Saturday, December 21, 2013

Here's ONE mark of a truly brilliant artist - that you can listen to ANY album they ever made and they're all equally great. To date, there's only one artist I can think of that qualifies -- MICHAEL HURLEY the great, er, what would ya call him? ALSO been acoustic-based. His songwriting and performance always based in a very natural melange Blues, early country and folk vocabulary. Lyrics -- always conversational, apparently narrative and yet slyly allusive, and evincing a gently skewed approach to life and the depiction thereof.

I've only got a handful of his recordings Long Journey Hi Fi Snock Uptown Snockgrass Wolfways Ancestral Swamp Ida Con Snock

these covering a period from the early 70's to the current century -- and listened side by side, there's no discerning which was recorded when - or written when and they're honestly, all equally great in a quiet, understated but thoroughly authoritative way. If only you could say that about the Ramones' output -- leaving out the quiet and understated shiz.

And I take additional pride in Hurley being the product of Bucks County PA where I've resided for the past few decades - and in fact am friends with a niece of his, Ella. Moreover, a few years ago I had the honor of doing publicity for him and having some ongoing dealings with him, finding him to be as singular, strong-willed AND charming as I'd hoped. In his emails he addressed me as "Howland" after the Owl in the "Pogo" comic strip.

After much prevarication I finally popped for a copy of "First Songs" - his first recordings made over 4 decades ago -- and expect to find it as delightful as the rest.

PS I received this a couple weeks ago and it was -- an "interesting" surprise. On one hand, Hurley's songwriting is pretty much fully formed and in fact the album ends with "The Werewolf Song" - one of his most enduring, beloved and puissant compositions; his singing is fairly indistinguishable from what you'll hear on work recorded in the past few years. BUT, his guitar playing is relatively rudimentary. He's mainly strumming to buoy his vocal melody. Only a few years later when he recorded his first proper studio album for the Youngblood's Banana Records label he'd blossomed as a guitarist as well, developing a nimble yet relaxed style of picking and strumming that's served him nicely ever since. I will note that the mix here is kinda unbalanced - vocals are WAY out front. I assume that's coz this was done with one mic that was positioned near his cake hole rather than on the guitar per se. But that's a minor quibble. One thing that did tickle me was hearing the original version of "Blue Mountain" which I'd previously only known from Espers luscious version on the "Weed Tree" EP.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

People participate in popular culture as is their wont -- depending on their needs, aspirations, the dreams they're looking to empower. If it makes yr life better it's good. The first record I consciously bought was "Absolutely Free" by the Mothers of Invention, purchased on my one visit to the only "underground" record store in Jersey City in those times; the cover intrigued me. it really stuck out. And i was not disappointed by the content. My favorite art is that which suggests alternatives to the norm, that suggests novel an individualistic modes of thought. Participating in the most massively popular modes of art/ just kinda lost on me, largely because it's highly predictable and most of it's fairly homogenous i.e. a lot of pop songs are relatively interchangeable. And clearly, for a lot of people, that's exactly what pleases them, and that's great. But contemplating things like televised awards shows -- a celebration of that which has succeeded through its mundanity and predictability (by and large)...just a different path.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hear My Brain a Hummin'

Context - our 22 year old cat, Little Cat, who's been kinda slow and crotchety for a couple years now suddenly took a turn for the worse about 3 weeks ago and every day marked a new, obvious chapter in her decline. Working from a home office, I was her care giver. She finally died in her sleep, at home. Those two weeks were mighty sad and her passing hit hard, though it was also a relief as for 2 weeks her prowling range, and range of activities grew smaller and smaller day by day. That weekend, my son and his wife had driven up from Maryland to help my sister prep her house for sale and were staying wit us. On Sunday, we went to church, had some coffee and then went to our fave locals place for chow and libations - the latter being partaken of quite liberally. On returning home, application of the de-braining fluid continued - moving from the red wine at lunch to Freixenheit (an excellent dry Spanish sparkling wine that ya can grab for about $9 a bottle in NJ). We sat around, yapped and listened to music. Then they headed home. Mrs. W. was having a prolonged ladies-only late luncheon.

Finding myself at loose ends, I grabbed the DVD of "Hear My Train A Comin'" a new documentary on Jimi Hendrix.

