Monday, May 24, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Listening Session: Jimmy Giuffre, Free Fall

Jimmy Giuffre (pronounced JOOfray) isn’t a household name in jazz although he possibly could have been, had he followed a more conventional musical career path. He certainly started on that path when he worked as an arranger for Woody Herman’s big band, penning one of its hits, “Four Brothers”. When Giuffre led his own group in the mid- and late fifties, he produced a number of accessible cool jazz albums to moderate commercial success. But even at this point something was off-kilter, most notably the composition of his band. He mainly performed in a trio with himself on saxophone or clarinet and Jim Hall on guitar and a bassist or a trombonist. Not your typical jazz trio.

Giuffre really let go of conventional music-making in the early sixties when he ventured into free jazz with a trio consisting of Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass. He released albums with titles like “Thesis” and “Fusion” which tipped off the abstract nature of the music. I recently listened to his last album with this group, “Free Fall” (1962). It was pretty much dismissed upon its released, but its reputation has grown ever since. It’s a difficult album to listen to, because there’s no discernible melody or harmony or rhythm. It doesn’t sound much like jazz at all. In fact, the nearest musical analog is Oliver Messiaen’s classical chamber works. Giuffre’s clarinet on “Free Fall” is reminiscent of the oft-used clarinets in Messiaen’s music, which evoke the calls of other-worldly, mystical birds. Whereas Messiaen usually had religious—specifically Catholic—themes in mind, Giuffre doesn’t seem to have any narrative or theme in mind. It’s more like an abstract painting done with sound. “Free Fall” differs from other free jazz in the way that the abstract expression of Mark Rothko differs from that of Jackson Pollock: There’s less frenetic energy and more calm moodiness.

I listened to “Free Fall” straight through willingly, unlike my recent session with Cecil Taylor for which I forced myself to listen. “Free Fall” is captivating in its own inscrutable way. The title is indicative of the musical experience as the listener must let go of all musical convention and just go where the artist takes him. It also describes the commercial trajectory of Giuffre's record. It was three years before he released another record, on an independent label. The Columbia PR man who decided to put the sticker on the cover heralding "A New Star on Columbia Records" obviously didn't bother listening to this difficult album.

The copy of “Free Fall” I have is a white label promo. These are promotional copies that were distributed for free to radio stations and industry representatives. As the name suggests, the labels are white instead of the standard color—in the case of Giuffre’s album the standard red Columbia label. Record collectors value WLPs because of their scarcity. Audiophiles value them because they are usually among the first copies pressed and thus benefit from fresh, unworn stampers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." --Thelonious Monk.

Hmm, might this be a pointless endeavor?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Listening Session: Jonsi, Go

I’ve got a problem with most new music: it all sounds inconsequential. There’s very little sense of urgency and emotional involvement on the part of the band. Even critically acclaimed bands sound like self-involved craftsmen who are dazzled by their own cleverness (e.g., I mean you, Grizzly Bear!) Sometimes listeners fall under their spell. But in the end, who’s actually moved by these bands?

Thank god there are a few exceptions to this wave of banality. Sigur Ros is a band that wants to move you. They want to take you to a higher plane. Each song is a hymn. Sometimes they fail, but when they succeed, they’re one of the few bands that will deliver that ecstatic moment. People have been known to cry at Sigur Ros concerts. I’ve had out-of-body experiences listening to their music, where my consciousness or soul seems to disengage with my physical being and intermingle directly with the music. It’s hard to explain.

If you’ve seen the documentary film Heima, it’s clear the band members are good in the highest moral sense. The documentary follows the band performing a series of free concerts across Iceland. There are touching scenes where they play in remote villages, outdoors on a chilly day or in the town hall, to mainly old people and families with children running around during the concert. (Sometimes, the band is able to captivate the children with their music.) They play acoustic versions of their songs mixed in with traditional Icelandic tunes in these venues. The effort the band takes to connect with rural Icelanders is brought home at the end of the film when you witness the typical, full-blown sonic assault of a Sigur Ros concert in Reykjavik. Both the pastoral, acoustic versions and the electronic, feedback-laden versions of their songs work, because their songs have good bones.

Jonsi is the front man with the castrato’s voice for Sigur Ros. According to Wikipedia, he’s openly gay and a vegetarian who prefers to eat only raw food. Why am I not surprised? I was surprised by his new solo album Go, which is the best new album I’ve heard in a long, long time. Go shares some similarities with Sigur Ros albums in the use of heavy orchestration and dense arrangements. But in spirit it’s a departure from Sigur Ros albums. The comparison that comes to mind is of Baroque composers who wrote religious song-cycles for religious occasions and secular song-cycles for secular occasions. Go sounds like a secular work; it features shorter, more direct songs (four or five minutes instead of eight to ten minutes), faster rhythms, and a lighter feel than a Sigur Ros album. There are no weak songs on the album. Despite its “secular” spirit, the album is filled with beautiful moments. This guy just can’t help it.

(A word about the sound quality: Sigur Ros albums are among the most sonically impressive records produced these days. Whereas a lot of contemporary albums are loud and compressed with the intent of being noticed and end up delivering an approximation of music, Sigur Ros albums possess a startling clarity in sound. Jonsi's album is no different. These guys care.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Album Cover Gallery: Posers

With poses like this on the cover of their debut album, it seems redundant to have titled their next album Nurds.

Karma: Pharaoh Sanders must've killed some children in a previous life to have had to pose like this on an album cover.

