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At 38, jazz pianist Gerald Clayton has been on the scene for a while and has already staked out his musical turf for what promises to be long and productive career. He is probably best known for his work with Charles Lloyd, who guests on this album. Clayton’s father, John Clayton is on bass and Justin Brown is on drums. A very breathy vocal stylist  MARO guests on a couple of beguiling tracks. All in all, Bells on Sand is a very intimate affair and really shows off a lot of Clayton’s many musical talents and facets.

I saw him perform solo last night at the 222 in Healdsburg CA. Also an art gallery, The 222 is a relatively new venue, having started of as an occasional stage for events relating to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. 

Last night, surrounded by beautiful artwork, Clayton opened with a jazz waltz I know but couldn’t place the title for the life of me. He played just the most recognizable A section, and then veered off into modal improvisations that were quite stunning. He followed that with an abstract, Debussy-like version of Spring is Here, then a more traditional reading of Like Someone in Love. He also captured the wistful yet cautiously optimistic vibe of Monk’s Mood, evincing a deep understanding of Monk’s harmonic vocabulary without a hint of facile imitation. The reinvented standards were interspersed with some enticing originals and extemporaneous playing; the show was peppered with groove oriented ostinatos, soulful gospel tunes and even some American roots music. He ended one improvisation with Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train. He closed the show with a gorgeous reading of Martin Rojas’s En la Orilla del Mundo (At the Edge of the World,) the opening track on Charlie Haden’s essential Nocturne album. His reading was obviously inspired by Gonsalvo Rubalcaba’s fine contributions to that classic. 

Clayton is a resourceful pianist. Using the piano as an orchestra, he thinks like a composer/arranger and is sometimes all over the keyboard, adding in little counter lines or flourishes in the upper registers while keeping everything going in the bass and mid range of the instrument. Clayton has an extremely refined touch; it would seem his classical background serves him well. While he is also a beautiful line player, clearly his is a very pianistic musical vision. He plays as if he’s in love with the sound of the instrument, and it shows in his singing tone, extraordinarily wide dynamic range and ability to elicit myriad colors out of the instrument.

All of this is apparent on the new album, his second for Blue Note. The album features a duo with piano and bowed bass, duos with Charles Lloyd (that duo is coming to the 222 soon, a Bay Area exclusive,) trios and solo piano as well. It’s an intimate recording and one that I will be coming back to frequently. I just love Clayton’s concept, a tasteful blend of traditional and modern styles that seem to borrow from almost everything. His solo performance some   Nights ago belied an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the history of jazz piano and beyond to classical, gospel and American folk traditions. Listening to him, the first word that came to mind was “elegant”, the way Ellington was an elegant player, although in an entirely different and original way. Incidentally, Gerald Clayton is also a killer B3 player.

 

2022 15 Mai

Oded Tzur – Isabela

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On Oded Tzur’s second ECM album, the Israeli sax player has delved further into incorporating his study of raga along with his love of delta blues to create a concept album that almost feels like a ritual. All the pieces seem ordered to take the listener on a spiritual journey. The music is devotional, yearning, longing, at times tender – at other times growling, the dragon awakens and breathes a hint of fire.  With his covered tone on ballads like Noam, Tzur’s sound brings to mind the gentle side of Charles Lloyd, while structurally (and sometimes even sonically,) I am reminded of Andy Sheppard’s deceptively simple musings, especially on Romaria. At other times a  fierceness emerges out of the dusky light, which brings to mind Coltrane’s prayerful late albums, although the hushed spell is never completely broken; the band avoids catapulting the listener all the way into the far reaches of chaotic ecstasy Trane explored. Almost everything on the album feels internalized, ruminative and meditative, except for the album’s energetic closer, Love Song for the Rainy Season.

Most of the tunes are modal; for the most part, primary soloists Tzur and pianist Nitai Hershkovits stay melodically within the structures but certainly not always: occasionally they stray outside the lines of the modal universes they inhabit.  Hershkovitz is a very agile improviser – his inventive ideas, culled from the blues, European folk tunes, classical Impressionism, Bach and everything in-between, coupled with an incredibly sensitive touch at the piano, impart his solos with sense of freedom and constant discovery. His gorgeous solo on my favorite tune on the album, the odd metered The Lion Turtle, is a good example of how he effortlessly combines all of these diverse influences into an integrated whole. It’s not easy to play over a modal structure and keep it as compelling as these two do.