Over the years I have seen a number of documentaries devoted to the man and I do own a good amount of performances on VHS and DVD, all fine enough though some have slightly weaker premises than others - one that revolved around dramatic readings of his correspondence (letters he wrote, postcards, diary entries) comes to mind as a kind of a stretch. The basic facts and chronology of his life-story are pretty well established and frankly common knowledge among most fans of rock music, both young and old, and it doesn't appear that there's any especially revelatory material left to uncover -- so the basic criteria for any new documentary on offer would be is: how much footage of the man himself, both on and offstage is there? how much hasn't been shown in previous documentaries? is the basic narrative coherent and effective? are most of the salient points in the narrative touched on. "Hear My Train A Comin'" scores well on all counts. Plenty of Hendrix being Hendrix, making music and just being his diffidently bad-ass self, the major bulk of which seem to be hitting the screen for the first time -- even the scenes from Woodstock, which has been pretty exhaustively documented in the festival film, expanded version of the festival film and then in a 2 DVD set devoted solely to Hendrix's performance, are backstage shots or camera angles not previously seen. The narrative line is handled cleanly and intelligibly, nicely illustrated not only by vintage footage but by the testimonials of various colleagues, friends and lovers -- band members like Buddy Miles, Billy Cox, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding; the man who launched his career and produced his first two albums, Chas Chandler; the women who befriended and championed him, Linda Keith (who famously appropriated one of Keith Richards' guitarist she had in safe keeping for Jimi's use) and Fayne Pridgeon who was his Harlem connection. All in all, a good and lively telling of the story, definitely taking a very upbeat slant.

In fact if there's any criticism I'd have of "Hear My Train A Comin'" is that it breezily overlooks many of the problems that beset Hendrix -- the basic conflict he confronted of wanting to record more and perform live less vs. the need to generate sufficient income to maintain his basic lifestyle and his artistic ambitions (composing and experimenting in the recording studio at length, and then building his own custom-designed studio, Electric Lady); the pressure he felt being a Black man performing for predominantly white audiences and initially with white backing musicians; the contradiction between his often outrageous showmanship onstage with his innate shyness, vulnerability, sensitivity and Romanticism. So it's NOT the "definitive" Hendrix documentary biography the back cover copy claims -- but it IS a good un. Utterly enjoyable and utterly truthful as far as it goes. As far as I can remember, coz -- as initially noted,I was four sheets to the wind when I watched it. And it cushioned my comedown quite admirably.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I own a lot of Jimi Hendrix albums, all of them legit releases, all but 4 posthumous and many of them, re-workings of the same repertoire. Frankly, other than the obvious cash-ins i.e. work he'd done as a sideman, are all pretty damned good. Some ARE more essential than others - obviously the albums he completed during his lifetime, the core of the material he'd completed but not released that came out initially as "Cry of Love" and a series of lesser albums, later collated as "Voodoo Soup" initially and then "First Rays of the New Rising Sun." But even the numerous further releases that are primarily alternate takes from all the above are, at worst interesting, primarily to the diehard fan who eagerly pour over the mutliple takes thereby in circulation and wonder at the different guitar solos as well as more subtle differences 'tween said versions. But all have SOMETHING to recommend them.

Likewise the live albums - Woodstock, BBC sessions, Berkeley Community Center, at the Monterey Pop Festival, the four concerts in the "Stages" box, the L.A. Forum show in the "Lifelines" box, Fillmore East. If there's one thing this cat LOVED it was to play live and it shows throughout all these recordings. In many cases, you get the same basic repertoire over and over again -- which is why the Fillmore East concerts are among my best, largely being an airing of then-unreleased material - a lot of these songs being among the best writing of the latter part of his career.

"Miami Pop Festival" is a nice addition to the Hendrix canon. It's a pro recording helmed by his longtime engineer Eddie Kramer from 1968. The song selection is primarily from his debut outing "Are You Experienced" with a cover of "Tax Free," a song by Swedish instrumental duo "Hansson and Carlsson" and the first live recording of "Hear My Train A Coming" - a groove that I'd suggest also is the undercarriage for "Machine Gun." So - the sound is good, the performances spirited. It's a little strange that all the stage patter is at a significantly lower volume than the playing and singing -- but since you're paying for the playing and singing, the point is moo. Also, the bass is a bit low in the mix but that could be down to the circumstances of the original recording of these performances.

