Category Archives: Reviews

Donny Hathaway – Live

Live

Donny HathawayLive Atco SD 33-386 (1972)


Recorded at two performances, one on each coast (at The Troubadour in Hollywood and The Bitter End in New York City), Donny Hathaway’s Live takes on an intimate small-club feel throughout. The songs recorded on the West Coast would seem to come first. They have a smooth gloss. The songs that seem to come from performance in New York retain more brutal space and gaps. Regardless of where any one song was recorded, the entire collection presents a varied, evocative look at soul music from one of its greatest interpreters.

Donny Hathaway, still in his twenties, was perhaps the most intellectual soul or R&B performer of his day. Well, that may be misleading. He was among the most mature. Depth and clarity are ever-present in his music. The complexity of a song like “Hey Girl”, for example, is of no concern. It is effortless. Simple in its relation to the fervor of feelings sought, lost, held, doubted by practically all of us, the song’s evocation of an uncertain relationship is an experience in itself. That is the near miracle of the album. Every listen makes the present day seem to stretch out forever.

Carole King‘s “You’ve Got a Friend” (popularly recorded by James Taylor) is a transcendent moment. For quite a while, Donny lets the audience carry most—not just some—of the vocals. There is a complete communion between those who began as separate groups of performers and audience. The union happens almost immediately. Hathaway gracefully lays out the first few chords on his electric piano and a cheer immediately rises. Just the first few seconds of that song are enough to restore a sense of purpose in the most lifeless among us. Hathaway’s confidence, poise, determination and generosity are evident.

Another spectacular cover is John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy”. Whimsical guitar and piano riffs punctuate Donny’s patient vocals. Like all his music, there is a warmth too rarely found elsewhere. Also, Donny shows he can downplay his gospel roots and still succeed in every way.

“Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” stretches out over four movements, with each lending an opportunity for different musicians to step to the front (like guitarists Mike Howard and Cornell Dupree, and “the baddest bass player in the country” Willie Weeks), each movement also lending to a changing emotional interpretation of the song. Certainly the funkiest number on the album, the extended (thirteen minute) performance highlights what an accomplished soul-jazz combo was at work.

Though plagued by severe depression through much of the coming years, the period when Live was recorded was Donny Hathaway’s creative peak. In his last years, Donny recorded little. His duets with Roberta Flack from the early 1970s–“Where Is the Love?”, etc.–found the most widespread popularity. Still, it will be Donny’s own records that will endure longest.

It would be too much to say this is one of the greatest albums ever made. There are no final greatest masterpieces. Contexts change. Even still, hell, Live is as close to the top of the heap as we’ll ever know.

The Electric Flag – The Electic Flag

The Electric Flag

The Electric FlagThe Electric Flag Columbia CS 9714 (1968)


Lester Bangs lamented that The Electric Flag got buzz in the press when more deserving acts languished in obscurity (in spite of Bangs’ best efforts).  There is just something disingenuous about The Electric Flag.  Yeah, they have a jazzy soul thing going, melded with slightly psychedelic blues rock.  But it seems too crass, just an assemblage of whatever seemed “hip” at the time.  It’s contrived.  These guys would have made a great studio band for somebody else, but on their own they just don’t have any good ideas of their own, just the ability to loosely amalgamate popular styles of the day.  It’s the kind of music they seemed obligated to make, not music that came from any kind of genuine passion or drive outside of rock careerism.  This just clings to forms that already had matured in the hands of others.  But, for what it’s worth, this album beats the seemingly better-known A Long Time Comin’.  Reference The Rascals too.

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones Decca LK 4605 (1964)


The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair.  It is full of energetic takes on American blues.  The group plays with enthusiasm.  Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here.  Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable.  This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own.  Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect.  They got better quickly.  What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.

Beck – Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Beck Stereopathetic Soulmanure Flipside FLIP60 (1994)


Some bag on Stereopathetic Soulmanure as an inferior Beck release, but I think it’s easily one of his best albums.  It’s a little rough in patches, but the eclectic songwriting is usually good and there is even some fairly good guitar playing.  Beck is all over the place.  From found sounds, to noise rock, to country, to folk, he tries a little of everything.  But he manages to pull it off.  In fact, Mellow Gold was a big step down from the creativity on display here.  Beck hadn’t yet hooked up with hip-hop producers but it’s no real loss with what is found here.  Is this juvenile?  Yes, of course.  But it manages to faithfully capture the sense of looking for something that resonates and finding the process of the search at least as interesting as anything found along the way.  This has the feel of bored Southern California kids making their own entertainment — not unlike what Ariel Pink would do a few years later.

Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando

Accelerando

Vijay Iyer TrioAccelerando ACT Music (2012)


A more mature Vijay Iyer offers something the younger Iyer did not.  He melds angular, modernist attacks with smooth, easy sensibilities in a way that avoids both stilted transitions and empty new age chamber jazz posturing–sometimes the nagging limitations of his early work.  Accelerando features all his strengths and none of his weaknesses.  It certainly helps that bassist Stephan Crump provides a very prominent drive to the music.  Covering some pop music (“Human Nature”) also reveals a grounded sense of humor.  Such little touches evidence the magnanimous spirit imbuing the proceedings.  This is music that is as accessible as it is vibrant.  It may well be Iyer’s best offering yet.