Bassist Petros Klampanis is supportive and so right on the money, we scarcely notice his intuitively supportive artistry until his single concise, subdued solo on the Lion Turtle. Drummer Jonathan Blake has a tough job – he has to disappear into the music for much of the recording, although when called for, as on the aforementioned album closer, Love Song for the Rainy Season, Blake ups the ante and mixes it up with the fired up soloists, encouraging them to further heights with powerful flurries of toms and cymbals, culminating with a drum solo that is nothing short of majestic.

So much of music making is about telling a story.  All great improvisers are great story tellers. Everyone in this band is a competent storyteller, telling their individual truth, while at the same time, staying in tune with the collective. Note this is the same lineup as on Here be Dragons. This too feels like a band album. There is no egoic grandstanding here, just a commitment to humbly serving the music. And what beautiful music is. 

 

Oded Tzur, Tenor Saxophone
Nitai Hershkovits, Piano
Petros Klampanis, Bass
Johnathan Blake, Drums

 

 


Kit Downes’ new trio album is a pure joy to listen to. Downes has a beautiful touch on piano and demonstrates he is quite capable of fresh invention, both compositionally and improvisationally. His playing here is lyrical and poetic, yet he’s not afraid to occasionally venture into darker tonalities, suddenly juxtaposing angular phrases to more conventionally melodic motifs. For the most part, these tunes are rather unpredictable –  not many melodies here one might find oneself singing in the shower, yet paradoxically, these evanescent pieces, even at their most abstract, are approachable, inviting the listener to revisit them for a deeper dive.

There is a sense of a keen, disciplined intellect at work here, imbued with purposeful passion, resulting in a high wire balancing act of head and heart. Downes has obviously studied Bach. He employs precise contrapuntal lines in his left hand, that when deployed, add extra layers of texture and musical depth.  

Although largely a dreamy affair, tunes like the upbeat Sandilands, or Waders, a medium tempo composition, evince plenty of muscular playing and show off the fine level of interaction that only a long standing trio can muster. Sister Sister is perhaps the most tender offering while Class Fails, a gospel tinged short ruminative piece, reveals the elegiac,  contemplative side of the trio. 

Special mention must be made of the brilliant cover of Jimi Hendrix tune, Castles Made of Sand. It’s an abstract version which barely references the original melody. This is the kind of cover I love – as opposed to the Wasilewski trio’s recent tepid and overly literal cover of The Doors Riders of the Storm, the trio here uses it as a jumping off point to explore nooks and crannies I believe Jimi would’ve been happily surpised to hear.

The writing chores were evenly split between Downes and bassist Petter Eldh. Eldh’s pieces tend to be the more energetic contributions, while Downes writing tends towards the introspective. James Maddren, drums, gives tasteful support throughout. He seems to know just what is required and leaves out the extraneous. Eldh’s playing is interactive and always in service to the whole sound – he has flawless intonation,  a deep round tone, and his melodic approach reminds me at times of a young Marc Johnson. 

There are many fine new trios popping up these days. Besides their superb musicianship, what distinguishes this trio from the others is their subtle (and sometimes extreme) use of dynamics, something one rarely hears used in such a startlingly effective, musical manner. The trio seems to know this material well – it sounds already lived in and comfortable, enabling the unit to explore and interact at a deep level; the music really breathes here. With his refined, classical touch and technical precision, married to a strong rhythmic and innate melodic sensibility, at times Downes reminds me of the late John Taylor, which is meant as the highest compliment. My favorite ECM release so far this year. 

 

 

When I think about my relationship to listening to new music, I remember that Gary Larsen cartoon in which a student raises his hand and says, “May I be excused? My brain is full.”

Between the stuff people have laid on me over the years in the form of burned CDs and files, plus my burgeoning CD collection, not to mention my vinyl, hi-def downloads etc., I have enough music to listen to for the rest of my life. I have to confess: There are CDs in my collection I have yet to break the plastic off of.

