Sunday, April 28, 2013

Frank Zappa Wazoo 2008

The Zappa Family Trust has been very busy ever since Zappa's untimely death in 1993. From 1966 to 1993 Zappa released 62 original studio and live albums. Since 1994, there have been 32 posthumous releases, some which had been planned and attended to by Frank himself before he died.

Gail Zappa has taken some heat for releasing too much material, while others await whatever might be doled out with anticipation. Some of this material is of questionable value, and only for the obsessed fan, but some of it betters many of the releases from Frank's lifetime, or adds a new and unique look into Zappa's work. The Zappa Family Trust has specifically stated the desire to document previously unheard live performances of rarely heard band line-ups.

Wazoo is the documentation of Zappa's short-lived 1972 Mothers Of Invention/Hot Rats/Grand Wazoo 20-piece big band, generally referred to as the Grand Wazoo (verses the Petite Wazoo 10-piece band that followed it). The music is Zappa's version of big band jazz, and as such, it is splendid. The songs are mostly culled from The Grand Wazoo 1972, Waka/Jawaka 1972, and the then future Studio Tan 1978. The performances are the usual startling precision of Zappa's live troupes, but with the biggest brassy jazz band that ever explored Zappa's jazz ideas. It is a performance that well deserved release. The recording is excellent. The band is on fire.

Some of the material is challenging for sure. The Grand Wazoo, Big Swifty, and The Adventures of Greggery Peccery are all lengthy pieces, and they demand your attention. This isn't background music. If Zappa's large jazz ideas interest you though, this is as good as it gets. It is the live jazz companion to the modern classical of The Yellow Shark. It's that good. Think what you may of Gail Zappa's motives, but we needed this record.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Diana Krall Glad Rag Doll 2012

I saw the cover and wondered why Diana Krall needed sex to sell her new one. I figured I'd dislike it since T-Bone Burnett produced, and his recent work has been disappointing. The idea of Diana Krall doing old-timey Americana music (which I learned from several reviews) didn't appeal to me. So I came to this record with significant negative bias.

As it turns out, I like the record more than I thought I would, and less than any other Diana Krall record. And I dislike it for none of the reasons I thought I would, but I still dislike much of it.

Krall loved the music of her father's music collection from the twenties and thirties, and the cover photo outfit is a tribute to the Zigfield girls of the twenties. And T-Bone Burnett does a respectable job, at least within the context of the time period inspiration. The band is excellent, with Marc Ribot on guitar, Jay Bellerose on drums, and Dennis Crouch on bass all standouts, and several others adding depth and color to the proceedings. Krall tackles an upright piano and almost gets it to boogie. The period music is performed today, by a modern band, and there is little attempt made to play the songs in an authentic 1920's style, and that's good.

So the problem isn't T-Bone, and it isn't the band. Krall sounds a little out of place sometimes, but mostly she handles her role with her usual charm and talent. The problem is the songs themselves.  They aren't that interesting, aren't that unusual. Too many of them can rightly be called "ditties". On a record filled with songs from 90 years ago, it's telling that the best song is newer, Julie Miller's Wide River To Cross, a beautiful gospel-country number that Krall just kills.

Other highlights include We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye, a swinging cabaret-styled tune that gets a nice piano part from Krall, and There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth The Salt Of My Tears, with fine piano and guitar. I'm A Little Mixed Up is a walking blues that again features Krall's piano and Ribot's guitar to good effect. Here Lies Love sounds a little like a New Orleans march, and Krall finally gets a little jazzy on the piano. There's a slow, swampy version of Doc Pompus' Lonely Avenue that sees Ribot cut loose with a Frisell-styled guitar break, and again, some jazz piano.

That's six of thirteen. The rest of the songs are fatally flawed in one way or another, but mostly it is the inferior song quality. Krall's talent is mismatched to the material, and while the band is talented, they too seem uncertain of what to do to make these songs interesting. Krall's vocals are good throughout. But her wispy, sultry style doesn't always work with the material, and her lovely jazz phrasing is wasted on these overly simple pop songs.

