Jazz

Gábor Szabó “Mizrab” (CTI, 1973)

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Good lord, did Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó have a distinctive and utterly sweet tone, albeit one imbued with deep sadness when the occasion called for it. After issuing some great records for Impulse!, Skye, and Blue Thumb in the ’60s and ’70s, he moved to Creed Taylor’s CTI label and smoothed out a bit, as per that company’s overriding aesthetic. But with Mizrab, Szabó cut the definitive version of the title track. You need this LP for that dazzling cut alone, but there are other delights here, too, even though this isn’t the man’s best full-length. (Still trying to decide if it’s SpellbinderBacchanal, or Sorcerer.)

Recorded in the Van Gelder Studio with CTI all-stars like Bob James (electric organ), Ron Carter (bass), Hubert Laws (flute), plus fusion drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette (playing in a much mellower style than they did with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, to say the least), Mizrab boasts an odd mélange of material. It starts with “Mizrab,” which is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Szabó and company find the sweet spot among free-flowing raga rock, Central European folk, and pop jazz. Cobham’s drumming is agile and busy, touching on Latin shuffle and funk, while Szabó’s tone is crystalline and loaded with pathos. This tune never fails to trigger watery eyes and throat lumps.

“Thirteen,” another Szabó composition, is a lovely minor-key lament, as pensive and melancholy as a walk home after being fired from your job. You can hear some of Szabó’s mellifluous picking and piquant tone here in the oeuvre of former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop; a high compliment. Unfortunately, that’s it for Szabó material on Mizrab. Next comes Carole King’s “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” a lightweight and syrupy orchestral jazz pop confection. You can feel the heavy hand of Taylor’s commercial directives at work here, although Cobham is always worth hearing, no matter what the context. That fluff is balanced out by a hip, Deodato-esque rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto #2.” It’s a dynamic study in structure and mood, carried aloft by those rich CTI strings and Bob James’ deft arrangement.

The album closes with Seals & Croft “Summer Breeze.” This played-to-death, oft-covered 1972 hit single gets a fairly straightforward treatment, although DeJohnette adds all sorts of tasty accents and fills amid his martial-funk master rhythm and Szabó scrawls delicate calligraphy around the main melody. Again, one wishes Szabó had the clout to include more of his own work on Mizrab. Nevertheless, this is still a cool interpretation of that airiest of psych-pop baubles from the dusk of the hippie era—although I’ll take the Isley Brothers’ version, push comes to shove. As with all CTI LPs, Mizrab is worth buying as much for the cover image and glossy texture as for the music. -Buckley Mayfield

 

 

Don Cherry “Brown Rice” (EMI [Italy], 1975)

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Nearly all my friends and acquaintances who are into psychedelic music tap Brown Rice* as their favorite Don Cherry album, and one listen reveals why. It’s at once the grooviest, spaciest, and most cosmic-sounding record in the legendary jazz trumpeter’s catalog. Cherry’s hunger for new, adventurous sounds spurred him to travel around Africa, Europe, and the Far East and absorb influences from those regions. For Brown Rice, he called on some trusted comrades to help him realize his ambitious visions, including drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden (both of whom played with Ornette Coleman and Cherry on seminal LPs The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century), and saxophonist Frank Lowe. They and other key contributors combine to create perhaps the most rewarding introduction into Cherry’s large canon.

Leading off, of course, is the title track, the leftfield rare-groove monster jam that launched a million chills on a million cool underground-hip-hop producers and other sussed cats. Verna Gillis’ distinctively eerie “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh”s continuously undulate under Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos (Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos!), two electric pianos made to sound like a weirdly tuned marimba, Haden’s wah-wah bass eructations, and Cherry’s confidential whispers. Here and there, Lowe unleashes some ravishing rasps on his sax. There’s nothing else really like “Brown Rice”’s alien funk, and it’s worth the price of admission alone. The 14-minute “Malkauns” finds Cherry and company delving into Holy Mountain soundtrack territory. Moki’s tamboura drones in timeless, chakra-aligning tones and Haden’s contemplative acoustic bass sojourns dominate the first 4.5 minutes, then Cherry’s triumphant trumpet fanfares and Higgins’ cymbal-intensive rhythms kick up the energy to a spritely gallop. The track then becomes a virtuoso duel between Cherry and Higgins, as the tamboura/bass players maintain a staunch foundation. The last couple of minutes return to the tamboura/bass interplay, to which you can imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky zoning out.

