A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: December, 2008

Recycled Goods (#60)

by Tom Hull

This is by far the longest Recycled Goods since I brought the column back off the shelf in April, even if you don't count the blow-by-blow Anthony Braxton breakdown, even if you don't count a handful of new albums included for no better reason than I thought you'd like to hear about them. What's missing is any sort of system here. I duplicate (or boil down) Jazz Prospecting notes when they touch on historical and/or worldy albums. I don't get much in the way of mainstream reissues (even jazz), but I do still get a few world music albums. They used to be a sideline, but they make up a plurality below. The Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie are things I picked up in Detroit -- about the only chance I've had all year to shop for used CDs. The Braxtons are an exercise in breaking up the box. Hopefully Sony/Legacy will take a hint and recognize the real treasure they picked up hidden behind all those Barry Manilow and Kenny G records and come up with new editions with bonus tracks.

January promises to be above-average too, if only for the amount of stuff I held back -- nothing you can't wait for.

Buena Vista Social Club: At Carnegie Hall (1998 [2008], Nonesuch, 2CD): The other shoe finally drops: a soundtrack to the grand concert that consummated the first new album of old Cuban pros that any significant number of yanks managed to hear. The album spawned a film which sold the album, setting up further albums by Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, but at the time the guy who got most of the attention was Ry Cooder, an earnest musicologist who was out of his depth. Doubters of the studio album think this is an improvement: more focus on the Cubans, less on Cooder, the chemistry of the crowd, the feeling that this was an event. All that is true, but the improvement is marginal, and the downside is that it's more than a little redundant. Still, the political thaw that made this possible is due around again. US policy has been held in thrall by Cuba's deposed owner class -- only a few generations removed from the hemisphere's last slaveholders. On the other hand, Cuba's legendary musicians are the hemisphere's most intimately connected to Africa, the most recent imports to the least assimilated part of the Americas. Opening the door to Cuban music is a revolution in its own right, and this engaging supergroup was the first over the barricades. B+

Oana Catalina Chitu: Bucharest Tango (2008, Asphalt Tango): Bucharest, styled as "the sleazy Paris of the East," embraced tango both for its low class and its high drama. Played by Gypsy folk musicians, it defined an era that faded under the Ceaucescu chill, especially after the 1963 death of "the Romanian Piaf," Maria Tanase. Chitu delves into the world of lost tango songs, perhaps a bit too starchily because you can't play with a memory until you've brought it back. B+

Curlew: 1st Album/Live at CBGB 1980 (1980-81 [2008], DMG/ARC, 2CD): George Cartwright's avant-fusion group in early creative ekstasis, to borrow a word guitarist Nicky Skopelitis later used to name his own group, pairing a debut album plus bonus tracks with a live shot with Denardo Coleman commandeering the drumkit. The rock element bounces off New York No Wave in a way that radicalizes the jazz element, so Cartwright's sax wails more tunefully than Lydia Lunch, and funk rhythms are free for the taking. A-

Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 ([2008], Columbia, 2CD): Dylan started raw, but like most stars sharpened up fast, making the records he'll always be known for in a short burst from 1963 (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) through 1966 (Blonde on Blonde) or maybe 1968 (John Wesley Harding), then went into an idiosyncratic decline: even his staunchest fans admit the fall-off after 1975's Blood on the Tracks, an album I personally never could stomach. Unlike most stars -- Lou Reed is a similar but lesser case -- Dylan came out of his funk much later, producing an excitedly hyped comeback in 1997 (Time Out of Mind) and putting anyone's doubts to rest with Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006. One thing that helped was that after 1992's covers album Good As I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong -- little recognized at the time, but easily his best since 1975 or earlier (like 1968) -- he's taken a leisurely 4-5 years between albums. Looking back, in some ways the comeback can be traced a bit earlier, to the Don Was-produced Under the Red Sky in 1990 where he picked up a better drummer and clearly started enjoying the music and not sweating the words, or even 1989's Oh Mercy, which provides a couple of outtakes to this decade-and-a-half of trivia. As Jewels and Binoculars, a jazz group with three marvelous albums of Dylan songs, have shown, Dylan has always been an underrated melodist. Free of his album's conceptual constraints, he just flows here. Many alternate takes of album songs are familiar, but none iconic like his '60s hits: just exceptionally finely drawn songs, easy to hum, worthwhile to read. Nothing earth-shaking, but we've had too much of that already. A-

