the middle breaks up the flow of Porgy and Bess even in a non-vocal version. Still, this record is a wonderful meeting of talents to deliver a common vision.

Don’t call this jazz, opera, folk, pop or classical. Don’t call it anything. Just listen and let it melt boundaries.

Miles Davis – E.S.P.


Miles DavisE.S.P. Columbia CS 9150 (1965)

In 1965, Miles Davis made a slight break from the East Coast hard-bop he pioneered over the past decade. E.S.P. was the first studio album from Miles’ second great quintet: Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Tony Williams (drums), and Ron Carter (bass). At every turn, the group breaks convention. E.S.P. is not as popular as other Davis albums, but it remains as great as any other recordings by any of Miles’ groups. It’s the intriguing launch point for what Miles did over the coming years.

Miles Davis never had to practice. He had the remarkable ability to immediately remember any music he heard (a phonographic memory?). His band did not feel quite the same way about skipping practice, but they certainly had to deal with it. The rhythm section was left hanging to fashion their own ideas about the music — even more so on their next album Miles Smiles. Miles always said he didn’t know what the fuck the band was doing “back there.” Well what they were doing back there was playing great jazz. Left without structure and guidance, the rhythm section found themselves experimenting with new forms and styles. E.S.P. is a great example of the jazz ideal of making it up as you go. Tony Williams (just nineteen!) showed early indications of fusion with some straight drumming on “Eighty-One” (“straight” means, for example, instead of accenting the 2nd & 4th backbeats in 4/4 time, all the beats are accented the same).

Herbie Hancock started to use “no left hand” as Miles instructed. The space and lighter voicing holds the horn solos. The piano sounds more like another horn. Wayne Shorter gracefully delivers melodic solos, while the trumpet coats the sax in sleek harmony. Miles’ magic mute appears for “Agitation” with attentive snaps in front of Ron Carter’s vamps. Miles then boldly lays down his vibrato-less blasts on “Iris.”

The sound is delicate and always compassionate. Tonality is hardly constant, slowly removing traditional bop structure. The songwriting encompasses contributions from most of the group, though Wayne Shorter would later take over most of the writing.

Miles Davis refused to let music evolve past him. He reaffirms his place as one of the great bandleaders and visionaries by assembling a remarkable band that delivers on every ounce of potential. E.S.P. was elegant 1960s jazz that needed not shy away from the free jazz movement.

Ornette Coleman – Chappaqua Suite

Chappaqua Suite

Ornette ColemanChappaqua Suite CBS 66203 (1967)

Somewhat of an oddity in the Ornette Coleman catalog, Chappaqua Suite is actually stronger than a lot of other mid/late 1960s Coleman recordings.  This was intended to be a film soundtrack, but was never actually used with the film.  It features orchestral backing in places.  Ornette is right out in front where he belongs, which avoids the problems of Skies of America where British musicians’ union rules unduly restricted his time in the spotlight.  His playing is good too, even if the sheer length of the performances occasionally wears him down a touch.  There are passages lifted from familiar tunes, though most of this seems new.  The reasons this remains an oddity are twofold.  This was originally a French-only release, which limited its exposure to much of Coleman’s fan base.  It also was a double-LP album mastered as four side-long pieces identified just as Parts I-IV, which, combined with Coleman’s typical and characteristic meanderings, makes this just too monolithic for some to digest.

What is amazing about this is how Ornette saw a fairly conventional European orchestra as something that could be seamlessly integrated into his musical vision, without compromising anything.  It was this quality that made Ornette great.  Sure, he was the face of the movement to “break away” from the “rules” that governed jazz music.  But his real genius was found in his foresight to break the rules in order to go back the the source of the rules and work with the raw material.  He saw a European-style orchestra as something that could be used in a different cultural setting.  This is music that suggests that everybody can get along, and difference, rather than sameness, can be a central element of a musical vision.  One quality stands out.  This is music of confidence.  Every moment exudes belief it is just another step toward changing the world.  It seems to possess limitless energy toward that end.  It may be only one step in a long march.  But those first few steps are always the most challenging.

At Ornette’s revolution, all would be welcome, and there might even be dancing.  Well, there would be good music at least.  Dance at your own risk.