Finally, the actual music. And, by the way, just to be clear: not surprisingly, I have many music nerd friends, but I have many more friends who are simply overwhelmed by the amount of music that is available to them, compared to the relative slim pickin’s of their teens. I suppose this is a statement of purpose for this blog (you can exhale now), but since my range of musical interest is pretty broad, since I am damned social and have a pretty decent Innertube reach, and since I am very obviously not an intellectual, bent on hardcore critical analysis, but rather…a musical proselytizer, I am a decent option for those overwhelmed masses. And if not, well, at least I am entertaining myself and keeping a record of what was keeping me sane when. Also, not all of the releases below are new–I don’t understand how anyone can devote themselves exclusively to new music, with as rich a history as we’ve got, but, again, the digital flood threatens to carry away some grand old slabs, and I will make it a point to alert you to some of them, too.
Since what’s ahead is a slew, I am gonna try to do these piquantly in no more than three sentences….
Serengeti: Kenny Dennis III (Joyful Noise)
I suspect with this particular persona of David Cohn (one he’s been exceptionally devoted to of late) that you’re either a fan or you’re not. I am, all the way, but after the opener, and just like last time, I’d like a little more rappin’ (and beats, too) and a little less talkin’. Then along comes Track 15: “Get Back to Rap.” Time: 0:26. After two plays, ‘Geti’s way with a story arc starts to get to you, and you start to realize you have to hear this as something other than rap.
Archie Shepp and the Attica Blues Orchestra: I Hear the Sound (Archie Ball)
Shepp’s exploring something here that hasn’t been mined enough–and he helped start it back in the volcanic ’60s. There’s very, very nice singing (including some rough vocalizing from Shepp), wise words, powerful large-ensemble playing, strings, and, of course, some free outbursts in just the right places, at just the right duration–and the kicker is the blend is very well-balanced and makes one hell of a statement, to me: keep hoeing this row. I wager it’ll age better than Shepp’s original Attica Blues, and there is plenty of room for more practitioners. By the way, it’s live, and that will stun you, because it’s studio sharp. It is also wonderfully rhapsodic, and, as your mind drifts back to the original Attica Blues release and its turbulent social context, you may find yourself in winding and interesting thoughts about what’s happened in between, and just what this records says about it. Note: some southern college marching band needs to learn “Mama Too Tight.”
Marvin Gaye: Here, My Dear (Hip-O Select)
I bought this as a cut-out in the Eighties, then rebought it as a specialty reissue with a bonus disc of remixes, and I don’t know why, because both times it underwhelmed me. It’s Marvin relatively near the tragic end, wrasslin’ with divorce and debt, and opting to turn that into a concept album. The cover art seemed to be the best thing about it–biggest problem, I thought, was…it was musically boring. As so often happens, though, I brought it out to the truck (small cab, good stereo, just enough drive time to really concentrate), turned it up to about 7, and the vocals, lyrics, and nakedness wrassle the music (which is extremely well-played, it’s just not too varied melodically) into submission. Recommended to Kanye in about a year.
Bob Dylan and The Band: The Basement Tapes–Complete (Columbia)
Many folks have been waiting a long time for this, and, by God, they did it right with the big box (in my humble opinion, they flubbed the budget version). Trouble is, to quote half a Marvin Gaye title from Here, My Dear, “it’s gonna cost you.” You’re gonna hear that it’s like a Van Gogh sketchbook (correct: and I must emphasize, with the pieces that got finished often bowling you over, in very noticeably improved sound). You’re gonna hear that Disc 6 is rough and a waste (incorrect: the whole disc is quite funny, moving, and listenable–250% better than Having Fun on Stage with Elvis Presley–and a few individual recordings are eternal). You’re gonna hear that the Americana genre was born here (correct, but don’t blame them, please, any more than you’d blame Gram Parsons or Ronnie Van Zant). I’m telling you now, and I hope you hear it, that if you can afford it and you’re a Dylanophile, do not think twice–it’s all right. Bonus: you don’t have to get rid of the ’75 Columbia release, as it has The Band tracks (not here–they weren’t “from the basement,” really), compressed sound that has its own virtues when compared to the opened-out quality here, and, in the long run, no necessity to be programmed in your CD player or ‘puter. I listened to the six discs consecutively, was ready to grimace, and never did. Notes and pics are cool, too.