Jesus H Christ & the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse: Happier Than You (2008, Jesus H Christ Rocks): Their eponymous first added surprising wit and raunch to a joke group name that otherwise wouldn't have carried an album. Actually, the hornsmen aren't apocalyptic, but they do slam their share of jokes home. I can't imagine spokeswoman Risa Mickenberg up on any cross, but she's good for an exclamation, especially an ironic one tinged with profanity. This, their second album, moves even further beyond their brand name. The songs are not just hooked; they're full of precise, telling details, living up to their disclaimer that they're really fiction. "Liz the Hot Receptionist" is so complete you could package it as a sit-com. Same for "Alcoholics in My Town," but you probably couldn't sell it. "I Hope You're Happy" is too truthful for TV. "Back Burner Guy" is a simple but fully formed idea, as is "I Miss Your Arm" and "You've Gotta Have a Dream." Some, like "Vanity Surfin'," just work as music. A-

La Cherga: Fake No More (2008, Asphalt Tango): Based in Austria, a group of former Yugoslavs -- Bosnia and Macedonia, as far as I can tell -- who fantasize a connection to Scratch Perry and bill themselves as a live sound system. The Jamaican rhythms are less prominent than the old Balkan ones, both kicked up with modern electrobeats, but at least they don't spare the horns. Irina Karamarkovic is the featured vocalist -- reminds me a bit of Portishead's Beth Horton, the Weltschmerz giving way to joy. Straw polls put Portishead's Third high in the record-of-the-year race, but head on I can't imagine anyone not prefering this record. Why be so depressive when you can enjoy "radical unity party music" like this? A

Putumayo Presents: Women of Jazz (1998-2008 [2008], Putumayo World Music): If you trust Putumayo to do your programming, you won't be disappointed here: with so much to choose from, they could hardly fail. Still, they came up with nothing more than a decade old -- Etta Jones is the only artist who worked much earlier. Some standards, some singer-songwriter fare, not much scat, nothing avant, no reason to get alarmed; no one to remind you of Betty Carter or Sheila Jordan. I hear a lot of jazz vocalists -- note that all ten picks are vocals; none are instrumentals -- and would have picked a completely different set, with Della Griffin the only find here I would have regretted missing. Not very useful, but still a very listenable set. B+

Harry Shearer: Songs of the Bushmen (2008, Courgette): The research here is pretty thorough, ranging from Colin Powell's knack for slipping responsibility to Dick Cheney's witness protection program for Scooter Libby. High points include Condoleezza Rice's workout routine "Gym Buds"; Donald Rumsfeld's "Stuff Happens" song and dance; and ever willing to take one for the team, the serving up of "The Head of Alberto Gonzalez." The songs read critically, but given their subjects they strike me as much too nice. I don't know that more direct rants would be more effective, but I wish someone would try: it is hard to heap too much abuse on the Bush administration. Indeed, it's hard to completely grasp how vile this government has been. B+

Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby (2007-08 [2008], Stiff): Eric Goulden was a second-tier new wave pub rocker, just one of the "bunch of Stiffs" behind the label's resident geniuses: Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Ian Dury. In 1979 he had a fluke single and a pretty solid album called The Whole Wide World. Ever since, he's ambled in and out of bands like Captains of Industry, Le Beat Group Electrique, and Hitsville House Band, for a middling career that I never gave a second thought to. Amelia McMahon is a few years younger, but got a late start, after marrying and divorcing dB's drummer Will Rigby and keying a vocal trio called the Shams. Turns out she's another genius, her 1996 Diary of a Mod Housewife kicking off a series of five extraordinary albums, peaking with 2005's Little Fugitive. The two met, got married, and crafted this musical merger. It's a little murky at first, with shadowy photography like they're trying to hide their age, and bits of sixties-ish Brit-pop which they mostly picked up secondhand, but the songs and jangles and even some of the tape scat gradually emerge. She wrote most of the best songs, natch, but they're not as sharp as in the days when she had ex-boyfriends to skewer. Meanwhile, he makes the best of "The Downside of Being a Fuck-Up." And the Johnny Cash song at the end is more than filler. A-

In Series

Mosaic's big Anthony Braxton box (see below) is a straight reissue of Braxton's nine Arista albums -- some legendary, all long out of print. No bonus cuts, no alternate takes or false starts, no studio chatter. As such, it's easy to break the box back down to its constituent albums.

