shabaka and the ancestors, hinds, the 1975 album cover

Random record reviews: Hinds, The 1975, Shabaka and the Ancestors

By Joel Francis

Hinds – The Prettiest Curse

hinds album cover

One need only compare the cover of Hinds’ third album, The Prettiest Curse, to their previous albums to notice change is afoot. While the first two covers look like yearbook photos shot in a dark corner of a gymnasium, The Prettiest Curse looks like it came from Glamour Shots.  While the music is similarly polished, it thankfully retains its soul and effervescent fun.

The album is filled with nods to the Strokes, the Breeders and the band’s hometown, Madrid, Spain. Back-to-back standout tracks “Boy” and “Come Back and Love Me <3” not only feature the quartet’s first Spanish lyrics, but an unguarded tenderness. This newfound vulnerability returns a few songs later, on “Take Me Back.”

Fans of Hinds early albums need not worry. They still know how to rock, but by peeling back the garage rock aesthetic, The Prettiest Curse reveals Hinds have considerable songwriting chops as well.

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

With a running time only slightly shorter than most romantic comedies, the fourth album from Manchester pop rockers The 1975 suggests an overstuffed epic. Instead, Notes on a Conditional Form plays like a manic yet polished playlist, careening from one style to another with little regard to flow.

The seven singles plucked from the album so far have done a good job of cherry-picking the high points, from arena rock and dancefloor pop to a tender acoustic duet and ‘80s pastiche. If that’s not enough, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, a gospel choir, an orchestra and several atmospheric pieces also appear.

There’s enough here that everyone will find at least a few tracks to like, but without a core narrative or flow, the album just ambles along. After 22 songs, Notes doesn’t conclude as much as it stops. It’s an album ripe for selective shopping, but spreading the songs across a surprisingly succinct four sides of vinyl, creates mini playlists. These smaller doses work in the album’s favor and make for a more enjoyable listen.

Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History

In the 1960s, Impulse Records was responsible for releasing some of the most incendiary and forward-leaning albums by John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. The spirit of those recordings thrives on Impulse’s latest release, the second album by Shabaka and the Ancestors. The 11 cuts on We Are Sent Here By History are filled with a sense of urgency and vitality that make them the perfect soundtrack to our tension-filled time.

Quite simply, there are no songs or even bad moments on this album. Imagine Kamasi Washington spiked with Afro-beat and the best elements of those ‘60s Impulse releases and you’re close. We Are Sent By History is an essential addition to any music library.

Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37

By Joel Francis

The nice weather is giving me a different type of spring fever. I miss baseball and concerts and hanging out with friends. Thankfully, there is always music. Let’s dive back into the stacks.

Dave Douglas and High Risk – Dark Territory (2016) A few years ago, it felt like there was a trend, or maybe it was a micro-trend, of acoustic jazz musicians performing with electronic musicians. Pianist Brad Mehldau did it with drummer Mark Guiliana and trumpet player Dave Douglas collaborated with electronic artist Shigeto for two albums under the High Risk moniker. Both projects were mostly rewarding and enjoyable. I had the good fortune to see High Risk play at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in support of their first album. Watching Shigeto respond to Douglas’ playing, and then hearing how the rhythm section responded to their interplay was fascinating. I know there can be an easy temptation to assume electronic musicians pre-program beats and melodies and the acoustic musicians shape their music around that, but High Risk was a true live collaboration.  Dark Territory is the most recent High Risk album but I’m still holding onto hope that we might get another album from them at some point. I also hope more musicians explore this concept.

The Clash – Cut the Crap (1985)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 1 (2017)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 2/The Future Was Unwritten (2018) The final album from the seminal punk group The Clash is a mess, not even a hot mess. The conventional thinking is that solid songs were killed by poor (over)production. The good folks at Crooked Beat Records, a shop I used to visit regularly when I had relatives in Washington, D.C., tested this theory by rounding up several local bands to put their spin on the material written after guitarist Mick Jones was fired from the band and manager Bernie Rhodes assumed more control over the group’s music. It looks solid on paper and in truth it’s not bad on record, either. However, the thesis doesn’t hold up for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think all of the songs are as strong as they could be. Joe Strummer didn’t have Jones there to bounce ideas off and push him to improve the material. Secondly, the Clash are a hard band to cover. Sure, you can get the chords right and nail the lyrics, but the non-musical elements – the hunger, the spirit, the righteousness – can’t be taught or copied. You either have them or you don’t. A lot of big-name acts learned this the hard way on the disastrous Burning London tribute album back in 1999. 

