Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nancy Apple’s Song Slinger Showdown, Part 1

This DVD showed up on my doorstep probably over a year ago, and promptly fell through the cracks. I’m glad I finally did dig it out from the pile, because there’s some very worthwhile and enjoyable music on this disc.
The DVD documents what is apparently a monthly event in Memphis, a song-swap between Nancy Apple and a few other acoustic singer-songwriters. On this particular night in October 2007, she was joined by Phil Lee and Jake Kelly. Apple acts as host, in a format which is reminiscent of the Texas songwriter showcases which were an occasional, yet significant feature of “Austin City Limits”, back in the days when ACL was an outlet for artists who were better-known in Texas than elsewhere, rather than a hype-machine for pop stars.
ACL’s songwriter showcases had more artists per show, but this three-artist format gives each artist the opportunity to show varied aspects of their repertoire. Apple sings a song, Lee sings one, Kelly sings one; and then the process repeats (though Kelly only gets three songs, as opposed to four for the others). In between songs, the three artists sit at a diner-style booth and swap anecdotes. The whole affair is very informal, occasionally a bit too much so, which leads to a few empty moments between songs that may make you wish they’d get back to singing. Fortunately, they do.
Stylistically, the approach of all three artists might be termed “non-commercial country music”, though the fact that they all play acoustic guitars (Apple plays accordion textures on one song, while the other two also blow harmonicas when appropriate) will slant this more toward the contemporary-folk singer-songwriter audience than to modern-day pop-country fans. Nancy Apple can be as hard-core-country as Loretta Lynn, but without the Nashville production, and with a hint or two of rock around the edges. Phil Lee, “The Mighty King of Love” conjures up what Bob Dylan might have sounded like in the 1960’s if he’d had a sense of humor. Jake Kelly has a distinctively thin, high-pitched voice, which I’m unable to compare to anyone, though his writing makes me think of John Prine in a way I can’t pin down. In other words, he’s an original – but then, all three artists are when you get down to it.
If you’re a fan of Texas singer-songwriters, and wonder why there aren’t any artists working in related styles in other parts of the country, well of course there are. Indeed, there are a whole lot of them. They simply don’t get the publicity they deserve. Nancy Apple, Phil Lee, and Jake Kelly are just three of the many worthy artists playing acoustic guitars, writing fine songs, and reaping few of the rewards which should be coming their way. Their names may not be familiar, but they should be heard and, as in this case, seen.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Onward Brass Band - The Tradition Continues (CD review)