Another epic piece, “Chenrezig” features Cherry’s guttural, spiritual chants (in a language I can’t discern) foghorn over Hakim Jamil’s tense, rumbling bass and Ricky Cherry’s sparse piano. When Don’s trumpet enters a few minutes in, things tranquilly lift to a more exalted plane. All the while, a surreptitiously coiled rhythm shuffles below. Until it accelerates near the end, “Chenrezig” comes off as a less turbulent, more introspective take on Bitches Brew‘s outward bound fusion. “Degi-Degi” closes the LP with Cherry urgently whispering about the goddess of music over a bustling rhythm—Haden’s bass is especially buoyant—and Don’s spiraling trumpet motifs that make you feel as if you’re conquering a new planet.

In The Penguin Guide To Jazz, Brian Morton and Richard Cook called Brown Rice “a lost classic of the era and probably the best place to sample the trumpeter as both soloist—he blows some stunningly beautiful solos here—and as the shamanic creator of a unique, unearthly sound that makes dull nonsense of most ‘fusion’ work of the period.” Listen to these learned Brits; they know what they’re talking about. -Buckley Mayfield

*Brown Rice was originally titled Don Cherry in the US and its first pressing here came via Horizon/A&M in 1977.

Billy Cobham “Inner Conflicts” (Atlantic, 1978)

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Conventional wisdom says that you should be leery of most jazz LPs from the late ’70s onward, but Inner Conflicts by ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham is an exception to that rule. Not that Inner Conflicts is a traditional jazz record. Nope. It’s actually a left-of-center fusion work with loads of Latin percussion and inflections—plus a mammoth electronic experiment that’s a phenomenal anomaly in Cobham’s catalog. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Inner Conflicts‘ title track is by far the most impressive Heldon homage ever conceived by a jazz artist. (Google “Heldon/Richard Pinhas” and prepare to have your life changed for the better, if you’re not already familiar.) This beastly alien cut sounds like it could fit right in on Heldon’s infernal classic Interface, which came out in 1977. It finds Cobham drumming up a turbulent solar storm while also generating—with Moog Modular 55 programming help from John Bowen—a bizarre mélange of bleepy, gurgly synth emissions fit to score that mythical sequel to The Andromeda Strain. At almost 11 minutes, “Inner Conflicts” is a war of attrition on your nervous system, but totally worth the extreme exertion.

Inner Conflicts‘ remaining four songs are much more conventional, but interesting in their own right. “The Muffin Talks Back” is a flamboyant, eventful Latin jazz-funk fusion that hints at the gluttonous percussion fiesta—featuring Prince protégé Sheila Escovedo and her father Pete—to come on side two. “Nickels And Dimes” could be a rollicking, TV-cop-show theme in waiting, all blustery brass and woodwinds and frantic xylophone and marimba by Frank Zappa cohort Ruth Underwood. “El Barrio” starts as a lurching, heavily percussive, festive jam powered by whistles, congas, timbales, and other percussion instruments, before smoothing out into a undulating throb of Latin jazz marked by Cobham’s busy, potent kit work. The coolly burbling “Arroyo” showcases John Scofield’s well-modulated, Santana-esque shrieking guitar calligraphy.

Throughout the album, Cobham of course acquits himself as a powerful, kinetic, and inventive leader, asserting the world-class rhythmic skills that have made him desirable to so many musicians, including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel, and Deodato. But it’s that cataclysmic wonder, “Inner Conflicts,” that remains most vivid in your shattered mind afterward. -Buckley Mayfield

Gary Wilson Trio- “Another Galaxy” (Feeding Tube, 2016; orig. released 1974)

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This fantastic album’s going to surprise all but the most clued-in Gary Wilson fans. For those only familiar with the Endicott, New York cult musician’s mildly obsessive new-wave lounge funk, they’ll be taken aback—in a good way!—with the avant-garde jazz moves Gary and company bust on this long-unheard 1974 date. Seeing as Wilson is literally a John Cage disciple (at age 14, he visited the great man at his home to discuss music), Gary’s quest for far-out concepts and sounds should come as no surprise, and that spirit pervades Another Galaxy.

