A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: October, 2007

Recycled Goods (#48)

by Tom Hull

The biggest chunk below is the Classic Cuban Music project. I started it well over a year ago when I ordered a batch of records recommended in Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music. When I almost had them ready to go 4-5 months ago, I decided to order a second batch to fill in some of the gaps. That introduced further delays. Even now, I only have one of at least three Folkways albums compiled by Lydia Cabrera. I'm also missing some obvious names, like Miguelito Valdés, and key groups like Orquesta Casino. We'll do more of those in the future, especially when Sublette gets around to releasing his sequel, carrying the story on from 1953.

Dennis Brown: The Best of the Joe Gibbs Years (1972-83 [2007], Shanachie): Dead at age 42, but since he cut his first hit at 11 and his greatest hit at 16 -- "Money in My Pocket," here milked for all they can get in the 12-inch version -- he seemed to have been around forever. He followed every trend in Jamaica from roots to ragga, recording an enormous amount of material that was consistently second-tier but rarely if ever worse. But this is the first first-rate compilation I've heard, and not just because they zeroed in on producer Joe Gibbs -- that's been done before -- but because they have an ear for Gibbs' best grooves. A-

Tom T. Hall: In Search of a Song & The Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers (1971-73 [2005], Hux): Two albums from his prime period, songs quickly sketched from chance encounters with farmers and waitresses in stops from Kentucky to Spokane, most with stock-in-trade country music, some irresistible (e.g., the two lead songs: "The Day Clayton Delaney Died" and "Ravishing Ruby"). The former album turned out to be Hall's masterpiece, with six songs returning on his best best-of. The latter only placed two, but in this case obscurity is an invitation to discovery. For instance, two songs that may have been dismissed as trivially political have only gained resonance: "Too Many Do-Goods" and "The Man Who Hated Freckles" -- on race, of course, but the rhyme-induced reference to "Martin Luther Queen" was prescient. One non-original, as Billy Joe Shaver channels Hall's Americana into myth for a title song. Two duets, with Hall showing Patti Page around Nashville. A

Jewface (1905-22 [2006], Reboot Stereophonic): This is billed as "perhaps the most offensive album ever made," which either means they're overly sensitive or just haven't done much research. The Jews who cut these ancient novelty songs sure weren't sensitive: they understood full well that the quickest and surest path to a punchline was through a stereotype, and they had few cavils about adapting the popular music of the day, minstrelsy, to make their points -- even if they're just cheap laughs. But history is something we so habitually sanitize it's refreshing to hear it so unadorned. And within its historical context, even this can be remarkably delightful. A-

Fred Katz: Folk Songs for Far Out Folk (1958 [2007], Reboot Stereophonic): About all I know of Kabbalah is that it seeks to peel off the illusions of G-d, only to find more illusions. I'm tempted to add that's because there is no God, so the only things you can possibly find are illusions. The peeling off metaphor is one we can apply to history. The most nominal categorization of Katz is anthropology professor, a post he used less for science than as a license to indulge his own interests -- mystical religion, political radicalism, ethnomusicology, the "oneness of man." But strip all of those back to their roots, and you find a boy playing classical music on his cello. That at least validates the metaphor, inasmuch as we've found a seed from which all else grows. But peeling off could just as well leave us with an uncomfortable void, as in seeking God, or in peeling off the history of knowledge, where each new achievement reveals a previously held falsehood. The most striking thing about Folk Songs for Far Out Folk is how much our evolving view has change the meaning of those words over the 50 years since the record was conceived. Katz takes three sets of folk songs -- African, Hebrew, and American -- and arranges them for three different orchestras. The African tunes get West Coast brass and Jack Constanzo's bongos for the drums we now know should be there. The Hebrew psalms get flutes and reeds, but nothing suggesting klezmer. The American songs get vibes and guitar. They're interleaved to juxtapose rather than flow, but what they all share is the arranger's classical fix on control. That the albums were marketed as jazz is an artifact of the time, much like the notion that these are still folk songs, and that we are far out folk. B+

Love Finds Its Own Way: The Best of Gladys Knight and the Pips (1961-83 [2007], Buddah/Legacy): Leaving Motown for Buddah in 1973 set up Knight's best work, but removing the safety net left her records inconsistent and compilations spotty. This modest-looking set is a miracle of cross-licensing, picking up: her first two pre-Motown hits, including her teenage "Every Beat of My Heart" from Vee-Jay; her four biggest Motown smashes; nine Buddah cuts, including four straight top-ten hits from 1973-74, starting with "Midnight Train to Georgia"; and two strongly sung Columbia cuts. A-

Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre (2006 [2007], Times Square/4Q, 2CD): A 30th anniversary bash -- for the Johannesburg venue, that is; the South African trumpeter-vocalist goes back further, having started his globetrotting at least a decade earlier. This is a triumph, an informal career summary that tracks the struggle against apartheid and baser oppressions. Its two discs allow him to stretch out and work the crowd, even to preach a little, knowing there's more than celebrating left to do, but pleased to be there that night. A-

The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru (1968-78 [2007], Barbès): Psychedelia is a concept that varies by beholder, or perhaps one should say hallucinator? Whatever is meant here is much less idiosyncratic than contemporary Brazilian bands also labelled psychedelic, like Os Mutantes. That's largely because the cumbia groove predominates, with everything else zinged up for laughs. The groups are unheralded -- Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Destellos, Los Hijos del Sol, and Los Mirlos appear more than once -- but then Peru has been scantly compiled: just bits of folk music from the high Andes and Afro-Peruvian from the barrio. This is urban and modern, part of a world that elsewhere, from similar impulses, produced boogaloo and disco. A-

Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons: The Definitive Pop Collection (1962-78 [2006], Rhino, 2CD): Originally just the Four Seasons, a clean-cut Italian vocal quartet from Newark led by Valli's shrill falsetto. They quickly racked up three #1 singles before Motown blew up and the Beatles invaded, and the Beach Boys refined their harmonies into high-fructose corn syrup, but managed to hang on for "Let's Hang On!" in 1965. The were the last great gasp of doo wop, and still sound like a wicked satire -- a point rarely grasped at the time, although their überfalsetto Dylan sendup, "Don't Think Twice," could hardly have been more obvious. They might have ended there, but Valli went on to a solo career of sporadic genius -- "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (1967) was magnificent, and two 1974-75 songs ("My Eyes Adored You" and "Swearin' to God") nearly as classic. Those hits led to a reunion album and a couple more hits, also here. Valli was such a unique singer that his solo work folds in seamlessly on the second disc, which makes diversifying seem like part of growing up. A

In Series

It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of Cuba in the history of world music. It was and remains a small, poor country, but few places have ever been so thoroughly involved as pathways and melting pots. The Spanish who appropriated Cuba after 1500 maintained an uneasy cultural synthesis of Christian and Moorish influences, the latter the first major contact between European and African music. The African element was repeatedly reinforced as the Spanish brought in slaves from all over Africa. Cuba was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery. Also, unlike other American slave cultures, Cuba was unique in allowing African tribal groupings, languages, and religions to continue, so that Cuba in many ways mirrors the diversity of Africa. On the other hand, Cuba never had the overwhelming concentration of Africans that were present in Barbados, Jamaica, and Haiti. Rather, Cuba had a white elite with active ties to Spain at least as late as 1898, and it maintained an elaborate social caste system based mostly on color, which effectively continued up to the revolution, or some might argue continues in Miami today. The racial strata was reflected in entertainment, but as with America music proved to be a relatively permeable barrier -- perhaps even more so.

Cuba's music comes out of all these sources, but perhaps as important is its connections to the rest of the world. Havana was the trade center of the Caribbean from around 1600 on, with close ties especially to nearby Spanish-speaking centers, of which Mexico and Puerto Rico proved especially important -- Mexico as a larger market for Cuban talent, Puerto Rico as a cultural satellite which proved to be an important pathway to the US. Long before Cubans emigrated to the US in large numbers, Cuban music entered through Puerto Ricans, developing into salsa largely in the Bronx. But even further back, Cuba had a strong influence on 18th century New Orleans, and acted as a pathway for the influx of French creoles fleeing Haiti after the 1797 revolt -- the roots of what Jelly Roll Morton identified as the essential Spanish tinge in jazz. More Cubans came to the US starting in the 1950s, both before and after Castro. And Cuba never really disconnected from Africa: just to pick one conspicuous example, rumba is equally at home in Cuba and in the Congo.