The current edition of the Onward Brass Band, led by drummer Kurt Nicewander, is the legitimate inheritor of one of the grandest traditions in all of American Music, that of the New Orleans brass band.
With a history dating back over 130 years, the present edition of the band may not sound exactly like the original unit, which was never recorded. The original Onward Brass Band was most likely a fairly straightforward marching band in its earliest incarnation, which predated the era in which historians believe jazz was invented. However, “The Tradition Continues”, the first new CD by the current edition of the Onward Brass Band, ties together most of the other strains of New Orleans music – turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century marching band styles, jazz, blues, and even r&b – into a microcosm of the unique sounds which have developed in the Crescent City throughout the past century.
The album gets off to a rousing start with the standard “Bourbon Street Parade”. This
is, of course, especially appropriate, since the song was written by the great Paul
Barbarin, the man who revived the Onward Brass Band in the mid-1950’s, following an
extended period of inactivity for the band. Although the tune is often played in an Al Hirt/Dixieland style, the Onward’s version is much closer in sound and spirit to the distinctive New Orleans street parade of its title. Where else but on the streets of New Orleans would a syncopated dance rhythm and collective improvisation be superimposed on a march beat? Trombonist Freddie Lonzo’s gritty vocal includes a few cracked notes, but these only add to the genuine air of spontaneity felt throughout the performance. There’s an energy and enthusiasm to the group improvisation on the last chorus and coda that make it seem as if the commercialization and modernization which some observers claim to hear in present-day New Orleans music has never taken place.
The medley of “Closer Walk – Didn’t He Ramble” depicts another New Orleans cultural tradition – the so-called “jazz funeral”. The spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With
Thee” is played as a dirge, which serves as musical accompaniment to the mourners as
they slowly and somberly make their way to the cemetery. After the burial, as it were, the band breaks into a sprightly stepping version of “Didn’t He Ramble” (a long-time New Orleans favorite with a rich history of its own, dating back to a rather rowdy English folk song of unknown antiquity, “The Darby Ram”). The way back from the funeral thus turns into a cathartic celebration of life. The Onward’s version easily evokes images of second-line dancers and a crowd walking rhythmically as they wave hankies and parasols. Dimitri Smith captures the spirit of the affair with an uncommonly agile tuba solo, followed by an ear-catching, polyrhythmic break by the drum line (two snares and a bass drum.
I have to confess I’ve heard “Saints Go Marching In” a few too many times by now.
But let’s face it, the tune is pretty much expected in this context. To their credit, the members of the Onward Brass Band manage to add enough touches of their own to keep it interesting and entertaining nonetheless.
And what would a tradition-conscious New Orleans disc be without at least one tune inextricably linked to Louis Armstrong? The band’s rendition of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is great fun. Tom Fischer, who proves to be a solid exponent of classic New Orleans clarinet style throughout the disc, comes up with some fine ideas on his solo, and the band turns on the burners for the last chorus once again.
Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” dates from a later period in New
Orleans’ rich and varied musical history. Even so, Longhair’s distinctive rhumba rhythm makes an easy transition to Onward’s syncopated shuffle beat, in an arrangement that ties together elements of many eras and many styles of New Orleans music.
Indeed, in a genre closely associated with collective improvisation, the Onward Brass Band shows off some tight ensemble chops on the album. The riffing horns behind the solos in “Back Home Again in Indiana” are particularly enjoyable. This is another one of those performances that just keeps building in intensity. The ascending ensemble lines on the chorus of “Lil’ Liza Jane” are also noteworthy. And don’t overlook the way in which Smith’s tuba whoops fit into the arrangement of “Whoopin’ Blues”.
I do need to make mention of Freddie Lonzo’s tailgating trombone work, a definite
highlight throughout the album. There is nothing politely decorous about his playing, which is gruff, gutsy, earthy, with a delightful jump in his rhythm. Check out his brassy blats on “Just A Little While To Stay Here.”
The only substantive criticism I can make is that the energy level drops a bit too much when the vocals enter in “Down By the Riverside” and “Lil’ Liza Jane”. Even so, the band builds up a full head of steam again before these tracks are over. This is a really a minor carp when you consider the high level of entertainment maintained through the rest of the album.
Tradition can be deadly when an artist or band tries too hard to slavishly reproduce the past as carefully and mechanically as possible. The Onward Brass Band, however, take the opposite approach, utilizing and combining New Orleans traditions while making them relevant to the present moment with energy, inspiration, and drive. This is New Orleans brass band music rooted in a glorious past, yet still alive and well in the 21st Century. Top-notch!

Slight Format Change

I've decided to make a slight change in the format of "GenEc DVD Review". It will remain primarily a DVD review blog, and the name will remain the same. However, I will VERY occasionally post reviews of selected CD's that I feel are of special merit, and which have not yet attracted as much attention as they deserve. I hope this slight change meets with the approval of readers.
Thank you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Live At Iowa State University

This concert performance by the 1987 edition of the Bluesbreakers serves as a telling example of why John Mayall has never quite become famous, yet has been able to keep a substantial career going for some 45 years or so.

John Mayall has become most renowned for discovering and nurturing the talents of a
surprising number of British blues and rock heroes. Eric Clapton came to his early
maturity after leaving the Yardbirds for the Bluesbreakers. While with Mayall, Clapton played alongside Jack Bruce, which led to the formation of Cream. The original lineup of Fleetwood Mac was rife with Mayall alumni. Mick Taylor became a Rolling Stone after his turn as a Bluesbreaker. These are the best-known names, but many more Mayall veterans have enjoyed at least a modicum of success over the years.