That being said, being a Mathias Eick fan, I had to listen to his new album, When We Leave. I like it so much I’ve listened to it a number of times, and I’ve bought the HD download (saves space and sounds magnificent).

When We Leave has a similar feel to Eick’s last albums, Ravensburg and Midwest, which in this case is not a bad thing at all. It features the same core members as Ravensburg. There is a cohesion here, a genuine band sound, that only occurs with a working, touring band. Eick is an excellent composer of almost—dare I say it—hooky jazz infused with folk elements. It’s easy-to-digest comfort food for the spirit. The melodies are often memorable, even singable, yet somehow he avoids triteness and sentimentality. There’s a universal quality to his music. His burnished trumpet sound, while far from incendiary, has a kind of power and warmth that really imbues the instrument with his humanity. What comes out is often reflective, sometimes ruminative and sad, sometimes hopeful and at times, epically triumphant. There is an optimism to Mathias’ writing and playing that I find uplifting in these troubling times.

This album is a series of tone poems with simple titles like “Loving,” “Caring,” and “Turning” that seem to suggest that everything is going to be alright. Yet for all his melodicism and seeming simplicity, there is hidden complexity in these graceful arrangements and a level of detail that invites the listener to revisit them again and again.

As in the last release, Ravensburg, violin and Hardanger player Hakon Aase continues to add his special magic to the proceedings. Who would’ve thought trumpet and violin could blend so seamlessly? In a way, Aase is really the secret sauce in this group. Personally, I believe Eick’s musical identity really began to coalesce when he brought in Aase and crystallized the current lineup. Aase is a very original improviser; often his playing evokes the stark winter landscapes of northern Norway. While he evinces a strong understanding of Norwegian folk traditions, he’s also an out-of-the-box player who is capable of surprising the listener, sometimes taking sonic journeys through other musical landscapes. But it’s his rootsy-ness that I find so attractive and which brings a certain depth and mystery to the mix.

Besides the usual trumpet, violin, piano, and drums, the album has pedal steel guitar, played by guest artist Stian Carstensen. Usually associated with country music, the pedal steel is far more versatile and can fit into other genres, conjuring a feeling of keening longing, and sometimes evoking otherworldly atmospheres. I remember once seeing Harold Budd conduct a choir that was accompanied by pedal steel, Fender Rhodes, and harp. I had never heard anything like that before. The pedal steel lavishly slid from one beautiful sonority to another, chords hanging in the air like ripe apricots. Such is the way the pedal steel is used here, as a color, a kind of organic pad for the music to rest on.

My only criticism of this album (and indeed the last couple of Eick’s releases) is that at 37 minutes, it seems a bit short. But it’s all good stuff. Perhaps the thinnest track is “Flying”—it’s certainly the least structured piece on the album. But there’s a lot of deep listening going on and it is growing on this listener, as indeed the whole album continues to do. Eick keeps on delivering albums that hearken back to ECM’s seventies glory days, and the world is better for it. 

 

Mathias Eick: trumpet, keyboard, vocals
Hakon Aase: violin, percussion
Andreas Ulvo: piano
Audun Erlien: bass
Torstein Lofthus: drums
Helge Andreas Norbakken: drums, percussion
Stian Carstensen: pedal steel guitar

 
 

The Chair, a new dramedy on Netflix, starring the wonderful Sandra Oh and a perfectly cast Jay Duplass, is an amazing balancing act of social satire, drama and wild, over the top, even at times physical comedy. Yet at its heart, the creators, Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman have some serious things to say. It deals with many contemporary issues, the way social media is used to manipulate public perception, even among “woke Liberals,” and takes on the power structures of academia, ageism, racism, sexism, wokeism head on, shedding a knowing light on the dynamics of women in power, both in how they are viewed by their male counterparts, and also in how they are seen by other women aspiring to rise in a male-dominated field. It is clear the creators had something more than mere satire in mind, its main characters are far more nuanced than stereotypes, and it manages to insert moments of real pathos amidst the genuinely funny set pieces. Not to be missed.

