Thursday, August 16, 2018

Farewell to Aretha

Aretha Franklin transcended categories. She could do soul, R & B, gospel, jazz, and opera, but it all came out Aretha. Take, for example, her lightning fast take on the vocalese classic Moody's Mood for Love, which segues into a vintage Queen of Soul interlude before a big finish, including a shout out to Freddie Hubbard and James Moody. "I'm through." Rest easy, Aretha.

 Aretha Franklin, Moody's Mood for Love:

Saturday, July 21, 2018

John D'Earth: Restoration Comedy

In those faraway days when I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, there wasn’t much of a jazz scene, which made performances by Cosmology at the Prism Coffeehouse such a treat. For whatever reason, I wasn’t aware that the band had put out an album on Vanguard recordsmaybe in those halcyon days, they didn’t feel the need to club their listeners over the head with commercials, or maybe I was just inattentive. In any case, Cosmology produced some fine fusion sounds. I guess John Abercrombie subsequently became the band’s most well-known alumnus, but trumpeter John D'Earth and his wife, vocalist Dawn Thompson, have continued to make a quieter splash from their Charlottesville home base.  

In the course of keeping track of D’Earth, years ago I picked up Restoration Comedy, a quintet date with Jerry Bergonzi on tenor, the much-missed Mulgrew Miller on piano, Mike Richmond on bass, and Howard Curtis on drums. With that line up, my expectations were relatively high and mainly well met. It turns out that D’Earth is a good composer as well as trumpet player.  Almost all of the compositions are his, and they reveal a gift for melody that’s just a tad off kilter, which makes the recording a step up from the standard hard bop session. Bergonzi and especially Miller rise to the occasion with some inventive playing, as does the leader. Verdict: Excellent.
I couldn’t find any links to Restoration Comedy, so I’ll close with some live D’Earth. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Spirit Free Plays Starship: From Las Vegas to Infinity

When I started this blog, one of my thoughts was to highlight the accomplishments of lesser-known or underappreciated creators. Spirit Feel Plays Starship may be my deepest dive yet into obscure music. In the 1960s, Ron Feuer (keyboards), Paul “Rick” Davis (tenor sax), and Santo Savino (drums), later joined by Orlando “Pepito” Hernandez (bass), earned their daily bread as Las Vegas show musicians while playing more spiritual, cutting-edge jazz during their off hours and in a few receptive clubs. In May 1971, Spirit Free played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz Festival, where the live tracks on the album were recorded. Supplemented by additional music performed at the engineer’s home studio, Spirit Feel Plays Starship was put out on vinyl and distributed locally to friends and family. After a few more years and a bigger-band Spirit Free ensemble, the musicians scattered and that was it.

Enter The Numero Group, a reissuer of off-trail or no-trail audio artifacts (one of their series is called “Eccentric Soul”enough said) that somehow found out about Spirit Free and put out this album on CD. I found out about it in the course of my habitual lurking on the Cranky Old Guys jazz bulletin board. Based on an enthusiastic recommendation there, I check the band out on YouTube and took a flyer on the whole thing. It’s great stuff. Davis is a hard-charging late Coltrane-inspired stylist, abetted by some fine, spacy Fender Rhodes keyboarding by Feuer and strong rhythmic support from Savino and Hernandez. Highlights include two versions of the title composition, Feuer’s Dear Latin Friend, and a wigged-out Starship, but the whole CD is strong, indeed. This recording is an object lesson in the vast amount of excellent music generated locally but, for a whole host of reasons, unable to break out to a wider audience. We owe thanks to the musicians, and to the Numero Group for putting this fine music out for a new audience to appreciate. It makes me want to explore the Numero catalog in more detail!

Here are Starship and Guardian Angel (only a few selections are available on YouTube).

