Wednesday, July 25, 2018

JEFF BECK IS GOD AFTER ALL

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I had been of the recent opinion that what guitarist Jeff Beck has been doing for the last decade was mostly composed of doodling-- short, strange guitar riffs and odd sounds aplenty, but little in the way of interesting guitar work. The July 22nd concert  at the  Mattress Firm Amphitheater was another matter altogether; I've had the honor of seeing Beck three times previously; what did that night was a revelation. Fluid, fast, angular, bluesy, full of blues phrasing framed sidewise and in reverse order, tonalities that are from a refined adaptation of Indian classical improvisation, splintered chromaticism, power chords, fusion dynamics and the sweetest lyric playing one would wish for. And yes, lots of funk. All this, of course, with a fine band , including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Herbie Hancock), vocalist Jimmy Hall, bassist Rhonda Smith (Prince, Chaka Khan, BeyoncĂ©, George Clinton) and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, all of whom propelled the guitarist with a tightly conceptualized sense of varying rhythms that propelled the guitarist to what seemed like greater and more inspired outlays of his singular virtuosity as the set wore on. Although not a hyper virtuoso along the lines of Joe Pass or John McLaughlin, two guitarists he clearly admires, Beck has all the same spent the majority of career in a state of perpetual flux, going from one style to the next, from hard rock, blues metal, rockabilly , jazz-rock to increasingly synth-dominated backdrops, and sometimes his playing, in my regard, missed the mark. Always, always, though, he was adding to his armory, changing his style, broadening his understanding of where a solo could go, evolving to his current state of what seems to be a superior style that's all of a piece, without seams, without stitches; grand swaths of bracing electric dissonance intersected superbly with a spare and melodic ad-libbing along a song's main theme. Simple, winsomely stated phrases built into quick-witted crescendos.It was a night was a rich, fluent display of all his 50 years of experiments, investigations, inquiries into all manner of music from around the world. It was fluid, intense, the work of a singular artist at the very top of his form.



Thursday, July 19, 2018

LUSH AND OCCASIONALLY DIVERTING



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MADE IN OJAI—Smitty, and Julija
Soulful, soul searching, soul-bearing, soul matching, all terms to describe the singer-songwriters who write tunes less as candidates for hard rotation on the radio or various streaming services and more like updates on the status of their psyches. Much of its endearing, attractive, depending on the melodic craft and canny poetics of the artist we might be considering. Joni Mitchell? Yes. Paul Simon? Of course. Jackson Brown? Perhaps, provided what here from him is low dosage and brief.  A little bit of information from the annals of someone’s psychic equilibrium goes a long way. There is a propensity among many a self-revealing artist to overshare, to dwell, to paint their remembrance in thick coats of idealized colors. Ecstasy or perpetual despair.Made in Ojai by the duo Smitty and Julija (Smitty West and Julija Zonic) is a tuneful disc, well produced, lushly arranged and highlighting the soulful vocals from the pair. The record is a mixed bag of results, with a few of the songs taking a long time to evolve into something more intriguing. “I Just Wanna Sing this Song with You” begins with doleful piano, simple arpeggio figures that dwell a shade too long, with the song easing in slowly to some crystalline vocal harmonies from West and Zonic. 

But it's a longish ballad of laying one’s heart to the glorious presence of another.  The harmonies elevate the words and soar over the hesitant piano, infusing the lyrics with heartfelt emotion. This song, though, drags when, I think, it should pick up the pace and rhythmically engage a listener in their joy, and regrettably he is an element that hampers many of the other songs. Particularly the next song, “Let Her Go”, where the philosophical lesson of letting go of past loves, regrets and missed opportunities to grow are lost in what becomes an inevitable tedium.   Zonic has a fascinatingly vulnerable voice, suggesting a quiver, a quake, a certain fragility that suggests a trammeled soul that has to gather its wits and finds the words, the voice, the eventual wisdom to push on over the horizon.  One wishes the song were more melodically y proactive in the sentiment and less dirge-like. There is an element in 12 Step communities called Rule 62, which is ‘Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously”.You learn to laugh at your problems no matter how dreadful they appear lest you advance your demise with the annihilating weight that comes with being the center of the world.  Just when you think Smitty and Julija are without humor, we come across a sprite bit of satire, “Trust Fund Hippy”, West’s suitably and incisive to an obnoxious hipster indulging his counter-culture aesthetic with inherited money, oblivious to his own absurdity. Following suit, the music is up-tempo, with an old-time feeling, rather remindful of the Phil Ochs classic “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.”  There is quite a bit to enjoy and admire in Made in Ojai, but one does wish they would have varied the fare, taken it beyond the confession box they seem comfortable in, and engaged their wittier instincts.