This 1987 edition of the band is no exception, with two bona fide blues-stars-to-be in the lineup, both of them Americans. Walter Trout had already spent time with Canned Heat before he joined Mayall, but it was turn as a Bluesbreaker that built his reputation to the point where he was able to step away in 1989 and start his own hugely successful career. And no wonder - his guitar scorches with such intensity in this Iowa State performance, I’m surprised it doesn’t burn a whole in the disc! The second guitarist in the band was Coco Montoya, still putting in his apprenticeship, but taking advantage of a few opportunities to show off his potential in the process.

Yet while Mayall is the leader and the musician featured most prominently throughout, he leaves this viewer with somewhat more ambiguous feelings. He acquits himself well on harmonica, keyboards, and occasional guitar, but he’s not really a technical master of any of them – good enough, but not great. He obviously knows his blues, and makes all the right moves. But in the end, he comes across, perhaps not as a lightweight, but certainly a lighter weight than Trout and Montoya, just as he was a lighter weight than the famous 60’s rock stars he spawned. Still, he’s an effective entertainer, puts on a good show, and keeps the audience (as well as this reviewer) coming back for more.

BUT – and it’s a crucial “but” – he simply is not, has never been, and at age 76 (in 2009), most likely never will be a great singer. His voice is bland, lacking in power and presence. If he indeed feels the emotion of the songs, he fails to communicate that feeling to the listener. He’s not so objectionable a singer that you want to scream at your screen, you simply wish he could be better. The thing is, in the long run, he’s an enjoyable performer - not a genius, just an enjoyable performer. What’s more, given the contributions of Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, and the rhythm section (Bobby Haynes, bass; Paul Hines, drums), this is certainly an enjoyable concert disc. Fans will want it, no question. People who may be unfamiliar with Mayall will be glad to hear Trout and Montoya in their formative years. But if you’ve disliked John Mayall in the past, you probably won’t become a convert on the basis of this disc.

The disc is considerably shorter than the length stated on the case. Extras include text bios and discographies of the principal players. American distribution is by MVD Visual.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Story of the Yardbirds

