Music Guides

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 … Read more›

Factory Records: From The Hip

Like any first time infatuation, you tend to ignore the flaws in someone or something special and love a person or idea wholly, your affection unrequited… The Manchester label Factory Records was my all-time favorite while coming of age. And some releases from Factory just don’t quite have the staying power I thought they had a bit less than a decade ago.

The obvious issues (Martin Hannett’s unique but overrated production values, The Happy Mondays as a flagship band) are pretty well known by now. Thanks to the film “24 Hour Party People” and a number of books, the best of all being James Nice’s history-in-place-of-legend “Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records,” I can skip the flogged subjects of Joy Division and Tony Wilson and shed some light on the smaller groups of the label.

My immersion into the world of Factory came with a box set that purposefully gave you a taste of their half-baked experiments right alongside their direct hits called “Factory Records: Communications 78-92.” This presentation gives a warts and all, “well we did it, so what?” kind of vibe that allows you to better accept Factory as an experiment in popular culture and not just another punk label. A number of groups on the four discs are standouts… Either by having a single then immediately bailing, or just by having some out-of-the-blue quality. Breaking away from this box set to explore other singles will have it’s rewards… It just depends on how blind you’ll be willing to be to Factory’s erratic, hit or miss output.

The Original Shadowplayers: These groups all went under Martin Hannett’s production scalpel early on and received a treatment of the same sound he employed on Joy Division albums. As a result, these groups superficially come across as JD copyists. Further listening shows that this wasn’t the case.

acr_r-11397-1160163049A Certain Ratio – The thin boys had a bit of influence on their own and the most consistently solid back catalog. After the drummerless single “All Night Party,” which couldn’t be more dour and Velvet Underground derived, they enlisted proficient funk drummer Donald Johnson and successfully forged post-punk funk. From their cover of Banbarra’s “Shack Up” and the ethereal disco-noir single of “Flight” to the albums “To Each” and “Sextet,” they were quite a formidable, danceable and arty unit. Trumpets sound, whistles blow, Jez Kerr’s bass slaps n’ pops and … Read more›

A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On:
A Guide to Rockabilly; Past and Present

For the uninitiated, the idea of discussing Rockabilly as an independent genre might seem unnecessary. Isn’t the word just a descriptor for early rock and roll, the remarkable if somewhat overplayed work of Rock’s founding fathers, the stuff that gave birth to all that came after? Isn’t it just “oldies”? In one sense, yes, those classic songs we all know, put out by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, are indeed Rockabilly, and formed the trunk of the rock and roll tree. But oldies? Ah, think again, Grasshopper. Though the sound that was early Rockabilly certainly did morph into all we’ve come to know as Rock, the core sound has remained alive and vital since its inception. Dare I say it? When it comes to Rockabilly, there remains a whole lotta shakin’ going on.

But what is it? What makes something a Rockabilly song? While there is no single definition that is likely to please all, Rockabilly at its essence is a blend of Country and Blues. If Rockabilly is the trunk of the rock and roll tree, it owes its growth to the healthy roots of the earliest American sounds, which until the 1950s could arguably be broken into two categories: white music (incorporating the varied elements of County), and black music (including all aspects of Rhythm and Blues). During the era of segregation, access to music was segregated as well, and the lines between Country and Blues were more distinct. As the U.S. moved into the World War II and post World War II era, several factors combined that came to influence the development of rock and roll: rationing and war recruitment made it difficult to maintain the large touring bands of the Swing era, massive population shifts meant more interaction between different racial groups, post-war affluence and stabilized family structure allowed American teen culture to develop, and the invention of FM radio meant teenagers had access to music they had never heard before. The resulting blend of white and black sounds and culture are responsible for what we know now as the Rockabilly sound.

The first wave of music resulting from those historical forces is what most people know as Rockabilly, and one cannot seriously examine that generation without discussing Sun Records. Sun, the brainchild of Sam Phillips, was a Memphis recording studio founded in the early 1950s. Phillips is famous … Read more›

From A Whisper To A Scream: Allen Toussaint, The Meters, and the Funky Sound of New Orleans

Allen Toussaint is one of those names people know, but don’t know why. One of the enduring figures of the New Orleans music scene, he got his feet wet in the late ’50’s as a session man for the likes of Fats Domino, moving into production and ghostwriting in the ’60’s for soul luminaries like Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas and penning many of the songs he is (or other people are) known for today. However, it wasn’t until the ’70’s that Toussaint really hit his artistic and creative stride, when he started consistently working with The Meters and releasing records under his own name. Despite penning and producing reams of classic tunes during this period, his name remains one that, while not unknown, isn’t fully understood. The albums below are a handful of our favorite moments, some better known than others, that defined Allen Toussaint and the New Orleans sound in the ’70’s.