Absent Wilson’s regular-guy romantic vocals and featuring Wilson on standup bass and piano and Garry Iacovelli on drums and percussion, Another Galaxy strives to reach said far-flung galaxy with a sound that’s in the vicinity of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Alice Coltrane’s piano/organ-centric Warner Bros. phase, and Sun Ra’s intergalactic strangeness. The opening title track leads you into febrile, funky jazz territory, bolstered by Wilson’s tensile flights of fancy on the bass and Natale (Chris) Putrino’s flaring wah-wah guitar, which will please Larry Coryell fans. The askew, oblong “Study For Three” triggers those John Cage and Sun Ra comparison reflexes… and, hell, even Wolfgang Dauner’s Et Cetera; it’s a baffling amalgam of frenetic drum splutters, extended bass groans, and atonal piano runs—guaranteed to make any gathering extremely uncomfortable. And that’s one reason why I love it.

“Softly The Water Flows” tones down the hyperkinetic sonic puzzles and eases into a lovely 90-second piano-led meditation. The 14-minute “Hate And Depression” blasts off with Iacovelli’s frantic, subtly powerful drum solo and then Wilson solos methodically and stoically on bass. Four minutes in, tenor saxophonist Tyrone Parks III and Iacovelli join in and the group explodes into a swerving free-jazz cauldron. Artful chaos ensues… and keeps shooting off sparks into all directions in a serious endurance test of nerves. But you’re tough—you can handle it.

This reissue is limited to 500 copies. It would be a strategic error to hesitate grabbing one before they’re gone again. -Buckley Mayfield

Cymande “Cymande” (Janus, 1972)

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Here’s a stone-classic album that’s still not widely known enough—even with its uplifting funk track “Bra” being sampled by De La Soul on “Change In Speak” from 3 Feet High & Rising and appearing in Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn. (Hip-hop and electronic-music producers have sampled Cymande at least 77 times, according to who-sampled.com.) Cymande put out three strong albums (I’ve not heard their fourth, Arrival), but their debut is the best, if only judging by how often I play tracks from it in DJ sets. It’s one of those rare funk full-lengths that you can play from start to finish without lifting the needle off a tepid ballad.

But to call Cymande merely a funk band is inadequate. The English nonet—who featured musicians from London, St. Vincent, Guyana, and Jamaica—also incorporated jazz, reggae, calypso, and progressive rock in their inspirational tracks, and such hybridization resulted in highly flavorful material that is bathed in a spiritual glow that can’t be faked. Cymande call it “nyah-rock,” which they describe in the liners as “the music of the man who finds in life a reason for living.” I’ll say.

Side 1 is largely mellow and meditative and marked by Patrick Patterson’s fluid guitar ruminations, Steve Scipio’s lithe bass lines, Mike Rose’s circuitous flute motifs, and Ray King’s soulful vocals that carry subtle hints of Caribbean patois. LP opener “Zion I” is the exception: a spiritual reggae tune with righteous massed vocals and a bass line on which you can trampoline.

Side 2 is where Cymande really shines. “Dove” (sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan in “Problems” and the Fugees in “The Score,” among many other places) is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever waxed. It begins in great intrigue, Patrick Patterson’s guitar modulating a Santana-esque wail, setting the scene for Steve Scipio’s world-beating, sidewinder bass line to lift the track onto a higher, more libidinous level. Stealthy, undulant funk beats and blissed-out “la la la la-la”s contribute to making the 11-minute “Dove” one of the ultimate sex jams. The aforementioned “Bra” is simply one of the most joyous pieces of music ever waxed. The next time you’re really down, play it and feel your worries dissolve amid its levitational rhythms, percolating congas and bongos, and triumphant horn charts. “The Message” is more subdued, but no less seductive with its nocturnal funk strut. “Ras Tafarian Folk Song” is definitely the album’s weak link, but that could just be my bias against religious belief systems talking. Thankfully, it’s over in three minutes. Everything else on Cymande, though, deserves to be blazed into your memory banks till your last breath—especially “Dove.” -Buckley Mayfield

Blurt “Blurt” (Red Flame, 1982)

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Blurt don’t get enough respect. Led by poet/saxophonist/blurter Ted Milton, they were one of the oddest and most galvanizing bands from Great Britain’s post-punk movement. Surfacing a year after 1981’s live full-length In Berlin, their self-titled debut studio LP consists of seven tracks that strip funk and jazz-inflected no wave down to insanely logical essentials. These lean vehicles operated by Milton, his brother Jake (drums), and Pete Creese (guitar) get your hips twitching and your brain itching. The songs are both tight and spacey—a rare combo of elements that coheres into trance-funk jams punctuated by Milton’s rude, shredded sax jags and spluttering, megaphoned rants. If you saw Ted Milton doing his thing on the street corner, you’d give him a wide berth. See him onstage or hear him on record and you’re transfixed and repulsed in equal measure.