Anthony Braxton: New York, Fall 1974 (1974, Arista): Split into two sides, one showing how brash and vibrant a state of the art avant quartet -- Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Jerome Cooper -- could be; the other a set of ponderous experiments -- a duet with Moogist Richard Teitelbaum, a sax choir with three-fourths of the future World Saxophone Quartet, a slower quartet plus violinist Leroy Jenkins. B+

Anthony Braxton: Five Pieces 1975 (1975, Arista): A breathtaking quartet with Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul, the rhythm section swinging diagrammatic compositions that might otherwise seem arcane, the leader attacking with his full arsenal of reed instruments; plus a delicate bass-sax duet on "You Stepped Out of a Dream," a reference point, in fact, a song. A-

Anthony Braxton: Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (1976, Arista): A tour de force, with his massive orchestra drawing explicitly on Sousa-like marching band brouhaha, which he slices up and reconstructs, then checking off Basie, Ellington, maybe Mingus and Russell too, while breaking new ground in every direction; full of delightful details, there's little doubt that Braxton is in complete command. A

Anthony Braxton/Muhal Richard Abrams: Duets 1976 (1976, Arista): First item in Braxton's discography was on Abrams' Levels and Degrees of Light (1967); the AACM's two most cerebral composers working here in an improviser's context, the originals widely scattered in mood and effect, the two covers -- Eric Dolphy's "Miss Ann" and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" -- explosive with good cheer and startling musicianship. B+

Anthony Braxton: For Trio (1977, Arista): Concept art at its most systematic: one piece, "Opus 76," performed by two trios, each filling an album side; all players -- Henry Threadgill and Douglas Ewart on side 1, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on side 2, Braxton on both -- play the same range of wind and percussion instruments, in a meticulously laid out cycle of pick something/do something; the sounds make little sense, but the liner notes are brilliant. B

Anthony Braxton: The Montreux/Berlin Concerts (1975-76, Arista, 2LP): Two quartets, Braxton's most accessible format: 3 cuts (29:22) from Montreux with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, 4 cuts (57:21) from Berlin with trombonist George Lewis, a rare treat to hear him cut loose at such length. A-

Anthony Braxton: Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 (1978-79, Arista, 2LP): Solo alto sax, a little like masturbation -- always a greater pleasure for the doer than for the observer -- and a lot like practice; Braxton was notorious for his first solo album, 1968's For Alto, which I long regarded as the ugliest thing I ever heard but others regard as a landmark; this is more balanced, plumbing every nook and cranny of the instrument, cylcing through moves that would grow up to become themes. B+

Anthony Braxton: For Four Orchestras (1978, Arista, 3LP): An extravaganza, with four 39-piece orchestras recruited on the cheap at Oberlin College; given all the firepower, the results are relatively mild, the sort of post-classical abstractions that now seem to be part of the times then; listen continuously on 2-CD, as opposed to flipping the original 6 LP sides, and it just flows amiably in the background, never uninteresting. B+

Anthony Braxton: For Two Pianos (1980, Arista): One of those things he does -- in 2008 Leo Records came out with a career-summing 9-CD set called Piano Music (1968-2000), played not by Braxton but by Genevičve Foccroulle; Braxton doesn't play here either, although he could certainly handle the zither and melodica diversions; rather, he uses two of the period's finest avant-classical pianists, Frederic Rzewski and Ursula Oppens, who crawl over his dense, 49:28 script with remarkable steadiness and grace. A-

Anthony Braxton: The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (1974-79 [2008], Mosaic, 8CD): Typical Mosaic packaging: LP-sized box/booklet, four jewel cases with two discs each, packed so the albums overlap discs, but not jarringly; no alt-takes, nothing previously unreleased, but this pathbreaking jazz has been out of print so long it's reassuring to have it all in one safe place. A-

Briefly Noted

Chet Baker: Peace (1982 [2007], Enja): Part of a new "24-bit master series," the remastering brings out the subtle elegance in Baker's trumpet, light as a feather here, but offset from David Friedman's marimba and vibraphone it carries all the weight; no vocals, two alternate takes. B+

Funkadesi: Yo Baba (2008, Funkadesi): Chicago world music group, a melting pot from India, Africa, and the Caribbean, though that hardly exhausts all their twists and turns; a song on disaster capitalism in "No Leans" reads like Naomi Klein; the most appealing cuts are the reggae, including Bob Marley's "Stir It Up," which they do. B+