If she'd tried to branch out by going too far into a more challenging jazz style than her usual territory, she probably would have taken more heat for her efforts, but maybe we'd have a better record to listen to than this. These may be Krall's favorite memories from childhood, but they do not add up to a great new record.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Gerald Evans and Margarita Denenburg, Duo Piano, Stocker Center Studio Theatre, April 16, 2013

Cleveland has a lively music scene, and many opportunities to hear great music of many varieties.  I don't take advantage of this nearly as much as I should, but I just felt like this was one I couldn't pass up. So I went and saw two incredible pianists play magnificently together. The program was: Copland's Billy The Kid, Lutoslawski's Variations On a Theme by Paganini, and Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, all in arrangements for two pianos.

The two pianists worked fluidly together, with contrasting yet complementary styles, playing both to and off of each other. The music was interesting and the piano interplay was awe-inspiring. The Copland was raucous fun, the Lutoslawski fast and furious. Both were performed with technical brilliance.

The Stravinsky, which came with an informative introduction by the artists, was breathtakingly beautiful, and really let the souls of these fine performers shine. I thought the first part of the program was magnificent until they played this fascinating arrangement of The Rite Of Spring for two pianos. Amazing.

A little taste of some outstanding northern Ohio talent.

They'll do it again Saturday the 20th at Heidelberg University and Saturday the 27th at The Cleveland Music Settlement. If you get the chance, you gotta go.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Clash London Calling 1979

London Calling is one of the greatest records of all time. Everybody says so. Me too.

There are many who would agree, and a few that would argue that The Clash made their best music before this one. They are the lovers of "real" punk, who believe this one to be a commercial sellout. Everyone's entitled to their own wrong opinion. A few folks might also argue for Sandanista! (the sprawling Clash version of the White Album) or Combat Rock (the real sellout), but these would be fringe choices.

London Calling maintains the intelligent anger and venom of their first two records while adding melody, first-rate arrangements, and skilled playing and singing. And songwriting of the highest caliber. And multiple musical styles. 

From the opening title track, a marching anthem if one ever was made, to the perfect swinging single Train In Vain, just about everything works. Which is pretty impressive given that the band incorporates ska, soul, funk, jazz and reggae in with the usual punk energy and sneer. The political lyrics and top rate songwriting make for compelling rock and roll. You can't trust politicians any more today than you could in 1980, so it maintains relevance.

Pull it back out. There is so much authentically rendered anger and frustration here. Like an eighties distillation and re-expansion on the theme of Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues. All grown up and snotty still.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Oliver Mtukudzi, Cleveland Museum of Art, April 5, 2013

Last night I saw Oliver Mtukudzi and The Black Spirits at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the new atrium. Part of the museum's Viva and Gala Series of world music and dance events, this one eschewed the lovely Gartner Auditorium for the atrium so that there could be a dance area in front of the stage. The evening was billed as a Tuku Dance Party, and it certainly was that in spades. It was quite impressive that so many of the attendees got on their feet, especially since the crowd was mostly older. Although given the polyrhythmic music, maybe not that much of a surprise.

The band was small, but the sound was plenty large, with Mtukudzi on acoustic-electric guitar, backed by bass, drums and two percussionists. Everyone except the drummer sang. Mtukudzi's guitar was remarkably fluid, his effortless picking style producing essentially all of the melody. All three percussionists were great, and they added sparkle to the performance with dance moves and generally good party fun. The drummer and bass player held down the rhythm, locked into a groove, and carried the songs, allowing the percussionists and Mtukuzdi to play the flourishes that added excitement to the arrangements.

Mtukudzi's voice is a strong baritone that is as fluid and flexible as the best soul singers. The back-up vocals were contrastingly high, and consistently good. The mix was good, loud but not excessive, and the band played for over 90 minutes pretty much nonstop. They opened the show with a slow ballad that was lovely, but after that it was party time. The band was big fun to watch, dancing and playful, and tight and hot.

If they come your way, and you want a fun night of dancing and joy, don't miss it.