(Originally appearing in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).


Friday, July 6, 2018

Sue Palmer rolls it out

Sue Palmer | Gems, Vol. One
GEMS, Volume One - Sue Palmer
San Diego’s Sue Palmer is a pianist known to the world as the Queen of Boogie Woogie, and throughout the 20 selections on her dealer’s choice anthology, Gems Volume One, we find the sobriquet is hers alone to wear. A constant and vital presence on the local music scene for 30 years plus, Palmer’s energized style of blues, swing, and jazz has delighted fans with keyboard work that is a wonder of rhythm and delicacy, two-fisted swagger and moaning blues holler, straight ahead improvisation and sweet doses of country and torch songs to make the evening’s entertainment a diverse delight. These tracks are choices Palmer has selected from the 20 albums she has recorded since 1980, recorded with a broad array of superlative musicians including Rob Thorsen, Candye Kane, April West, Gilbert Castellanos, and a slate of other players who add their distinct personalities to Palmer’s dedication to swing, stop and boogie.

There is a mad stride boogie mania of the opening track “Down the Road a Piece,” with Palmer’s left hand maintaining a rock steady baseline on the keyboard, and the right hand irresistibly trilling, riffing, and gliding along over the changes. Simple and elegant, against a backbeat of drums and bass that will not let up until Ms. Palmer says it is. Johnny Viau takes a fine honking saxophone solo, growing, wailing, gruff in all the right ways. What makes Gems so engaging is that the tracks and styles catch you by surprise as they play through; more than a revivalist, more than curator, Palmer, and her bandmates are practitioners of the diversity of the blues, swing, and boogie traditions, and will, at times, throw you a left curve that delights gloriously. In this case, it’s the rousing gospel of “I’ve Been Walking,” with a soul-stirring vocal by the irrepressible Missy Anderson, a pumped-up band creating waves, a solid rhythm and fleet beat for Palmer’s thick, rich chord work and percussive phrasing.

Blues, boogie, and swing, the core of Palmer’s musical soul, are a music often associated with the woes of the road, with hard traveling and the search for a place to rest, if only brief. Perhaps coincidentally, two very fine tracks involve hospitality, hotel, and motel, first with a sly rendition of the chestnut “Heartbreak Hotel", a doleful reading of a tune the song combing the laconic fatalism of a good country ballad and the mournful minimalism of the most despairing, dead-end blues. A bit later, we drive past the track “Motel Mambo,” a lament, a confession, a tell-all in lithe mambo syncopation. Deejha Marie’s sexy, casually jaded vocal outlines the characters and their storied comings and goings. Gilbert Castellanos takes a scintillating trumpet break, fast tonguing and rattling trills that give this song a short and inspired moment of scorch, taking full advantage of Palmer’s rattling piano work. All told, Gems, Volume One is a 20-course meal, the work of a fine musician dedicated to the genius of the blues. Blues, swing, blues, country, gospel, it’s all here, a diverting collection of what Sue Palmer considers her best work since 1980. 

This was originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission



Tuesday, July 3, 2018

I HAVE NEVER LIKED JOHN MAYALL'S HARMONICA PLAYING, OR MUCH ESLE ABOUT HIM

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John Mayall is an occasionally inspired band leader of a group that has long bared his name. He is, though, an awful harmonica player, a mediocre musician, a pedestrian musical intelligence. His main talent is as a talent scout, having an acute ear for the talent of better musicians that would make his marginal efforts to compose a tune and blow a solo seem halfway substantial. Context, in this case, the packaging really, is everything when the center of a concept barely sustains the virtuosity that surrounds it.Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist in the sense that someone in an office or retail situation is a multi-tasker. 


As they have the ability to do several things at the same time poorly, so Mayall is someone who dabbles on harmonica, guitar, keyboards, having a tentative command on blues basics and not much else. I wouldn't even call him an instrumentalist--dabbler pretty much gets what he does. His penchant for finding tasty and distinct blues guitarist was, no doubt, aimed at fleshing out what otherwise would have been a thin, brittle sound from the blues breakers had he featured himself as the featured soloist. Mayall is not an interesting musician. He's hardly a musician at all. I give Mayall full credit for putting together crackerjack bands that have, at times, made it possible for Mayall to release first-rate albums. The albums I listen to especially are USA Union featuring the sadly underrated Harvey Mandel on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass and Sugarcane Harris on violin, and, of course, turning point, with the splendid, Desmond-y sax work of Johnny Almond and Jon Mark on acoustic guitar. Mayall's harmonica work was more texture than anything else, save for the nice workout he accomplishes on" Room to Move"