Wadada Leo Smith: The Kabell Years 1971-1979 (Tzadik) and Red Hill (Rarenoise)
Trumpeter Smith’s AACM pedigree and Mississippi roots would seem to have guaranteed he’d have been in my ear 25 years ago, but I first laid ears on him two weeks back. The former two-CD box captures him at what many adepts I know consider his peak, but he was a Pulitzer finalist for the ambitious and stunning multi-disc 10 Freedom Summers in 2012, and jazzbos are touting the latter as one of the best jazz platters of the year. Free is not everyone’s bag, and some would argue he’s not even all that free, but I’ll say this: he sounds to me like what would have happened if Miles had gone off the commercial rails in ’68 (don’t get me wrong: I LOVE WHAT HE DID AFTER THAT), headed to Chicago, and decided to forego coke and groupies. Also, even when his groups are wiggin’ out (primarily on Red Hill, and his new pianist is very familiar with Cecil Taylor), Smith brings a very strong feeling of peace, serenity, and intellectual reflection to the attentive listener. On the strength of these two rekkids, he’s in my Top 10 Free/Experimental Jazz pantheon.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Rock and Roll Time (Vanguard)
Surely he has no gas left! After two straight pretty dang-good comeback records! Do you know who we are talking about here???? Opens with a conceptually perfect Kristofferson copyright, swings through some Killer meat ‘n’ potatoes, then–whaddya know?–sets Jerry Lee up with a Skynyrd song! It’s about fucking time. I’ve been dreaming for years of a producer ballsy enough to put together a set of songs from the likes of Ely, Gary Stewart, Ronnie Van Zant, Tony Joe White, Bobby Charles–writers tapped into the man’s main stream–and then sell it. This ain’t that, but it is very, very good, in fact, it has a Muscle Shoals vibe. The piano’s a little quieter–he is plagued by arthritis, though not in the fingers–but the voice is still there, and the mind definitely gets it. This makes me so happy I could gulp a handful of Black Mollys and buy a personal jet. Note: Rick Bragg’s new biography/assisted memoir is a perfect contemplative companion.
Peter and Caspar Brotzmann: Last Home (Pathological)
Peter, a terrorist on the saxophone whose Machine Gun is probably the most balls-out recording of all-time, I knew about. He can indefatigably unleash torrents, but also shift into a surprisingly affective lyrical mode. Until this recording, I didn’t know much about Brother Caspar, who plays electric guitar. Suffice it to say that he holds his own with a later compatriot of his brother’s: none other than Sonny Sharrock. Maybe my favorite Brotzmann release, and thanks to the great Isaac Davila of Springfield, Missouri, for the loan.
Jimi Hendrix: Live at the Oakland Coliseum (Dagger)
After reading (many years after its release) and loving Charles Cross’ biography Roomful of Mirrors, I had to have me more Hendrix. And I already have a lot. In a long-ago article, an obscure critic named Robert Christgau mentioned this, from a series of official bootlegs released by the Hendrix estate, as something he liked, but warned about the sound. Dagger didn’t put these in stores; you had to get ’em straight from the site, which it looks like you still can. I took the plunge, and, I have to say, across two discs of a surprisingly professional audience recording, Hendrix and band are on. For a bootleg, it’s a B+/A-, and if you are a diehard, I seriously recommend it. 18 minutes of live “Voodoo Chile”? Say no, I dare ye.
Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Brothers)
This early ’80s offering from the mind of Dr. Funkenstein and his crazed collaborators has gotten lost in the shuffle, with ’70s albums like One Nation Under a Groove garnering most of the laurels. I myself, upon first purchasing it when it was released, thought it was a mess, slightly unworthy of its not-exactly-tidy predecessors. After reading George’s purty-good/not-bad memoir, I slapped it on for the first time in years, and came away thinking, “This is consistent“–that is, consistent in the mode of Uncle Jam. So, if you’ve read the memoir, and you’ve never got out of the Seventes with ’em, and you’re in need–here, my dear. Highlights: slogans, as always (“When you/learn to dance/you won’t forget it!”); post-Hendrix guit (not quite enough, but oh well); Sly Stone’s last coherent offering; Pedro Bell’s album art; reggae that works; prescient commentary on “The Greatest Generation.” We love you, George.
Paul Shapiro: Shofarot Verses (Tzadik)
I feel like describing this record the way you would a gourmet meal (OK, maybe the record isn’t that good, but it’s very good): hints of klezmer, overtones of Lee Allen and Earl Bostic, and a backbone (OK, that’s not a gourmet term) of Marc Ribot, 2014 instrumentalist of the year, name your category as long as it isn’t classical. Recommended strongly to practicing Jews who may wonder where their cultural influence has gone.
