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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

By Joel Francis

Here we go. Back into the stacks of wax.

L7 – Scatter the Rats (2019) If you were worried that L7 might have mellowed over the two decades since their last release, you can rest easy. The four females are just as fierce and uncompromising as you remembered from ‘90s alternative/punk classics Smell the Magic and Hungry for Stink. Honestly, Scatter the Rats is better than anything they’ve done since those two albums. Put this on and watch the paint peel from the wall.

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970) The pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd catalog is a lot more interesting to me than their commercial and artistic peaks in the mid-to-late 1970s. I love hearing them find their voice as a quartet, adding and subtracting elements. Atom Heart Mother is their dalliance with an orchestra. The strings on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” are a loose starting point here, but no one seems to know where they fit on the Floyd songs. That’s the first side, at least. The second side is more democratic, with each of the group’s three songwriters taking turns at the mic on original songs. The last track is a 13-minute instrumental called “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” whose title sums up the album perfectly.

Randy Newman – Land of Dreams (1988) I once played this album for a friend. After the first song, she politely demurred that this wasn’t what she normally enjoyed. Translation: It’s milquetoast old-people music. While Newman’s production is certainly lush and radio-friendly, his lyrics, storytelling and sly, subversive humor are more compelling than they may come off at first blush. Land of Dreams was supposed to be Newman’s musical autobiography. He gave up at some point, but we still get the captivating opener “Dixie Flyer” and most of the songs on side one. The ballad “Falling in Love” displays the cinematic touch that established Newman as an in-demand film composer. (Is it just me or is there a bit of “You’ve Got a Friend” in this tune?) The second side isn’t as successful, but it concludes on a couple of high notes: the hit “It’s the Money that Matters” and the wrenching ballad “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” It’s more than enough to make up for the embarrassing faux-rap of “Red Bandana.”

Tony Bennett – Jazz (compilation) This two-album collection pulls Tony Bennett’s collaborations with jazz musicians who are as proficient with their instruments as Bennett is with his incredible voice. It’s easy to take Bennett’s singing for granted. It seems he’s never encountered a song he can’t make his own. The treat, then, is hearing that voice spar and hang with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann and Count Basie. I’m partial to the performance of “Just One of Those Things” with Art Blakey and the West Coast swing of “Clear Out of this World” but everything here is top-notch.

Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (2009) According to legend, this is the set that followed Jimi Hendrix at the legendary British music festival. Leonard Cohen only had two albums under his belt at the time of this recording, but it’s amazing to see how many songs included in this set would remain concert favorites until the end of his life. The performance also has a folky atmosphere, filled with acoustic guitars, fiddle, banjo and piano. The Isle of Wight performance shows little of the polished sophisticated sheen that Cohen’s later concerts would adopt. Put this on for a down-home experience with the poet extraordinaire.

Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges – Hawkins! Eldridge! Hodges! Alive! at the Village Gate (1962) Here is the sound of three pre-war titans muscling their way back into a musical conversation that has seemingly moved away from them. They do it not by adapting to a bop or modal vocabulary, but by stretching out and showing how those elements were always present in the swing music they helped popularize and pioneer. There are only three songs here – each of them well over 10 minutes – but they are more than enough to make the point.

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By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A recent trip to New Orleans provided me the opportunity to bask in several facets of jazz. When possible, I took video footage to preserve a few choice moments.

My first night in the Big Easy, I stopped in at the legendary Preservation Hall. With its intentionally rough-hewn interior, stepping inside was like visiting a living history farm. The Hall has been a tourist destination for half a century, but don’t let that keep you away. Sure, this may be the only live jazz most people will hear for the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing. The setlist stuck to pre-war standards, but they were delivered with plenty of fun and energy. The venue’s name is apt. The arrangements aren’t groundbreaking, but the Preservation Hall band is keeping a sound alive that may otherwise have been forgotten. Unfortunately, no audio or video is allowed.