“Dog Save My Sole” instantly sets the template for Blurt: solid-as-hell, tom-tom-heavy funk beats that hit you in your root chakra; geometrically precise, lightly discordant guitar figures that cycle like ∞; and Milton’s raucous sax squawks and mad shouts. The weirdly galloping “Trees” might appeal to fans of Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings, which also came out in 1982. Milton’s sax is at its most mellifluous and Creese’s guitar takes on a percussive, Afrobeat tenor. “Physical Fitness” crunches your abs with rolling and tumbling tom-tom and kick-drum beats while Ted lays down some knuckle-biting, spy-jazz motifs and Creese scratches out a guitar riff that sounds like a strangled tiger snarl.

“Empty Vessels” is streamlined funk with an undulating groove that you never want to end—trust me on this. Creese executes a minimalist, “King Sunny Adé on a short leash” guitar mantra, while Ted spits leery squiggles of sax over everything. The rudimentarily funky “Play The Game” sounds like it’s repeatedly falling down the stairs into a Manhattan jazz club circa 1961, as TM shreds his larynx with some babble. Without warning, the song speeds up… because Dada. “The Ruminant Plinth” is the closest Blurt comes to a single (which it was): It’s the sort of jittery yet maniacally disciplined jazz funk that could make Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 sweat their asses off. With contrarian bullheadedness, Blurt closes with “Arthur,” the LP’s slowest cut; Ted and the guys sound relatively narcotized, but the melismatic jazz funk will surely put you in a strange reverie.

There’s nothing on Blurt that’s as rabble-rousing and catchy as their early-’80s singles “The Fish Needs A Bike” and “Get,” but this remains Blurt’s most consistent full-length effort and an essential, bizarrely shaped piece of the original post-punk puzzle. -Buckley Mayfield

Julie Tippetts “Sunset Glow” (Utopia, 1975)

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Sunset Glow came to my attention in the ’90s when underground-rock musician Bob Bannister of Tono Bungay mentioned in some zine that it was his favorite album of all time. That recommendation spurred me to search for the British soul vocalist’s debut LP, which I’ve only been able to find on CD. (Tip: A label could make a nice chunk of change with a vinyl repress of Sunset Glow.)

Previously Tippetts had sung with Brian Auger’s dynamite soul-jazz group the Trinity and had some success with their epic cover of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch.” (Who didn’t back then?) With Auger, Tippetts—then known as Julie Driscoll; she changed her name when she married prog-rock keyboardist Keith Tippett—belted her numbers with flamboyant bravado and soulful throatiness. She has a voice you remember and savor. Its passion and timbre suggests she lives life to the fullest, and then some. So it’s somewhat of a surprise to dip into the aptly titled Sunset Glow and encounter a suite of seven songs that confront you on much more intimate and poised terms—although if you’re familiar with Driscoll’s superb 1969 album from ’71, the shock’s not quite so strong. In fact, they make wonderful companion pieces in her catalog.

Sunset Glow‘s opening song, “Mind Of A Child,” is a slow-blooming flower of summertime soul balladry that stands up with the best of your Joni Mitchells, Margo Guryans, and Linda Perhacses. You say “YES!” to it within a minute, and revel in its pensive bombast, if you have any damn sensitivity in you at all. “Oceans And Sky (And Questions Why?)” approaches a Linda and Sonny Sharrock-ian level of astral-jazz levitation and chaos. The title track carries a wandering, woebegone air that’s tempered with hints of optimism; one hears similarities here to Tim Buckley at his most oceanically amorphous.

“Lilies” and “What Is Living” find Tippetts in sublime mantric mode, singing in her most dulcet timbre and as if in a trance. You feel as if she and the band are slyly luring you into a slow vortex of sensuality and existentialism. The latter’s lyrics—“What is living—if you can’t live to love?/What is living—if you can’t love to give?/What is living—if you can’t give everything?/What is everything—if it’s not living?”—possess a satisfying circularity and humble wisdom. The final track, “Behind The Eyes (For A Friend, R),” is just Tippetts singing and playing piano in a tender, gorgeous tribute to the recently paralyzed Robert Wyatt. What a classy finale.