Ned Sublette has documented this rich history of Cuban music in his superb book, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004, Chicago Review Press). He covers the evolution of Cuban song forms in more detail than I can follow, but the copious details of the history are fascinating. The book cuts the story short at 1953, when Batista consolidated his dictatorship and Castro scampered off to the hills to start his revolution. (A second volume is promised.) The records below are recommended in Sublette's short discography. Aside from one Folkways album, all are on Jordi Pujol's Tumbao Cuban Classics label, part of his Barcelona-based Fresh Sound Records empire. Pujol founded Fresh Sound as a Spanish outlet for West Coast Cool Jazz, an aesthetic he continues to support and add to with his Fresh Sound New Talent and World Jazz series, as well as compile archival series like the Blue Moon label. But Tumbao is by far the most important, with a catalog of more than 140 titles, mostly artists unavailable elsewhere. Once again, Europeans have come to the rescue of quintessential American music.

Havana, Cuba, ca. 1957: Rhythms and Songs for the Orishas (1957 [2001], Smithsonian Folkways): Field recordings by Lydia Cabrera and Josefina Tarafa scrape away all the pleasing surfaces adorning Afro-Cuban music to reveal the bedrock African rhythm -- drums, bells, chants; orishas are the saints of the Lucumi religion, directly linked to the Yoruba of Nigeria. B+

Celia Cruz con la Sonora Matancera: La Guarachera de Cuba (1950-53 [1998], Tumbao): Mostly guarachas, a song and dance form derived from 19th century comic theatre; Cruz was on her way to becoming one of Cuba's top vocalists, while the Matanceras gently usher her along. B+

Julio Cueva y Su Orquesta: La Butuba Cubana (1943-45 [1994], Tumbao): Led by a trumpet player, back in Cuba after getting caught up in the Spanish Civil War; not all that brassy, but most vocals are by guaracha specialist "Cascarita," who also appears on two cuts with Bebo Valdés. B+

Julio Cueva y Su Orchesta: Desintegrando (1944-47 [1996], Tumbao): Cascarita, né Orlando Guerra, sings all but the last four cuts here, all but one guarachas, played loose and bouncy; Cueva's trumpet seems more up front here, as are his left politics, enjoying a brief vogue when the PSP (People's Socialist Party) featured his band on their radio station. A-

Sexteto y Septeto Habanero: Las Raíces del Son: Grabaciones Completas 1925-1931 (1925-31 [1998], Tumbao, 4CD): The most important group in Cuba in the 1920s; they established the classic son sextet (guitar, tres, bass, bongo, claves, and maraccas -- some early pictures replace the bass with a jug instrument, the botijuela), later adding trumpet for a septet; the recordings have an easy-going sameness to them which ultimately turns hypnotic, revealing the foundation of modern Afro-Cuban music; the lengthy booklet is in Spanish only. A-

Conjunto Kubavana de Alberto Ruiz: Rumba en el Patio (1944-47 [1994], Tumbao): A dance band, featuring boleros and guarachas pointing towards salsa; Ruiz sings, with a slick band and a young conga player named Carlos Valdés, later famous as Patato; ends with four cuts from the similar Conjunto Casino, featuring Patato but not Ruiz. A-

Machito and His Afro-Cubans: Cubop City (1949-50 [1992], Tumbao): Live shots from a half-dozen dates, with tinny sound and unattributed intros that sound like Symphony Sid of the Royal Roost and name guests on a few cuts -- Howard McGhee, Brew Moore, Flip Phillips; singers Machito and Graciela just go with the beat, but one of the trumpets really burns through -- Mario Bauza, I think. B+

Conjunto Matamoros With Benny Moré (1945-47 [1992], Tumbao): Miguel Matamoros took his group to Mexico with young backup singer Moré who soon became a huge star; not sure whether Matamoros was always a folkie or he was deliberately trying to meet Mexico more than half way -- he mostly keeps the extra percussion under wraps, threatening to break out at any moment. A-

Sonora Matancera: Se Formó la Rumbantela (1948-50 [1994], Tumbao): A dance band originally formed in Matanzas in 1924 and still active when they moved to New York in 1960; these sides with Bienvenido Granda singing are loosely jointed and infectious. A-

Benny Moré With Pérez Prado: Mambos by Benny Moré: El Barbaro del Ritmo (1948-50 [1992], Tumbao): Left in Mexico after the Matamoros tour, Cuba's most exciting young singer hooks up with Cuba's most exciting young composer-bandleader, a combustion that changed the face of Latin music forever; both got stronger and slicker in the '50s, but the raw excitement here carries the day. A