Located on Bourbon Street a few blocks from Preservation Hall (and near Skully’s, a great record store), Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub draws on the same era, but from a different perspective. If Preservation Hall celebrates the Sidney Bechet of New Orleans, Fritzel’s commemorates the European Bechet. In fact, thanks to an audience request, the band leader treated the crowd to a great version of Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” The 1959 hit isn’t the easiest song to master, but the clarinet player blew effortlessly. I was able to take a little video to capture the atmosphere in Fritzel’s.

After two days in the French Quarter, I had had enough. The tourist trap may be fine for less-seasoned travelers, but I quickly discovered Frenchmen Street was where the locals partied, The corridor featured many fine clubs within the space of a few blocks, including Snug Harbor, the Apple Barrel and my destination for the next two nights, the Blue Nile and d.b.a.

Kermit Ruffins has enough of a following that he can play nearly every night of the week. Locals now have to share Ruffins with tourists (like me) thanks to his appearances on “Treme.” The two-hour set was filled with standards like “What a Wonderful World” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which Ruffins managed to freshen up without offending purists. An entertainer and trumpet player from the Satchmo school, Ruffins was determined to make everyone in room smile and get on their feet. The best moment arrived after an intermission, when the house PA’s version of Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Ya” faded into a live version, with Ruffin’s delivering a blistering post-Katrina rhyme. Here is some footage I shot of Ruffin infusing the Black Eyed Peas with some much-needed zydeco.

On my final night in NOLA, I returned to Frenchmen Street to witness Rebirth Brass Band at d.b.a. There are a myriad of great brass bands in the Crescent City, but Rebirth may be the only one that can boast a parental advisory rating in its catalog. The eight-piece unit mixes funk and hip hop into the traditional brass band sound. The stifling heat in the small room couldn’t keep the crowd from dancing, and the band seemed to be having the most fun. Here’s a bit of Rebirth’s tribute to another native son, Fats Domino.

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(Above: Return to Forever rock Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” to close their performance at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stanley Clarke announced to an excited Midland Theater crowd that this latest version of Return to Forever wasn’t like all those other reunion bands who declare that a tour was their last time around. Rather, the bass player said, Return to Forever were just turning a new page.

Keyboardist Chick Corea has reconvened his famous Return to Forever groups several times since the band’s 1970s heydays. The current incarnation –- dubbed Return to Forever IV -– comprises Corea, Clarke and drummer Lenny White with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale on guitar.Clarke’s comment may have seemed an odd way to describe a two-hour repertoire was at least 30, and sometimes nearly 40, years old, but while the tones and textures of the original recordings remained unchanged, it was obvious the musicians were having fun exploring this music in a new context.
The quintet’s massive sound easily filled the big room. Playing at rock-show volume they opened with “Medieval Overture,” the first of three songs pulled from their classic “Romantic Warrior” album. White’s drums and Corea’s keys were pristine throughout the night, but it took a couple songs before Clarke and Ponty got the prominence in the mix they deserved.The telepathy Corea, Clarke and White have developed playing together over the decades were obvious from the first notes. While they were far from ringers, it seemed to take Ponty and Gambale a moment to insert their voices in the conversation, although the mix may have contributed to this as well.

Once the sound and musicians adjusted the already-nimble music hit warp speed. Ponty had already soloed before sounding off of Corea’s piano during the snippet of “The Shadow of Lo” that prefaced “Sorceress,” but in that moment he established his presence.

Ponty dominated the next number, a reading of his 1975 composition “Renaissance.” The first completely acoustic number of the night, it demonstrated the ensemble was still just as powerful in the quieter setting.

On “Romantic Warrior,” the other unplugged number, Clarke essentially turned his upright into a massive drum by slapping the neck with alternating hands. Although everyone took impressive solos, Clarke and Ponty’s seemed to generate the most applause throughout the evening.

The night ended with a celebratory romp through Clarke’s “School Days” with Clarke and Gambale standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of the stage strutting and strumming like rock stars.