The official story of rock in the 60’s wants us to believe that the Beatles were the Great Original Innovators of the era, and that everyone else merely followed their lead.
Yet months before ”Norwegian Wood”, the Yardbirds attempted to record a sitar-and-tabla intro to “Heart Full of Soul”, only to realize that the result was a much thinner sound than they felt they needed. Thus, Jeff Beck came up with his now-famous nasally, sinuous distorted-guitar intro, which certainly ranks as one of the very first of all Indo-rock fusions. This is just one of the fascinating stories to be found on this British-made DVD documentary (released in the US by MVD) about one of the least-understood and most under-appreciated innovative rock bands ever, the Yardbirds.
You want to talk innovation? While the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on “Rubber Soul”, with its fairly tentative (albeit impressive) moves toward a more “artistic” style, the Yardbirds were releasing one of the most mind-bogglingly unexpected rock experiments released up to that time, their drastic re-interpretation of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man”. It wasn’t simply that the Yardbirds’ version was so much faster and looser than Bo’s slow grind. Partway through, the structure of the piece seems to crumble away, as the band gets ready to hammer madly on a single chord. Beck soon begins strumming wildly, scratching at the strings in a timbre that seems virtually devoid of pitch, entering the world of pure noise. With this one bold move, rock’n’roll was forever altered off its firmly established course of being commercial dance music for teenagers. Rock had found its avant-garde.
To be sure, there were precursors, most notably Link Wray’s biting power chords in the late 1950’s and Dick Dale’s heavily reverbed tremolo picking of the early 60’s, but neither broke with rock‘s melodic and rhythmic past as definitively as the Yardbirds did on “I’m a Man”. With one uncommon record, the Yardbirds had set into motion what would develop on one hand into psychedelia, and on the other, heavy metal. The Yardbirds would continue to explore the experimental periphery of rock, toying with tempo changes, random voices, distorted timbres, etc., though always rooted squarely within the blues roots of rock’n’roll.
Nevertheless, the Yardbirds had one major failing, which is pointed out more than once in this documentary. One can overlook the fact that their technical skills were sometimes lacking, since the ideas were there, and were realized adequately enough. One can forgive the indifferent production they were sometimes afforded, which is more a symptom of the times than anything else. Their fatal mistake, however, was not recognizing that the times were changing, that the revolution they had helped set into motion (and we must certainly credit the Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, and Beach Boys as significant contributors here as well) was taking place primarily in the LP format. Thematic “concept albums”, long-form compositions, LP’s built around variety within a distinct stylistic unity, an overall “progressive” outlook – these had all replaced the 7-inch pop single as the way rock musicians were expected to head if they wished to be taken seriously. The Yardbirds, however, heeded the bad advice of their record company and producers, and thus continued to think of themselves as a pop-singles band. Despite the increasing chasm between “serious” adult rock LP buyers and teen pop fans, the Yardbirds continued to gear their music toward the pop charts. When the hits dried up, so did the Yardbirds.
Almost everyone of importance connected to the Yardbirds (aside from singer Keith Relf, who died in a freak accident in the 1970’s) is interviewed here. Eric Clapton talks frankly about how, even in their earliest incarnation as a blues band, he left the band because of his dissatisfaction with the band’s pop and rock direction, whereas he wanted to keep the focus purely on the straight-ahead blues he preferred at that time. (One may wish to pause and reflect on Clapton’s music of the 1970’s in this light.) Chris Dreja talks about how Clapton was such a perfectionist, he would spend time practicing how to hold the guitar. Beck talks about how he came to join the band, when the guitarist they really wanted, Jimmy Page, was unavailable at the time. He also reveals the influence of Booker T. and the MG’s and the Mar-Keys on his music. (I wouldn’t have guessed). There are many such revelations, though long-time hard-core fans may very well be familiar with much of the material.
There are also many live and video (lip-synching and, er, hand-synching) clips. The earliest ones, with Clapton still in the band, come off in retrospect as pretty weak, blanched blues. Many of the clips suffer from shoddy sound quality, but retain their fascination as moments in time nonetheless. The clips that hold up best are, ironically, from the band’s later period as a four-piece, with Jimmy Page playing the lone guitar on arrangements originally conceived for two guitars. (The four-piece version of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is the strongest, most-coordinated live clip here.) There is also a too-brief sample of Jimmy Page bowing his guitar as a Yardbird on “Dazed and Confused”, a song which is, of course, more closely associated with the next phase of Page’s career.
The main documentary runs a very-packed 52 minutes. There is also a very welcome bonus feature, a 14-minute performance for German TV by the 1967 four-piece Yardbirds lineup of Relf, Page, Dreja, and Jim McCarty. The band was nearing its commercial ebb and would soon disintegrate, but they’re in top-form here. The disc comes with a 20-page booklet, which brings the Yardbirds’ saga up to 2003. The booklet was obviously assembled to accompany their comeback CD (which featured Dreja and McCarty alongside new Yardbirds members, plus a raft of special guests). Not having seen nor heard that CD, I can’t comment on whether this is an exact reproduction of the notes for that release or not.
Needless to say, this DVD is an item no self-respecting Yardbirds fan should be without. With any luck, it will extend much further than that audience, and help restore the band to its rightful place among mainstream critics, who have ignored the Yardbirds’ highly significant and historically crucial innovations for far too long.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Amy Winehouse: The Girl Done Good (MVD)