 

 

I just finished the Rose Simpson memoir, Muse Odalisque Handmaiden, which I absolutely loved. What a gifted writer.She strikes this reader as someone I can trust; Rose’s intention was to report as honestly as possible her personal experience in The Incredible String Band, yet she achieves far more than that in this marvelous book. It’s both a joyous and a bit of a heartbreaking read, a fascinating fly on the wall account of her time in ISB. I loved the little stories and the bits of gossip, as when she recounts meeting Joan Baez, who seemed to have little regard for Robin Williamson and Mike Heron’s  „airy fairy“ music, and was especially dismissive of the ladies of ISB. Her meetings with other super stars such as Joni Mitchell, David Crosby etc, go quite a bit better.

The whole story starts off almost as a fairy tale, with Rose the young mountaineer bumping into the mysterious elf-like beings living upstairs at the boarding house where she is staying. And falling in love with Mike, this innocent girl is eventually recruited into the adventure of a lifetime. Of course, being an unflinchingly honest narrator, besides the ecstatic joy of performing and living semi-communally with a group of lovely, gifted people, she faithfully recounts the playing out of their freewheeling sexual attitudes, reflective of the times, as well as the tensions of touring, the occasional spats and petty misunderstandings and the band’s later obsession with Scientology, which she makes abundantly clear she didn’t share.

One thing stood out for me among many: The book seems far kinder to Mike than Robin, who is repeatedly portrayed as arrogant, dismissive, egocentric and stubborn. We all know our heroes aren’t perfect, but this book reveals some of the complexities of character that weren’t seen on stage, where everyone was always trying to be „their best selves.“ This comes as no surprise of course. Who among us is playful, charming, deeply spiritual and “happy happy happy all the time”?

The book gave me a perspective and insight into the band’s personal dynamics, and I came away still loving them all, but with a better understanding of what it must have been like on the road for this band of idealists who had to learn to grapple with the realities of celebrity and changing fortunes.

Rose also devotes an entire chapter to the elusive Licorice. While all mysteries aren’t revealed, Rose manages to paint a vivid portrait of someone she lived in close quarters with, yet never really got to know or fully understand. Simpson manages to humanize this ethereal woman, her many facets seeming almost like contradictions of character, yet somehow all of these aspects of her personality coexisted beneath her placid exterior, emerging when the occasion demanded it.

Another thing that surprised me was how naive the boys were regarding finances. They were true artists and were proud of the fact that they cared little for material wealth and possessions. Yet at some point when they were touring and playing large halls, it appears they still weren’t really getting paid in the conventional sense. They had all of their needs taken care of, and were eventually able to live in somewhat better digs, and yeah, a limo started showing up to pick them up for gigs, but there was no regular paycheck, only just enough to cover their living expenses and whims. It also irked me that even after the ladies were finally officially listed as members of the band, they still never received a dime. I also wonder if Robin or Mike get any residuals from the sales of their albums, which have been remastered and rereleased a number of times over the years. And do they still control the rights to their songs? I know many artists from that era were ripped off by record companies and management. Nonetheless it was sort of shocking to read that were living in a kind of hippie squalor even after the first few albums were released. And from what I can tell, they never lived in upscale places. I know they weren’t geared towards the posh lifestyle, but still, one would like to think they were able to put away a nest egg during that period they were packing those halls. (Of course, they must have spent a fortune on Scientology, an organization known for taking its followers to the cleaners.)

In a way, this book goes beyond the simple story of young love, the arc of musical dreams exultingly realized, the inevitable disillusionment and the eventual breakup of a band. At its core, it’s a glimpse into the idealistic values we were all trying to live by, and the spirit of the time – a unique constellation of hope, idealism and fragile naïveté is well drawn in these pages. Moreover, it’s a sort of time capsule that captures the ineffable vibe of this unique moment in history, as well or perhaps better than any other account of the era I have read.

 

 

 

Seeing my blog brother Micha’s incredibly varied and deep list of rediscovered music got me thinking. I too seem to be on a roll of rediscovery. I really noticed this during the pandemic: I started revisiting old music, music from my formative years. I already posted the rediscovery of early electric Return to Forever through the remixed Anthology set. More recently, another guilty pleasure insinuated itself into my consciousness.