Tippetts enlisted a crack band of Canterbury prog musicians to help her realize her special vision, including her husband, various Soft Machine and Centipede members, and South African drummer Louis Moholo. They manifested an apotheosis of artful folk jazz that could almost be viewed as the British version of Tim Buckley’s Lorca. Yeah, it’s that sublime. -Buckley Mayfield

Ramsey Lewis “Mother Nature’s Son” (Cadet, 1968)

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What happens when a black man covers songs on The White Album? Magic, as it turns out. Releasing an LP of 10 interpretations from a record that came out earlier in that year by the blessed Beatles might seem like a crass cash-in, but keyboardist Ramsey Lewis is a helluva classy, exceptionally talented interpreter, and Mother Nature’s Son is mostly fantastic—no matter if it was meant to capitalize on the world’s most popular rock band’s latest opus.

Cadet’s in-house studio wizard Charles Stepney (I highly recommend you especially check out his work with the Rotary Connection) convinced Lewis to record Mother Nature’s Son even though Ramsey was not the biggest Beatles fan. Lewis had covered “And I Love Her,” “Hard Day’s Night,” and “Day Tripper,” but hadn’t been converted into a hardcore Fab Four aficionado. In late 1968, Stepney insisted Lewis listen more deeply to The White Album, and the latter eventually came around—luckily for us.

Bolstered by Lewis’ Moog synthesizer treatments and an orchestra, the soul-jazzed-up instrumental versions on Mother Nature’s Son sound expansive and festooned with baroque ornamentation. Lewis and company blow out Paul McCartney’s spare “Mother Nature’s Son” into a dazzling symphonic tapestry and the unbearable “Rocky Raccoon” is made bearable—see, miracles do happen. John Lennon’s “Julia” is whipped into a creamy, drifting sigh of a piece that soars much higher than his original intimate ballad. “Back In The U.S.S.R.” oozes sophisticated swagger and the drums really bump with what sounds like Bernard Purdie’s funky slaps. Also receiving hot funk injections are “Dear Prudence,” “Cry Baby Cry,” and “Sexy Sadie,” which billow into compositions as grandiose as Isaac Hayes circa Hot Buttered Soul or David Axelrod circa Songs Of Innocence/Experience.

The orchestral confection “Good Night” is a bit too rich for my blood, but “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And Monkey” absolutely scorches; it’s the LP’s most exciting rendition. “Monkey” is among the Beatles’ hardest-rocking tunes, and Lewis transforms it into one of the wildest peak-time party jams the ’60s—a decade famous for its peak-time party jams—has ever witnessed. This version tops the Feelies’, if you can believe it. Album-closer “Blackbird” really elevates and elongates, its melodic contours perfect for jazz virtuosi like Lewis and his mates to extrapolate upon.

Obviously, the raw material of The White Album is mostly superb, but in almost every instance, Lewis and his musicians find ingenious ways to make them even more spectacular—and without a lick of singing. Shame about the absence of “Revolution 9,” though. -Buckley Mayfield  

Joe Gallivan/Charles Austin “Expression To The Winds” (Spitball, 1977)

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Imagine the Sun Ra Arkestra condensed into a duo of one adroit percussionist/synthesizer player (Gallivan) and one versatile saxophonist/flautist/English horn player (Austin). That’s Expression To The Winds, in a nutshell. The twosome immerse you immediately into their unusual, idiosyncratic sound world with an array of rarely heard percussion and keyboard timbres and forlorn yet spiritual wind-instrument arabesques that vaguely recall those on Paul Horn’s proto-New Age Inside LPs. Gallivan and Austin allow lots of space in their fairly brief compositions (the longest is 5:34), creating a sense of intimate immensity, a Saturnian desolation. Gallivan had at his disposal a Moog drum (he was the first recipient of said instrument, along with ELP’s Carl Palmer), and its oddly percolating report ripples throughout Expression To The Winds, lending it alien pulsations.

Listening to the album’s 12 tracks makes you feel as if gravity’s gone AWOL and you’re floating in a mysterious ether, far from earthly concerns. Similar atmospheric qualities to Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch surface in Expression To The Winds, but this is a mid-’70s production, so the delay is thickly applied and the electronics are super-tactile. The musicians are playing tricks with time and with your mind, in a most delicate and austere manner. They overwhelm with understatement.

