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:

Monday, December 11, 2017

Bill Crider: We'll Always Have Murder

For years, checking out Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine has been part of my daily routine. It’s one of the most entertaining sites on the Internet, IMHO. Years ago, I even sent Bill a couple of items that he posted and kindly gave me credit for. I started reading his blog posts because I was already familiar with his work as a mystery writer and figured his posts would be just as good―and I was right. For the past year, he’s been posting about some serious health issues, which seem to have reached a critical point. A bunch of Bill’s friends have decided to dedicate the latest edition of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and this post is my contribution and tribute.

This book is really forgotten―even the author says so, according to this interview: “Thanks to my agent, who got me the job, I also got the chance to write a private-eye novel with Humphrey Bogart as a featured character. It’s one of my better books, though nobody has heard of it—We’ll Always Have Murder is the title.” Subtitled “A Humphrey Bogart Mystery,” the book’s protagonist is Terry Scott, a war veteran and low-rent PI who works for Jack Warner to keep his stars’ peccadilloes out of the limelight, if not out of trouble. In this case, the star is Bogart, who’s been accosted by a sleazier PI for blackmail purposes. Scott meets Bogie, begins investigating with his help, and runs into multiple murders. Crider puts in plenty of apt allusions to and quotations from The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Big Sleep, some of them from Bogart, as this odd couple travels through both the glittery and seamy pockets of late 1940s Hollywood. Both of them come off as real, fallible, but ultimately capable investigators as they deal with Mayo Methot, Bogart’s real life, pre-Bacall wife, and a motley collection of stars, studio execs, wannabes, stunt men, and other movie types.

I really liked this book. I’ve always enjoyed period stories about Tinseltown, like Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters series and Edward Wright’s wonderful John Ray Horn novels. We’ll Always Have Murder provides ample wry humor without caricaturing his Hollywood characters, who were and are bizarre enough in real life; it also adds a few darker strokes that emphasize the seediness beneath that tinsel. My sense is that it was intended to be a series, but apparently that never happened―my only disappointment. I urge you to read We’ll Always Have Murder―there seem to be plenty of used copies to be had from the usual suspects.

As for Bill Crider, I’d like to think that, like his books, he may still have a few more surprises for us before the end, optimist that I am. Whatever happens, Bill, we’ll continue to treasure all of the work you’ve accomplished as a writer and a person―and thanks for the ride.   

Monday, October 23, 2017

Booker Ervin on Blue Note: Tex Book Tenor

I’ve been a Booker Ervin fan since the days I saw him with the Charles Mingus Jazz workshop at the Five Spot, but I’ve always thought of him as a Prestige artist, based on his series of “Book” recordings for that label. I only recently learned that he recorded two albums for Blue Note―The In Between, released in 1968, and Tex Book Tenor, which remained unreleased until 1990, when it was released as a twofer LP along with a Horace Parlan session. According to Michael Cuscuna’s liner notes, sales of the previous Blue Note album and his Pacific Jazz records (both bought out by Liberty Records around this time) may have been lackluster enough for the suits to keep it in the can. It eventually enjoyed a CD release as part of Blue Note’s lamented Connoisseur series―the version I’m writing about here.

“Lackluster” is the last word I’d apply to Tex Book Tenor. Ervin’s quintet, comprising Booker, Woody Shaw (tp), Kenny Barron (pno), Jan Arnet (bass), and Billy Higgins (dr) has that hard-driving hard bop sound, from the Middle Eastern undertones of Gichi to the debut recording of Shaw’s classic In a Capricornian Way to Ervin’s sprightly Lynn’s Tune, dedicated to his daughter. My own favorite is 204, featured below. When Booker Ervin died in 1970 at age 39 of a kidney ailment, we lost a unique voice on tenor, as you can hear on Tex Book Tenor. Note: I wasn’t familiar with Jan Arnet, the bassist on this recording. A Czech, he preceded George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous in making his mark on the U.S. jazz scene. After he left the music business, he forged a new career in finance. When I looked him up, it turns out that he died in May of this year, so this post is also a tribute to him.

Here’s 204.