The packaging's nice -- all the booklet photos are taken from the occasion the music was recorded, a strategm that the Hendrix family has pursued for the past 3 live releases, which adds thematic cohesion.

Is this the BEST live Hendrix available? The most interesting? The most revelatory? I daresay that judgement is in the ears of the particular beholder and subject to their own historical and aesthetic biases. But this IS an excellent rendering of his and the Experience's post-"Are You Experienced" material plus some neat pointers as to where he was headed next.

Monday, September 30, 2013

GREAT new collection of Professor Longhair's early recording career

I offer my humblest apologies for lack of action here. I've overwhelmed via work commitments. And during the Summer trying to keep the yard and garden looking quasi-reasonable. But I have been piling up the new musical acquisitions - audio, visual and written at a steady rate. Because of continued time constraints future postings could be on the pithy side for a while - but hopefully still of use.

On Saturday got a copy of "Mardi Gras In New Orleans," a new collection of Professor Longhair's work released this year on the Jasmine label.

As anyone who's done even a bit of collecting this inestimable artist's work knows - it's one hot mess! He only recorded a handful of albums during his lifetime, most of them only being released posthumously. Meanwhile, he'd recorded a number of singles for a number of small local labeles. A LOT of the albums you'll find are collections drawing from this relatively small body of material, haphazardly curated, with a lot of overlap between 'em.

One simple solution is to grab the Rhino 2 CD collection "Fess" and forget about the rest. But while Rhino's does touch on all periods of his career from the earliest to the latest and include a track or two from many of the tiny labels he worked with...well there IS a good amount more music to be had. Your main option heretofore would be just buying a wide variety of collections in order to get a couple additional tracks here, a couple there.


ith "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" you get ALL his recordings from 1949-1962. This would be material done for Mercury, Star Talent, Atlantic (all the material both sessions they did with him), Federal, Wasco, Ebb, Ron and Rip. These are sequenced chronologically and thus effectively grouped by label as well. So -- this really straightens out your collection of Longhair for the entirety of his initial rock n roll career in one fell swoop and nicely mastered.

Previously, to listen to a batch of this stuff I'd have to throw in the Atlantic "New Orleans Piano," (which seems to only been released on CD years ago - ergo when CD mastering technology was in its infancy) CD1 from the "Gettin' Funky" box set and the Rhino collection - and sound quality an volume would fluctuate wildly and there'd be a lot of duplication. And this music IS all great - but listening under these circumstances was a less than optimal experience. "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" is THE way to hear all this music in readily comprehensible, context with consistent sound quality and volume.

And hearing it in proper context does then raise a lot of interesting issues to ponder. Longhair did have a limited repertoire of originals that he came up with right at the outset of his career and didn't add to significantly in the years that follow. HOWEVER, the arrangements he'd employ, the performance techniques he'd use and lyrics would evolve from one performance to the next, often in fascinating ways. While I'm usually of a mind that "First thought, best thought" Fess' technical prowess and conceptulization of his performing did in fact improve notably with age.

So...if you are a Fess fan and ready to take a step beyond the Rhino collection, I recommend this highly as well as "Rock N Roll Gumbo" album recorded in the mid 70's and "Crawfish Fiesta," which was recorded in 1980 and released shortly after his sudden, premature death that same year. I'm not knocking the various live recordings available or the other latterday sessions. Just saying, this is a fine place to start.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Didn't He Dabble

I must admit, I do like to dabble. Something catches my imagination and then I investigate far enough to get enough of a working knowledge of a topic to have a reasonable conversation with actual aficionados -- not hold my own - but to follow along. And New Orleans music history is my current passion. It's an easy one to get consumed in because, while it's got a long history -- you can trace lines of stylistic evolution from the late 19th century right thru to today -- and pretty diverse, encompassing early jazz, modern jazz, R&B, blues, rock 'n' roll, jam band, brass band, hip hop, etc -- it's a strangely congruent story. You can track lyric tropes and catch phrases that go back 100 years - for instance, Louis Armstrong reports being attacked by a pimp in the Battlefield (neighborhood North of the Central Business District) named "Cheeky Blakk," a name currently utilized by seminal female "Bounce" (a local hip hop sub-genre) luminary (just saw her spit a lil at SxSW and I can appreciate why she looms large in the field). Or take the case of one Danny Barker who'd played with Jellyroll Morton, one of the founding fathers of jazz, and later in life worked with the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band from whence emerged several of the Marsalis brothers as well as most of the players who would constitute the brass band revival of the 80's - members of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth, Soul Rebels etc; so here you have a direct lineage that goes back 100 years! And these are just two examples. It's a Gordion knot of epic proportions that's fascinating to unravel bit by bit via books, recordings, magazine articles.

