September 2002 Notebook
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Sunday, September 22, 2002

Preparing to head out to Detroit for two weeks. The biggest job will be repacking the music cases. We saw the John Sayles movie, Sunshine State, yesterday. I won't attempt a review here; just let me note that nobody else weaves together a richer slice-of-life tapestry; also that Mary Alice and Bill Cobbs stand out in a cast that never lets up.

Music: Time to flush out a lot of listening-in-progress.

  • Arthur Blythe: Focus (2002, Savant). The tuba and marimba lay out a rich and varied bottom, ... A
  • The Herbie Nichols Project: Strange City (2001, Palmetto). Nichols' own recordings are limited to piano trios, with three CDs on Blue Note and another on Bethlehem that I've long found relentlessly interesting. Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, and Misha Mengelberg have done the most to keep Nichols' flame alive, often grouping Nichols with Thelonious Monk. Indeed, the similarity in their work is striking, but Nichols was the more adroit pianist, and his compositions were more supple, but Monk at least got a chance to orchestrate his work for horns. In this latest Nichols revival, pianist Frank Kimbrough is just fine, but the horn arrangements around Nichols' compositions are the main draw. It's a rich and invigorating album. A-
  • Matthew Shipp: Nu Bop (2002, Thirsty Ear). Shipp has one of the most distinctive piano styles around -- chords falling in heavy, angular blocks -- but what makes this one stand above the rest is how the electronics set up a comparably harsh background. A-
  • Spoon: A Series of Sneaks (1998, Elektra). I picked this up after I heard about Kill the Moonlight, but before actually hearing it. I was struck immediately by how tight it was. A-
  • Spoon: Kill the Moonlight (2002, Merge). A richer album -- maturity, or at least experience, will do that, at least when you start as firmly as A Series of Sneaks. I've played more new rock 'n' roll in the last two weeks than any time in the last 25 years or so, and this record most of all. (Let's face it, the Mekons were easy to peg.) A

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Music: Spent the last few days repeatedly playing a new batch of records, including three Xgau-rated A rock albums (Mekons, Sleater-Kinney, Spoon), and some jazz (Arthur Blythe, Kahil El'Zabar, Matthew Shipp) that is closer to the A-/A boundary than the B+/A- boundary. The Mekons, by the way, is closer to the A/A+ boundary.

  • Imperial Teen: On (2002, Merge). Their first album, Seasick, was the freshest alt-indie guitar band of the late 1990's -- undeniable at a time when my attraction to the genre had bottomed-out. A-
  • Mekons: OOOH! (Out of Our Heads) (2002, Quarterstick). They hadn't made a great album since 1991, when the arrogance of New World Order roused them to remind us that socialism can't be dead because it hasn't even been tried yet. Now that the old arrogance is back, so is the Mekons' fury. This explodes on the first cut, "Thee Olde Road to Jerusalem," A

Monday, September 16, 2002

Music:

  • Bosavi: Rainforest Music From Papua New Guinea (2001, Smithsonian/Folkways, 3CD). The first disc here, "Guitar Bands of the 1990s," is qaint, charming, primitivist pop music, reminding me more than a little of appalachian field recordings from the '20s. The other two discs are more work: ethnographic field recordings that rarely rise above chant-and-response and occasionaly descend into environmental noise. B
  • Don Byron: Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (1992, Elektra Nonesuch). Byron's fondness for klezmer is often written off as a desire for juicier clarinet parts, but there is more going on here. Katz was a parodist -- he started out with Spike Jones, and his broad humor is easily grasped in something as slight and obvious as his "Seder Dance." Byron clearly gets off on such hijinks -- in his liner notes he cites such comparable bandleaders as Raymond Scott and John Kirby, who he took up in his later Bug Music. Talented group of musicians, too, including pianist Uri Caine, who dug deeper into much the same history with his Tin Pan Alley. B+
  • Floyd Cramer: The Essential Floyd Cramer (1995, RCA). Elevator music for all those Nashville highrises. C+
  • Otis Spann: Best of the Vanguard Years (1966-69, Vanguard). A mixed bag: Spann is one of the great blues piano players, but rarely takes command of a record, which leaves too many of these late sessions sounding perfunctory.
  • Ricky Woodard: The Silver Strut (1995, Concord). Good player, good album; lots of that fast, precise bopswing that you can expect from your better mainstream post-Parker, post-McLean altoists. B+

