50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Four (Revisited)

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20. Rashanim: Shalosh

Shalosh showcases Jon Madof’s infectious surf guitar attack, but also represents an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof finds an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Thrash? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

rashanim

19. Bill Frisell: Where in the World?

Jazz? Avant-garde? Rock? All of the above? Certainly, and much more, as a matter of fact.

Bill Frissel is one of those virtuoso chameleons who seems comfortable (and effective) tackling any of these genres; often simultaneously. Where in the World? will serve as a fortuitous find for anyone uninitiated in the sublime realm of Frissology. This music is brooding, gothic, even melancholy at times. He is doing with instruments (real instruments, played by real people) what just about every other group these days is lazily relying on technology to do for them: creating mood. Thus, where even the best pre-programmed work invariably sounds somewhat stiff and soulless, Frissel’s work here resonates with a dusty authenticity.

frisell

18. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium

It was necessary to have at least one solid representation of contemporary jazz, and for me this was far and away one of the best releases of the last decade. More, for the purposes of this list, it illustrates that jazz is not boring music played by buttoned-up stiffs, or else frenetic jamming by self-absorbed experts. (Actually, does anyone actually think these things anymore? As outdated as these clichés are, the worse fate is that so many people don’t think of jazz at all these days.) Suffice it to say, Matthew Shipp makes modern music for modern times, but it is very much rooted in the tradition of America’s greatest invention.

Joined on this outing by the impeccable William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), the wild card here is the one-two punch of old and new school: vibes by veteran Khan Jamal and programming by FLAM. As a result the recording at times invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet and at others modern electronica. The solo pieces recall Thelonious Monk and some of the experimental ones (with bowed bass by Parker and percussive interplay between Jamal and Cleaver, cut by FLAM’s wizardry) are like Pink Floyd paired up with Sun Ra. Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s intelligent, soulful and, at times, it swings like nobody’s business.

matthew shipp

17. John Davis: John Davis Plays Blind Tom, The Eighth Wonder

Who is Blind Tom? Who, for that matter, is John Davis? Davis is an American hero for doing his part to make people aware of a very obscure American treasure named Blind Tom Wiggins. Google that name and marvel at two things: one, that his story is true, and two, that a movie has not been made about him. This disc is, without question, one of the happiest discoveries I’ve made in the last ten years, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since (also recommended: Davis playing the music of Blind Boone).

This solo piano music is reminiscent of its time (mid-to-late 1800s) and inevitably recalls everything from the Civil War to black-and-white photos, to slavery, to classical music (Chopin’s influence is prominent) and a period of American history that was at once simpler and more complicated (see: Civil War, slavery and the conditions that inspired these songs and ultimately devastated their creator). For eight bucks you can download this album and it might just be the best money you spend this year.

john davis

16. The Congos: Heart of the Congos

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

congos

15. Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity

Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour—one of my favorite bands—had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album. And it illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain—after countless listens—utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t miss out on this.

vernon reid

14. Painkiller: Execution Ground

There could, and perhaps should be multiple John Zorn albums on this list. (His ever-expanding soundtrack series, for instance, is an embarrassment of riches and, of course, his Masada catalog is essential.) Arguably the most accomplished and multi-faceted musician of his generation, Zorn wears more hats than a baseball stadium.

Along with drummer Mick Harris and bassist/producer Bill Laswell (who himself could have many albums on this list), Zorn uses his alto sax as a weapon: at once aggressively bashing the rhythm like relentless waves against a rock, or else crouching in the darkness, circling its prey (which is you). The second disc, an “ambient” mix, will make any electronica played in clubs sound like elevator Muzak. This music is beyond dark, almost disturbing in its ruthless tension, but capable of conjuring foreign images and sensations that slowly become familiar, and addictive.

painkiller

13. African Head Charge: Songs of Praise

African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Songs of Praise a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears. But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle—untamed and concrete.

The culmination of their discography to this point, Songs of Praise is a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow. It is, by turns, strange, surreal, celebratory, peaceful and provocative. Above all, it is absolutely unique, and suffused with an oddball integrity that makes it at once an artistic and cultural statement. What more can we reasonably ask from music?

african head charge

12. Prince Far I: Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3

Michael James Williams, the man who was christened Prince Far I, is perhaps best known for the work that is considered to be his masterpiece, Under Heavy Manners. On this collaboration, massive credit here goes to the Roots Radics, featuring players who are well-loved in reggae circles but sadly obscure outside them: Flabba Holt (bass), Bingy Bunny (guitar) and Style Scott (drums). With crucial contributions to British musicians Stever Beresford (synths and melodica) and David Toop (flute) this is a mash-up of super-heavy dub and free-flowing semi-improvisation. The result is a swirling loop of ambient instrumental reggae that features female chanting and the occasional voice of thunder from Far I.

Perhaps more than any other album on this list, this is one you’ll play and find friends asking about. It’s almost impossible to ignore and it’s instantly addictive. This is music you’d expect to hear in a dorm room, at a house party, in a cool movie, and perhaps in your mind when you think “I wish there was some crazy laid back, utterly badass instrumental dub music without any overly slick production or computerized beats.” This is that music.

prince far i

11. Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages

I promised there would be almost no jazz on this list. I lied. And yet, in addition to being a crucial addition for all the right reasons, Ask the Ages is as uncategorizable—in a good way—as so much of the music mentioned throughout. Certainly it’s jazz, and features some true heavyweights from the golden era (Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, both of whom played with John Coltrane), as well as younger legends-in-the-making Charnett Moffett (bass) and Bill Laswell (producer). But the star here is the perfectly-named guitar player Sonny Sharrock, who should be much better known—and perhaps would have been if not for his ridiculously premature death (at age 53, from a heart attack).