Lotta folks have spent a lot of years doing this in depth to great effect and, as i said, I'm just dabbling. But recently I can across three artifacts that made a lot of great connections: Danny

Barker's two books "Buddy Bolden And The Last days of Storyville" and "MY Life In Jazz" and the "Breaking Out of New Orleans 1922-1929" CD box set. Barker grew up in the French Quarter and the Marigny in the early 20th century and while he was too young to actively participate in the emergence of "hot jazz" he did witness its national heyday, was old enough to hear some of the legendary players or at least rub up against musicians who'd known them. In addition, his grandfather, Isidore Barbarin, was a member of the Onward Brass Band, one of the top outfits in New Orleans at the time, which was later taken over by Oscar Celestin and renamed the Tuxedo Brass Band...and a Young Tuxedo Brass Band continues to gig to this very day, the very earliest recordings of them dating back 70 years. He paints a wonderfully vivid picture of life in New Orleans amongst the working classes - rough and tumble social clubs, regular street parades, dropping by grandma's and having her whip up a pan of fresh biscuits at the drop of a hat...and music permeating everything, everywhere.

You read Barker's books, or Louis Armstrong's "Satchmo: My Life In New Orleaans," Al Rose's "Storyville, New Orleans" and now the liner notes to Sony's wonderful 4CD Preservation Hall retrospective and the same names keep popping up - Freddie Keppard, Papa Celestin, Kid Ory, Fate Marable... who were the pre-eminent musicians and band leaders that inspired and helped train more widely known players like Armstrong, King Oliver... You go looking for the music...and there's NOT a lot, and much of what's out there is of - reputedly dubious provenance; tracks that have been repackaged multiple times in myriad ways, misleadingly labelled, sometimes including recordings that the featured musician may not even appear on. It's very frustrating, very tantalizing.

"Breaking Out of New Orleans 1922-1929" CD box set compiles 4 CDs' worth of this crucial material - Keppard with his Jazz Cardinals as well as with outfits led by others, Marable, Celestin leading multiple outfits, the earliest recordings of the great trombonist and band leader Kid Ory, etc.

This is a JSP release so -- INEXPENSIVE. Probably about 20 dollars (I got my set as an Xmas present - thanks Sis!)

As per the impact of the music -- well, "Hot jazz" tends to sound initially hokey to 21st century neophyte ears - Jazz developed into more polished, then more cerebral and abstract forms for decades and then slipstreams of the music mutated into R&B, then its sub-genre "rock 'n' roll" (a simple description of a certain sensual activity involving two people - get close to someone ya love and try one action and then the next), and so on. But even a rock-bred dummy can learn to appreciate what these folks were putting down - near telepathic group improvisation that was still danceable, hummable pop. More problematic - to a degree - is that some of these players, Keppard for instance, was already past his physical prime and was performing with a somewhat degraded embouchure (it's said)...nothing much to be done about that. The recording industry, in those days, largely revolved around the relatively scarce facilities, some of them technically classed as electronics laboratories that'd been set up in places like Chicago, Camden, NJ, New York. New Orleans musicians - by and large - didn't have access to recording studios until they'd relocated to these other towns. Moreover, there was a standing tradition not to publish your music or make recordings lest other musicians be able to imitate your repertoire and playing style and better compete with you for live work -- which is where the money was in those days.

ALL THAT BEING SAID - I'm finding this an invaluable rsource that brings a lot of the stories and references I've come across in my reading to life. In addition, there's repertoire and stylistic traditions presented here, recorded in the 1920's that STILL appear on some of my favorite NOLA releases from recent times.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Whole Lotta Bunk

FIRST OFF - I HEREBY DECLARE THAT I'M ONLY THE MOST CALLOW DABBLER IN JAZZ HISTORY. This account could only be of value to other wet-behind-the-ears neophytes...