Dizzy Gillespie: Sittin' In (1957 [2005], Verve): A JATP-style jam session, with the trumpet ace burning up "Dizzy Atmosphere" and "The Way You Look Tonight," separated by two ballad medleys favoring the tenor saxophonists, abundant, profusive, and profound: Stan Getz, Paul Gonsalves, and Coleman Hawkins; with Wynton Kelly, Wendell Marshall, and J.C. Heard. A-

Marco Granados: Music of Venezuela (2008, Soundbrush): Venezuelan flute player, bright and bubbly, played at bebop speeds over cuatro, bass, and maracas. B

Willi Johanns: Scattin' (1987-2002 [2008], TCB): Scraps from an English-singing German big band singer with flair and a load of scat, backed by trumpeter Dusko Goykovich's Bebop City for five 1987 cuts and a 2002 session with RTS Big Band Radio Belgrade, hard swinging, razor sharp, also featuring Goykovich. B+

Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901-2001 (2008, Smithsonian Folkways): Spoken word, with Michael Douglas narrating, speech excerpts -- the oldest being Alfred Nobel's introduction of his Peace Prize -- and a little solo violin at the end; physicists, physicians, feminists, Linus Pauling, Kofi Annan, a lot of nuclear bombs, a little on land mines; moderately interesting, but not the sort of thing I'd ever listen to again. C+

Plastilina Mosh: All U Need Is Mosh (2008, Nacional): Mexican group, not really rock en espańol because a lot of it is en inglés, nor are the beats all that rockish -- some favor hip-hop, some remind of me trans-world labelmate Manu Chao. B+

Putumayo Presents: Café Cubano (1998-2006 [2008], Putumayo World Music): By word association, café music is folkie music, here at least, why not in Cuba, or Miami, or wherever these unknown Buena Vista Social Club wannabes reside? Shuffles nicely, croons sensitively, includes a mojito recipe with a bit more kick than the music. B

Putumayo Presents: A Jazz & Blues Christmas (1950s-2006 [2008], Putumayo World Music): More tolerable than anything I heard in the stores this season, easy enough to do but pivoting on a 1985 Ray Charles "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" really does nobody any credit; two other pre-1996 songs show up the latecomers -- more evidence that the genre is spent, not that it was ever worthwhile. B-

Putumayo Presents: Acoustic Arabia (1997-2008 [2008], Putumayo World Music): Perhaps the best flowing record this boutique label has released in several years; useful too, with only two artists I recognize -- Maurice El Médioni and Souad Massi -- and others I won't remember but will welcome next time they come around; acoustic as in guitar or oud, easy strumming, gentle beats, subtle flavors like cumin and zataar. A-

Quadro Nuevo: Ciné Passion (2000 [2008], Justin Time): German "acoustic quartet" -- meaning reeds, guitar, accordion, bass -- with a subtle tango bent running through movie themes -- Morricone, Piazzolla, Rota, James Newton Howard -- with the usual overdose of schmaltz. B

Ximena Sarińana: Mediocre (2008, Warner Music Latina): Young Mexican singer-actress, looks very prim and proper on the cover, the music equally prim and proper -- in biz-speak, "adult contemporary pop-rock/jazz vocalist"; I can't swear she has nothing to say, but the only title I can translate works handily as a review. B-

Jamshied Sharifi: One (2007, Ceres): From Kansas, Iranian father, American mother, picked up classical Persian music and much more on the rebound, mostly working on soundtracks where his exotica stretches out into thin coloration; guest vocalists include Paula Cole, Abdoulaye Diabaté, Hassan Hakmoun, Youngchen Lhamo, and Vishal Vaid, some more operatic than I'd like, most riding on taut rhythm tracks. B+

Daby Touré: Stereo Spirit (2007, Real World): Singer-songwriter, grew up in Mauritania and Paris in a griot family that traces its roots back through Senegal to Mali, most notably including his father's group Touré Kunda; he overdubs a one-man band, crafting comfortable pop songs as sparse and softly exotic as his Saharan roots. B+

Savina Yannatou/Primavera en Salonico: Songs of an Other (2007 [2008], ECM): Greek soprano, neither folk nor classical as far as I can tell -- rather, she rises far above the fray; I much prefer the stretches where the band, including accordion, violin, oud, and nay, find their ground in Balkan rhythms, when her contrast becomes ethereal. B+

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Copyright © 2008 Tom Hull.