Sharrock (did I mention his name is perfect?) was known for his visceral, aggressive play, which, considering the reputations Sanders and Jones brought to the sessions, should prepare one for a sonic tsunami. Surprisingly, even refreshingly, it’s a decidedly contemplative (not to say restrained) affair, and Sharrock does some of the most expressive playing on a jazz album since Grant Green’s Blue Note years. Each musician is at the absolute height of his powers, and it’s difficult to think of an album that balances brawn and tenderness quite like this. Concluding on a note that, with hindsight is even more elegiac and devastating, “Once Upon a Time” remains a monumental closing statement.

sonny sharrock

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Mathias Kunzli: Playground

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Approximately once a year I’ll choose one album to recommend to my fed-up or uninitiated friends who insist nothing new is happening in music. You know these people, you may be one yourself. Even I catch myself, on occasion, yearning for an era I didn’t even live through, when music really mattered, and people paid attention, and the stakes were at once clear and more attainable, etc.

And then I wake up and realize, as an alto sax player who did live in that era once decreed, Now’s the Time. Today is always a great time to be alive and any of us are blessed to be surrounded by artists doing what the true artists have always done. In short, expressing themselves without regard to endorsement or esteem—not that there’s anything wrong with either, not to mention a steady paycheck, if one’s on offer—for the most pure if simple reason: doing otherwise would be an affront to their gift, an insult to their discipline and integrity.

Check this out:

By way of introduction, this quick clip conveys several important things. Mathias Kunzli is clever, amusing, and creative. He is, as it happens, also a brilliant musician.

Check this out:

I was introduced to Mathias Kunzli via Rashanim, for whom he plays percussion. And who is Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City describing themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (‘noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” So what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all it rocks, and Kunzli is the one providing the fluid, furious foundation.

I’ve also had the occasion to share a stage with him and see the way his imagination and body relate to one another in real time. All of which I suppose makes me an ideal listener for his music: I’ve heard him in multiple contexts—acoustic, electric, solo, spontaneous—and am able to appreciate all these pieces coming together in a whole that is organic yet as inevitable as any improvised music can be.

Playground is not an extended drum solo, as one might expect; it’s what the best improvised art should be: a window into what makes the musician tick, as an artist, as a person. As such, there is humor, intensity and mostly a joy of expression on continuous display, throughout. It’s reminiscent of the Hamid Drake/William Parker collaborations, which—in addition to the prodigious bass and drum interaction—tend to utilize some exotic instruments and spoken word. This, in its way, is more impressive, as it’s one man, no net, no script, no support: just the creativity in transition from inside to outside, while the tape rolls.

It’s so cool to see, from what Eno (and Fripp) started, with looping evolve into ways one-man bands can become an orchestra of virtually unlimited size and scope. It’s also a gimmick that tires quickly, if used without imagination or ability. Playground, to be certain, features the mind of a drummer who can juggle many thoughts, beats and sounds at one time, all in the service of making something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Kunzli can sing; he can hum, he is one hell of a whistler. If there can be any complaint, it’s that despite the abundance of sensations available to the ears, it would be that much more remarkable to see happen in person. And since this was one continuous improvisation, it would be a marvel to behold it.

Musicians make music so they can perform. They record performances so they can capture a moment that can’t ever be repeated, for posterity. They also preserve these moments for anyone who is unable to interact with them, in real time. As such, this type of music always loses a bit of its magic in digital form. On the other hand, Playground is so bursting with ideas, energy and elation, it’s not a substitute for live performance so much as a placeholder: it serves its purpose and can be enjoyed, repeatedly. A win/win, at least until you happen to catch Kunzli live.

The best art makes you feel happy in a way that only cart can. The art we savor makes us glad to be alive. Playground is this year’s happy rejoinder I’ll submit to any naysayers whose programmed playlists have become stale and who are in need of evidence that now remains the time, as always, to hear our world from a fresh perspective.

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The Intersection of Art and Innovation, cont’d: Evolving Models of Music — A Conversation with Jon Madof

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2/10/14:

On Friday I had the opportunity to do another Google Hangout, part of an ongoing series called “The Intersection of Art and Innovation”.

(Some previous discussions can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.)

It was my great pleasure to speak with Jon Madof, a remarkably talented artist who happens to be one of my personal favorite musicians from the past decade. Check him out online, and I’ll put some snippets below, with links to previous pieces I’ve written about him and his music.

As expected, and consistent with the themes that have developed during the course of this series, the primary topics involve how music gets made and marketed in an increasingly digital world where previously unimaginable avenues of distribution and connection exist. Of course there is also the tension inherent in the ubiquity of digital content and the ease with which it can be pirated. How can an honest musician thrive, or even survive, when it’s so simple for less scrupulous opportunists to make the work available, for free, on illegal sites?

Beyond that, we interrogated the pros and cons of today’s scene and agreed that, on balance, it’s still a remarkable time to be creating art: what we might sacrifice in potential revenue, we benefit in terms of exposure. All artists, whatever they are up to, must acknowledge that there are ways to advertise, promote and connect that even a decade ago would have been fantasy. Madof confirmed that, all irony aside, it’s now possible to make genuine, personal connections online; the same forum that is so frequently lambasted as being cold and impersonal is actually a free and painless way to converse across countries and cultures.

We also agreed that we are very much in early days: the ways we make and sell music (and literature, for that matter) are still shaking out, and only one thing is guaranteed: the people who will lose out are the people resigned to the status quo or continue to lament a way of working and living that is gone and never coming back.

Check out our 30 minute conversation, below.

Here is a link to a long, awesome feature on Zion80 wherein Madof talks about the process of creating –and leading– a 13 piece band. Some key takeaways:

At a concert in New York City a few months ago I saw two things I’d never witnessed before. The first was a group of Jewish jazz musicians playing Afrobeat. The second was a yarmulke soaring through the air in the midst of a guitar solo.

So, if Jewish Afrobeat played at a pace where no yarmulke is safe sounds like your thing, boy have I got a band for you. And even if you don’t especially care for, or have never even heard Jewish Jazz or Afrobeat, Zion80 comes highly recommended.