As a young hippie, I fell under the spell of one of the most unusual bands of the era – I am speaking of the Incredible String Band. A folk group which at first was comprised of 3 young men, their eponymous album was a pretty straightforward affair, captured without overdubs by the man with the golden ears, Elektra’s young wunderkind Joe Boyd, who heard something special in these young songwriters from Edinburgh. That first album won a prestigious folk award and garnered some positive reviews, but nothing could’ve prepared listeners for the journey to come.

After the release of the first album, Mike Heron stayed back in Scotland in hopes of playing gigs and taking the project to the next level, but oddly enough, Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer had different ideas, and left the British isles to travel abroad. Robin headed to Morocco and parts unknown where he had decided to study Middle Eastern music and wasn’t quite sure he was going to return at all. When he finally returned, he came bearing armloads of instruments and together with Mike, began reforming the group as a psychedelic folk/world duo. Mike had stayed busy as well, writing songs and opening his ears to world music.

During the next 8 years, ISB would make 11 more albums. After their first release,  in just two short years they put out 4 genre (and gravity)  defying albums that influenced everyone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, yet they mostly appealed to a relatively small but devoted fanbase. I was one of them.

My love affair with ISB began with a musician friend of mine laying a copy of The 5000 Spirits (aka The Layers of the Onion,) on me. With its uber-psychedelic cover, designed by two Dutch artists known as The Fool, it immediately grabbed my attention. Inside the grooves was a new kind of hybrid music that incorporated the folk traditions of the British isles with influences from India, China, the Middle East, the West Indies and beyond. How did these two make such a quantum leap in the space of a year? Some of it was Robin’s incredible mind and his innate ability to make music on almost any instrument he took in his hands, his uncanny ability to absorb and borrow from multiple traditions, and part of it was perhaps the broader zeitgeist of freedom and experimentation that permeated the air. Mike Heron’s more straightforward, heartfelt, earthy approach to songwriting was the grounding element, which contrasted nicely with Robin’s penchant for far flung audacious experimentalism, odd juxtapositions of Indian, folk, blues, music hall and Celtic traditions, (often in the same song!) and somehow, it all just effortlessly worked.

As Joe Boyd once said, for a time these two could literally do anything. But that magic, like most magic, was fleeting. ISB was like a cosmic juggling act and there was simply no way all of those orbiting spheres could remain in the air forever. Not to say there aren’t many gems to be found on later releases, because there most certainly are, but those records never seemed to reach the consistently high bar the band had set for itself on those first four albums. 

Most String Band aficionados will immediately point to the 3rd release, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as their best, and I would begrudgingly have to agree. It is certainly their most beloved album. Quirky in all the best ways, inspired, surreal, varied in musical influences, it encapsulated all the elements that endeared the group to their fans. With its exoticism, surreal lyrics, cosmic references, whimsy and humor, dream imagery, summoning of archetypes, reverence for the sacredness of nature and of all living things, it is truly a wondrous recording. The opening track, Koeeoaddi There, embodies so much that is likable about the band. It’s a dream-like  journey into Williamson’s childhood, sketching out the local scenes, characters, shopkeepers, the joys of skating on Happy Valley Pond,  the gambling soldier’s admonitions (“Don’t worry, we won’t send anyone after you, they screamed.”) In just a few minutes, Robin outlines inexplicable events – the strange mysteries of the world seen through the innocent eyes of a child, replete with routine greetings to “The Invisible brethren,” the ritualistic “Earth Water Fire and Air” chant punctuating the stream of consciousness childhood reveries – somehow all the disparate elements meld into a perfectly cohesive whole. And Heron’s A Very Cellular Song, the centerpiece of the album, the song which for many epitomizes ISB, was like nothing that had come before it. A medley of snatches of a Caribbean religious folk tune (borrowed from The Pindar Family – Nonesuch,) songs about amoebas, cosmic paens to the Unseen, whimsical imagery inserted into harpsichord laden baroque verses, all coalescing into a pagan religious ritual, replete with themes and variations accompanied by guitars, gimbris, clay drums, mandolins, organs, jews harps, kazoos, and whatever else the boys could get their hands on.

