Sunday, March 29, 2020

Ahmad Jamal Ballades 2019

Ahmad Jamal will turn 90 this year, and his late career work has been consistently strong. 2007's It's Magic, 2011's Blue Moon, 2013's Saturday Morning, and 2016's Marseille are all fine outings. Playing in a quartet of piano, bass, drums and percussion, the extra percussionist seems to play perfectly with Jamal's innate sense of rhythm.

This time it is different. This time it is solo piano (with bass on three tracks). And from what I know and can research of Jamal's discography, this is a first. These ballades (a term used by Chopin to describe his short single movement piano pieces) are beautiful, and recorded beautifully. Pressed on heavy vinyl at 45 rpm, the sound is stunning.

The tracks were recorded in 2016 while Jamal was in France recording Marseille. There is actually a fourth version of the song Marseille on this set (there were three versions- two with vocals- on the Marseille release). There's a new solo version of the Jamal favorite Poinciana. There are only three Jamal originals in the ten song set (one is the composed-while-recorded Because I Love You), and lots of classics from Rogers and Hart, Cahn, and Mandel. All done in these pristine solo piano versions by the master of rhythm, subtlety, nuance and expression.

Jamal takes a melody apart like no one else. Sometimes he stretches things far from the root, while other times he plays so very close to the lyric. In fact, lyrical might be an excellent description of his playing. This is a really beautiful record, both a new expression and one consistent with Jamal's lovely body of work. Ahmad Jamal has been known to call jazz "American classical music". I don't know if it is classical, but it is classic all the way.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Vol. 5

Dave Godin was a very interesting guy. Godin owned and operated a record shop in Great Britain that developed into a record label that licensed and released hundreds of obscure American soul songs that were unknown outside of southern America. He coined the term "Deep Soul" for these gritty, often gospel influenced soul classics. You know the stuff- great, deeply felt soul from below the Mason-Dixon line.

Godin was also a music journalist and spread his love of soul music through his writings.

And between 1997 and 2004, Ace Records in the UK released four stellar compilations curated by Godin and titled Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures from the Vault Volumes 1-4. I highly recommend them all, and covered them a long time ago in a post about soul box sets.

So now, some 15 years after Godin's too early demise, comes Volume 5. And of course the question is "Is it a worthy successor to the four volumes Dave curated?".

According to the liner notes, that are on par with the original series, quite a few of these chestnuts were chosen by Godin himself and Ace couldn't get licensing permission for them at the time of the original series. Others were known to be Godin favorites, and maybe a few are "inspired by" Godin's love of deep soul.

So the answer is yes. The soulful vocal and big organ of Ronnie Taylor's Without Love, the early Emotion's Somebody New, the pre-Motown Gladys Knight and the Pips Lovers Always Forgive, Judy White's Satisfaction Guaranteed, with hot guitar, horns and background vocals that all vie for best element, and Dee Dee Warwick's desperate vocal on Foolish Fool are all great moments in soul. Z. Z. Hill sings the crap out of Sam Cooke's Nothing Can Change The Love I Have For You, Kenny Carter's magnificent, pleading I'm Not The One is a scorcher, and Esther Phillip's take on Gil Scott Heron's Home Is Where The Hatred Is includes fine sax and horns on top of Phillips' capivating vocal.

And I could go on. There's 25 tracks, and there aren't any that bomb. If you like gritty soul (think Memphis or Muscle Shoals, and then go even deeper), this is an easy sell. Outsized soul, big, dramatic soul, and you've probably never heard a one. Deep Soul Treasures indeed.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Savoy Brown 1968-1970

There are magical times when forces come together and stars align. When the parts fit together like no other fit. When a band does it's thing so well, it defines itself. For about two years, Savoy Brown had the mojo workin'.  Kim Simmonds guitar, Chris Youlden vocals, Dave Preverett guitar, Bob Hall piano, Roger Earl drums, and Rivers Jobe and later Tony Stevens bass were that blend that made blues magic happen. The combination of Kim Simmonds and Chris Youlden made for a band that benefited from two strong songwriters, Simmonds super-hot guitar, and Youlden's unique vocals.

The first evidence is 1968's Getting To The Point, a crazy good blues-rock record by any standard. The slow blues of Flood In Houston, the fast walking Stay With Me Baby,  the pious Honey Bee, the perfection of Kim Simmonds' The Incredible Gnome Meets Jaxman, and Mr Downchild, hot guitar and fine blues vocals come to the surface at every turn. 