Recutting the Crap is best when Cut the Crap is its worst; the lesser known, underdeveloped materials. The tribute runs into problems on “This Is England,” easily the best song on Cut the Crap, and the bonus album of songs that could have been Clash songs. Joe Strummer’s solo contributions to soundtracks and his collaborations with Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Here, the original material is so strong that the covers, however well-intentioned, come off as pale covers.

Both Cut the Crap and Recutting the Crap are interesting endeavors, but each fall short of the goal line for different reasons.

Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) The NYC noise rockers found the perfect balance between their early indie releases and having a major label budget (and promotion) on Dirty, their seventh album. “Sugar Kane” and “Wish Fulfillment” strike the balance between melody and discord. “Youth Against Fascism” and “Chapel Hill” have a strong political message as urgent and unruly as what Rage Against the Machine was doing at the time (albeit with a different musical approach). Then there are savage cuts like “Drunken Butterfly” and “Purr” that no doubt confounded the record label executives. The deluxe edition I own contains two extra LPs containing b-sides and rehearsal tracks. A cover of Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body” sung by Kim Gordon picks up the same feminist string as the Dirty album track“Swimsuit Issue.” A sideways tribute to the New York Dolls on “Personality Crisis” is a hoot. The works-in-progress recordings fill out the story of Dirty, but they’re not interesting enough on their own to keep me turning back to them as often as the album.

Dirty is my favorite major-label era Sonic Youth album. It’s likely that even casual Sonic Youth fans will get Dirty frequently. Anyone nostalgic for the early ‘90s alt-rock scene should check it out as well.

John Coltrane – Ballads (1963) Entire books and doctoral theses have been written about John Coltrane’s genius. I’m not sure I have anything to add, except to say that hearing Coltrane perform with his classic quartet – and especially McCoy Tyner, who we talked about way back on Day 2, is always a deep pleasure. Listening to him hold back the sheets of sound for this slower material provides yet another layer of reward. Put this on after a stressful day for the perfect lull in the storm.

U2 – Pop (1997) U2’s PopMart tour marked the first time I saw the band in concert, so I’m a little biased toward this album. Pop also feels like the last moment that U2 stopped trying to be U2 and while I enjoy several of their albums after this, they also feel very safe and calculated. At the time it came out, recording for the album ran late, cutting into tour rehearsal time and resulting in a rush-released product. You can still hear the effects of this today because the album feels disjointed. I think listening to Pop on vinyl improves the experience because there are forced pauses in the music between sides. The first side contains the opening three hard dance songs. More gentle, acoustic numbers comprise most of the second side, segueing into the most experimental (and weakest) material on the third side (“Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion”). Pop ends with three atmospheric, contemplative tracks on the final side. Being able to concentrate on one style of song at a time gives the album an extended EP feel, which helps it. Regardless how you feel about Pop, the sound of U2 swinging for the fences and missing here is still vastly preferable to the weak bunts and sacrifice fly balls they’ve been serving up for the most part ever since.

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (2015) The seventh album from the Portland, Ore., indie rockers was also the first release that they sounded like themselves for a while. They went all-in on the proggy concept album “The Hazards of Love,” then responded with the very poppy and folky The King is Dead (which we discussed back on Day 18). Finally, the pendulum arrived back in the middle for this excellent release. Several moments, including “Cavalry Captain” and “Mistral,” recall the high points of their early albums. They break the fourth wall on opening number “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which comes across as a more academic (and less fun) version of “The Wilco Song,” only with references to Axe shampoo. The centerpiece is “12/17/12,” a response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that leaves me with a lump in my throat every time. This is a good place to start if you are curious about the band. Longtime Decemberists fans will find much to love here as well.