This British documentary DVD came out last year. I decided not to review it at that time, because – quite honestly – I didn’t know if I would be writing a review or an obit. Her tabloid-fodder life had sunk that low. Lately, however, she has managed to maintain a surprisingly low profile, which suggests that it may be time for a re-assessment of her career to begin.
“The Girl Done Good” covers Winehouse’s music and tempestuous goings-on up to the end of 2007. The first half-plus is devoted to a serious examination of her music, career highlights, stylistic influences. Needless to say, as the film progresses, the story becomes increasingly depressing, as the singer seems hell-bent on squandering her talents and, potentially, her life.
Our story begins with a rather plain, unassuming-looking mid-teenager with normal-looking hair and a voice and style far more mature than her years would warrant. As the people who discovered and nurtured her in these years suggest, she seemed headed for a career as a bluesy jazz singer on the order of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington (seen in clips which demonstrate their influence on the young Briton). To be sure, such a career path would most likely not have brought her worldwide fame, and one can only speculate how differently her life might have turned out if she had stuck to this road.
Friends, associates, and most telling of all, a few well-chosen British music critics recount her subsequent moves toward soul revivalism. Almost to a person, the interviewees walk the line between worshipful adulation and bewilderment as to the way things turned out. These on-camera experts include three performers who know a thing or two about the ups, downs, pressures and pitfalls that can befall a rising star. Barb Jungr is known as a cabaret performer, but also works behind the scenes as a vocal arranger and educator. Mari Wilson’s beehived performance style of the 1980’s may have prefigured Winehouse’s visual style, but she also knows how quickly hot careers can cool down when the public gets weary of the flavor of the week. Veteran American soul singer, Geno Washington, who is far better known in the UK than at home, has seen his career take a few bounces since the British Invasion era, never reaching the heights his talents deserved.
Winehouse’s accomplishments and subsequent excesses are discussed in chronological order. This may be especially instructive for American viewers, since her CD’s were not issued in this country in the order they were recorded. Thus, our view of her musical development has been somewhat distorted by the vagaries of the music business. The DVD includes excerpts from Winehouse’s music videos and televised live performances. The more recent performances can be downright depressing, as the emotionalism and vocal skills she displayed in her early jazz performances have all but dissipated. The point is made, though, that she still (as of late 2007) was capable of good days. After seeing the evidence of her self-destructiveness, one can only wonder how.
The documentary lasts a packed 78 minutes. Extras include short bios of the contributors and an Amy Winehouse quiz. (My score was adjudged to be “mediocre”).
In all, this is a very nicely done package with much well-considered discussion and hardly any fluff.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Art Tatum: The Art of Jazz Piano

If I were the sort who believed extra-terrestrials come to Earth and walk among us, I could easily convince myself that Art Tatum was one of them, a benevolent being from a distant planet who was sent to this world to open up new musical possibilities for us. Pretty fanciful, right?
After all, no one but an ET could race through such rapid, harmonically lush piano runs, stop, change directions, and dash off again in dazzling profusion. No one else played like Art Tatum before Art Tatum came to Earth. Well, perhaps Luckey Roberts on a good night. But to my ear, Roberts - a product of an earlier era - had neither the imagination nor the advanced harmonic sense of an Art Tatum. What’s more, we’ve come to think (rightly or wrongly) of Luckey Roberts as a sometimes-memorable composer, rather than an influential pianist. Tatum may not be remembered as a composer, but his intricate pianistic arabesques affected the course of jazz far more than Roberts’ catchy rags.
Without Art Tatum to lead the way, there would have been no Oscar Peterson, not to mention any number of virtuoso Oscars manqué who dazzle us with a lot of flash, and little substance. But it doesn’t stop there. While I confess I had never considered the point before, this documentary film makes an excellent case for Tatum being a major stepping-stone between Swing and Be-Bop. While Tatum may not have thought rhythmically in the same manner as Bird and Diz, Bud and Monk, his harmonic adventurousness took jazz away from its rag, blues, and pop roots into a brave new world of chromaticism and structural upheavals, opening up all manner of artistic possibilities for musicians to absorb and follow – if they could.
This film could serve as a model for other biographical music documentaries. It digs into the details of Tatum’s life and career, it includes a wealth of intelligent commentary by a number of his musical associates and influencees (not the empty-headed ones, but the worthier ones, such as Hank Jones and Marian McPartland), it presents rare film clips of Tatum in action, and as a whole is highly compact and devoid of fluff. The film clips demonstrate that he was a surprisingly unemotional and non-visual player; perhaps the latter is related to his near-blindness?
There are no extras on this hour-long disc, but Tatum’s playing is a “special feature” in and of itself. Highly recommended, not only to listeners who have yet to discover Art Tatum, but to long-time fans as well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fredonia Jazz Ensemble CD Liner Notes

This next item doesn't really fit the parameters of "GenEc DVD Review". For one thing, it's not about a DVD. Second, it's not a review, but the set of liner notes I wrote for the forthcoming (late April, 2009) CD by the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble. I happen to be one of the Faculty Advisors for the organization, so I can't claim total lack of self-interest here. But I feel safe in saying that if you like modern big band music, you'll enjoy this disc a lot. These notes have been reproduced here by permission:

