Jazz

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.

Blurt “Beneath Discordant Skies” (Metadrone, 2015)

R-7711828-1447237295-8380.jpegThey’re back, though they never went away, really… Equal parts punk, noise performance and square-one rock racket, Blurt is a band that always has a pulse and it’s always pumping. For those that don’t know, Blurt is usually a trio run by sax player Ted Milton, and has been one of the most inventive groups to grace us from the late Seventies onward.

Normally this would be a capsule review of one record, but I have to touch on their self-titled LP and “Live In Berlin” because they are just so unique. In Manchester they were briefly on Factory and I dare say their records outshine the flashier groups like Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and the rest from that time pretty easily. Those records don’t sound the least bit dated. And as a live act, they were probably more rough and raucous than The Fall.

So here is the new one, with Ted as an old man, but he STILL sounds as inventive as ever. His playing is a unique spew and can’t be summed up as an Ayler/Ornette imitation. Lyrically he’s great and he always sounds wonderfully garbled. Longtime rhythm guitarist Steve Eagles is here. New drummer David Aylewood pumps along diligently. What more should I say? If you haven’t heard what some would call a post-punk gem, I’d give Blurt some attention. I’d also just call them a heck of a modern band. -Wade

Wayne Shorter “Speak No Evil” (Blue Note, 1966)

Speak_No_Evil-Wayne_ShorterFeaturing fresh members Herbie Hancock out of the Miles Davis Quintet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne continues his ideas in hard bop that he had done so well in previous work. However, Miles influences rub off as much as Coltrane had previously on him… The music is still as modal as it was on “Juju” and reminds us of his work on classic Davis releases.

In fact, shades of more classic Miles and Coltrane make up much of “Speak No Evil,” while Davis and Trane themselves were going down more precarious avenues in the mid-Sixties. That’s no slight on Shorter though, who makes fine compositions. Elvin Jones drums here but he’s kept in check, anchoring the rhythm section diligently. Bassist Ron Carter comes from Eric Dolphy’s world and is a good foil for him.

Wayne delivers an extension on the sound that Miles was known for before his forays into electric music. This was also a few steps before Wayne would get more involved with fusion himself in Weather Report… “Speak No Evil” is a great sixties Jazz album, looking back but contemporary in the best ways, sporting a talented mix of players. -Wade

John Coltrane/Archie Shepp “New Thing At Newport” (Impulse! 1965)

John-Coltrane-New-Thing-At-Newp-450028The Classic Coltrane Quartet in fine form, by 1965 they were at the pinnacle. The New Thing in question was a mix of Avant and Free music that Trane and company waded into, not immersing themselves totally in atonality. On the official vinyl album, we here the twelve minute, “One Down, One Up,” which is well worth the price of the LP by itself…

But then there is the second track and second side, and while Coltrane’s music takes us higher throughout and expresses more in ascending spurts and rips, Archie Shepp’s music revels in mid to low-tempo vibraphone rhythms. Archie himself plays sax like he’s being suffocated by a pillow, or strangled. And he staunchly reveals political leanings in spoken word moments like “Scag.”

This is a sea-change moment in Jazz, and for Coltrane in particular. A great live album by itself, the expanded CD edition is also worth grabbing for an absolutely searing rendition of “My Favorite Things” that is totally joyous and leaves the crowd screaming for more. This is right up there with “Live At Birdland” and hints the coming days and tangents of Jazz to come through two unique sets. -Wade

Kalima “Four Songs” (Factory, 1985)

R-1549929-1227690914.jpegA mid-period release that didn’t seem to fit anywhere with their label-mates going House and Electro, Kalima were an interesting group… a tangent of flagship Factory band A Certain Ratio they might have been, but very much a stand alone act.

While ACR had a dark, brooding Velvet Underground meets Mutiny vibe about them, Kalima craned their ears to more sophisticated Jazz and South American pop. Members of ACR make up Kalima’s rhythm section and more, but the direction behind Kalima’s lush numbers comes from siblings Ann and Tony Quigley, who provide vocals and sax, respectively.

The “Four Songs” EP is a great introduction to this interesting Factory venture, not quite sophisti-pop (no electronic keyboards or drum machines), they come off as earnest practitioners of forms gone by, around a time in the U.K. when House music was coming into vogue. -Wade

Cecil Taylor “Unit Structures” (Blue Note, 1966)

MI0001843438Atonal to the nth, but Cecil Taylor was probably the most classically trained and proficient player in Free Jazz at the time. Miles Davis said reviewers were crazy for their rave-ups, and claimed they were drinking too much coffee. True, Cecil here isn’t in full tumult mode so much as providing foundations for his players at hyper velocity. And later recordings would have less players or have him solo, showing off the man’s real soloing potential.

That’s what we have in “Unit Structures” in most cases; grounding that appears as quickly as it’s replaced for his associates to blare across. It takes about half of the first composition “Steps” before room is given for Cecil to play in some negative space of his own, while two bassists give color to his building blocks of sharps and flats.