The title track is an incendiary swinging blues-boogie that cooks! Quality dips a bit on the last few songs. But overall an album well worth your exploration. 
Next up in 1969 comes Blue Matter, a consistently strong outing, featuring their biggest hit single, the classic Train To Nowhere, with a fine Chris Youlden vocal, hot Kim Simmonds guitar, and nicely arranged horns. The scary Tolling Bells and Youlden's great lyric for She's Got A Ring In His Nose And A Ring On Her Hand both impress, with Youlden's vocal, fine piano and guitar, and great songs. Vicksburg Blues features only Bob Hall's piano and Youlden, and it's good for that sort of thing. Don't Turn Me From Your Door ends the side with fine ensemble playing on only an OK song.

Side two was recorded live on a night when Youlden was ill and couldn't sing, so Lonsome Dave Preverett took lead vocals, and while he's no slouch, he's no Youlden either. The three songs are all good, and we get lots of Kim Simmonds blazing blues guitar, and a great band cookin' the bluesy boogie on Louisiana Blues. The version of It Hurts Me Too is great.
A Step Further, also 1969, repeats the studio side/live side idea behind Blue Matter almost as successfully, but the live side is somewhat less fine. The four songs on the studio side are consistently great. Made Up My Mind, Life's One Act Play, and I'm Tired are some of Youlden's best songs, both lyrically and vocally. Add Simmonds smokin' guitar and strong arrangements, and they are classics. Simmonds own instrumental Waiting In The Bamboo Grove is fun, fast, and features horns and Simmonds hot guitar.

The live side is either a lot of fun, or a waste of time, depending on your mood and tolerance for screwing around. The side is one 22 minute medley called Savoy Brown Boogie, and a fair amount of it is blazing blues-boogie and Kim Simmonds guitar. But an equally fair amount is unfocused meandering and party pandering. A mixed bag at best, but a huge live hit for the band for several years.
Finally, in 1970 comes Raw Sienna, another strong if imperfect record. Youlden's A Hard Way To Go kicks things off in fine form, just a great song. Simmonds' That Same Feeling shows off a great band, nice piano, hot guitar and strong vocal, all cylinders firing at once. Master Hare is another good Simmonds instrumental, and Needle and Spoon and A Little More Wine show that Youlden didn't write only great songs, he also wrote these. They're not terrible, but they are not his strongest outings, especially lyrically.

Side two features three great Youlden songs, I'm Crying (piano driven blues strut, great vocal), Stay While The Night Is Young (mellow blues), and When I Was A Young Boy (killer song with prominent strings and piano) and one solid Simmonds instrumental in Is That So.

Of these four fine outings, Blue Matter is the strongest, with Raw Sienna coming mighty close.

After Raw Sienna,  Chris Youlden left the band, and Kim Simmonds lost a fine songwriter and singer that helped elevate this band above the fairly crowded English blues band genre. Simmonds continued, and still continues, under the Savoy Brown banner, and has released records and toured consistently for 50 years. There have been many permutations of the band, and while I have not heard those records, Kim Simmonds is a solid blues songwriter and an exceptional guitarist. I have no doubt there is value to be had seeing him live, and several of the recordings have been quite successful.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Zappadan 2019 The Mothers of Invention Burnt Weeny Sandwhich 1970

Zappadan 2019 is upon us. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

I didn't acquire any new Zappa material this year, so lets take a look at a mostly neglected classic, Burnt Weeny Sandwich from 1970.

The album opens and closes with skewed doo-wop covers (WPLJ and Valerie), and those are the only vocal excursions. The rest is pure Zappa the modern day composer. Two short and delightfully skronky bits of Igor's Boogie (Phase One and Two) pay discordant tribute to Stravinsky, and Abye Sea features piano and harpsichord from Ian Underwood.

The big statements, Holiday In Berlin, Theme From Burnt Weenie Sandwich, and Little House I Used To Live In, are all fine Zappa works that stretch the boundaries of jazz-classical-avant-garde in ways Zappa explored earlier on Lumpy Gravy 1967 and Uncle Meat 1969, but here the compositions get to stand alone without interference from various vocal shenanigans, which gives the album a continuity those other two sometimes lack.

This one and the next (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, also 1970) were assembled from recordings made before Zappa disbanded the original Mothers, and they are both special collections in Zappa's discography. Weasels is a bit crazier, while Weeny serves up more of Frank's serious music. These two records are also the last of Frank's greatness before the rather dull era in 1970-1971 featuring the Flo and Eddie band, Frank's least successful period.

Time to break out the Zappa and celebrate a great American composer. You'll find my past entries for Zappadan right here. You can even take your clothes off when you dance!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Best of Moller Records Vol. 1 Icelandic Electronica 2016

I didn't even think I liked electronica. I'm not sure I really even knew what it was.

I did like Iceland when I visited in March of 2017.

I bought this amazing two-CD compilation at the shop in the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik when I was visiting Iceland. I don't know if it's everyone's dream vacation, but I did see the northern lights, and there were many outstanding moments in our visit to this dreamily bizarre country. And there were several world class food experiences.