They were courageously experimental in those days, and even though there were the obvious imperfections due to an understandable lack of  proficiency on many of the instruments they had picked up, none of that really mattered – their sheer unbridled creativity and confidence in their collective vision overshadowed the occasional out of tune vocal or flubbed instrumental notes. There were also unexpected moments of virtuosity. In fact, both were decent musicians on guitar and mandolin. Mike’s sitar was one of the more successful uses of the instrument in a non-traditional pop setting. People often criticized their vocals, but I have always thought Robin’s melismatic flights of fancy back in the day to be pretty spot on, even inspired in terms of note choices and phrasing. And Mike’s earnestly honest vocals carried a certain charm all their own, even if he sometimes strained to reach notes that were a bit out of his range. Again, none of this mattered one whit – their technical limitations didn’t get in the way of their seeming boundless creativity. They were completely fearless.

For me, the high point of the ISB’s short period of conjuring the miraculous out of thin air culminated in Wee Tam And The Big Huge. Released as a double album in the UK, they were released separately in the US, but they really were a double album. I originally recorded them from a KPFA prerelease broadcast and listened to them incessantly. I remember taking those reels to a friend’s country home up in Connecticut and playing them over as elaborate system that had speakers hidden in the trees all thru the woods surrounding their house – a magical experience in the snow. These two albums in my opinion, were the last of the totally magical ISB albums. All the elements were there: the mysticism, some of Robin’s best long form tunes (Maya, The Iron Stone,) and some of Mike’s best innocent child-like tunes. (Puppies, My Greatest Friend.)

By now Robin and Mike had fully integrated their girlfriends into the group. Licorice and Rose brought their innocence and sweetness to the table. Neither was a trained musician, in fact, except for a few violin lessons as a child, Rose, a university student and mountain climber, had never played an instrument. Licorice had some guitar background and a little girl’s voice that was deployed to great effect on stage and on recordings. But musicianship wasn’t the point at all. As Robin once said when asked about the choice of including their partners: it was about friendship – that and chemistry – that’s the reason the girls were in the band. As anyone who saw the band in their heyday knows, the young women graced the stage with their shy presence, even when not doing anything but sitting and smiling when they weren’t playing finger cymbals, keyboards, singing backup vocals or playing an occasionally out of time dumbek. Somehow, Licorice’s and Rose’s mere presence gave the band even more charisma. In fact it was this odd combination of genius and amateurism that gave the band its unique, ineffable sound.

I still remember that first time seeing them. October 1968 – It was a magical night, a night to remember for sure. It had started with a personal initiation ritual: losing my virginity earlier that very evening. Then, synchronistically, my musician friend who had first turned me on to the String Band called to let me know his girlfriend couldn’t make the show and asked if I would like to meet him to see ISB at the Fillmore East. I remember that concert vividly. The stage setup with all those exotic instruments, the excitement and joy in the air, and the opening song, “Jobs Tears.” Robin in full hippie renaissance faire regalia was sitting on a chair playing guitar and Licorice, in a flowing dress, was kneeling on the floor singing the response to Robin’s lines. That image and Licorice’s little voice singing, “All will be one, all will be one” is permanently etched in my mind.

I’m currently reading Rose Simpson’s memoir of her time in ISB. It’s title, “Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden” sums up this honest journal of a young woman’s improbable adventures into music and celebrity. It is an extremely well written and unflinching look at a time that will never exist again, compassionately seen through the eyes of an older, wiser woman who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Imagine Mike Heron coming home with a bass one afternoon, sticking it in Rose’s hands and saying “learn this.” And a few weeks latter she’s appearing onstage at Royal Albert Hall to a packed house with the Beatles, members of Led Zeppelin and other pop luminaries in the audience. That happened.

Of course, no utopian vision can last forever, and the ISB’s juggling act had to lose a few balls. Rose, unhappy with the band’s fascination with Scientology and the direction they were taking, left first. Licorice was next. Years later it was reported Licorice had completely disappeared – as the story goes, she was last seen hitchhiking in the Arizona desert and has never been heard from or seen again. I suspect she is still very much alive but doesn’t want to be found. There was a looming tension between Mike, who wanted to go electric (in truth he had always had the heart of a rocker,) and Robin who was heading in an opposite, more traditional acoustic direction. Something had to give.