Benny Moré y Su Banda Gigante: El Legendario Ídolo del Pueblo Cubano: Grabaciones Completas 1953-1960 (1953-60 [2003], Tumbao, 4CD): The greatest of all Cuban singers, Moré rose to fame in Mexico fronting the divergent groups of Miguel Matamoros and Pérez Prado; he returned to Cuba in 1952, hoping to lead his own group, and succeeding with one of gigantic proportions; both group and singer stretched over the entire stylistic range of Cuban music, the singer never sounding out of place, the band a testament to his greatness; Moré's health started to fade in 1959, and he died in Cuba in 1963, having spurned offers to move north; includes a valuable booklet, mostly in Spanish, only some parts translated into English and French. A-

Sexteto Nacional: Cubaneo (1927-28 [1999], Tumbao): Classic son, the first recordings by bassist Ignacio Piñeiro's group, cut in New York with rattling, riveting percussion and a rough sound that complements the revolutionary rhythms and can't quite hide the winning harmonies; they got even better than they expanded to Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro. A-

Ignacio Piñeiro and His Septeto Nacional (1928-30 [1992], Tumbao): The most durable group in Cuban history, honoring its founder's name long after his death in 1969 through a 75th anniversary in 2002; this is classic son, driven by the leader's bass, juiced up with Lazaro Herrera's trumpet; the sound fades a bit here and there, but the voices sway gracefully over the percussion. A

Chano Pozo: El Tambor de Cuba (1939-53 [2001], Tumbao, 3CD): Shot dead in New York at 33, Pozo enjoys an outsized legend as a rumba songwriter, a popular showman for his Afro chants and congas, and as the first star of Afro-Cuban jazz; each facet gets a full disc here, but only part of he middle feels like the raw thing; the first features his songs done by others, notably Miguelito Valdés, while most of the third is familiar fare from Dizzy Gillespie's big band, ending with a couple of posthumous tributes; marginal as entertainment, but redeemed with Jordi Pujol's detailed booklet -- history loves an outsized legend. A-

Pérez Prado and His Orchestra: Kuba-Mambo (1947-49 [1991], Tumbao): The "King of the Mambo" on his way up, with blasts of horns punctuating the most extreme twists and turns of percussion so striking he wound up breaking through even in America; none of the singers rival Benny Moré, but the arrangements, juxtaposing low and high art with the bravura of tango, are all the more striking. A-

Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto: Montuneando (1946-50 [1993], Tumbao): Grandson of a slave born in Congo, a direct link to Africa from which he invented the son montuno rhythm, revolutionizing Cuban popular music by advancing the Afro in Afro-Cuban; blind from age 13, he played tres (a guitar with three double-strings), was a prolific composer, and led one of Cuba's most influential groups -- Chocolate Armenteros on trumpet is especially notable. A

Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto: Dundunbanza (1946-51 [1994], Tumbao): More from the same group as Montuneando, the title cut is an especially infectious Congolese adaptation; the rest is almost as compelling. A-

Briefly Noted

Kiran Ahluwalia: Wanderlust (2007, Times Square): A Punjabi who left India as a child for New Zealand and Canada, she returned for the heritage, studying ghazals and folk songs, which she renders with elegant clarity and cosmopolitan borrowings, like José Manuel Neto's Portugese guitarra; Rez Abbasi, a jazz guitarist who followed a similar path, produced and plays. B+

Boca do Rio (2007, Vagabundo): Unfair to make fun of these hard-working Brasil wannabes to point out that their rio is the Sacramento; the percussion is pretty sharp, and saxophonist Larry de la Cruz is always welcome, so I guess the problem is the vocals, and not just that Kevin Welch has swallowed way too much US pop harmonizing. C+

Hamilton de Holanda: Íntimo (2006 [2007], Adventure Music): Solo 10-string mandolin, by a Brazilian mixing originals with Jobim and other standards; he doesn't stretch out or break new groups, just delivers on the honorably modest title. B+

The Fall: It's the New Thing! The Step Forward Years (1978-80 [2003], Castle): Most of two albums and four singles or EPs from the first days of what turned out to be the most durable of all the English punk rock bands; half sounds prophetic, including the ever-recyclable "Repetition"; half sounds like aural camouflage, as if, unlike the Sex Pistols and the Clash, they worried about getting too famous too soon. B+

Tom T. Hall: In Search of a Song (1971 [2006], Hip-O Select): Finally back in print, eleven short songs with no frills, but priced higher than Hux's twofer import, and no easier to find. A

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1968-84 [1998], Mercury): The best of Hall's best-ofs by a huge margin because it focuses on his most observant journalism and his sharpest jokes without overly indulging the platitudes and clichés that ultimately marked him as such a nice guy; at $9.98 list, also the bargain of the lot. A+