Starship, short version:

Guardian Angel:

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Rahsaan! We Free Kings

One of the reasons I don’t post here more often is an inability to choose which of the ever-growing pile of recordings and books gradually encroaching on my living space should get the nod. This time I tried a new techniquepicking a CD from the top of the nearest stack.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings, one of his early albums, finds him already formednot just the three horns played at once, the speech-fluting, and the occasional siren, but his deep knowledge of the jazz tradition put to work in the service of innovation. It’s odd to remember that his approach to instrumentation caused him to be viewed las gimmicky by some critics. Like Rufus Harley and his bagpipes, Rahsaan’s originality just wasn’t the right kind for some critics, to the detriment of those who listened to them. 

On this album, aside from some of his well-known compositions like Three for the Festival and You Did It, You Did It, I really liked his takes on Moon Song, an old sweet band favorite, and My Delight, seemingly based on Tadd Dameron’s Our Delight, a bop classic. In each case, Rahsaan shows both his interest in and respect for established musical styles while adding his own unique conception to the mix. Hank Jones, Richard Wyands (piano), Wendell Marshall and Art Davis (bass), and Charli Persip (drums) provide able backing, but this is pretty much Kirk’s works.

Here’s the title track, along with Moon Song and My Delight.

We Free Kings:

Moon Song:

My Delight:

Friday, March 23, 2018

H.P. Lovecraft: Rockin' in R'lyeh

I first found out about H.P. Lovecraft (the band) from a mention in the Arkham Collector, a newsletter published by Arkham House, the small press dedicated the preserving the literary heritage of H. P. Lovecraft (the author) and other Weird Tales stalwarts. It pretty much said “the album is good if you like that kind of thing,” but it did result in my buying the band’s eponymous first album. Given my expectations of what their music would sound like, I was vaguely disappointed, although I liked The White Ship (the only song on the record with a direct Lovecraftian pedigree, albeit a story from his early Dunsany-like period rather than the later cosmic horror stuff) and the band’s version of Dino Valenti’s Let’s Get Together. Even so, I later bought H.P. Lovecraft II, but it largely went unplayed. Fast forward to a few years ago, when I began contributing to a best of the Sixties Facebook page. The first song I remember posting was The White Ship, followed soon after by Let’s Get Together. I’ve been thinking about them ever since, and recently decided to revisit the first album.

The band started when George Edwards (real name Charles Kenning), who played on the Chicago and California folk circuit, met David Michaels (real name Dave Miotke), a folk and jazz keyboardist-vocalist. Edwards was signed to Dunwich Records, whose co-owners were Lovecraft fanshence the name of the labeland who suggested the band’s name. Curiously, Bill Traut, one of the owners, actually knew August Derleth, the godfather of Arkham House, and got his permission to use the name. (Note: Given the murky history of the rights to Lovecraft’s work, who knows whether they needed his permission or not?)

Now to the musicI’ve been listening to this album a lot and really like it. Edwards and Michaels provide some great harmonies on the vocal parts and Michaels’s keyboard work is very effective. The White Ship, an Edwards original, actually does conjure up some of the spookiness of the original story. To my mind, the stirring Let’s Get Together is the best version of this song, with the vocalists’ yearning for a better world striking a particularly poignant note in today’s ugly political and social scene. Fred Neil’s That’s the Bag I’m In, perfect for a Monday morning, is another showcase for Edwards and Michaels. That’s How Much I Love You (More or Less) is a laidback, jazzy surprise, with some overdubbed wordless vocalizing (a number of tracks overdub horns, etc., which generally works well). Another favorite is Country Boy & Bleecker Street, a folk-tinged song with a strong ending.

Overall, the band and the record are excellentthey could have been way bigger if musicality were the sole criterion for success (ha!). Bill Graham must have thought so, because after hearing the record, he brought the band out to the West Coast and booked them opposite such star acts as Donovan, Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. One of their performances is available as H.P. Lovecraft: Live, May 11, 1968, which I hope to discuss in the near future. The touring brought the band greater recognition but took a toll on them personallythe fate of all too many bands, past and present, as I’ll discuss when I review their second and last studio album.