Dr. John In The Right Place (1973) Dr. John’s early “Night Tripper” recordings are classics of n’awlins hoodoo spook, fully evoking the hallucinogenic world of the crazed Creole witchdoctor he built his image on. But after four albums of this kind of dark mojo, the Dr. understandably grew curious as to how the other, day-light-dwelling half lived. Initiating this move with the previous year’s Gumbo, Toussaint and The Meters helped bring it all together on In The Right Place, stirring in an extra dose of traditional New Orleans R&B and funk that helps propel and lift the songs in ways he’d never dared before. While the mood is definitely brighter, some of the signature touches of his early recordings remain, like the moody tribal hand-drumming that pops up on the slower cuts. And then there’s that voice – few things exude the charm and menace of the Deep South like Dr. John’s slurred creole growl – a tool no amount of polish can completely neutralize. This one catches the key players of the scene at the height of their powers, bringing the untouchable sound of The Meters and Toussaint’s stellar horn and songwriting arrangements together with one of the more singular voices of their generation.

Labelle Nightbirds (1974) Though they’re rarely mentioned with the same esteem held for their predecessors (Aretha Franklin, The Supremes) or their direct descendants, Labelle effectively built the bridge between the two. Their high-energy, funky modernization of the classic soul/R&B girl group … Read more›

Glass Palaces:
Navigating the Paisley Underground

Even by the fleeting standards of today’s internet-fueled micro-movements and trends, the Paisley Underground was a particularly short-lived musical moment. Springing forth from the Southern California suburbs in the early-’80’s, the movement eventually coalesced around Los Angeles. While most of the bands quickly splintered, or lost their spark under the influence of commercial pressure, their influence can be felt more acutely three decades down the line, coming home to roost in the contemporary indie underground’s renewed infatuation with all things psychedelic and of the ’80’s. While “psychedelic” bands with a Velvet Underground fetish or a Byrds fixation are as commonplace as yoga mats and kombucha in a Whole Foods re-usable tote today, they stuck out like a sore thumb in the new-world synth and drum machine landscape of the early ’80’s, when the initial stirrings of the bands that would come to be synonymous with the sound began. The following are some of the standout efforts from a scene that disappeared almost as quickly as it arose.

The Dream Syndicate The Days of Wine and Roses (1982). Without a doubt the most commercially viable of the Paisley Underground fleet, the Dream Syndicate were the Trojan horse that snuck everyone else into the party. Not that most of their brethren would have anything approaching mainstream success, but many would land major label contracts and a degree of recognition, at least for a time. The Days of Wine and Roses has endured for good reason – it was, pound for pound, one of the more bulletproof releases from the Paisley scene, or any of the era in general. Of course it helped that they were doing something pretty far out-of-line with the times – reviving primitive guitar meltdowns and folk melodies in the age of New Romanticism and Eye Of The Tiger.

Rain Parade Emergency Third Rail Power Trip/Explosions In The Glass Palace (1983/1984). Although many of the Paisley Underground’s main players would manage to sustain careers in some form or other, The Rain Parade’s Steven Roback was perhaps the only figure who would go on to eclipse the success and popularity of his PU-era acts. Growing up in the age of Mazzy Star, it would be years before I realized Roback had been quietly refining his hazy whisper-core for a decade before the commercial breakthrough of “Fade Into You.” Hope Sandoval would first appear in later incarnations of Opal, but it … Read more›

Re-examinin’ Jammin:
A Guide for the Reggae Reluctant

What is it about Reggae that inspires such polarized reactions? Scores of those who are otherwise musically well-versed and open-minded will register tangible expressions of apprehension when the irie sounds of Jamaica are mentioned. Reggae is a line in the sand for a lot of people, but I suspect that, as was the case for me, a lot of people have simply never had the right entry point – something beyond the ganja-huffing roommate who blasted Bob Marley’s “Legend” from dusk to dawn. Like the music of The Grateful Dead (read our guide), Reggae comes with a lot of baggage. Negative cultural associations abound, and the fact that at it’s root, it is a basically repetitive music sung in patois doesn’t exactly woo new listeners. Not to mention the sheer, daunting amount of recorded music out there.

In hopes of remedying this, we’ve put together a guide for the Reggae-wary. Contrary to simply being a list of “user-friendly” Reggae, these records all hopefully offer something slightly removed from the general expectations and stereotypes many of us have formed around Reggae music.