This passed Christmas, my son Severin bought me "Buddy Bolden & The Last Days of Storyville" and my niece Anna Rose got me "My Life In Jazz," both titles by Danny Barker. Barker was an accomplished guitar/banjo players and played in top of the line jazz ensembles including Cab Calloway's in the 1930's. He was one of the first jazz musicians to start actively chronicling jazz history, especially early jazz history -- a pursuit he undertook because of his dissatisfaction with how non-player music journalists portrayed the both contemporary jazz and its development. Both books are a great read, colorful and insightful and with a lot of valuable insider information on the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans. A significant amount of his reportage can't be documented or is disputed by academics addressing the same material. It seems entirely possible that a certain amount of his account is myth -- either that he'd collected and passed along without further inquiry or had a hand in contriving. But myth is NOT a lie per se -- it's a vehicle for conveying useful information, that's goes beyond naked facts and figures.

The figure that stands out the most in the "Buddy Bolden" book, is of course Bolden. And the academics take issue with just about all the details Barker provides on Bolden, his day job, the narrative arc of his mental health problems that ended his career and eventually landed him in an institution -- EVEN the quality of his playing and showmanship. Which begs the question? So how did Bolden inspire such a pervasive and enduring myth if he was an indifferent player and hammy performer? The great majority of New Orleans musicians from that era have utterly vanished from the historical record and faded, even from popular memory? There must have been SOMETHING happening to have the profound impact that Bolden had on American music history.

One of the tragedies of Bolden's career was that he never recorded a single note (there're rumors...but nothing's ever surfaced). This was not unusual at the time when musicians made their money from live performance and having the most powerful, accomplished and unique playing style and compositions were their stock in trade. So, few registered their copyrights or published their material or recorded -- fearing that'd enable others to more readily copy their playing and songs and have a better shot at competing for live work. One of the more interesting sections of Barker's book is his account of the early career of one Bunk Johnson. Barker claims that he was Bolden's understudy, often playing with Bolden's main band, taking over for him when Bolden - who'd often double or triple book gigs for himself on a given night -- would depart for the next gig. Johnson, reportedly, prided himself on replicating Bolden's style exactly. And also copying his sartorial style, penchant for womanizing etc. And while Bolden left no recordings behind, Johnson in fact produced a significant amount. At the point where aficionados of New Orleans style "Hot Jazz" were on a holy mission to uncover, preserve and perpetuate that style in the '40's as the main body of jazz evolved into more cerebral and abstract forms, Johnson wound up being rediscovered, based on a tip from Louis Armstrong. As any cursory research will show, there's plenty of dispute over Johnson's artistic worth, the authenticity of the claims about his association with Buddy and I leave that to the more academically inclined to delve into. But the fact remains that it is documented that Johnson did play with New Orleans jazz heavyweights like Sidney Bechet. He was the person Armstrong referred researchers to as an authority on the origins of jazz in New Orleans and it has been documented that he was recruited to play with the line-up formed by Bolden's band members after Bolden had to give up performing. Based on all this it DID appear that it was possible that Bunk's music did preserve some elements of Buddy's style - and frankly, if it's only a fraction that's STILL more than we'd have otherwise.

Lately I have started making use of Spotify. It's not quite the miracle that some claim - try finding the work of James "Sugarboy" Crawford - there's maybe 5 songs - which Amazon lists a couple (very pricey) full length releses - BUT it can be useful to check out titles before purchase. There's actually a good amount of Bunk Johnson recordings available -- remember, he was rediscovered as part of a moment to preserve and document "Hot Jazz." I opted to check out "Bunk and The New Orleans Revival 1942- 1947," a 2 CD set with a whopping 43 songs on it - a compilation from 12 different recording sessions. A nice overview. And...I was utterly enthralled. Overall,the playing is by turns soulful, sexy, sad and rambunctiously swinging typifying the allure of New Orleans music throughout its history. The repertoire touches all the main bases of traditional jazz, the reworkings of sacred songs like "Down By The Riverside," early classics like Jellyroll Morton's "Milneburg Joys," brass band parade numbers and a good amount of the "slow drag" blues that'd be the occasion for low down "belly-rubbing" dance late on a Saturday night. The sonic ambience, in most cases, is lively and slightly echoey - honestly sounds like this is being performed on a sidewalk on Burgundy Street in the French Quarter, or in an inner courtyard overhung with lush vegetation. YES I'M OVER-ROMANTICIZING - but this IS one of those recordings that can transport you to a different time and locale within minutes.