ISB went on for a few more years, eventually reinvented as a much more conventional folk rock band with a “real drummer and bass player.” I made the sad mistake of seeing them in that last configuration in LA around 1973 or so. That performance left a bad taste in my mouth and for many years, I stopped thinking about the band completely.

But recently I picked up some newly remastered reissues on the Fledgling and BGO labels and re-collected all of the ones I care about on CDs. I’m pleased to report a lot of it still speaks to me today – it’s not such a guilty pleasure after all, and as it turns out, is much more than just a mere nostalgia trip.

 

There is going to be a new Oregon album release of a 1974 live concert in Bremen. Unlike so many bootlegs from this era, this is an “official” Oregon release, which I presume will have better sound quality as Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless were evidently involved with the mix/mastering process. There aren’t too many documents of this group from that period, which many feel to be their golden era. There’s Oregon in Concert (Vanguard) performed and recorded in Vanguard’s Studio NYC in front of an invited audience in 1975. This was once an extremely difficult recording to find, fetching as much as $100 or more on Ebay,  but it was finally reissued on the Wounded Bird label a couple years ago. I feel this recording is the best live Oregon album out there. There was also the 2nd Oregon in Concert recording (Elektra,) recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1979, but I never found it as compelling as the first. This new live recording features some of their best compositions from that era and could very well be an important document of those early days with the original percussionist/sitarist Colin Walcott. It’s a double CD on the Mooiscus label.

Track Listing:Disc 1:

Brujo
Ghost Beads
Dark Spirit
Ogden Road

Disc 2:

Distant Hills
Embarking
Raven’s Wood
Canyon Song
The Silence of a Candle

 
 

We lost one of the greats, Chick Corea earlier this year. It was one of those losses that are hard to absorb. He was so incredibly vital. Even while ill, during the pandemic he was streaming regular solo piano concerts from his home studio. He always exuded such positive, life affirming energy, right until the end. In his last year, he started Chick Corea University and was teaching one to one over Zoom. In retrospect, I think he knew his time was short and wanted to share his knowledge with as many people as possible.

Chick was one of those people who strongly influenced me in my formative years. I loved his early acoustic work, Tones for Jones Bones and Inner Space and all his wonderful contributions as a sideman for Miles Davis, Bobby Hucherson and Stan Getz, among others. I consider Now He Sings Now He Sobs to be one of the top 10 trio albums of all time. He was only 26 when he recorded that timeless masterpiece. Chick thought it was his best album.

He had such a long and mercurial career, moving from one genre to another. I loved all the ECM releases, the duo albums with Gary Burton, the trio album with the original Now He Sings lineup (Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous,) the two iconic solo piano records and the eponymous Return to Forever album. In fact, I was a huge fan up until the ill conceived last RTF album, Music Magic, which I simply couldn’t stand. After that, I stopped automatically buying his albums and slowly lost touch with his musical career. Now that he has passed, I am reconsidering his importance in the history of the music, and am checking out some of the later albums I missed. I saw him countless times during his ever changing musical incarnations. I was lucky to see him perform a burning straight ahead set with Brian Blade and Christian McBride just a few years back. He remained a magnificent jazz pianist right until the end. The last time I saw him was locally – he brought the Elektrik Band to a nearby town for a fun night of virtuosic fusion closing for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Both bands performed together for the encore. But enjoyable as they were,  the Elektrik band just never had the chemistry and grit of early RTF.