Gregory Isaacs Night Nurse (1982). Gregory is a good gateway for people who don’t technically have a problem with Bob Marley, but are soured by the over-saturation of his image/music in popular culture. Gregory “The Cool Ruler” was blessed with pipes every bit as strong and expressive as Marley’s, with a natural gift for melody, and a voice smooth and sweet enough to buff out the scratches on your Minibus. Mr. Isaacs was pre-occupied with the fairer sex as much as themes of roots and culture, so it’s not all ganja anthems and Hail Selassie (although there is some of that). Much of his material revolves around classic lover’s themes, the bedrock of all pop music, and a potential lifeline for those looking for a little tunefulness and romance with their Reggae.

Rhythm & Sound With The Artists (Compilation, 2003). Rhythm & Sound are Berliners who got their start in the ’90’s making minimal, dubby Techno under the quietly influential Basic Channel moniker. Their Rhythm & Sound project surgically removes the 4/4 spine from their productions, swapping it out for Reggae’s ubiquitous backbeat, and stripping the music down to it’s barest essentials, leaving only the slightest suggestion of Reggae’s pulsating undercurrent. With The Artists sees them voicing their tracks with Reggae legends like the Love Joys and … Read more›

Produced by Tom Wilson:
A Guide to a Forgotten Visionary

Ask your friendly neighborhood music nerd about the great producers of the ‘60s and you’ll hear some familiar names: Phil Spector. George Martin. Perhaps Barry Gordy. But Tom Wilson? Probably not. True, the output of this Zelig-like figure, though prolific, has very few distinguishing characteristics. There’s no “Wall of Sound”. No Abbey Road studio wizardry. No Funk Brothers. Yet despite this lack of an authorial stamp, Tom Wilson’s legacy is perhaps even more significant and far-reaching than those of any of his contemporaries.

Tom Wilson was an anomaly. Texas-born, Harvard-educated, and a card-carrying Republican, he also happened to be African-American. Such a distinction thankfully makes no difference in the music business today. But the fact is, back then, finding success as a black man in an industry whose management was dominated by white males was no small feat. Wilson began work in the mid-50s as a jazz producer. It now makes sense that he worked with some of the most groundbreaking artists of the period, among them Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor; exposure to such innovation and talent surely inspired and primed him for what lay ahead.

The next phase of his career began at Columbia Records in 1963. An up and coming folk singer named Bob Dylan was at loggerheads with his current producer, John Hammond, during the final days of the sessions for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Hammond quit, and Wilson finished the job. Wilson produced Dylan’s next three albums, including the definitive Bringing It All Back Home, the first folk record, many argue, to fully incorporate the conventions of rock and roll production. Oddly enough, Wilson once stated that he never really cared much for folk or rock. This is a colossal irony, considering that without him it’s doubtful that the two would merge the way they did over the coming years. While Wilson may not have invented folk-rock, he was certainly its most influential agent. Just ask Simon and Garfunkel, whose little-heard acoustic track “The Sound of Silence” Wilson overdubbed with drums and electric instruments, sending the 1965 single to Number 1 and thereby giving the duo incentive to carry on after they had all but broken up.

Other fascinating anecdotes pepper the Wilson narrative. One oft-repeated one concerns guitarist Al Kooper. Sitting in the control booth during the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited as Dylan and his … Read more›

The Antiquarian Ear:
A Guide to the British Folk Renaissance

The evolution of folk music in Britain and America in the early to mid-20th century can be viewed as two essentially parallel lines. In both increasingly mechanistic and bureaucratic societies, listeners connected with folk as a more authentic musical expression of being and as a link to the cultures to which their countries’ rapid modernization was laying waste . In late 50’s Britain, it could even be argued that American folk and blues eclipsed that of the British strain in popularity. Indeed, the British Invasion of the following decade could never have been mounted had it not been for skiffle, a hybrid of blues, folk, country, and other indigenous American musical forms embraced by millions of British teenagers—including four certain ones from Liverpool.