And when I got home I had his remarkable CD. It's available as a download from Amazon, and I can't tell you if it is a good product in it's genre, because I don't own anything else in this genre, at all, period.

But I have this stuff on my iPod, and every time one of the songs plays, I immediately know the source of the music, and I like it.

You can listen and buy at Bandcamp here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Crosby, Stills Nash and Young 2019

I recently finished reading Peter Doggett's biography of this crazy amalgam of a band. Doggett's take includes a significant backstory that looks at the Byrds, Hollies and Buffalo Springfield that led to this group getting together. Doggett seems to avoid much of the dirt throwing and focuses on things the participants said way back when verses their reconstructed histories, probably for the better. He spreads the blame around pretty fairly between drugs, money, fame and ego. But it seems that mostly ego was to blame for their ragged history. One band, four leaders. That don't work.

Reading the book led me back to the first two records, Crosby, Stills and Nash 1969 and Déjà Vu 1970. They are certainly dated records by now and the hippy vibe is thick. But there's quite a bit of great music, and the thing that struck me most was the exceptional harmonies of Stills, Nash, and Crosby. Just breathtaking harmonies, really special. Also, Steve Stills was a fine arranger and multi-instrumentalist. They were all jerks in their own ways, and they seem to pretty much hate each other now. Doggett spends less time on their multiple attempts to regain their mythic status, and that seems just as well, since their reunion attempts presented music only occasionally as special as those first two records.

The book also got me to explore the 4 CD set Buffalo Springfield 2001. Neil Young put the set together, and I must say he's one irritating guy. Buffalo Springfield released just three LPs between 1966-1968, so it would seem like everything should be there on a 4 CD set. But instead Neil gives us a plethora of demos and early takes, and omits four songs from Last Time Around and also the nine-minute Bluebird that was only ever released on the two-LP Buffalo Springfield compilation from 1973. Additionally, he includes the contents of the first two LPs twice, once during the chronology he presents and again on disc four in their original running order. To release a 4-CD set without all of their released material is just stupid.

Both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were fun to listen to again, and the book was a good read.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Elton John Blue Moves 1976

I've had time to overthink this one. Months ago I began writing the entry in my head, feeling that Blue Moves was one of Elton's lost classics that needed reconsideration. I've gone back to the record many times, and I do like it, but it seems I usually only go back to side three, and I'd been perhaps a bit too generous with the rest of it.

All this prompted me to think about Elton John's best records. I tend to think everything between Elton John 1970 and Blue Moves 1976 was great. But Caribou 1974 and Rock Of The Westies 1975 were lousy records carried by their singles, and even Madman Across The Water 1971 is less impressive in hindsight.

So, I'd say that the five best Elton John albums are: Tumbleweed Connection 1970, Honky Chateau 1972,  Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 1973, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy 1975, and Songs From The West Coast 2001. I also have to throw in 17-11-70, the early live recording that showed off a great trio with Dee Murray and Nigel Olssen, as some sort of honorable mention.

So, Blue Moves. The album starts with Your Starter For..., a Caleb Quaye instrumental that is fine, really, and very short. Then Tonight, a sad ballad of troubled love, features a symphony orchestra, and a strong lyric from Bernie Taupin (something that doesn't happen enough on this record). One Horse Town features a rocking arrangement that almost saves it, and Chameleon benefits from a chorus featuring Beach-Boys styled vocals courtesy of Bruce Johnston and Toni Tennille.  The funky backbeat and gospel choir help with Boogie Pilgrim, but it's pretty vapid. Graham Nash and David Crosby provide vocal support on the sweet, tender ballad Cage The Songbird. Crazy Water is upbeat and is funkified by a strong arrangement. Bernie writes a good story for Shoulder Holster, and the Brecker Brother's horns assist, but it's not a great one by any stretch.

Side three is where I return frequently, opening with Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word. Everything about the song works, Bernie's lyric, Elton's sympathetic melody, Ray Cooper's vibes, the lush strings. Out Of The Blue follows, and it's a nice rocking instrumental that sounds like it grew out from a band jam. Between Seventeen And Twenty is another killer ballad with all the elements: words, music, execution. Crosby and Nash help again on The Wide-Eyed And Laughing, but they don't save it. Someone's Final Song is a pretty suicide ballad with a sad topic. On the last side, only If There's A God Up In Heaven with it's funk, and the fading rock star of ballad Idol are much to hear. Where's The Shoorah?, Theme From A Non-Existent T.V. Series, and Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!) are all throwaways that should have been left off.

With some editing, and maybe one or two more up-tempo numbers, it could have been solid. It would have been a respected record as a single LP release, although still too ballad-heavy. It is not the lost classic I had been thinking it was, but I still love side three.