Madonna's Confession on the Dance Floor: "Dear Lord, I know I'm vain, because striking this pose really hurts like hell on my middle-aged body."

If I remember my physics lessons, I'm fairly certain Sly Stone is breaking a law of thermodynamics by going airborne in platform boots.

There's a German word for this. It's volksdummposen.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tax Refund!

I have no idea what the Tea Baggers are belly-aching about. The federal income tax was lowered last year for 95 percent of Americans. I certainly got a larger refund than expected. That gave me the excuse to get this deluxe Bill Evans box set containing all ten of his Riverside albums plus a Cannonball Adderly album on which Evans played. These are 45 rpm audiophile pressings and among the best sounding records I have ever heard. Of course, the music is sublime. Evans is the most elegant of jazz pianists; he never seems to take a false step.

Here are a couple choice Evans quotes from the booklet included in the box set:
"Discipline and freedom have to mix in a very sensitive way. . . . I believe all music is romantic, but if it gets schmaltzy, romanticism is disturbing. On the other hand, romanticism handled with discipline is the most beautiful kind of beauty."

"My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul: it should teach spiritually by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. It's easy to rediscover a part of yourself, but through art you can be shown a part of yourself you never knew existed. That's the real mission of art. The artist has to find something within himself that is universal, and which he can put into terms that are communicable to other people. The magic of it is that art can communicate this to a person without his realizing it. Enrichment, that's the function of music."

Everybody digs Bill Evans.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quick Listening Notes

It's been a while since I had an entire evening devoted to listening to music. Here's what was spun on the old deck:

Donald Byrd, Byrd in Hand (Blue Note, Classic Records reissue in mono). This is a very enjoyable set, as are most of Byrd's Blue Note blowing sessions, before he went Funking Up My Life (yes, that's a title of one of his later albums--actually it's Thank You for F.U.M.L. (ed. ROTFLMAO!)) But this is a straight bop session where Byrd plays in his typically polished style that goes down real easy. I also like Pepper Adams on this album. No one makes a baritone sax growl like Pepper Adams.

Roxy Music, Stranded. I've been listening to a lot of Roxy Music lately, especially the early stuff. I've made peace with Bryan Ferry, whose singing/crooning style and warbling voice seemed like such an affectation to the point of being annoying. Yes, it's total affectation. Some critics have interpreted it as being ironic, which, as we all know, is the humor of the resigned. Let me share my recent revelation: Ferry is faking the irony. The over-the-top crooning is just to throw us off, it's the shield that guards his earnest romanticism. Then there's also adventurous music-making on the early albums, thanks to Brian Eno (though not on Stranded) and Phil Manzanera.

Gerry Mulligan, Mainstream in Jazz (Emarcy). I picked up this monophonic original pressing from 1956 for cheap because it looked beat up. After cleaning it on the record cleaning machine, it actually played real nicely. You never know with vinyl records. I've also had pristine-looking records play like Rice Krispies. Unlike Pepper Adams, Mulligan's baritone is smooth as velvet. This session features a pianoless sextet playing cool West Coast jazz and it really Swings. It doesn't hurt to have Zoot Sims playing tenor.

The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn! (Columbia mono original pressing). This was the only album of the listening session that sounded dated. I was trying to figure out what made the music sound so dated. After the first three songs, it occurred to me that each one had Clark, McGuinn and Crosby singing in harmony most of the time. No one sings that much harmony anymore, whereas the 60s had the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, the Righteous Brothers, etc., etc. Well, there are some bands now introducing more harmonic singing, like Grizzly Bear, but they do it oh so lamely. Fuck you, Grizzly Bear!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Swedish Pop Music Break

The Tallest Man on Earth is Swedish and I think he's 8 foot 2.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What They Left Behind

As noted in previous posts, used records are sometimes weighed with the personal information of the previous owner. An entire collection of records begins to sketch a picture of its owner, certainly his or her musical taste, from which one can infer a larger idea of the person. I discovered that an estate sale is an even more intense exercise in material biography. I went to my first estate sale held at a residence last weekend. Everything inside the house was for sale. It was a fascinating and unsettling experience. It was fascinating only because the former owners seemed to have led interesting lives and had amassed things that reflected their experiences and aesthetic values.

From the ephemera in the den, it was easy to surmise that the former resident was an accountant and a music lover. Accounting books and an old-fashioned calculator sat next to a classic Fisher 400 tube receiver and Garrard turntable. The record collection consisted mainly of classical and ethnic music from around the world. It was obvious the couple loved to travel, as the hallway was adorned with photographs taken in exotic locations. I found in the bedroom a small, framed, black-and-white photo of a woman standing in front of a crude stone building with a crenelated top, which I guess could have been taken in North Africa or the Middle East. I took this home. I also took home a collection of used matchbooks that was a travel log in themselves. The man smoked a pipe, which I did not take home, and had saved the matchbooks he had picked up in restaurants, clubs, and hotels from Portland to Brussels.

Their house revealed that the couple had traveled extensively in Asia and had fallen in love with Asian art, which was found throughout. Although there wasn’t anything in the collection of Asian art and artifacts I cared for, I was moved by the collection itself. I could tell that it was assembled with love.

This estate sale was like the disassembling of a person, the break-up of a coherent entity into disparate incoherent parts. This was the unsettling part of my visit to the estate sale. I guess the most positive way to look at it is the pieces that are disassembled are re-assembled in the lives of others.