But by the late-60’s these two paths would dramatically diverge. Many British musicians began to look less westward and further inward by “getting it together in the country” and seeking solace and inspiration in the myths, folklore, and landscapes of “Albion”, a storied antiquarian world that occupied the collective consciousness of many Britons and whose history stretched back to ancient times. This aesthetic would come to define one of modern Britain’s most fertile musical movements. Peaking in the early 70’s, it passionately and reverently embraced the traditions, heritage, and culture of a much older Britain while doing so with restless, forward-thinking imagination and experimentation. Recently, this movement was finally given the scholarly treatment it deserves in Rob Young’s excellent book, Electric Eden. It’s a must-read for anyone wishing to traverse this mythic soundscape. A few of these definitive selections will also help you begin the odyssey, from which you may never return:

Bert Jansch Jack Orion (1966). With just a guitar, a banjo, his voice, and occasional musical accompaniment from friend and fellow British folk icon John Renbourne, Jansch (who passed away this past autumn) made it clear the endless possibilities inherent in this newly realized version of British folk. Melding traditional Anglo and Celtic musical forms with blues and jazz sensibilities, Jansch laid the template for much of what would come out of Britain over the next few years. Highlights include the title track, a re-imagining of the “Glasgerion” ballad, and a similar reworking of another canonical ballad, “Blackwaterside”, this version of which Jimmy Page would shamelessly pilfer for his own “Black Mountain Side”, which appeared on Led Zeppelin’s 1968 debut.

The Pentangle The PentangleRead more›

Where’s That Confounded Bridge?
A Rock Listener’s Guide to Exploring Jazz

Growing up with rock, I heard some of my favorite bands incorporate jazz into their sound. From The Stones’ heavy use of brass in the mid-seventies to the The Dead’s free-form improvisations and the jazz-infused rock of Zappa and Traffic, the influence of jazz was all around me. Meanwhile a bridge from the rock section to jazz remained elusive. I owned the prerequisite recordings: Miles’s Kind of Blue and Brubeck’s Take Five, along with a handfull of jazz-funk classics like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. While these records served as a decent introduction, the real appeal of jazz still mystified me and free jazz made me cringe in terror. Ornette Coleman would have quickly send me running back to the sanctuary of my Kinks records.

I decided to make an effort to broaden my knowledge and appreciation for jazz. I temporarily set aside my cherished rock records, emptied my iPod of all that I knew and loved, and I proceeded to feed myself a steady diet of things jazz: from big band and bop, to free-jazz and fusion. I knew that I’d walk away from the experiment with some new insight and possibly even rekindle my romance with rock & roll after our trial separation. My real hope was that I might unlock some of the mysteries of jazz and discover some new favorite artists and albums and I did! My feelings towards jazz slowly changed from curiosity to an insatiable appetite for all forms of the genre. I quickly learned that jazz, like rock, is a broad term with many definitions. Several of the artists (Ornette Coleman included) that initially caused me to scramble for my mute button have since become favorites. As this new language became more familiar I began to hear beauty where once I had heard noise.

For the purpose of this guide, I’ll concentrate on some of my very early favorites: All of these suggestions are experimental while remaining accessible. All of them are heavily influenced by other genres including Rock, World Music and R&B, making them early examples of fusion before that term came to mean its own genre. Collectively these records created a bridge to a world that I’m still exploring today and all of them reserve a special place in my increasingly eclectic music collection:

1. Yusef Lateef The Blue Yusef Lateef (1969). If there was ever an album to sum … Read more›

Denim and Leather: An Introduction 
to the New Wave of British Metal:

When asked about music in England in the late 70’s, most anyone will reply with Punk. The images of the Sex Pistols decked out in Vivienne Westwood gear, Ian Curtis on stage in the fits of a seizure, and the classic Kings Road punks with safety pins through their cheeks. The media sensation around the scene was such a whirlwind it seized that little chunk of pop cultural time and handed it over to the punks. Fair enough. But while all that ink has been spilled about punk and its mutant offshoots, there was another, equally as important scene running parallel around the same time, and in the same place. Kids who grew up on the hard rocking sounds of Black Sabbath, Budgie, early Judas Priest, Zep, UFO, Deep Purple, Rush and Thin Lizzy. Working class youth who did not necessarily connect with the politics and fashion of punk. They remained loyal to the no-nonsense rock they were weaned on and did not cut their hair short in the summer of ’76. These kids had no time for the lofty art school pretension of the punk movement, yet they were too close to the impact of it to not be affected the anger, brevity and do it yourself ethos. When those elements of early punk were applied to the already fossilizing hard rock scene, a new and brilliant sound was born. The old form was trimmed of its excess fat, given a facelift and a new sleeveless denim jacket. As this fresh and revitalized take on hard rock and early metal was forged in England, the bands springing up in its wake went on to not only define classic Heavy Metal, in sound and look, but to change and shape rock in the long run just as much as the punks. This sound was christened…The New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

As this new scene took shape, younger bands like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Raven, Samson, Angel Witch and Saxon were gaining quite a devoted following of headbangers. The mainstream music press largely laughed it off, as it was in sharp contrast to the tepid new wave that was selling so well at the time. The die hard fans had created a demand for vinyl though, and independent labels, often run by fans with a true emotional investment in the music began to dot the landscape. Labels like Neat, Guardian … Read more›

Stereo Laboratories: An Introduction to 
Sound Library & Production Music

Discovering library music is a fascinating thing. This is music that was initially created for commercial purposes (created to be sold or licensed to film, television or radio). Library production music can be the most liberating, genre-bending musical experience, due to its lack of constraints on creativity. It varies from straight orchestral fare, bossa nova pop, quirky electro, disco, demented and moody electro-acoustics, folk, and everything else in between.

There were numerous labels of all shapes and sizes, mostly from France, Italy, Germany and the UK (L’illustration Musicale, de Wolfe, Telemusic, KPM, Selected Sound, Musique Pour l’Image, and Bruton being among some of the larger, more reknown labels), some with wide distribution, and others relegated to obscure status almost immediately. Composers would knock out several albums a month, often for different labels, and even more common, under a different name – leading to very difficult research, and a very tricky time for anyone trying to figure out any sort of discography trajectory. Some examples of aliases include the ever prolific Piero Umiliani, who also traded under Zalla, Moggi, Herbana, The Braen’s Machine (with Alessandro Alessandroni), and a few others. Nino Nardini was another big composer, getting his start in the 40’s as a big band jazz leader, soon becoming one of the towering figures in all of library music, often under his Georges Teperino guise. His friend and recurring musical partner Roger Roger typically issued zany electronics under the name Cecil Leuter. This story is typical among the legions of composers.

I feel the high point of library music vitality was from roughly 1968-1982, though the amount of decent 80’s libraries is scarce. Further into the 80’s the music got increasingly tacky, especially on the British labels Bruton, de Wolfe and KPM, mixing rock elements with fusion and disco, resulting in many failed ideas that neverless ended up gracing many television programs and radio themes.

These are pretty broad statements meant to clue some folks in to library music as a whole, though on the fringes there were numerous small labels who only issued a few albums, and even still, some labels are only noteworthy through rumor, having become so scarce as to not being tracked down at all. Many of these labels produced some very challenging and often avant garde music, some venturing more into the modern interpretive dance music, and less a commercial venture. I’m sure there are … Read more›

Beyond Tropicália: MPB in the 1970’s

In order to contextualize some of the best Brazilian music of the 1970s, one must first understand tropicália (AKA tropicalismo). In order to do that, one must first look back to Brazil in the ‘60s, a nation at that time rife with contradictions. Despite intermittent political instability which culminated with a military coup in 1964, postwar Brazil simultaneously experienced unprecedented economic growth. A large portion of its population lived far below the poverty line, but its middle class grew exponentially, with many of its members now enjoying a standard of living that previous generations could only dream of. Not surprisingly, these changes began to manifest themselves in the music of Brazil. Bossa nova, in particular, enjoyed not only massive popularity in its homeland but in many countries in the northern hemisphere as well, making it Brazil’s most successful musical export since Carmen Miranda. At the same time, other new styles emerged on a seemingly daily basis. Aided by a growing radio and television industry and the proliferation of the LP format, a new Brazilian musical identity began to emerge, adopting the moniker of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Ironically, it was also around this time that a host of distinctly non-Brazilian styles, most notably American R&B and British Invasion, began enjoying popularity there as well. From there things would only get more complicated.

By 1966, a small but growing movement was afoot in the northeastern city of Salvador. Deconstructionist and remarkably post-modern in its approach, it sought to shatter all preconceived notions about Brazilian art and culture and reassemble these pieces into something entirely new. These “tropicalistas”, as they called themselves, at first largely consisted of artists, poets, and filmmakers. But when two up and coming musicians, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, entered the fold, Tropicália’s true legacy would become realized. Soon joined by a handful of other massive musical talents, among them Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and a trio of teenage Beatles fanatics calling themselves Os Mutantes, this unlikely collective would spearhead the Tropicália movement. Incorporating disparate musical styles ranging from traditional samba to psychedelic Hendrix-style guitar freakouts into their songs, nothing was sacred to the tropicalistas. This anarchic sonic collage can be heard in all its glory on the 1968 sampler LP, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, which fired the opening salvo of a musical revolution that would prove to be very short-lived.

Tropicália’s tenuous existence was no surprise; … Read more›