Both Gallivan and Austin have impressive pedigrees. Austin’s played with Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and others; Gallivan anchored the world-beating Love Cry Want with Larry Young, and drummed in groups featuring Soft Machine members Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, Gil Evans, and formed Powerfield with Gary Smith and Pat Thomas. You could classify Expression To The Winds as jazz, but its enigmatic allure makes it as much of a natural draw for heads into experimental improv and even ambient electronic music. Forget categories, though: Gallivan and Austin have created a sound that inventively refracts soulful emotion into the most beguiling abstract shapes. No wonder the music industry didn’t know what to do with these mavericks. –Buckley Mayfield

Annette Peacock “X-Dreams” (Aura, 1978)

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Let’s be blunt: X-Dreams is all about “My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook” and “Real & Defined Androgens.” The rest of the seven-track LP by singular American singer-songwriter-producer Annette Peacock is fine, but its aforementioned first two cuts tower over everything like the most dominant dominatrix.

“My Mama” is a tour de force of Peacock’s offbeat storytelling and innuendo prowess and surprising vocal shifts, from arena-ready belting to pillow-talk whispers. She relates how her upbringing didn’t predispose her for domesticity but rather for independence and sexuality. The backdrop is subdued funk rock in a tricky meter. “Daddy never taught me how to suck-seed, that’s why I’m so crazy crazy crazy,” she intones. “My destiny’s not to serve/I’m a woman/My destiny is to create.” Here’s your unsung ’70s feminist anthem.

But wait—it gets better. “Real & Defined Androgens” stands (or lies) as one of the sexiest songs ever written. This is low-slung, dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you; maybe it’ll do both simultaneously. Peacock again flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics in slow, seductive Sprechstimme, but occasionally blossoming into full-on testifying-Aretha Franklin mode. The music gradually intensifies into a madly thrusting yet controlled freakout haloed by a wild sax solo and laced with insanely cascading keyboards. “Real & Defined Androgens” is a perfect fusion of male and female energies and unlike anything I’ve ever heard… and I’ve heard a lot, because I’m old and obsessive.

Side two simmers with sophisticated, romantic jazz-pop ballads that feature Peacock using her most conventional crooning voice, with intermittent sensuous spoken-word passages to heighten the intimacy. There’s also a cover of the Otis Blackwell-penned Elvis Presley hit “Don’t Be Cruel” that Peacock smooths and accelerates into a Steely Dan-like, limousine-funk glide. The musicianship throughout X-Dreams is impeccable, featuring King Crimson/Yes drummer Bill Bruford, guitarists such as Mick Ronson, Chris Spedding, and Brian Godding (Blossom Toes), plus many other studs. It’s all very… nice, but the real thrills come hot and heavy on that opening diptych.

Thom Jurek summed up the record well on allmusic.com: “[X-Dreams] still sounds a bit ahead of its time. Peacock may have been wringing her own personal exorcism from these tracks, but for the rest of us, she offered a guidebook of complex emotional terrain, a treatise on the messy state of love, and a musical dissertation on how to integrate the nuances of form in rock and jazz.” -Buckley Mayfield

Soft Machine “Six” (Columbia, 1973)

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By this point in Soft Machine’s history, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt was long gone and the Dadaist art pop of the first two LPs had vanished in a thick cloud of jazz-fusion smoke. But it would be a mistake to ignore Soft Machine’s post-Wyatt output. While many praise Third as the group’s peak after sweet Bobby W. left, I’m partial to Six—and it’s mainly because of two epic tracks: “The Soft Weed Factor” (John Barth allusion noted) and “Chloe And The Pirates.” I’ll explain why shortly. But first, it’s important to say that Six consists of one live LP and one studio record. The latter is where the best tracks lie.

Don’t get me wrong—the 11 live songs here are quite good. Whenever you have musicians the caliber of Hugh Hopper (bass), Mike Ratledge (keyboards, celeste), John Marshall (drums, percussion), and former Nucleus member Karl Jenkins (oboe, saxes, pianos), you’re going to get smart, complex, timbrally interesting compositions. Ratledge and Jenkins dominate the songwriting, and their PhD-level prog and jazz chops keep your neurons on their proverbial toes (clunky metaphor alert), as you try to figure out their crazy time signatures. The highlight of the concert recordings may be “Lefty,” which sounds like Miles Davis in At Filmore/Live-Evil/Big Fun mode—surprising and explosive.