Madof, continuing his fruitful association with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is not making a departure so much as a logical if inspired continuation of the ground he’s covered the past decade. All of his projects thus far (with his band Rashanim) have explored traditional Jewish sounds with a skillful blend of surf music, thrash, jazz and calmer acoustic. Each successive effort has seen Madof stretching and pushing himself farther, in as well as out, utilizing exotic instruments with feeling always at the forefront.

The disc is a triple-threat: an ideal introduction to Zion80 as swell as Kuti and Carlebach (both of whom will reward interested listeners). Where Kuti’s legendary jams are sprawling, sometimes exhausting affairs, Madof’s arrangements are tight and accessible. Every player gets a chance to shine, and the full range of instruments is ably represented throughout.

From 2009, another piece that discusses his trio Rashanim. Their album, The Gathering, was my favorite of the year and remains in heavy rotation. Some key takeaways:

So, who are Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who describe themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (‘noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” Led by guitarist Jon Madof, the band also includes bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Mathias Kunzli. They record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.)

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

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Jon Madof’s Brilliant Corners: Zion80 ‘Adramelech’

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Jon Madof has been making many people—like this fan—happy for over a decade. The scope of his projects, particularly the trio he masterminds, Rashanim, has been a source of ceaseless delight. During the last few years Madof has concentrated his focus on a bigger, more ambitious undertaking: Zion80.

Where their self-titled debut release was an expert mash-up of, as Madof himself describes the band, Shlomo Carlebach meets Fela Kuti, the new release Adramelech has the collective tackling Volume 22 (!) of John Zorn’s epic Book of Angels series. That would be the same John Zorn whose productivity makes Johann Sebastian Bach seem like a slacker. In fact, he released two new albums as I typed that last line. Just kidding, mostly.

Zorn is nothing if not a visionary, but even by the incredibly high standards he’s set for himself, the idea of letting other musicians tackle each new volume of his Book of Angels has been a gift that giveth much. For one, and most obviously, it’s a plethora of new material, itself something—in terms of depth and achievement—that will only accrue import in years ahead. We’re too busy living through his superhuman career in real time to properly appreciate exactly how locked in and, really, untouchable he is.

Jon Madof has already established himself as one of the more sensitive and successful interpreters of Zorn’s material. His recording Masada Rock remains one of this writer’s favorite of the dozens of discs featuring brilliant musicians doing Zorn. It’s a must-have for anyone who is remotely enticed by the notion of klezmer meets surf guitar meets speed metal meets world music with a free jazz sensibility. And who isn’t enticed by that?

Where Zion80 was a raucous but controlled, fiery but focused free-for-all, something you could shake your head and ass to, Adramelech manages to go deeper and be, if possible, more encompassing. It also comes with a welcome edge and, like the previous disc, insists on being grappled with on its own terms. In this regard, it’s quite consistent with much of the work Zorn and Madof have done. But this is not merely a more-is-more celebration of Zorn with Madof at the helm. Rather, it taps into what is most special—and rewarding—about the Radical Jewish Culture that Zorn has been curating at his Tzadik label: music that spans time (we’re talking centuries) and crosses cultures, yet somehow, in ways that are both delirious and delightful, is totally of the here and now. It’s cutting edge history, made by musicians who know and respect tradition, but are dissatisfied with labels and the limitations of genre. Perhaps this is why you won’t hear this music on the radio. It’s also why people will be listening to this album one hundred years from now.

There’s nothing not to recommend about this release, it is further evidence that virtually everything Madof touches turns to sonic gold. The album is stellar from start to finish but picks up steam as it goes along. A few highlights have to include “Shamdan”, which mixes guitar-driven jamming alongside saxophonic frenzy in ways the only debut hinted at. On “Metatron” the groove gradually breaks down into inspired chanting that is equal parts disarming and deep, an authentically felt religious vibe (a la Madof’s masterpiece, The Gathering), Gregorian chants in the mosh pit—with yarmulkes flying every which way. Each player gets an opportunity to stride to the forefront, and those moments are picked wisely and utilized judiciously: there are no wasted notes or indulgent moments; this execution is precise and methodical.

The two tracks that close out the session exemplify everything—on micro and macro levels—that make this project so unique and fulfilling. On the macro level, there is the obvious and absolute realization of Zorn’s compositional objective: dense but accessible notes delivered with distilled emotion; music your mind can dance to. On the micro level, Madof has amassed an impeccable ensemble of players, and each individual acquits himself wonderfully. And herself, in the case of Jessica Lurie, whose flute solo on “Nehinah” is so tasty, filthy and ferocious it would make Ian Anderson wet his knickers. It’s a high point on an album full of them. Brian Marsella makes the most of his moments in the spotlight (his techno-punk intro to “Nehinah” is top shelf stuff), and Shanir Blumenkranz continues to bolster his credentials as one of the most versatile and significant bass players on the scene. His fuzzed-out bass propels “Ielahiah”, setting a brooding, intense, and heavy tone for the entire piece, which circles its way into a guitar dual between Madof and Yoshie Fruchter. As Madof stalks and strikes, Fruchter hammers out a stuttering cascade of stark notes, the brutality escalating into a climax that offers unbelievable, affecting release.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that music today, by virtue of so many streamed services catering to every taste, can be cataloged according to specific genre and style. One problem, of course, is that music is increasingly roped into predetermined corners, and increasingly created with these considerations in mind. Rare, indeed, is an endeavor that might genuinely appeal to listeners who create playlists dedicated to trance, or jam-band, or world music, or jazz, or metal. Zion80 is throwing a lot of styles on the table, but it’s never forced or facile. It is challenging but rewards an adventurous and intelligent audience. It can be enjoyed without obliging analysis (and should be seen live if at all possible), but for the person who brings some measure of cultural awareness and curiosity to the table, the only corners being navigated are the brilliant ones Thelonious Monk imagined, back in the days when your music was as serious as your life.