The White Stripes – The White Stripes XX (2019) Arriving just in time for the 20th anniversary of the White Stripes’ debut album, this look back includes a record of studio outtakes from the album’s studio recording sessions, and a set from the duo’s tour opening for Pavement. (A DVD documents an additional show from that year.) The platter of outtakes reveal a couple items of curiosity. The is an early version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which wouldn’t appear until the band’s third album. The smoking version of “Little Red Book” is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. The most surprising thing about the live set is that it exists at all. If you listened to the first season of the Striped podcast, you may remember that the Stripes were essentially driving themselves to these shows and losing money in doing so. It’s amazing that Jack and Meg had the money and foresight to roll tape on these gigs at all. The other revelation is how fully formed their sound is, right off the bat. The recording is a little distant, but the essence of the band that ended up playing arenas around the world is very present on this tiny club stage. Ultimately, there’s nothing here that replaces the raw, honest goodness of the White Stripes’ first album (with the exception of that “Little Red Book.” Yowza!) but the material here is the perfect complement. A dig through the detritus for those who want it.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 8

By Joel Francis

Joe Tex – I Gotcha (1972) Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Joe Tex through the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. Like most of Quentin Tarantino’s musical moments, “I Gotcha” was placed perfectly in the film, when the guys bring the captive cop back to the warehouse. I can’t remember where or when I first encountered “You Said a Bad Word,” but that song captured the same sexual menace, braggadocio and funk as “I Gotcha.” If you liked one, you would surely like the other. Lucky for me, those songs kick off each side of this album. “Give the Baby Anything That Baby Wants” was another single released from this album in the same vein as “I Gotcha” and “Bad Word.” The ballads on here aren’t bad, but when I spin this record I want to strut.

Cannonball Adderly – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at The Club (1966) If you don’t recognize the name Cannonball Adderly, you may know him as the saxophone player who isn’t John Coltrane on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This album is a world away from Davis’ celebrated release, but it is fantastic in its own right. The title song actually crossed over on the pop charts and it’s easy to see why. It kind of rolls in from nowhere before building into a big gospel-fueled chorus. Composer Joe Zawinul takes a solo on the electric piano as the melody percolates until the band churns back into that big chorus. It’s the kind of song that could go on forever. To my ears, it also points the way to the jazz television themes of the 1970s and ‘80s, like Bob James’ “Angela,” used for Taxi and Mike Post’s theme for “Hill Street Blues.” If Zawinul’s name sounds familiar, he played on Davis’ fusion landmarks “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” before founding Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Oh, and the rest of this live album is great, too.

Neko Case – The Tigers Have Spoken (2004) Technically this is a live album, but there’s no crowd noise or stage banter (until a hidden track at the end), so you could be forgiven for thinking this is a studio release. Either way, hearing Neko Case perform songs by Buffy Saint Marie and Loretta Lynn is a treat. Gospel music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Case, but she and her top-shelf band do right by “This Little Light.” My hometown even gets a nod on “The Train from Kansas City.” All in all, The Tigers Have Spoken isn’t as essential or immediate as the many studio albums containing her original compositions, but it is a great homage to some of the people who inspired her.

Red Kate – Unamerican Activities (2016) Nearly every December for the past several years the RecordBar has hosted a great tribute to the late Clash singer and guitarist Joe Strummer. I always make it a point to attend because it is an opportunity to hear songs by my favorite band performed live. Red Kate were the closing performers in 2018 and blew me away with their intensity. Afterward, I struck up a conversation with lead singer L. Ron Drunkard – shout-out to that amazing stage name – who is exactly who you’d expect him to be: A guy who fell in love with punk music as a kid and has been playing in bands for most of his life while holding down a day job to pay the bills.

The music on Unamerican Activities reflects that proletariat, we’re-all-in-this-together perspective. These songs hit hard and punch back at the ruling class. No one’s working for the clampdown in these quarters.

Roy Orbison – All-Time Greatest Hits (1986) Every music collection needs so Roy Orbison, so this was one of the earliest albums I bought. A closer look reveals this aren’t the original recordings of Orbison’s best-known songs, but remakes done in 1986. The big clues are that the musician credits are the same for all tracks and there aren’t any licensing arrangements for the singles that were initially issued across several labels. The good news is that the producers didn’t try to update the Orbison sound. There are no gated drums or synthesizers and Orbison still hits all the right notes on “Cryin’” so this collection still works for me.

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990) Despite its provocative title, Public Enemy’s third album isn’t as incendiary as the first two. This isn’t to say Chuck D is pulling any punches. “Burned Hollywood Burned” torches the movie industry for black stereotypes and the lack of black actors a generation before #OscarsSoWhite. “Fight the Power” doesn’t attempt to hide its manifesto. Deeper into this dense album “Pollywannacracka” discusses interracial couples (before Jungle Fever, I might add). Flava Flav’s comic relief comes in the form of “911 is a Joke.” Ha ha.

In a way, Black Planet is a distillation of the first two albums in manner more palatable to mainstream tastes. It’s PE’s best-selling album, but also the last album where nothing feels forced and it doesn’t seem like they are trying too hard. Looking at current headlines and the spike in hate crimes since 2017, it seems the concept of a black planet is still a very present fear in society today. Welcome to the terrordome.

John Fogerty – Blue Ridge Rangers (1973) John Fogerty was snake-bitten and gun-shy after the demise of Creedence Clearwater Revival. His label owner swindled him out of songwriting royalties and his brother Tom had sided with the label before bitterly leaving CCR. This is probably why John Fogerty’s name is hard to find anywhere on this debut solo album. The Blue Ridge Rangers are actually Fogerty playing all the instruments. He does a good job sounding like Nashville session players during this romp through a dozen country standards. My favorites are the gospel songs “Working on a Building” and “Somewhere Listening,” each featuring a choir of Fogertys on backing vocals. The performance of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” is as close as the album gets to CCR territory.

Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages (1974) Finding someone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is like encountering someone who hates rainbows, ice cream and puppies. I mean, I guess mathematically that person has to exist, but you never expect (or hope) to encounter him or her. I’ll never forget a former co-worker’s diatribe against Nelson, but I took some satisfaction in knowing the disdain was for political, rather than musical reasons.

Phases and Stages is the album that immediately preceded Nelson’s breakthrough, Red-Headed Stranger and also the second of what would be three consecutive concept albums. I’d say that period represents peak Nelson, but the truth is that Nelson turns out so many albums and so many of them are solid that any valleys are likely to be followed by a couple more peaks. If you love country music, rainbows, ice cream and puppies, you should have this album. If you don’t like any of these, I feel sorry for you.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

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.

A Christmas conversation

(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

A Black Friday blowout

(Above: Jazz pianist Mark Lowrey teamed up with local musicians for the second installment of the Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop series.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Mark Lowrey sits behind a grand piano, contemplating using a Thelonious Monk number as an introduction to the rapper Common’s song “Thelonious.” As his fingers coax a signature Monk melody from the keys, bass player Dominique Sanders and drummer Ryan Lee nod in approval.

“I thought it was really obvious at first,” Lowrey admits. “But sometimes obvious is good.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Lowrey and his rhythm section are sorting through ideas, sketching a musical landscape. They are joined by singer Schelli Tolliver and MCs Les Izmore and Reach. The final vision – a bridging of jazz and hip hop, structured and improvised – will be displayed tonight at Crosstown Station. The Black Friday ensemble takes the stage at 10 p.m. Cover is $10.

“We’ll be doing a mix of originals and covers,” says trumpet player Hermon Mehari, who will also be participating. “We’re playing tribute to some of the great hip hop artists of our time like Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla. Additionally, Reach and Les will both do some originals.”

After a few trials, the Monk number “I Mean You” has been successfully married to “Thelonious.” On “The Light,” another Common song, the band suddenly drops into Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” right after the lyric “It’s kinda fresh you listen to more than hip hop.”

KC MCs Les Izmore (left) and Reach salute Charlie Parker inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

“When Les and Diverse played this (‘The Light’) earlier this year they did ‘Unforgettable’ in that spot,” Lowrey says. “Everybody liked that, but we didn’t want to use the same thing. We were tossing out ideas, and someone suggested Michael Jackson.”

That same process informed the playlist. Everyone presented the songs they wanted to do, and the set was culled from what worked and how the band’s reactions. When Reach takes the mic for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” he intersperses short bursts of freestyle around the original lyrics. A later run through of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” reveals an energy only hinted at on the Top 10 single. As Reach commands the imaginary crowd to wave their arms, Lee goes berserk on his drum kit.

“These shows have a different energy than Hearts of Darkness,” Izmore says of the local Afrobeat group he fronts. “With those shows you’re always trying to keep people dancing and keep the energy high. Here you can chill out and listen.”

Rehearsals will soon move to Crosstown Station, but for tonight the Mutual Musicians Foundation is home. The hallowed hall on Highland, home to Hootie and Bird, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. The spirit of innovation those musicians introduced to the world via Kansas City is very much on display in the current sextet. Some may scoff that jazz and hip hop may seem to exist on disparate planets, but their orbits collide surprisingly often.

“I grew up on jazz, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald,” Reach says. “She (Ella) very much influenced my delivery and the way I play with cadences.”

Lowrey first toyed with combining rap and hip hop when he invited local MC Kartoon to sit in with his group a couple years ago. Both artists enjoyed the experience and Kartoon put Lowrey in touch with other vocalists in the KC hip hop scene.

“Hip hop has always been influenced by jazz,” Reach says. “Now, because the younger jazz musicians have grown up with hip hop, we are seeing it influence jazz. It’s kind of come full circle.”

In the past year, Lowrey has hosted several Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop concerts. The shows are basic, but explosive. Lowrey and drummer Brandon Draper create free jazz textures, as MCs and musicians alike improvise over the ever-changing structure.

“Our arrangements for this show are based in the tradition of jazz where you play the melody, then improvise over the chords before coming back to the head (melody),” Lowrey says. “The only difference is that we’re adding MCs in the mix with the horns.”

At another jazz/hip hop mash-up last February, Izmore and Diverse, a local jazz quartet that includes Mehari and Lee, celebrated the 10th anniversary of Common’s album “Like Water For Chocolate” by rearranging and performing the record in its entirety. The night ended with an encore of the Charlie Parker song “Diverse.”

“I’ve never seen a crowd of non-jazz fans so into the music,” Mehari says. “It’s the perfect example of what we want to do. Bring people in with hip hop and music they want to hear, then take them on a journey to new sounds. Once we’ve earned their trust, they’ll follow us anywhere.”

Keep reading:

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Open wide for Mouth

On the Streets of Philadelphia

(Above: Billy Paul’s 1972 smash “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a quintessential slice of Philly soul.)

All Photos by Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There’s no shortage of history to be discovered and embraced in the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, the many of Philadelphia’s musical landmarks have not been preserved as well as those associated with the Founding Fathers. Here is a photo essay from my brief trip to the city.

When Billie Holiday’s mother discovered she was pregnant in 1915, her parents exiled the unwed mother-to-be from their Baltimore home. Holiday’s mother settled in Philadelphia and gave birth in a housing development near what is now the theater district off Broad Street. The family returned to Baltimore shortly after Holiday was born.

The original building long destroyed, this marker is the only sign of Holiday’s neighborhood connection.

In 1952, John Coltrane used his GI Bill funds to purchase this three story brick house on 33rd Street. Coltrane’s house was on the right side of the building, now marked with a white door. The house looked to be in horrible shape, but no worse than the surrounding neighborhood. Several inches of trash lined the curb inside the street, broken windows and doors marked nearly every residence on the block. Located across the street from Fairmount Park, this was a rough part of town, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

A small red appendix on the street sign across the road is the only marker of John Coltrane’s former home in the area. The jazz giant obviously deserves better, but his old neighborhood has greater needs than gentrification.

This sculpture, located near Penn’s Landing, bears no obvious resemblance to any well-known saxophone players, but I thought it was fun.

With no signage or even address on the building, it’s very difficult to locate Sigma Sound Studios. Fortunately, someone was going into the building I suspected might have been home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Phildelphia in the 1970s. David Bowie also recorded “Young Americans” behind these smokey windows.

Blessed with excellent timing, the employee I spotted entering the building graciously let me inside. Because they were being renovated, I couldn’t view the actual studios, but here’s the lobby of Sigma Sound Studios.

The Simgma lobby was decorated with awards from the golden age of Philly Soul. This platinum album celebrates Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album “Life is a Song Worth Singing.” Look for an exclusive interview with Sigma’s owner Durell Bottoms this fall in The Daily Record.

Review: Kind of Blue turns 50

(Above: Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band delivers “The Theme” – and a drum solo.)

By Joel Francis

Jimmy Cobb had been onstage at the Gem Theater for over an hour Saturday night before he finally gave the capacity crowd what they came for: a drum solo.

As the last living musician from the landmark Miles Davis sessions for “Kind of Blue,” Cobb would have deserved an ovation regardless of what he played. The taught and thunderous riffs that snapped from his 80-year-old wrists would have been impressive from someone half Cobb’s age.

All year Cobb and his sextet, dubbed the So What Band, have toured the world celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue.” Since Cobb is the last living musician from those sessions, it’s a noble gesture and fantastic marketing, but the execution could have been deadly. Play it too close to the original and you end up with paint-by-numbers Davis and John Coltrane. Improvise too much and the music not only loses its spirit, but the evening seems like a gimmick.

Fortunately, the band played it down the middle, playing homage without slavish dedication. As the trumpet player, Wallace Roney had the greatest cross to bear. While not emulating Davis, Roney’s similar moody tone and posture made comparisons inevitable. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson seemed hesitant and overwhelmed at times in his role filling Coltrane’s shoes but overall added a strong voice to the night.

As the stand-in for the lesser-known Cannonball Adderly, alto sax player Vincent Herring had the most flexibility. Herring took advantage by chipping in adventurous solos that varied the textures laid by Roney and Jackson. Pianist Larry Willis was the ensemble’s hero, vamping on the chords behind the soloists with flourish and relishing every turn in the spotlight.

The band whipped through “Kind of Blue” in order, extending the original LP’s run time by about a half hour. “So What” started at an aggressive tempo accentuated by Roney’s angry solo that made “Freddie Freeloader” seem almost jovial in contrast.

Willis opened “Blue In Green” with a tremendous solo before Roney took over. The melancholy number was made even more poignant by the way Roney whipped away from the mic after his solo, leaving before the note was finished and before any resolution.

Since there was no drum solo on “Kind of Blue,” the band added “The Theme,” a piece from Davis’ period on the Prestige label, as a showcase for Cobb. He took another brief solo during “Four,” the joyous victory lap of an encore.

After striking the right tone, the ensemble had carte blanche with the rapturous crowd. The musicians were speaking through an established vocabulary with the emphasis on the right syllables. There would be no funk breakdowns, hip hop remixes or hard rock power chords. While the conservative approach often cuts against the genre’s best interests, Saturday night it sounded magnificent.

Setlist: So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue In Green, All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, The Theme. Encore: Four.

Releasing Jazz from Aspic

(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)

“Kind of Blue” coming to KC

(Above: Drummer Jimmy Cobb gets down with his So What band.)

By Joel Francis

Fifty years ago, Miles Davis walked in to the recording studio, handed everyone in his band slips of paper with outlines of melody and a couple scales and told them to start playing. What emerged from those two sessions is arguable the greatest and greatest-selling jazz album of all time.

“Kind of Blue” contains several numbers that have become standards, like “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” and features the classic lineup of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb an and Bill Evans.

As the only remaining member of that ensemble, drummer Jimmy Cobb has been touring the world this year celebrating “Kind of Blue” and the music of Miles, Trane and Adderley from that period with his So What band.

Although the official Jammin’ at the Gem concert lineup has yet to be announced, both Pollstar and the International Music Network are showing that Cobb will perform at the Gem Theater in the heart of Kansas City Mo.’s historic jazz district on Saturday, Oct. 17.

This is one of two U.S. dates Cobb has scheduled for the remainder of the year. The 80-year-old Cobb was recently named and NEA Jazz Master. His other works with Miles include “Sketches of Spain,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

The members of Cobb’s So What band are as follows: Vincent Herring , alto saxophone,  Javon Jackson tenor saxophone, Wallace Roney, trumpet, Buster Williams, bass,  and Larry Willis, piano.

Ticket information is unavailable at this time.