Now about those two standouts mentioned in the first paragraph. Jenkins’ 11-minute “Soft Weed Factor” is a patiently unspooling piece featuring Jenkins and Ratledge’s intertwining keyboards, a helix of slow-motion, Terry Riley-esque hypnosis. When the methodical funk beats, sinuous bass line, and sax come in, it sounds like Miles and his In A Silent Way band have infiltrated the studio. Chills ensue. It would be okay if this were three times longer. Ratledge’s “Chloe And The Pirates” begins with a spacey electric-piano-dominated fantasia not unlike the intro to Deodato’s “Thus Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” before gradually shifting into a showcase for Jenkins’ beautiful oboe arabesques. He kind of puts Andy Mackay’s part in Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” to shame. Six ends on a very weird note, with Hopper’s “1983” evoking a spinal-fluid-chilling horror-soundtrack vibe with chthonic piano and percussion whose spooked-wind-chime timbres I’ve never heard anywhere else. (If they haven’t already, Demdike Stare really should sample this.) Here’s to world-class studio trickery… -Buckley Mayfield  

Swing Sideways: Oakland’s Black Jazz Records

New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Fort Worth, Los Angeles… By the 70’s Jazz had gone through many form changes and developments, many defined by geographic location. Retrospect shows that these changes were refreshing; groups went electric or funky or free. But for many in the dark at the time, smaller developments unfortunately went overlooked as they veered ears toward Brubeck or Piven.

In Oakland, a small grouping of interesting musicians previously involved with Charlie Parker, Nat Adderly, Count Basie… is some fashion recorded a strange brew of music for Black Jazz Records, a small label set up by pianist Gene Russell. The label itself was one of the only active Jazz companies of the day run by African Americans. Like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, they could be political. Like Davis, they incorporated funk and soul. And like many free units of the 70’s, spirit and energy trumped virtuosity most of the time.

Active for only six years, Black Jazz ended abruptly after Gene’s passing in the early 1980s. Since then the master recordings have traded hands numerous times, and copies were used for samples by hip hop artists. Many key tracks recently ended up on a compilation curated by Detroit selector and DJ Theo Parrish (“Black Jazz Signatures: 1971-1976”), renewing interest in the label.

A little history on the movers and shakers…

R-2007750-1385445097-7070.jpegGene Russell himself made the recordings on Black Jazz happen. His best known album “Talk To My Lady” was self-released via the label and prior to that he had one obscurity lost in the shuffle from Decca. “Talk To My Lady” features a very interesting rework of “My Favorite Things” that alone is worth the price of admission…

R-3915079-1349083436-8351.jpegDoug Carn was most prolific for the Oakland label in the early 70s, putting out a release typically once a year. A principal funk and soul player back in the day, his style of jazz-funk was spacey but starkly recorded in contrast to Herbie’s sci-fi releases. Theo’s compilation features his infectious “Trance Dance” track, miles away from his earlier work with Earth Wind and Fire.

R-1397979-1284815604.jpegThe Awakening produced little but left a big impression in the way that reminds one of the Art Ensemble rhythm section, but not so much Roscoe or Lester, more like a conventional modal horn and reed format. Their work could move from tight and funky to cool. Only two albums were released by Black Jazz before they dissipated.

R-2007730-1377947574-9101.jpegCalvin Keys is a real heavy hitter from Omaha, Nebraska. As a jazz guitarist he has lent his talents to Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, Joe Henderson, Sonny Stitt, and later even M.C. Hammer! His playing is the least free but with plenty of flaying, and he’s confidently subtle in swing. Washes of cymbal crashes are a perfect foil for his pristine R&B spillage.

R-1135607-1387745892-6039.jpegRudolph Johnson was also a Ray Charles acolyte who made a name for himself as a solid and dedicated tenor sax player. He was virtually unknown outside his crowd in Oakland, where he recorded two Black Jazz LPs. Talented in equal measure, pianist John Barnes and drummer Ray Pounds helped Johnson create maybe the most conventional but tempered music on the label.

R-858532-1250347107.jpegWalter Bishop Jr. may have the highest rep, having played with Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and Stan Getz, but he only managed to put out one album as leader for Black Jazz. One turns out to be enough however: the ever desirable jazz flute is all over this LP, and an unexpected Latin influence presides. That makes it a unique release from this label already on the peripheral.