This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 11/14/14

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Four

TomPiano2

20. Rashanim: Shalosh

Shalosh showcases Jon Madof’s infectious surf guitar attack, but also represents an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof finds an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Thrash? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

rashanim

19. Bill Frisell: Where in the World?

Jazz? Avant-garde? Rock? All of the above? Certainly, and much more, as a matter of fact.

Bill Frissel is one of those virtuoso chameleons who seems comfortable (and effective) tackling any of these genres; often simultaneously.  Where in the World? will serve as a fortuitous find for anyone uninitiated in the sublime realm of Frissology.  This music is brooding, gothic, even melancholy at times.  He is doing with instruments (real instruments, played by real people) what just about every other group these days is lazily relying on technology to do for them:  creating mood.  Thus, where even the best pre-programmed work invariably sounds somewhat stiff and soulless, Frissel’s work here resonates with a dusty authenticity.

frisell

18. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium

It was necessary to have at least one solid representation of contemporary jazz, and for me this was far and away one of the best releases of the last decade. More, for the purposes of this list, it illustrates that jazz is not boring music played by buttoned-up stiffs, or else frenetic jamming by self-absorbed experts. (Actually, does anyone actually think these things anymore? As outdated as these clichés are, the worse fate is that so many people don’t think of jazz at all these days.) Suffice it to say, Matthew Shipp makes modern music for modern times, but it is very much rooted in the tradition of America’s greatest invention.

Joined on this outing by the impeccable William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), the wild card here is the one-two punch of old and new school: vibes by veteran Khan Jamal and programming by FLAM. As a result the recording at times invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet and at others modern electronica. The solo pieces recall Thelonious Monk and some of the experimental ones (with bowed bass by Parker and percussive interplay between Jamal and Cleaver, cut by FLAM’s wizardry) are like Pink Floyd paired up with Sun Ra. Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s intelligent, soulful and, at times, it swings like nobody’s business.

matthew shipp

17. John Davis: John Davis Plays Blind Tom, The Eighth Wonder

Who is Blind Tom? Who, for that matter, is John Davis? Davis is an American hero for doing his part to make people aware of a very obscure American treasure named Blind Tom Wiggins. Google that name and marvel at two things: one, that his story is true, and two, that a movie has not been made about him. This disc is, without question, one of the happiest discoveries I’ve made in the last ten years, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since (also recommended: Davis playing the music of Blind Boone).

This solo piano music is reminiscent of its time (mid-to-late 1800s) and inevitably recalls everything from the Civil War to black-and-white photos, to slavery, to classical music (Chopin’s influence is prominent) and a period of American history that was at once simpler and more complicated (see: Civil War, slavery and the conditions that inspired these songs and ultimately devastated their creator). For eight bucks you can download this album and it might just be the best money you spend this year.

john davis

16. The Congos: Heart of the Congos

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

congos

15. Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity

Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour—one of my favorite bands—had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album. And it illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain—after countless listens—utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t miss out on this.

vernon reid

14. Painkiller: Execution Ground

There could, and perhaps should be multiple John Zorn albums on this list. (His ever-expanding soundtrack series, for instance, is an embarrassment of riches and, of course, his Masada catalog is essential.) Arguably the most accomplished and multi-faceted musician of his generation, Zorn wears more hats than a baseball stadium.

Along with drummer Mick Harris and bassist/producer Bill Laswell (who himself could have many albums on this list), Zorn uses his alto sax as a weapon: at once aggressively bashing the rhythm like relentless waves against a rock, or else crouching in the darkness, circling its prey (which is you). The second disc, an “ambient” mix, will make any electronica played in clubs sound like elevator Muzak. This music is beyond dark, almost disturbing in its ruthless tension, but capable of conjuring foreign images and sensations that slowly become familiar, and addictive.

painkiller

13. African Head Charge: Songs of Praise

African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Songs of Praise a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears. But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle—untamed and concrete.

The culmination of their discography to this point, Songs of Praise is a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow. It is, by turns, strange, surreal, celebratory, peaceful and provocative. Above all, it is absolutely unique, and suffused with an oddball integrity that makes it at once an artistic and cultural statement. What more can we reasonably ask from music?

african head charge

12. Prince Far I: Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3

Michael James Williams, the man who was christened Prince Far I, is perhaps best known for the work that is considered to be his masterpiece, Under Heavy Manners. On this collaboration, massive credit here goes to the Roots Radics, featuring players who are well-loved in reggae circles but sadly obscure outside them: Flabba Holt (bass), Bingy Bunny (guitar) and Style Scott (drums). With crucial contributions to British musicians Stever Beresford (synths and melodica) and David Toop (flute) this is a mash-up of super-heavy dub and free-flowing semi-improvisation. The result is a swirling loop of ambient instrumental reggae that features female chanting and the occasional voice of thunder from Far I.

Perhaps more than any other album on this list, this is one you’ll play and find friends asking about. It’s almost impossible to ignore and it’s instantly addictive. This is music you’d expect to hear in a dorm room, at a house party, in a cool movie, and perhaps in your mind when you think “I wish there was some crazy laid back, utterly badass instrumental dub music without any overly slick production or computerized beats.” This is that music.

prince far i

11. Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages

I promised there would be almost no jazz on this list. I lied. And yet, in addition to being a crucial addition for all the right reasons, Ask the Ages is as uncategorizable—in a good way—as so much of the music mentioned throughout. Certainly it’s jazz, and features some true heavyweights from the golden era (Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, both of whom played with John Coltrane), as well as younger legends-in-the-making Charnett Moffett (bass) and Bill Laswell (producer). But the star here is the perfectly-named guitar player Sonny Sharrock, who should be much better known—and perhaps would have been if not for his ridiculously premature death (at age 53, from a heart attack).

Sharrock (did I mention his name is perfect?) was known for his visceral, aggressive play, which, considering the reputations Sanders and Jones brought to the sessions, should prepare one for a sonic tsunami. Surprisingly, even refreshingly, it’s a decidedly contemplative (not to say restrained) affair, and Sharrock does some of the most expressive playing on a jazz album since Grant Green’s Blue Note years. Each musician is at the absolute height of his powers, and it’s difficult to think of an album that balances brawn and tenderness quite like this. Concluding on a note that, with hindsight is even more elegiac and devastating, “Once Upon a Time” remains a monumental closing statement.

sonny sharrock

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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The Intersection of Art and Innovation, cont’d: Evolving Models of Music — A Conversation with Jon Madof

madof

On Friday I had the opportunity to do another Google Hangout, part of an ongoing series called “The Intersection of Art and Innovation”.

(Some previous discussions can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.)

It was my great pleasure to speak with Jon Madof, a remarkably talented artist who happens to be one of my personal favorite musicians from the past decade. Check him out online, and I’ll put some snippets below, with links to previous pieces I’ve written about him and his music.

As expected, and consistent with the themes that have developed during the course of this series, the primary topics involve how music gets made and marketed in an increasingly digital world where previously unimaginable avenues of distribution and connection exist. Of course there is also the tension inherent in the ubiquity of digital content and the ease with which it can be pirated. How can an honest musician thrive, or even survive, when it’s so simple for less scrupulous opportunists to make the work available, for free, on illegal sites?

Beyond that, we interrogated the pros and cons of today’s scene and agreed that, on balance, it’s still a remarkable time to be creating art: what we might sacrifice in potential revenue, we benefit in terms of exposure. All artists, whatever they are up to, must acknowledge that there are ways to advertise, promote and connect that even a decade ago would have been fantasy. Madof confirmed that, all irony aside, it’s now possible to make genuine, personal connections online; the same forum that is so frequently lambasted as being cold and impersonal is actually a free and painless way to converse across countries and cultures.

We also agreed that we are very much in early days: the ways we make and sell music (and literature, for that matter) are still shaking out, and only one thing is guaranteed: the people who will lose out are the people resigned to the status quo or continue to lament a way of working and living that is gone and never coming back.

Check out our 30 minute conversation, below.

Here is a link to a long, awesome feature on Zion80 wherein Madof talks about the process of creating –and leading– a 13 piece band. Some key takeaways:

At a concert in New York City a few months ago I saw two things I’d never witnessed before. The first was a group of Jewish jazz musicians playing Afrobeat. The second was a yarmulke soaring through the air in the midst of a guitar solo.

So, if Jewish Afrobeat played at a pace where no yarmulke is safe sounds like your thing, boy have I got a band for you. And even if you don’t especially care for, or have never even heard Jewish Jazz or Afrobeat, Zion80 comes highly recommended.

Madof, continuing his fruitful association with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is not making a departure so much as a logical if inspired continuation of the ground he’s covered the past decade. All of his projects thus far (with his band Rashanim) have explored traditional Jewish sounds with a skillful blend of surf music, thrash, jazz and calmer acoustic. Each successive effort has seen Madof stretching and pushing himself farther, in as well as out, utilizing exotic instruments with feeling always at the forefront.

The disc is a triple-threat: an ideal introduction to Zion80 as swell as Kuti and Carlebach (both of whom will reward interested listeners). Where Kuti’s legendary jams are sprawling, sometimes exhausting affairs, Madof’s arrangements are tight and accessible. Every player gets a chance to shine, and the full range of instruments is ably represented throughout.

From 2009, another piece that discusses his trio Rashanim. Their album, The Gathering, was my favorite of the year and remains in heavy rotation. Some key takeaways:

So, who are Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who describe themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (‘noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” Led by guitarist Jon Madof, the band also includes bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Mathias Kunzli. They record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.)

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

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Rashanim: Healing Music for Unrighteous Times (Revisited)

4/16/2013:

After yesterday’s horrific reminder of the depths we are willing to sink, as humans, inflicting pain (and/or death) to make some type of senseless point, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t saying –or that I’ve already said.

As such, it is both serendipitous, if opportunistic, that I revisit a post I wrote almost four years ago. This is top of mind already, as I recently had the pleasure of seeing Jon Madof perform live (much more about that, and his new release, very soon). But the topic of this piece, in addition to celebrating The Gathering (an album I feel as strongly about now as I did then), was to reflect on what certain types of music, like Madof’s, can do in times of turmoil. It can –and should– also be enjoyed during times of joy which, for all of us, I hope far outweigh the more challenging times. As hard as it may be to fathom four years passing so quickly, it’s not surprising to note that The Gathering retains an enduring power to inspire, and heal.

***

8/5/2009:

Guess what? Rashanim has recently released what will undoubtedly stand as one of the best albums of 2009.

Guess what else? Rashanim has been making incredible music for the better part of this decade.

One more thing: you are not the only person who has, unfortunately, not heard (or heard of) this band. For all the right reasons, changing that should become a priority in your life. Trust me. I hope and expect to hear many more noteworthy new albums in 2009, but I sincerely doubt I will come across another effort as profoundly effective and moving as this one.

So, who are Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who describe themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (‘noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” Led by guitarist Jon Madof, the band also includes bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Mathias Kunzli. They record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.)

I first encountered them in 2003 when they appeared on two of Zorn’s Masada special-guest projects, Voices in the Wilderness and The Unknown Masada. (Both of these sets are enthusiastically recommended, and they feature diverse acts ranging from Fantomas to Eyvind Kang and Jamie Saft.) I excitedly picked up their eponymous debut (also released in ’03) and was not disappointed. In 2005 they experimented further with Zorn’s songbook, releasing Masada Rock, an effort that lived up to its name and featured the always amazing Marc Ribot on multiple tracks. This band was quite obviously around to stay, and it couldn’t get any better than this, I thought. I was wrong. In late 2006 they released Shalosh,which showcased Madof’s infectious surf guitar thrash attack, but also represented an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof was finding an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, yet they are accessible and addictive; they are polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

If they can only, somehow keep pace with the consistent excellence of the previous efforts, I thought, what a miracle it would be. That was then and this is now, and I’m here to proclaim it from the mountaintop: miracles happen and Rashanim’s The Gathering is cause for joy bordering on disbelief. This, truly, is as good as contemporary music is capable of being, and the latest release is their best work yet.

Like Zorn’s Masada albums, many of the songs have biblical or Hebrew titles (sometimes both), and for the most devout or scholarly (particularly the scholarly devout) these songs may accrue added levels of significance; but like much of Zorn’s catalog, the individual tunes can–and should–be appreciated simply for their superior craftsmanship and the almost inexpressible joy they provide. Like Zorn, and like many of the best composers, the melodies are effusive: instantly identifiable after only a few listens yet strikingly distinctive. This music challenges but rewards abundantly.

On The Gathering Madof never plugs in (it’s an all-acoustic affair) but if anything, the sounds are more varied and ambitious than ever. For instance, Madof breaks out a banjo for multiple songs, to outstanding effect, and the others flesh out the sound with the inspired use of glockenspiel, melodica and jaw harp. There is a warmth and intelligence enveloping all twelve of these cuts, and one marvels at Madof’s ability to constantly create space for himself while creating music that is lush without being remotely cluttered. A few of the tracks rather defy description and simply must be heard. For one, “Elijah’s Chair” is a toe-tapping duet between banjo and melodica. Who else does this? Exactly no one. And this is not a random experiment of sounds for novelty’s sake; this is very serious stuff.

the gathering

On one of the stronger tracks, “Deborah”, the intensity is ratcheted up as Kunzli smashes the drums while Madof works a mean slide over multi-tracked acoustic (and banjo) strumming. The groove is in full effect on “Elijah’s Chariot”, and Madof continues to impress with his acoustic guitar proficiency (it would be difficult to imagine any fan of, say, Dave Matthews Band or Phish or Medeski Martin and Wood not digging this: if the better jam bands out there are unspooling novellas on the stage, Rashanim is crafting short stories: equally compelling, but with a clever, if strategic economy of notes). Another standout is “Kings”, featuring some of Madof’s most inspired writing/playing thus far: the song is calmly insistent, but not urgent; there is palpable energy that eschews feedback or effects to convey a feeling. The tracks that close the album, “Jeremiah” and “Joshua” take the proceedings to another level, that other place the best art is capable of connecting us with. Over a chanted invocation (in Hebrew), Madof uncorks yet another inventive and enticing melody: it sounds like something that could be played in a place of worship, yet it retains a bluesy, almost somber edge. The final song slowly builds up as a guitar/banjo conversation, and then the drums and bass come in, ratcheting up the tension until it finally breaks with a joyous, sing-along outro. The band is firing on all cylinders.

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

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Kicking off the New Year with Rashanim

2011 is so last year. What, you might ask, can we look forward to in 2012?

Three of my favorite things, all at once: Rashanim, Tzadik and Fela Kuti.

Here is the scoop: Rashanim’s new expanded project features songs by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach with arrangements inspired by the Afrobeat master Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Stay tuned for an upcoming CD on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records!

Madof has put a couple of clips on YouTube (see below).

Anyone who has read this blog understands that both Rashanim and Pitom have made some of my favorite albums during the past few years. This project pulls Rashanim mastermind Jon Madof (more on him here) together along with Tzadik label-mate and fellow guitarist Yoshie Fruchter (more on him here), along with horns (trumpet and sax). Afrobeat meets radical jewish culture? Yes, please!

I can’t wait for more from this new project. Until now, we can feast on the morsels Madof has provided, below. Happy New Year!

Ein K’elokeinu

V’Shamru

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Aram Bajakian: Aram Bajakian’s Kef

Aram Bajakian’s Fractured Folk Tales

You need to spend some time with this music. Fortunately, you will want to spend time with it. There are at least two excellent reasons for this: one, you will need to allow it ample opportunity to work its magic; two, you will need sufficient time to formulate an appropriate response for your friends when they inquire about what you’re listening to these days. An album called Kef you will say. What? By a guy named Aram Bajakian. Who? Bajakian is a Brooklyn guitarist whose debut, Kef has just been released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label. (Mentioning Tzadik should immediately clear up any questions about quality or street cred. It should also indicate that, like everything else from Tzadik, this material will be unique and ambitious, if not immediately accessible.)

For folks who have not heard of Zorn or Tzadik, the label – now well over a decade old – has helped discover and promote music that falls far outside the so-called mainstream. While Zorn’s influential quartet, Masada, can easily be described as jazz (and lazily described as Ornette Coleman meets Klezmer), much of the work Zorn and those recording on his label do is difficult to categorize. Naturally, this is a very good thing: this is music not different for the sake of being difficult or outré; rather, it is ambitious in scope and very outward looking. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear the never-passé stylings of bebop alongside classical and world music (speaking of lazy and inadequate descriptions … ), often in the same composition. Simply put, Tzadik represents the essence of avant-garde, adventurous and averse to convention.  It also serves as a reminder for anyone bored or seeking reassurance, that there are (many) smaller labels releasing inspired music it would take a lifetime to listen to.

Kef is named for an Armenian type of dance music known for incorporating traditional and western instruments. In other words, the sort of thing ideally suited for Tzadik. Bajakian is joined by Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass. The absence of drums is novel and audacious, but considering how much some of this material shreds, it is almost revelatory. Blumenkranz is quickly bolstering his own legendary credentials, having already appeared on more than two dozen Tzadik releases.

From the first note, the traditional, non-Western influence is obvious, but, by the second track, the jazz and rock sensibility is front and center. There is an aggressive, almost punkish vibe that also will sound familiar to fans of the Tzadik label. The guitar playing on Kef inevitably calls to mind his label-mates Jon Madof and especially Yoshie Fruchter (who employs the violin in his quartet Pitom) but more than anyone, his runs, at turns angular, muscular and – when necessary – brutal, recall Marc Ribot. This is intended as the highest form of praise.

Kef will remind listeners of Madof’s quartet Rashanim in part because both guitarists are brilliant but also boast the considerable prowess of Blumenkranz. Kef will also draw favourable comparison to Pitom because of the violin (and again, the indefatigable Blumenkranz), as well as the energy that pivots between punk and hardcore, if only for seconds at a time. Bajakian is quite obviously a product of his culture and times, and he is able to infuse each song with a variety of cultural signposts and points of departure. The fifth track, “Wroclaw”, breezes along like an Armenian folk song, albeit one played in dark nightclub or a sweltering New York subway. This is postmodern chamber jazz that swings proficiently with an always-apparent and quite convincing Eastern vibe: fractured folk tales, if you like.

There are softer, subtle moments, like the acoustic opener “Pear Tree” or the gorgeous “Pineta”. There are some scorchers, like “Sepastia” and “Raki”, both of which showcase the band’s agility. It is during the more intense moments where the absence of a drummer is most noticeable—and impressive. The lack of grounding and punctuation would leave a less capable ensemble without the necessary punch and bottom; Bajakian’s band uses the extra space as an opening for interaction, and each musician takes turns steering the ship and soaring above the surface. There is a distinct structure unifying each song, and while the collection coalesces to a logical flow, each tune could be isolated and examined. After several listens you might even find yourself humming some of these melodies (does anyone hum anymore?).

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/148645-aram-bajakian-aram-bajakians-kef/

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The Verdict Is In: Top 10 of 2009

elvo

Let’s do this.

1o. Mastodon: Crack The Skye

mastodon 

Some men let their freak flags fly. Some men get tatted up and sport full arm sleeves. Other men get tattoos on their fucking foreheads. You only do shit like that if you are in this for the duration, which means that half-stepping is simply not an option. Either that or you’ve done a lot of drugs. Looking at the cats in this band, you know it is all of the above. And then you listen to them. These guys somehow balance a full-on testosterone assault with brilliant writing and playing (and singing, as most of the members share the vocals at times), and deliver a product that is both thoughtful and bruising. Like many bands that eventually become excellent, Mastodon has spent some time working on their sound and style and 2009 is the mainstream coming-out party. It’s been fantastic to see these guys on several best-of lists this year. Unlike too many of their compatriots, they actually deserve it.

 

9. Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions: Through The Devil Softly

hopesan 

To quote myself from a few months back: I’d love to take credit for prompting the return of Hope Sandoval after an eight year absence — a circumstance I lamented earlier this year. Little did heartsick homeboys like me know she was already wrapping up work on her second album, the recently-released (and highly recommended) Through The Devil Softly. She is touring now, so catch her if you can. I was delighted to discover that she was appearing in D.C. at the historic 6th and I Synagogue: I finally had the opportunity to see Hope Sandoval sing (!) in an intimate venue (!!) performing new music (!!!). She did not disappoint. And, as has been well documented over the years, her shyness is not an act. Or, it’s a very successful act: the only words she uttered for the entirety of her performance were “Thank you” once the concert ended. No encore, no fanfare, no problem. We weren’t there to hear her speak; we were there to hear her sing. And just see her, in person. And, for the record, she is as beautiful as ever. So…this album would get sentimental points toward Top 10 inclusion just by virtue of being made, but as it turns out, it’s a pretty fantastic record. So there.

 

8. James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game

jamesb

It is lamentable (if typical) that a young musician this good is still flying under the radar. With the release of The Glass Bead Game, it seems somewhat safer to predict that more people will begin to hear what they’ve been missing. Blackshaw is making music that is necessarily “out of time” (unless solo acoustic workouts suddenly become all the rage) but the upside here –and it’s crucial to stress that this is quite clearly not a commercially-driven calculation– is that this type of music is intrinsically timeless, in its way. Blackshaw’s compositions certainly articulate a contemporary vision, but (like John Fahey, with whom his work inevitably draws favorable comparison) one imagines something deeper and more distant; not the past per se but the way we think when we are prompted to think about the past.

Although he is quite capable, when playing solo, of arresting and beautiful work, his recent inclusion of other instruments (on this effort the violin and cello accompaniment is augmented by Blackshaw’s own, not unimpressive, piano playing) is a shrewd move: the sound is, obviously, bigger, but it’s also deeper and reaches closer to the clear profundity his earlier work attained in more stark (but never austere) terms. While his initial releases (again, inexorably) drew comparisons to everyone from the aforementioned John Fahey to Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke, Blackshaw has already developed a discernible style and he brings a rustic, British sensibility to his compositions. This guy should be around for a very long time.

 

7. Sunn O))): Monoliths & Dimensions

sunno

Scary. Serious. Sludge. Sadistic. Slow. Silly. Sonic boom. Soul. Sick. Sunn O))).

6. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

gbear

There’s not much I can say here that several dozen critics won’t be saying (albeit more breathlessly and unanimously) in the days ahead. The bottom line is –and there is no getting around it– this is one of the best albums of the year, and these young men are almost offensively talented. You don’t just write songs like this and sing like that. Unless…you write songs like this and sing like that. There are more than a handful of flavors-of-the-year topping all the cool lists this year that everyone knows will be stale next year and forgotten the year after. This one, it seems quite easy to predict, will be around for the long haul, for all the right reasons.

5. Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

neko

There was no way she could top Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and no one was asking her to. I wasn’t anyway. She is getting to Ella Fitzgerald territory (to invoke the cliche that I believe was first used in Ella’s honor: she could sing names out of the phonebook with a broken jaw and it would still sound sweeter than anyone else), and there is little she can do at this point to disappoint. Long may she sound her siren song(s). I remain smitten and unashamed to celebrate it.