Both H.P. Lovecraft albums are available on a Rev-Ola CD, along with excellent liner notes by Nick Warburton. However, the graphic designer who designed the booklet apparently thought that the goal was to make the notes as hard to read as possible, so he used a godawful, predominantly orange and yellow background for the tiny textmay the fungi from Yuggoth smite him!

Here are just a few of my favorite tracks from H.P. Lovecraft.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Sonny! Rahsaan!

Seriously, watching this video is guaranteed to be the best 2 minutes and 26 seconds you could possibly spend today. If you don't think so, as Dizzy Gillespie put it, "Shame on you, baby."

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sal Nistico: Heavyweights

For years, I’ve enjoyed watching/listening to a YouTube video of the Woody Herman band featuring Sal Nistico’s blistering solo on Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie.  I’ve also heard some of his later work but not his first two albums as a leader, Heavyweights and Comin’ on Up!, conveniently available on one CD, until now.  The verdict: a fine example of early 1960s jazz, featuring classics (Au Privave and Cheryl), standards (My Old Flame and Living Easy), and some bop-based originals (Tommy Turrentine’s Shoutin’ and Nistico’s Samicotico).

I lean toward Heavyweights a bit more because of the presence of Nat Adderley on cornet and Barry Harris on piano, although I enjoyed the contrast of Sal Amico’s more introspective trumpet style on Comin’ on Up with Adderley’s harder tone and attack. As with many two-album compilations, listening to both at one sitting sometimes provides a surfeit of good things (Note to self: don’t do it again). Oddly enough, given Nistico’s facility on up-tempo tunes, I was most impressed by his ballad playing, particularly My Old Flame. He really gets inside emotionally―pretty impressive for a 22-year-old.  I also liked Au Privave, taken at a steeplechase clip; Barry Harris is amazing on this one.

All in all,  impressive debut and second recordings. I need to explore Nistico’s other music. Like a lot of past masters, he checked out earlier than he should have, but left a legacy for the rest of us.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Pete (La Roca) Sims: Turkish Women at the Bath

The drummer Pete (La Roca) Sims has been a favorite of mine for many years, ever since I first listened to Basra, his sole album as a leader for Blue Note. Thanks to a review in Down Beat, I also knew that in the late 1960s he had recorded Turkish Women at the Bath for Alan Douglas’s eponymous Douglas label. Apparently, that label had spotty or even non-existent distribution; I don’t think I ever saw a copy or I would have snapped it up. Later, because it featured a young pianist named Chick Corea, Turkish Women was reissued by Muse as Bliss, a Corea album. By that time, La Roca (he picked up that part of his name while working in Latin bands) had abandoned jazz for law school. That made it easier for him to sue Muse successfully in re: failing to give him credit for the recording. Unfortunately, Muse never reissued it under its rightful name and leadership. It finally came out on CD thanks to Joel Dorn and 32 Jazz, a fine and much-missed reissue label.

Now that the history is out of the way, I can spend a little time praising Turkish Women as what I think is a neglected masterpiece. Inspired by the Jean Baptiste Ingres painting “The Turkish Bath,” La Roca composed some remarkable, Eastern-influenced compositions and brought Corea, John Gilmore (another neglected tenor player who spent most of his career with Sun Ra), and bassist Walter Booker together to play them. Collectively, they conjure up an Orientalist vision combined with post-Coltrane improvisation and coloring. The use of repeated piano figures in compositions like Bliss and Dancing Girls, supported by La Roca’s intricate percussion are incredibly absorbing. Gilmore’s thick-toned, original tenor playing (often mentioned as an influence on John Coltrane) adds another ambiguously cross-cultural tinge to the music, which ends with And So, a slightly funkier reprise of previous themes, with Corea sounding almost like Vince Guaraldi. It adds a touch of reality to the preceding gorgeous fantasy in a most satisfactory way.

Here are Bliss and Dancing Girls, but please listen to the whole album if you can.


Dancing Girls: