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(Above: Acid Mothers Temple perform at Kansas City’s Riot Room in April, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: This feature was scheduled to run in the Kansas City Star.  Because of our language barrier, Kawabata Makoto requested an interview via e-mail. Unfortunately, the Mothers’ touring schedule didn’t give Makoto much time to respond to my questions. His short answers necessitated using quotes from the band’s Website. Ultimately the feature was shelved.

The Acid Mothers Temple welcomes all, but entry can be daunting.

The ambition of Kawabata Makoto, the founder and leader of the Japanese rock band, is both impressive and intimidating. For fans, the group and its affiliated side projects has released more than 80 titles since forming in 1995. For musicians, Makoto offers several homes across Japan where musicians can jam and do whatever they like. There is a good chance, however, that neighbors will report these free spirits as terrorists.

“Our slogan is “Do whatever you want, don’t do whatever you don’t want!!’” Makoto said in an extensive interview on the Acid Mothers Web site. “When all the Aum Shinrikyo (the group behind the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people) stuff was going on in Japan a few years back, the neighbors mistakenly thought that our house was a secret Aum hideout and managed to get us evicted. Also, mountain villages are always suspicious of outsiders, and sometimes we are ostracized by the community. These kinds of problems pop up from time to time, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

It’s not unusual for a Mothers’ composition to reach well beyond 20 minutes. Makoto wears his influences like badges of honor, naming albums in homage to Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The music often sounds like an update to the rock scenes in Haight-Ashbury and London in the late 1960s. Psychedliec rock may be an easy handle to hang on the band, but Makoto prefers the term trip music.

amt“As I see it, psychedelic rock is a type of rock music that evolved under the influence of the drug culture,” Makoto said. “For me trip music does not mean the same as psychedelic rock. … A simple explanation of what I mean by a trip is something that allows you to hear sounds that you do not usually hear, or that allows you to experience those dangerous frequencies that mount a violent assault upon your soul.”

The writing and recording process is relatively straightforward. Makoto gathers whatever musicians he can find in a collective attempt to record whatever he is hearing in his head. Beyond that, anything goes.

“Music is constantly changing, depending on time and place and atmosphere, and attempting to tie it down never breeds good results,” Makoto said. “Our recording process is basically to improvise the broad structure of the songs, then to overdub stuff later. The line-up depends on who’s available on the day. So I suppose you could say it’s down to fate, since we don’t adjust the schedule to try and fit in with everyone’s plans. “

Makoto formed his first band in 1978, when he realized there was nothing on the radio like the sounds in his head. Completely self-taught, Makoto and his bandmates played through trial and error. It took four years, Makoto said, for him to realize there was a standard way to tune the guitar.

“I have always only mastered just the bare minimum of technique so that I can play my own music,” Makoto said. “I believe that it’s best in all things to have neither too much or too little. If you have too much knowledge or technique, then you’ll naturally want to show that off to others. At that point it ceases to be music, and just becomes a display of skill. That is not what I want my music to be.”

The Mothers’ were the final act of last year’s Middle of the Map festival. Unfortunately, their start was delayed and the band was unable to play a full set. Makoto is hoping to play a full set this visit.

In his many trips around the world, Makoto has noticed audiences behave differently depending on the country.

“Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves,” Makoto said. “I don’t know which attitude is better. If you’ve paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you’re bored you can chat with your friends, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won’t feel like chatting.”

With Makoto’s AMT label dropping new albums in March, April and May and the band a third of the way through a six-week tour, it doesn’t look like the Mothers will be slowing down anytime soon. But Makoto knows there may be a day when his days of exploring new sounds and textures will come to an end.

“My personal goal is to recreate the music played by a heavenly orchestra I heard once in a dream. If I ever succeed, I will have no more need to play music,” Makoto said. “The other members of Acid Mothers Temple may have different goals – I don’t know. But even if I were to quit, I would like AMT to continue to exist, since I think of it as less of a band and more of a collective will.”

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(Above: Frank Black visits “Manitoba” all by his lonesome.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It’s hard to believe, but the Pixies have been around as a reunion act for almost as long as their original incarnation. When Frank Black (aka Black Francis) announced his new project shortly after the Pixies’ first triumphant reunion tour, few could have predicted where he would end up.

The self-taught, idiosyncratic king of indie rock was working in Nashville, Tenn., with seasoned session musicians. The impulse yielded two albums, 2005’s “Honeycomb” and 2006’s double album “Fast Man Raider Man.” Earlier this year Black announced a third Music City installment was on the horizon.

“If you’re into the pop music of the 20th century and you happen to be a post-punk record maker, chances are you’ll like Patsy Cline and Miles Davis,” Black said. “Most rock musicians aren’t going to put out a bebop album, so we go to blues, folk, roots music, whatever you want to call it. It’s not that much of a jump for me — it’s all part of the same grassy hillside.”

It’s also a road well traveled. In 1966, Bob Dylan left New York City to record at the CBS studios in Nashville with the day’s top session players. More recently, Robert Plant ventured to middle Tennessee to work with Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller.

“The reason why you see this happening again and again is because of the opportunity to play with some of the best musicians in the world,” Black said. “It’s not just country music, but R&B and the whole world of 1950s and ’60s pop recording.”

Black’s collaborators are a world removed from the Boston underground scene where the Pixies formed in the mid-’80s. His album credits today include Muscle Shoals legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Chester Thompson, pal of Genesis and Frank Zappa.

During sessions in Los Angeles, Black worked with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, Al Kooper, Phil Spector veteran Carol Kaye and drummer Jim Keltner. Grab any of your favorite major-label albums from the late ’50s to the mid-1970s and at least one of these names will be found on the sleeve.

“I guess you could say the era peaked in the ’60s and got a bad rap in the ’70s, because by then there was just too much easy-listening and knockoff, quickie records,” Black said. “But the people who grew up under the punk badge were young 20-somethings who didn’t have a lot of money and shopped at used clothing stores and decorated their apartments with kitsch. All of a sudden, out come those old Dean Martin albums again. Ultimately, what you rebel against becomes hip again.”

When Black comes to town on Monday, he’ll be without any of his all-star assistants. In fact, Black’s only company onstage will be his acoustic guitar. But regardless of his surroundings, Black said, his goal is the same: to satisfy the customers.

“That’s where I’m at now and it’s no different from when I played my first gig,” Black said.

“It’s all part of the world of the musician. Sometimes you play huge festivals for tons of money in front of tons of people, other times you’re playing Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Both are equally valid.”

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(Above: Jay-Z takes fans behind the scenes for the making of  the cover for his 2009 release “The Blueprint 3.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is no shortage of books on album artwork. Pick a decade, genre or label and you’ll likely have several volumes to choose among. Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle make an impressive entry into this crowded field with their book “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995.”

While some of the album covers are inevitably familiar – Santana’s “Abraxas,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”  – the grouping sets this volume apart. Albums are arranged in ten categories ranging from sex, drugs and rock and roll to ego, drugs, politics and death.

artofLPwebIt’s fascinating to watch the evolution of styles and boundaries. In the 1950s, for example, just showing a black man’s face with a red tint as on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night at the ‘Village Vanguard’ was enough to shock a racially uneasy country in the middle of the red scare. Barely over a decade later, “black power” was in full force on covers such as Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove.” More subtle comments on race and politics gave way to confrontational styles embraced in succession by reggae, punk and hip hop.

Especially interesting are the two-page spreads, like the one juxtaposing the use of the American flag on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release “There’s A Riot Going On,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” and the Black Crowes’ 1993 album “Amorica.” Stone alters the flag’s stars to make it a statement against the Vietnam War, while the backdrop to Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam statement is seen as patriotic. The Black Crowes chose an image from Hustler of a woman in a flag patterned bikini. The authors note that the Crowes statement wouldn’t have been unusual in the free love era of the ‘60s, but needed the relaxed censorship of the ‘90s to gain mainstream circulation.

Arranging the albums so they comment and reflect on each other, not only reinforces the themes, but adds a deeper appreciation of the work. Students of art will undoubtedly relish this experience, but for the rest of us Morgan and Wardle have added a solid block of text for each work. This paragraph not only provides the context of the time and artists, but explains what the artist may have been trying to accomplish.

This text is especially fun on the disastrous covers marked with an exclamation point.  The authors clearly have a special place in their hearts for the Scorpions. No less than three of the ‘80s German metal outfit’s covers are denoted. Reaching a “Spinal Tap” moment, they muse “Would the Scorpions ever learn the difference between sexy and sexist? Of course not.”

Ending just before the peak of the CD era, Morgan and Wardle give their subjects the largest canvass possible. The oversized pages allow for half-size reproductions. Music fans used to viewing tiny CD booklets will be amazed at the details that spring from the page. Fans accustomed to vinyl sleeves won’t miss much. Gatefold covers or albums that answer the cover artwork on the back are also given full exhibition. The handsome hardbound book is housed in a red plastic slipcase.

“The Art of the LP” is a visual jukebox that will entertain and inspire music fans and artists alike. Unless your coffee table is already loaded with similar books, I suggest making room for this one.

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(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

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(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

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(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.

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(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.)

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