4. Vieux Farka Touré: Fondo

fondo

About half-way through the year I wrote about Fondo, Vieux Farka Touré’s follow-up to his remarkable self-titled debut. Half a year later, it has not lost even a little of its luster; indeed, it has accrued additional value, and this is one to cherish –now and for the future. Here is a quick summation of what I said in June:

Word to the wise: get on board the Vieux Farka Touré bandwagon now. Not so you can be hip or prepared to drop his name at a cocktail party (for one thing, no one would listen to this music at a cocktail party, and more importantly, who goes to cocktail parties?) or for any reason that would behoove Starbucks to put this disc in their stores. No, the best reason to acquaint yourself with Vieux Farka Touré is because he is a surpassingly brilliant young musician who, if we are fortunate, has a long and productive career ahead of him. Nobody seems to agree on what “world music” actually means, which is probably not such a bad thing. It might suffice to suggest that “world music” is the sort made outside the States, likely sung in a different language and unlikely to yield traditional hit singles. In other words, music that involves actual instruments played with some degree of proficiency by sentient beings. Anyone with a moderately open mind might find Fondo, the followup to Touré’s eponymous (and astounding) debut, a very welcome antidote for the myriad of overproduced and underwhelming product being pumped out for mass consumption.

3. Living Colour: The Chair In The Doorway

lc

I’m going to take the liberty of quoting my recent PopMatters review, because I can (and should):

The rumors of Living Colour’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. They are back, but perhaps more to the point, they were never really gone. The good news is that The Chair in the Doorway is exquisite enough to make casual fans lament the ostensibly lost time. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope (2003) was very much a post-9/11 statement, and many of the songs on The Chair in the Doorway sound like a wrathful response to last year’s Wall Street fiasco. It is immediately apparent (and reinforced after subsequent listens) that the band put considerable thought into this album. Everything from the order of the songs to the production sounds like the result of a shared vision and a near-perfect plan. The finished product is fresh and clean, but retains an abrasiveness that gives it a most welcome edge. As ever, Living Colour’s cauldron bubbles over with rock, soul, hip-hop, metal, blues and their own idiosyncratic expression, a heart full of soul. It is right, then, to celebrate the return of a beloved band. It is also appropriate to acknowledge that, five albums in, Living Colour has solidified their standing as one of the most consistent, original and important bands America has produced. There’s little left to say: kick the chair out of the doorway and get this essential album into your life, immediately.

2. Dan Auerbach: Keep It Hid

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2009 had barely begun when I signed up to review this release, and expectations were, shall we say, somewhat stratospheric, considering that the album Dan dropped (along with the tag-team partner in his “day job” as The Black Keys), Attack & Release, was arguably the best of 2008. This was followed by a top-notch DVD documenting the subsequent A&R tour (which killed). So when word spread that the indefatigable Auerbach had already recorded a solo album, well, it was difficult to expect too much. Incredibly, it turns out that Keep It Hid was pretty close to an out-and-out masterpiece. Go figure. Here is what I had to say about the matter about ten months ago. If you’re not trying to read the whole rapturous review, here are some highlights:

What’s the story behind all this superhuman productivity? Auerbach has stated that, quite simply, he never stops working. Equal parts driven and inspired, it made all the sense in the world for him to build his own studio. Akron Analog, named after his hometown and preferred method of recording, is where he began assembling the rough cuts, mostly written during recent tours, into the songs that came together as Keep It Hid. This is not a retreat from the sonic explorations Auerbach undertook on Attack and Release, it is an expansion of them. The songs stretch out with that familiar multi-tracked guitar base, augmented throughout with the often subtle employment of organ, banjo and bass. This work unquestionably signals a step forward in Auerbach’s rapidly evolving style. Auerbach never seems to be straining himself or merely appropriating other, signature sounds just for the sake of doing so. The music he has so obviously, and voraciously, absorbed makes him who he is, pure and simple. In sum, Dan Auerbach was responsible for helping make one of the better albums of 2008, and Keep It Hid is already a contender in 2009. Should we go ahead and call him the current King of the Hill? Based on all available evidence, he’s that guy, and the competition for his crown is not particularly close at this time.

Anyone in need of further convincing needs to check out the album (or check their head) and is definitely advised to peruse this revealing interview wherein Auerbach talks about his process, his influences and his ambitions.

1. Rashanim: The Gathering

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Picking a jazz album for best of the year might seem like a stretch. Picking a jazz album that few people have heard of may seem pretentious bordering on recalcitrant. Except for one thing: Rashanim’s The Gathering remains the most convincing and exceptional album I’ve heard—in any genre—all year long. And to be perfectly frank, it’s not even really that close: this is not only the best album of 2009, it is without a doubt (at least in my mind) going to rank as one of the great albums of the decade, and for the ages. So, to paraphrase Don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) in True Romance before he whacks Dennis Hopper: “Hopefully that will clear up the how-full-of-shit-am-I question you’ve been asking yourself.”

I wrote at length about the band, and their latest release, back in August and even then I had a fairly solid idea that this one would be at or near the top of my list once the dust settled. The title of the post (and featured blog for PopMatters) was Rashanim: Healing Music For Unrighteous Times. That seemed accurate, then, and it seems even more appropriate, now.

So…who are Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.) So…what does Rashanim sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Rashanim invokes other places and times yet remain very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks. Like Zorn’s Masada albums, many of the songs have biblical or Hebrew titles (sometimes both), and for the most devout or scholarly (particularly the scholarly devout) these songs may accrue added levels of significance; but like much of Zorn’s catalog, the individual tunes can–and should–be appreciated simply for their superior craftsmanship and the almost inexpressible joy they provide. Like Zorn, and like many of the best composers, the melodies are effusive: instantly identifiable after only a few listens yet strikingly distinctive. This music challenges but rewards abundantly.

Let’s cut to the chase: call me Santa Claus and consider this recommendation the best holiday gift I could give you.

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