Listening to this, “Conquistador” or any material to come later, it puts a grin on my face to think he played for President Carter in the White House. What a treat! -Wade

Acker Bilk “Stranger On The Shore” (Columbia, 1961)

mr_acker_bilk_with_the_leon_young_string_chorale-stranger_on_the_shore_s_1The title track on this 7” was written in a taxi cab, concerning a French girl walking down a beach in England. This perfect piece of clarinet-led pop, easy-listening used in a popular BBC serial, was also taken to the moon and enjoyed by the crew of the Apollo 10. English Clarinettist Acker Bilk worked with the Leon Young String Chorale to create the sweet and sensuous mood, as welcoming as a lit wood-fire stove, long after the sun has set on your fondest beach memory…

The b-side is a moodier affair thanks to the addition of a slow, driving waltz pattern accented by an unchanging high-hat. No drums are to be found in the title track, and so the feeling of unbridled infatuation wasn’t grounded. “Take My Lips” has Acker still leading his Chorale, but coupled with the locked drumming, his group creates a feeling of want less innocent than “Stranger…” more like pent-up desire than innocent passion.

This single can touch the heart with its simple pop arrangements, and it’s classical/jazz components are placed with sophistication. Scour the 7” bin for this one! -Wade

Buster Smith “The Legendary Buster Smith” (Atlantic, 1959)

Legendary_Buster_SmithPlaying with the great Count Basie and hailing from the same Southern locale as sax-savant Ornette Coleman (Fort Worth, TX), Buster Smith was one of those jazzmen who kept blues and jazz traditions together as tight and coarse as jute rope.

Unlike Coleman who ventured further out nationally while exploring free territory, and later amplified acts like Prime Time, Buster remained a Southern treat and and had his own way of delivering standards alongside great conventional numbers; a purist. His barebones “September Song” variant, a glum pop standard, goes well before original “King Alcohol,” featuring tumbling drums acting hardly more than brash timekeepers with Buster’s grainy blues-sax spillage upped on top. Get me a drink…

On side two “Kansas City Riffs” has some of the best interplay on the disc, and everybody makes a modest solo, even the seldom heard piano that only appears on half of the cuts. “Late Late” sounds like what could reasonably aftermath of “King Alcohol” and is as expected, a downer. Buster even switches from sax to blues guitar and shows he has chops on a six-string. For fans of Basie, Charlie Christian and even Charlie Parker with whom he affiliated, Buster Smith’s only official release is of definite interest. -Wade

Minnie Riperton “Adventures in Paradise” (Epic, 1975)

220px-Adventures_In_ParadiseA modest album after some initial direct hits, Minnie was one of those up and coming R&B divas set to rival Aretha Franklin. After losing Stevie Wonder as super-producer however, this ’75 release instead opted for an even softer and smoother production, bringing it into the fold of Quiet Storm, the pristine music reflecting the promise of Black middle-class quality of life that was expected to stick around.

The entirety of the album isn’t made up of slow-jams, however… “When It Comes Down To It” has some popping bass lines and sharp instrumental work, while “Minnie’s Lament” showcases real signs of life vocally on top of, what seems to me, like a Xenakis “Rebonds A” sort of drum loop. Really! It’s no wonder Quiet Storm and sophisticated R&B are the next forms up for assimilation by our current musical underground. On one level, the hippest kids are more empathic than ever before and are less likely to dismiss it for classy connotations, and on another, the form is still ripe for mining outside of Hip Hop. It seems only natural that people like Sade and Minnie are new points of reference for genre-appropriating youth. This stuff is reactionary socially and at times, it’s otherworldly sounding.

But how about at the time of release? Of course this was an important album to those whose young lives were being enriched by hopes of a better home and life, an opportunity to raise a family, more cosmopolitan integration. That’s what makes this release so beautiful. It’s an album about love on deeper levels. The most recognizable track drifting through Adult Contemporary stations could be “Inside My Love,” which should be noted, isn’t about sex…“will you come inside me / do you wanna ride inside my love?” But to get back to Black upward mobility, Minnie’s popular album track for radio play, “Love and it’s Glory,” was never released as a single. Yet it had massive air play and it’s message bounded out:

It’s a lonely world my children
You’ve got to do the best you can
If you’ve found a chance to love
You’d better grab it any way you can -Wade

Arto Lindsay “Invoke” (Righteous Babe, 2002)

51MuII-GVFL._SY355_A culmination of noise, Bossa Nova and The Face have wrought the career of “pop musician” Arto Lindsay. He made a big splash as one of New York’s favorite noisemakers in the three-piece of DNA. His Latin roots set in more firmly later on, when he fronted Ambitious Lovers and began work on his solo albums.

Arto became comfortable making sultry Brazilian music and made exception to cover Prince’s “Erotic City” plenty of times in the 90′s. “Invoke” shows Lindsay treading new ground away from his jet-setting idea of soul and into cerebral mood music of sorts… With his newfound confidence in sampling abilities, he plays with these forms as much as he did earlier with Brazilian crooning and detuned guitar. It’s a pretty tall order, but in Lindsay’s hands these styles come together well. Not that he’s some fancy fashioner; Arto remains earnestly self-taught and his stints in North and South America lead to genuine results and a modern, international sound.

The real standouts seem to sound as lush as luxury in NYC. “Ultra Privileged” and “You Decide” are bright tracks of mood music. Arto’s signature guitar work has been subdued from terrible noise to playful chirps, asserting itself into many song rhythms. More a studio effort than a document of his live abilities, “Invoke” is, in short, an Arto album to hear while drinking wine and wearing silk pajamas, particularly with a hip lover. -Wade