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Music:

  • Afro-Celt Sound System: Volume 2: Release (1999, RealWorld). As a techo band, which is where I'd file them, they're not bad, but neither the Afro nor the Celt adds much to the package. B
  • Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: The Witch Doctor (1961, Blue Note). The Lee Morgan/Wayne Shorter lineup again, not as consistent as Roots and Herbs, but nearly as great. A-
  • Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (2002, Columbia). Here I find myself in the decidedly strange, if not all that uncomfortable, position of actually liking a Springsteen album more than the critical consensus. But then my idea of a good Springsteen album has always been The River -- I like it when Bruce feels good but doesn't overreach. Not that he feels so good this time, but at least his essay on recent history doesn't claim much more than a common set of perceptions, which he undersells by couching them in a somewhat duller version of his neoclassic sound. (As opposed to overselling his never-so-great auteurship through the unsustainable minimalism of Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad.) When all is said and done, Springsteen's major accomplishment was to scale good old rock 'n' roll up to arena rock standards; if that doesn't seem like much now, it's because back in 1975 we didn't realize how much more fun small bands in small venues would turn out to be. B+
  • Caetano Veloso: Livro (1998, Elektra/Nonesuch). Veloso is regarded as a giant in Brazil, but his easy-going samba has little of the bite that overcomes the need for translation. This one meets the U.S. market more than half-way, with a full book of translations and enough beat to rise from pleasant to beguiling. B+

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Music:

  • Bhundu Boys: The Shed Sessions (1982-86, Sadza, 2CD). This combines two old LPs, Shabini and Tsvimbodzemoto, which once upon a time I graded B+ and A-, respectively. I still have the LPs, so if I weren't so rushed here I should dig them out and do the comparisons. But I find myself enjoying these two CDs much more than I recall enjoying the albums. The Bhundu Boys come from Zimbabwe, which geographically puts them midway between South Africa and Zaire. The reigning pop idiom in Zimbabwe is chimurenga, which is almost a byword for Thomas Mapfumo, but what I hear here is a profound synthesis of these geographic poles: township jive vocals on top of soukous guitars. The Boys' history is tragic, but this music is exalted. A
  • John Prine: Souvenirs (2000, Oh Boy). After only writing one song on In Spite of Ourselves, this live rehash of his golden oldies looks like serious writer's block. On top of which, they're played small. Except for the exquisite "People Puttin' People Down." B+
  • James Talley: Live (1979, Bear Family). Recorded from two dates in 1979 -- one at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC, where I saw him play, well, circa 1979. Talley recorded four albums for Capitol from 1975-1977, the first one of the most finely wrought pieces of Americana ever recorded, the second a populist left-turn that yielded his trademark songs, "Tryin' Like the Devil" and "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" He was a smart writer, a sweet singer, an engaging performer, but for two decades his only outlet has been the overpriced German archivalist label, Bear Family. This one popped out in 1994; it's uneven, the sound fades, but as a memory jog it's most welcome. B+
  • James Talley: Touchstones (2002, Cimarron). Now a bit beyond middle-aged, his peak firmly anchored in 1975, here he reaches back for a bit of the glory that eluded him in his youth. Like John Prine's Souvenirs, this is product without the pain of writing new material, but whereas the Prine album feels like a holding action, this one feels like self-renewal. His voice is still great, and this time he relishes the music -- the western swing of his stone classic Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money infusing his later protest songs and his softer love songs. A-
  • Randy Travis: Trail of Memories: The Randy Travis Anthology (1985-99, Rhino, 2CD). A no-brainer: Travis' two Greatest Hits volumes were if anything too skimpy, and the later cuts don't tail off either. He's a great singer, his songs are finely drawn and acutely observed, his sense of country music so modest that it feels right without the window dressing of labels. A
  • Zimbabwe Frontline Vol. 3: Roots Rock Guitar Party (1999, Earthworks). Another real solid Earthworks survey. A-

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Music:

  • Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Roots & Herbs (1961, Blue Note). The Penguin Guide called this the "great forgotten Blakey album," and it's sent me back to the stacks to see if I could find a better one. Not yet. Wayne Shorter wrote all of the pieces here, and he sounds as good as I've ever heard him, but Lee Morgan is even more incandescent, and Blakey's drumming is endlessly inventive. A
  • Tina Brooks: Minor Move (1958, Blue Note). His first record, but the last to work its way back in print. Why it took so long is unfathomable: with Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, and Art Blakey, this is hard bop heaven. A
  • Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited: Vanhu Vatema (1994, Zimbob). The downside is that it sounds like most of his other albums, but fainter, the sound a bit washed out, a bit more subtle than supple. But then it sounds like most of his other albums, which draws you in once again. B
  • Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited: Chimurenga: African Spirit Music (1997, Womad). Similar, a bit more supple than subtle. B+
  • Jackie McLean: Capuchin Swing (1960, Blue Note). Not much more than a throwback to McLean's little-appreciated Prestige jam sessions: add Blue Mitchell up front, and a first-rate rhythm section. But McLean shines anyway. B+
  • Spaceways Incorporated: Thirteen Cosmic Standards (2000, Atavistic). The guy at the record store commented that when this tribute to Sun Ra and Funkadelic came in, they had to play it, and it really did do justice to both. My command of Sun Ra isn't good enough to really judge, but the funktoons are nice and limber, the way real jazz athletes can manoeuver around that old 4/4. Ken Vandermark, of course, is the resident genius, but Hamid Drake is quite a revelation as well. A-
  • Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul (2002, Atavistic). Ken Vandermark, Nate McBride, and Hamid Drake return -- no particular concept this time, just a set of oblique dedications ranging from Jackie Mittoo to Serge Chaloff. The growth from the previous album is palpable, especially in McBride's rock-solid grooves, but above all I think it's Vandermark's most concetrated playing to date. The jazz album of the year. A
  • Sonny Boy Williamson: His Best (1955-64, MCA/Chess). Any artist who can fill 2-CDs as brilliantly as The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson doesn't need a cheapo single CD sampler: while the high points are mostly here, a more leisurely pace is all the more delectable. And again, this is a bit shorter than the otherwise equivalent The Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues. If you don't know him, start anywhere: his harp is world-class, his voice definitive, but his sense of rhythm is what really puts him over the top. It's not just his little lady who gives eyesight to the blind. A

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Music: It's been a couple of weeks since I've bothered to rate anything. Time to catch up.

  • Merle Haggard: For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits (1999, BNA, 2CD). Freshly re-recorded -- has anyone re-recorded his catalog more than Haggard? Loses little, adds less, except for the whiff of consumer fraud. B-
  • Peggy Lee & Benny Goodman: The Complete Recordings (1941-47, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). This roughly documents the transition from big dance bands with the occasional singer to vocal stars backed by big orchestratation. Lee is a good singer, but as the spotlight focuses in on her, the horns stultify into filler, and even Goodman's own effervescent solos -- which are often the high points here -- are crowded out. B
  • Peggy Lee: The Best of Miss Peggy Lee (1945-69, Capitol). This condenses an unheard 4CD box set, providing a good sampler for a dozen or so big pop hits, along with some dull early cuts with hubby Dave Barbour's band. B+
  • Marilyn Monroe: The Essential Recordings (1951-62, Music Club). A better singer than I'd expected, but rarely distinctive. The recordings here mostly issue from movies, where the context is missed, and the excess piles up. B-
  • Dolly Parton: Little Sparrow (2001, Sugar Hill). The grass is blue once more, the all-star support puts out, but the songs are getting pretty limpid. B
  • Frank Sinatra: Strangers in the Night (1966, Reprise). Short -- ten songs, only three of which crack three minutes, only one topping 3:17. Breezy -- one of those rare Sinatra records where the arrangements (Nelson Riddle, natch) just carry the Voice along for the ride. Not that the Voice can quite keep up with "Downtown," but at a more stately pace it's far from shot. I'm impressed. A-
  • Team Dresch: Captain My Captain (1996, Chainsaw). Hard. Tight. Indistinct. Or maybe just too hard and tight to follow or much care about. B


Aug 2002 Oct 2002