So... I dunno if Bunk Johnson played alongside Buddy Bolden, or just studied him from the audience, or just heard accounts of his style from other musicians and did his best to fake something akin to it. Just sounds GOOD TO ME.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

As I was scrolling through last week's Offbeat online newsletter and hit the new and upcoming LA-related releases section I noted a listing for "The Cosimo Matassa Story Volume 2." As Volume 1 proved such a revelatory listening experience and this installment was priced to move (less than $20 for a 4 CD set) on I put in my order. Upon receipt, I feverishly eyed the track listing and noted, vaguely, that a lot of titles seemed familiar -- but didn't think too hard on it.

On filling up the changer, hitting "Play" and then going about my business I, again and again, heard familiar tunes. A lot of 'em. AND a decent amount of music that was new to me and a welcome addition to my music library.

It's like this - Cosimo Matassa engineered, produced, owned the studio or released on his Rex label (or all four) a staggering amount of the music that came out of New Orleans for a couple decades. This output showed up on numerous labels including Aladdin, Savoy, Imperial, Specialty, Minit, Fury etc. and featured the biggest names to come out of New Orleans or at least record there including Fats Domino and Little Richards as well as countless others that only had a regional or local impact.

SO...if one, theoretically, had owned and operated Volume 1 of this series and were inspired to flesh out their collection with Fats Domino and Little Richard box sets and perhaps compilations of the output of the Minit and Ace Records labels -- well ALOT of that stuff was touched by the hand of Cosimo Matassa and, unsurprisingly is duplicated on TCMS Vol. 2.

Ergo, if, theoretically, Volume 1 had inspired you to go digging for more, Volume 2 will yield some great tracks you won't have heard before but a lot, you'll have already come across. So Volume 2 will function more like a killer mix tape of vintage NOLA R&B, RnR, Blues and Jump music than a treasure chest of hitherto unknown gems. IF, on the other hand, you were content with Volume 1, or perhaps you've NEVER looked into this sorta shizzle, Volume 2 is a GREAT place to start, or a good way to deepen your collection quickly, inexpensively yet prudently.

You'll likely wind up quickly charmed by the funky, gutbucket charms of Huey Piano Smith & his Clowns, Smiley Lewis, James Sugar Boy Crawford, Professor Longhair, Bobby Marchan, Shirley & Lee et al. I know that this stuff has pretty much ruined me in terms of taking folks like Rihanna, Maroon 5 etc. least over the past year or so.

There's just something alive and vital and kinda dangerous and attention grabbing about music where the tunings are slightly off and the beats aren't exact and the vocals are imperfect -- there's elements of indeterminacy, surprise, tension, semi-tones, elements that are intentionally built into Indian Classical music, that are long standing traditions in much of the traditional music that you'll find in cultures rimming the Mediterranean (these days you'll still find it in Middle Eastern and North African folk musics but if you go back to Alan Lomax's field recordings from Spain and Italy from the 1940's, it's there two -- in fact try comparing vintage Spanish folk musics and currently Egyptian traditional music, you'll be shocked methinks). Well, all that happened serendiptously in NOLA rock and R&B. Though it wasn't unwitting. I love the story in "It Came From Memphis" (I forget the author now) of Furry Lewis playing a festival at the Overton Band Shell and his accompanist, Lee Baker (at that point, a former member of the hard rock band Moloch, and not yet a member of Jim Dickinson's Mudboy and the Neutrons), sees Furry's guitar untended, picks it up, finds it out of tune and meticulously tuning it, to save Lewis the trouble. So, Furry comes back, picks up the guitar, gives it a strum and then, just as meticulously, tunes it back exactly to where it was originally. So there was intent and conscious artistry involved in some of these apparently raw, dissonant sounds.