Get ready to kick up a storm!
After far too long an absence from the recording scene (did I hear someone say 16
years?!), The Fredonia Jazz Ensemble has returned to the studio. The CD you’re holding in your hands is all the proof you’ll need that the FJE is still alive, and – yes, indeed! – still kickin’.
The Fredonia Jazz Ensemble has long been considered one of the crown jewels of the
SUNY Fredonia School of Music. Thus, it might surprise many people to learn that this award-winning, internationally-renowned big band exists as a totally separate entity from SUNY Fredonia’s Jazz Studies curriculum. The FJE is one of two bands that comprise the Fredonia Jazz Workshop, a completely student-run organization which receives its financial backing from the SUNY Fredonia Student Association. The members of the FJE are responsible not only for the musical sounds that come out of their instruments, but also for all artistic decisions, personnel matters, scheduling, business dealings, and all the many other details that are part and parcel of running a sizeable musical organization. Thus, the FJE is not only an expressive outlet for the artistic energies of its members, it serves a highly educational purpose as well.
But it’s the music that concerns us here. “Still Kickin’” is a rousing set of eight top-flight big band performances, with arrangements which not only open up to some fine soloing by the FJE regulars, but occasionally expand to include vocals, a string section on one piece, and guest performances by two of Western New York’s finest jazz veterans.
The opener, “Eternal Triangle”, is a Sonny Stitt hard-bopper, deftly arranged by FJE
trumpeter Matt Koerner. While you’re enjoying the solos by John Troy on tenor sax and pianist Jason Weisinger, pay attention also to Jeff Utter’s popping bass line and the relaxed drive of drummer of Michael Lamardo. Mary Palmer puts trumpet aside on “Caught A Touch of Your Love”, to offer an impressive vocal which just keeps building in intensity.
The two special guest artists make their first memorable appearances on “Time For Bruce and Phil”, written by Buffalo trombonist and special friend of the FJE, Phil Sims. As the title hints, this track is a showcase for the estimable talents of Sims and baritone sax master Bruce Johnstone. Johnstone, the Director of Curricular Jazz at SUNY Fredonia and one of two Faculty Advisors for the FJE, may be best known for his work with Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman in the 1970’s, but his blazing solo shows he has lost none of his skill or fire through the years. Sims’ solo is also a special treat and demonstrates precisely why his standing on the Buffalo music scene is so high. Not only do the two guests shine, the whole band cooks like mad. Sims also contributes another original tune, “On The Way,” featuring the smooth alto sax stylings of Mike Casey, the warm guitar of Chris Sclafani, and a soothing backdrop of strings. “On the Way” is a moment of calm in between two flag-wavers, as Johnstone and Sims return to playfully joust on a 1970’s Ferguson classic, "Superbone Meets the Badman”, that will certainly set your toes to tapping and put a big, broad smile on your face.
The proceedings calm down again for “It’s Just Talk”, one of Bob Curnow’s highly
regarded arrangements of a Pat Metheny tune, utilizing Mary Porter’s voice as part of the instrumental ensemble. The set’s only pop standard, “Like Someone in Love”, is a 1940’s classic originally associated with Frank Sinatra, though it has subsequently been recorded by a bevy of major jazz artists, including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Art Blakey, and Dave Brubeck. Matt Koerner’s sprightly arrangement adds a dash of “New York, New York” for a humorous light touch. The album goes back to the 1967 Buddy Rich band for its suitably swinging closer, “Big Swing Face”, giving soloists Weisinger, Troy, and trumpeter Ian Taylor one last chance to strut their stuff.
In all, this new CD will leave listeners hoping the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble will be
heading back to the recording studio a whole lot sooner next time out. You’re certain to get a “kick” out of “Still Kickin’”.

- Tom Bingham
SUNY Fredonia alum (class of 1970)
Adjunct Prof, SUNY Fredonia School of Music
Host, “General Eclectic”, WCVF-FM
Proud to be the “other” Faculty Advisor for the FJE