Natural Child: A bunch of 45 and digital EP tracks that ought to be collected (Infinity Cat, Burger, et al)
If you actually read me, you know (or suspect) I will go to my grave fighting for these Nashville boys, who, without a goddam doubt, have been shortchanged by the “indie” “rock” press. Pitchfuck, you are in the scope; you’ll review Beyonce, and not these guys? But. No matter. I myself confess that if you’ve only bought their albums, you don’t know the half. Their early singles, represented either by (usually digital) EPs or 45s (two split), contain the essence by which you can truly appreciate the later records. “Shame Walkin'” (about a dude that doesn’t want to fuck, but feels he has to), “Nobody Wants to Party with Me” (flipside of the paradigmical rock and roll night), “Mother Nature’s Daughter” (best Neil Young imitation ever–in fact, it ain’t no mere imitation!), ” Dogbite” (perfect song for wanting to get the hell out of wherever you’re stuck), “Gas Station” (a Liquor Store cover that they have to have completely identified with, given their touring ways), “Crack Mountain” (“I just want to smoke crack with my friends!”), “Easy Street” (to quote the New York Dolls: “If I want too many things/Well, I’m a human being!”), “Cougar” (seriously, these guys don’t just want to get laid), “Don’t Wake the Baby” (from the above-pictured 45, the bleariest, most tequila-soaked, but most charming one-night-stand song of all-time), “The Jungle” (a great spontaneous hootenanny): folks, their greatest album isn’t an album. This is a call to collect the singles, then dare Pitchfork, Pop Matters, Expert Witness (yeah, YOU, Christgau) to say no. I am not WRONG. Seen ’em four times in four different cities, listened to everything they’ve ever put out thrice over, I am fifty-fucking-two and have listened to music AVIDLY for forty-two of them. I am not WRONG. You know what you have to do, people.
Various Artists: The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1972 (Atlantic)
Hound Dog Taylor, Sun Ra, Otis Rush, Sippie Wallace (abetted by Bonnie Raitt), Junior Walker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Koko Taylor, Dr. John? In great fidelity? In great form? Wait–Sun Ra’s in there? Yeah. And the pretty-free CJQ. Oh, did I mention…Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters? With John Sinclair as a kind of liner-note MC? I know: where has this record been all your life? Personally, the only other festival I’d rather have been at would be Monterey.
Billy Bang: Prayer for Peace (TUM)
I miss Billy Bang dearly. One of the greatest jazz violinists of all-time (saying something, because there’s Fiddler Williams, Stephane Grappelli, Ray Nance, Leroy Jenkins, and Bang’s great model, Stuff Smith) not only never made a bad album, but a) could swing a lot of jazz directions, and b) as befitting his being a veteran of the Vietnam War, always had something to say about peace. This fantastic record is not as wide-open as some of his others–the perfect invitation for the hesitant–but it’s deep, and, while Bang’s playing is as moving and richly-toned as usual, miraculously encompassing his scarring and his commitment to transcend it, trumpeter James Zollar almost steals the record from him. Bonus: they cover, and cut, the Buena Vista Social Club.
Negativland: It’s All in Your Head (Seeland)
Navigate to that label’s website, and you can order this cheap two-CD set, which comes encased in a King James Bible. Disc one’s Christian; disc two’s Muslim, with a slash of Judaism. Both sides are undercut by a voice screaming “There is no God!” and a seeming four-year-old explaining why God doesn’t make sense. Woven throughout are some experts struggling to reconcile religion with science, and other patiently dismissing it. These warriors have been quiet for awhile, and it may come as a surprise to some listeners that it’s a live performance. The title is the concept, and, while it’s not as musical as past releases, in many ways it’s just as liberating. Recommended to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his army.
Buck Clayton and Buddy Tate: Buck & Buddy/Blow the Blues (Swingville/Original Jazz Classics)
Basie buddies, veterans of the big band territory wars and numerous harrowing car and bus tours that would have brought today’s players in any genre to their knees, Clayton and Tate, on this terrific two-fer-one, swing in a blue mood. The musical equivalent of your grandfather schooling you on the front porch, just before bedtime. Buck wields trumpet, Buddy a very Texas tenor. You know? If you just don’t get jazz, how about starting here? Nothing to get, everything to feel.
Trio 3 (with Vijay Iyer): Wiring (Itakt)
The big attraction is three crafty African American veterans–one, Oliver Lake, with a St. Louis Black Artists Group pedigree; one, Reggie Workman, a former Trane sideman; one, Andrew Cyrille, a compatriot of Cecil Taylor and David Murray–and a (relatively) young South Indian, Vijay Iyer, laying into a Trayvon Martin suite. But the record as a whole is my favorite small-combo jazz record of the year. To my mind, this particular gathering is an event, and, in no small way, an elevation of Iyer to the masters’ mantle.