Chico Hamilton: Three Faces of Chico/Gongs East! (1958-59 [2005], Collectables): Two albums, notable primarily for Eric Dolphy's flute, bass clarinet, and sax; Three Faces is a three-sided mix of solo drum pieces, old-fashioned crooning, and quintet pieces; Gongs would be straighter but for Dolphy and Nathan Gershman's cello; this fits into the rage for new directions, without really finding one. B

Hot Rod (Music From the Motion Picture) (1978-2007, Legacy): The old stuff dates from 1984-86, with Stockholm's answer to Boston, named Europe (take that!) way up front and over the top, with a Giorgio Moroder remix for some action, plus some dialogue and stuff by people I don't know and couldn't care less about. C

The Inspiring New Sounds of Rio de Janeiro ([2007], Verge): Thirteen tracks of hip-hop by aspiring artists who are most likely unknown anywhere more than a few blocks from home -- what is basically a propaganda tract could have used some background story, but the hard knocks and high hopes are evident, and a whiff of samba leaves everyone at ease. B+

Alexa Weber Morales: Vagabundeo/Wanderings (2007, Patois): Singer-songwriter -- I find her command of Latin idioms completely convincing, entrancing even, but I can't say the same for her Afro-funk, 6/8 gospel, or ballad, and have the usual reservations about that goddess of war. B

Shahram Nazeri and Hafez Nazeri: The Passion of Rumi (2007, QuarterTone): The poetry of 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, set to appropriately classical music, sung by Shahram Nazeri, on whom opinions differ: the Persian Nightingale and Iran's Pavarotti are two quotes I've seen; son Hafez plays setar. B

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen/Ulf Wakenius/Jonas Johansen: The Unforgettable NHØP Trio Live (1999-2005, ACT): A souvenir of the late great Danish bassist's most basic group, with guitarist Wakenius feeling especially frisky, doing standards and folk songs and fast groove pieces, with typical aplomb. B+

Susan Pereira and Sabor Brasil: Tudo Azul (2006 [2007], Riony): Brazilian singer working in New York, where her crack band is able to sustain the golden age samba they grew up on -- light, airy, the easy lilt enriched by guests like Claudio Roditti on trumpet, Hendrik Meurkens on harmonica, and Romero Lubambo on guitar. B+

Joe Satriani: Surfing With the Alien (1986 [1999], Epic/Legacy): Rock guitar got tied up with surf music in the early '60s and Hendrix in the late '60s, so the title here is rife with synthesis; with no vocals, it all depends on Satriani coming up with more than crunchy rock riffs, which remarkably he manages to do. B+

Joe Satriani: Surfing With the Alien (Legacy Edition) (1986-88 [2007], CD+DVD): The Legacy Edition series normally adds a second disc of music, but here they substitute a DVD with a Montreux Jazz Festival concert, dispelling any notions that the guitarist might have a future in jazz; don't know how to value the video, so the grade is just for the extra music. B-

Secret Oyster (1973 [2007], The Laser's Edge): The first of five 1973-76 albums from a Danish instrumental group, catching the fusion of the times in a nice upbeat mood, with the keyboards lean and the sax phat. B+

Secret Oyster: Straight to the Krankenhaus (1976 [2007], The Laser's Edge): The fourth of five 1973-76 albums, this is evidently where they go prog with arty arena intros to build up the dramatic tension; but when they break loose, the tempos speed up, and saxophonist Karl Vogel turns out to have something to say. B

17 Hippies: Heimlich (2007, Hipster): It's easy to peg this group as Germany's answer to Pink Martini: they sing in English and French but mostly in German, they sound less like cabaret because they don't want to give the impression that they are folkies, and they adopted hippies as in hip with no reference to San Francisco in the '60s; the number of musicians seems to vary since it was locked into their name -- I count 13, plus 2 Gasthippien. B+

Ricardo Silveira: Outro Rio (Another River) (2005-06 [2007], Adventure Music): A low-key Brazilian guitar album -- delicate, gently flowing, very pleasant as background, rewards your attention without ever demanding it; some cuts add extra instruments or (in one case) voice, but only the guitar matters. B+

Additional Consumer News


In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: Cuban classics (Celia Cruz, Benny More, Perez Prado, Ignacio Pineiro, Arsenio Rodriguez, Chano Pozo), Nashville storytellers (Tom T. Hall), far out folkies (Fred Katz, Hugh Masekela), changing seasons (Frankie Valli); many more (44 records).


Copyright © 2007 Tom Hull.