These were band albums with credible, blues-based tunes with jazz used as a texture, groove, and pacing. Too often, much too often for me, though, Mayall has pushed his harmonica work to the forefront, usually following a hot guitar solo or sultry work out from a reedman, and the effect is like a blowing out a tire when you're cruising at a comfortable rate of speed. It's my view Mayall was playing catch up with what the Butterfield band was doing with their jazz-rock ventures. What Butterfield and his band did on East-West with  Cannonball Adderly's "The Work Song" and the long title improv, released in 1966, is so profoundly ahead of its time that I consider Mayall's contribution to the fusing of jazz, blues, and rock as a bit less important than you do. It's a matter of taste, I realize, and I'm just stating mine, perhaps obnoxiously so. It may well be an unrealistic expectation of mine for musicians described often enough as "band leaders" to be strong, confident, soloists no less than the musicians they hire. 



Monday, July 2, 2018

"BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE": Lost John Coltrane Magnificence Discovered



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Both Directions at Once
--John Coltrane 
Incredibly, what comes to be full-length album of mostly new, previously unheard material from John Coltrane has emerged lo these many years since the man's passing, and it is masterful. What's mind-boggling is that after decades of posthumous Coltrane releases that were previously unheard versions of familiar material --I haven't done a precise count, but it occurs to me that there are enough live versions of Coltrane's disassembly and reconstruction of the  Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune "My Favorite Things" to warrant a series critical comparison in how the saxophonist and his collaborators adjusted their improvisations gig to gig--  but rather something wholly fresh, new, with new compositions and ideas, recorded when this ensemble was at their peak.  The story told as to why this album has surfaced on now comes from Wikipedia, which asserts that the band --Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones-- entered Impulse Records studio in 1963 to lay down the master tape of an album of new material for eventual release. Somewhere in the lapse between that recording and its 2018 release, the original tape was destroyed when the label decided to cut down on expenses regarding storage; what we have here is from a copy of the tape Coltrane had given to his wife. It's not useful to dwell on the reasons for the delay and best, I think, to appreciate how profound this gift of music happens to be.Both Directions at Once, the title, comes from a discussion Coltrane once had with Wayne Shorter at some point, in which had come up the idea of starting their solos in the middle and working their ideas backwards, toward a calmer section that would have been the casual, tentative build up, and then the other way, toward greater fluency, acceleration, intensity from the tenor saxophone's horn, going "both directions at once." You get what they were talking about in mere minutes; Coltrane's playing is serpentine and advances effortlessly through the registers with rail-splitting chromaticism. He darts, dodges, telegraphs and races along melodic lines he creates on initial choruses and subsequently rethinks and rewrites with each return to the song's head; ideas brawl, embrace and interweave in swift, howling glory. The improvisations are as fine, searching and soulful as anything he released in his lifetime. On hand were the members of his Great Quartet, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass. This is a quartet that has weathered time, circumstance and hundreds of hours playing together, with the sinewy yet agile poly-rhythms of the ever-brilliant Jones and the no less masterful Garrison buoying and propelling Tyner's color-rich harmonies and Coltrane's thick, sonic weaves. There is nothing tentative about his disc. It's quite a bit of music from this epoch-defining unit, and there is, of course, nothing better than coming across Coltrane you've haven't bared witness to yet.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

West World


Image result for WEST WORLDSo, what about the season finale of HBO's sci-fi head scratcher West World?I've given up on this series for the simple reason that it's pacing is absolutely glacial. Even with all the repetitive scenes of androids going berserk and murdering as many foul human exploiters as they can get their hands on, the program remained mired in a metaphysical murk, with the whole conceit of androids becoming self -aware and seeking a larger reality and, hence, the freedom to actualize themselves , free of human manipulation becoming a tiresome series of conversations, episode to episode, between different characters, human and android alike, that added more clouds than clarity to the purpose of the ongoing sludge.

Admittedly, the production values, the practical effects and general level of acting and cinematography are spectacular, but plotting is sluggish and, worse, repetitive. Episode to episode, you feel you've spent a week in a motionless traffic jam, staring at the same scenery for days on end. Blade Runner , both the original masterpiece and the equally ingenious sequel 2049, follow the same basic premise--A.I.s searching for freedom and their own identity--but they do so in a manner that involves more questions of social and philosophical dilemma, and do not freight their plots with stultifying chatter. They blend the action well with the dramatically perplexing rather well; they maintain your attention in ways that do not cheat the narrative. West World is an expensive showcase that drags its feet and mumbles when it should be clear.