As far as I’m concerned, the beginning of the fusion era really started in that iconic year that has been referenced a lot lately, 1973. That was the year Mahavishnu Orchestra put out the searing Birds of Fire. It was also the year Chick Corea’s newly reformed Return to Forever released Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy. Neither release was anything like Weather Report’s early excursions, even 1973’s Sweetnighter still owed a great deal to Miles Davis’s more spontaneous form of jazz-rock. And the same could be said of Herbie Hancock’s Miles influenced Sextant. No, even though Chick was a part of the Miles lineage, having played on Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew among others, this was something entirely different. It was totally composition driven, groove centered, bottom heavy music firmly rooted in Stanley Clarks rude, snarling bass and Lenny White’s unabashed balls to the wall rock drumming. Pre-synth, Chick conjured all those wildly distorted sounds with nothing more than a Rhodes piano and a few effects put thru a Fender Twin Reverb amp. Bill Connors rounded out the group on electric guitar. Bill is a melodic player, even on electric. And even in this extremely aggressive setting, his solos are models of soaring lines and emotional intensity, with none of the wanking virtuality Al Di Meola was prone to in the coming years after he replaced Connors. I loved Hymn then and played it to death, but even then thought the sound quality left a lot to be desired – it was such a poor recording, it just didn’t communicate the raw magnificence of the live band (saw that incarnation at the Troubador in LA where they performed the entire album -unforgettable.) I have not really thought much about it since and when revisiting, and was frustrated by how thin and small the sound was on the poor sounding CD release.

I knew about the 2008 remixed Anthology but had never picked it up- until about two weeks ago – these remixed tracks are something else, a whole new way of listening to RTF. I already owned a remastered Japanese version of the more prog influenced Romantic Warrior which was amazing…before I heard the remix. These were done at Chick’s Mad Hatter Studio with Chick on hand to supervise. I bought this primarily for Hymn – after all, it was The album that made me a fusion believer. This remix conveys the power and glory of Hymn – It is nothing short of astounding that they were able to create such a powerful and ballsy remix from those ancient tapes. It sounds as if it was recorded in a modern state of the art studio. Lenny’s drums are much more forward and deep – his kick is solid as a rock here. Stanley’s bass growls and struts like a prehistoric beast across the primal aural terrain. It is literally like hearing it for the first time. Just to hear Hymn this way is worth the price of admission, but you get so much more, including the entire Romantic Warrior, sounding better than ever. The only thing that could’ve improved this compilation would’ve been to include the other two RTF albums, No Mystery and Where Have I known You Before in full. You do get sone of the best tracks off both of those worthy albums. I am left wanting more and simply can’t go back to those earlier wimpy sounding CDs. Even the vinyl pales in comparison.

If you are an RTF fan, especially of the “first 4” (post-ECM Return to Forever and Light as a Feather (Polydor,), both classics,) RTF albums, you simply have to get this. Remember those old Maxell tape ads back in the 70s, where the guy is listening to music while siting in a lounge chair and his hair is being blown back as if by a gale force wind? Listening to this remix actually does that.

It’s been a year since I went to a live show. Over that time I have tried to watch streaming shows in order to support the artists by paying a fee to “attend” these shows. It’s always the same thing though – I set up my stream through my big screen TV, set the sound to come out through my stereo, sit back and try to get excited about the show. It’s a weird experience, because no matter how many times I tell myself, “this is different – it’s live”, I don’t feel much of a quantifiable difference in my experience than if I were watching a BluRay, DVD or Youtube stream of a prerecorded concert. Why is that?

I’ve been in touch with Richie Beirach through Covid. He has a bunch of new material on his new website, interviews, books he has co-written on various musical subjects etc. There is one such video where Richie speaks of what it has been like for him during lockdown. For a jazz artist, the only way to ply one’s trade is to perform live for an audience. Richie says he doesn’t practice – he did that diligently for some 25 years and he really doesn’t need to. Indeed, Miles told Herbie and the band Not to practice, just to play on the gig in order to remain fresh. During this long monologue, Beirach is asked why he doesn’t participate in streaming shows. He says its because he needs the ambience of the room, the people sitting there who walk in as strangers and through some mysterious alchemy, join in a kind of musical communion that he claims can only occur when both the musician and audience are sitting in the same room together. He describes streaming shows as unfulfilling because there’s no “feedback” in terms of energy coming back from the crowd, like playing in a vacuum.

 

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It’s interesting that this experience of disconnection is felt on both sides of the screen. I for one can’t wait until my first live show, possibly a concert of Paul McCandless and the Bay Area trio Charged Particles in a tribute to Lyle Mays’ music, coming up in a month or so. Should be a great show. Until then, I’ll be listening, but not watching so much.


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