Zappa Plays Zappa: Pairing RTF’s progressive jazz with Zappa’s progressive whatever-it-is was inspired. Dweezil Zappa led an eight-piece band through a one-hour exploration of his father’s catalog. The arrangements were faithful enough to the original recordings to satisfy Zappa’s rabid following, but managed to include several delightful surprises as well. Corea joined the group for “King Kong.” The set also included “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” “Big Swifty” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

RTF Setlist: Medieval Overture; Captain Senor Mouse; The Shadow of Lo (excerpt) > Sorceress; Renaissance; After the Cosmic Rain; Romantic Warrior; Spain. Encore: School Days.

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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Year-end, Top 10 lists are everywhere. Only The Daily Record presents its favorite records in haiku. Enjoy.

1. Arcade Fire – Suburbs

Four sides of vinyl.
Suburban sprawl? Viewing life
takes time to explore.

2. The Roots – How I Got Over

Late night’s finest band
drops another classic.
Best since “Game Theory.”

3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

Ambitious concept
spread over diverse styles,
An amazing voice.

4. Bobby Watson – Gates BBQ Suite

Mouth-watering sounds
Basie, Ollie should be proud
Tribute to KayCee

5. Black Keys – Brothers

Broader sound gives pair
more room for dirty landscapes
Blues and guitar bros.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Self-proclaimed jerk
Submits tortured, twisted art
Tender, repulsive

7. Cee-Lo Green – The Ladykiller

Soul man blurs genres
for nonstop party. Like it?
If not, forget you.

8. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Lefty, Son of Chico Dusty

Execs slow release,
block Andre, but can’t stop fun.
More “Speakerboxx” joy.

9. Oriole Post – Silver City

A down-home hoedown
Warm as buttermilk biscuits
Full of Midwest heart.

10. Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider

Piano maestro
back with Josh Redman.
Expansive, probing.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Albums of 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Top 10 albums of 2005

Top 10 Albums of 2004

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 (Above: Branford Marsalis solos and shows off his new drummer, Justin Faulkner, at a 2009 concert.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Saturday’s Branford Marsalis concert at the Gem Theater was a night of new beginnings.

The show kicked off the 2010-2011 season of Jammin’ at the Gem and featured new bass player Robert Hurst – this was only his second gig with the quartet in as many nights. It even opened with a new song.

That number, tentatively titled “Joey’s Tune” after its composer, pianist Joey Calderazzo, was a bit of an outlier. Admittedly a work in progress, the arrangement was busy to the point of claustrophobia. When Marsalis stepped back, Calderazzo and drummer Justin Faulkner flooded the room so completely one wondered if Marsalis would be able to wedge his way back in the song.

Fortunately, the rest of the two-hour set fared better. Alternating between soprano and tenor saxophones, Marsalis guided the band through breakneck changes and lumbering mood pieces. Some of his solos displayed the pop sensibilities that made him the go-to hornsmith for Sting and Bruce Hornsby, yet his playing was always challenging, never resting too lightly on the ears.

If the set had one blemish it was that Marsalis seemed too content to introduce a number with a solo, then step away for the rest of the number to let his trio play. Aside from being the best player onstage, Marsalis’ horn was the catalyst that helped the rest of the sounds to coalesce.

“The Blossom of Parting,” a track from Marsalis’ 2009 album “Metamorphosen” was the high point of night. The song opened softly with Marsalis on soprano sax, and Faulkner switching between brushes and mallets to build new textures. Calderazzo’s mesmerizing solo blurred the lines between jazz and classical music, and showed more than a hint of Brad Mehldau’s plaintive style. When the band re-entered, Marsalis gradually built the song’s intensity. Before the song could climax, however, an over-exuberant Faulkner accidentally knocked his ride cymbal to the floor. It wasn’t the ending Marsalis hoped for, but the audience took in stride and responded with a standing ovation.

Faulkner had no problem filling the drum stool occupied by Marsalis’ longtime beatman Jeff “Tain” Watts. On a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo,” Faulkner traded bars with Marsalis with a maturity that outpaced his age of 19 and an energy that underlined it. His solo during a later song recalled another drummer of Marsalis’ acquaintance, Art Blakey.

Hurst also handled himself well, despite sight-reading all of the material. His lengthy solo would have worked better tied to a song than as a stand-alone piece. Aside from that moment, Hurst drew little attention to himself – a positive attribute for now in these new surroundings.

The evening ended with an encore of “St. Louis Blues” that found Marsalis showing off his New Orleans roots and reeling off some Satchmo-like trumpet licks on his saxophone.

Keep reading:

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(Above: Ahmad Alaadeen plays for Charlie Parker at a 2008 graveside memorial service.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

I grew up in a musical household where classical was the genre of choice. Consequently, I was left to discover everything else on my own.

NPR was my gateway to jazz. The car my parents let me drive in high school didn’t have much that worked (including heat or air conditioning, which ensured I wouldn’t venture too far from home). The radio, however, was fine. On evening drives I switched between KCUR and KANU, both of which had long blocks of jazz into the night.

I couldn’t tell you who was playing at any given moment. If the song didn’t reach me, or the announcers started talking too much I’d hit the button for the other station. Although I didn’t know Mingus from Monk, I did know that this stuff was a heck of a lot better than hearing the same Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs for the millionth time on commercial rock stations.

The other jazz fact I knew all too well was that everyone I had heard of was no longer living. Like the classical music my parents enjoyed, the genre was confined to corpses, their legacies entombed with Beethoven and Armstrong.

Ahmad Alaadeen was my entry into jazz as a living art form. My sister told me a “guy who played with Billie Holliday” was having a concert in a church near Paseo and Linwood. I convinced a couple of friends to make the trek with me, and we were all blown away. I can’t remember what he played, but I know he played in a trio and the drummer had the tiniest kit I had ever seen. At most he had four pieces, but he did more with those than any of the rock drummers with mega-kits I had seen.

After that show I started paying more attention to jazz shows around town. School prevented me from attending most, but I made it a point to see who had played and check out their music from the library. I also started paying more attention to Kansas City’s role in jazz history. As I did, I realized many of the roads led back to Jay McShann (then still living) and the horn players whom he gave his first jobs: Charlie Parker and Alaadeen. (Both men also shared the same saxophone teacher, Leo Davis.)

It seems strange to say, but I had almost forgotten about that Alaadeen performance until I saw him receive the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award last May at the Gem Theater. Clark Terry received the same award that night and, deservedly, most of the attention. Terry, however, only sang two songs and did not play. Alaadeen was right there on the front row of the orchestra, horn in his mouth, blowing several solos during the evening’s tribute to Duke Ellington.

A couple days later, Alaadeen’s neighborhood threw a celebration in his honor. I was able to convince one of my friends who saw Alaadeen with me over a decade before to join our party. As we congratulated Alaadeen on the award, I reminded my friend of that show.

Alaadeen didn’t play that night. He seemed content to sit in his lawn chair, greet fans and take in the neighborhood funk band. We had hoped he would play, but weren’t too disappointed – there would be other opportunities.

None of us could have predicted that in a little more than three months Alaadeen would be gone. Next to the frail Terry on the stage of the Gem, he seemed immortal. Shortly after that weekend he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. News of his cancer only emerged a few weeks ago before his passing.

In hindsight, this award came at the right time. It was the final show of the 2009-2010 Jammin’ at the Gem series. Who knew he wouldn’t live to see the opening of the next season?

When Alaadeen received another award to honor his work as an educator at the neighborhood party he seemed overwhelmed by the weekend. He stood silently at the mic for a few moments, as if recording everything in his mind. Finally, he spoke.

“I’m at a loss for words,” he admitted. Then he paused. “I will never forget this.”

Me neither.

Keep reading:

Sho’ Nuff: Alaadeen’s blog

Clark Terry’s Last Stand

Remembering Rusty

A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz

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