A Century of Sound (in under 4 minutes)

Sun Ra 1968

Sun Ra 1968

“Pleasant Twilight” from the wonderfully titled My Brother The Wind, Vol. 2.

Duke Ellington on acid?

Yes, and a lot more.

It slams out of the gate big-band style, then the GREAT John Gilmore breaks it down, funk-no-fusion (more “Cold Sweat” than Coltrane), and then the band grinds to a slow-mo proto trip hop vibe.

An entire century of sound, all in under four minutes, courtesy of SUN RA, a legit (and underappreciated) American iconoclast. A national treasure for sure.

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors* (Revisited)

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors*

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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Julian Priester: Help Him, Help Yourself

Needless to say, if I had my way jazz musicians would be famous, well-paid and appreciated.

This is not a selfish desire: I would make no money in the venture, but we would likely have more opportunities to hear some of the most gifted musicians on the planet play their songs while making a living.

And added bonus: more people listening to jazz would inexorably lead to increased levels of peace, tolerance and purposeful passion.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Of course, back here in the real world the simple fact of the matter is that too few people listen to jazz. Same as it always was.

But even amongst the forgotten, overlooked or obscure geniuses who have walked amongst us, there is a pecking order of sorts.

Even people who don’t dig jazz would know names like Coltrane, Miles and…well, I was going to add Monk and Mingus, but perhaps it would be more accurate to add Ella and Billie, which I’m more than happy to do.

For those of us who know, love and live for jazz music, we understand that there are the so-called second tier musicians who get much less recognition than they should.

Then there are the ones behind them. It is a sad and regrettable reality that so many remarkable artists could stroll down the street and not have a single person stop them. Or, being told who they were, not register it.

Because too many people don’t listen to jazz.

But they should.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Which brings us to Julian Priester. He has lent his services to innumerable jazz albums, under his own leadership and as a superstar side-man for others. A quick list of cats he’s worked with: John Coltrane, Max Roach, Sam Rivers, Booker Little and Sun Ra. Check out more about him here.

Too often (in life, in this blog) celebration of unappreciated (or, at least, underappreciated) artists occurs once they are gone. I try to make it a habit to honor and applaud the ones who inspire me while they are still around. Whether or not they hear or see it is less than relevant; I want to expose their work to others who may never have otherwise encountered it. I can’t count the number of amazing albums I may never have heard had some kind soul not ensured I got the goods. With that said, here are a few of my favorite things featuring Mr. Priester, the guy behind the guy.

“Greensleeves”, from Coltrane’s Africa/Brass:

“Urnack” (which Priester composed), from Sun Ra’s magnificent and highly recommended Angels and Demons at Play:

“Man of Words”, from one of my favorite albums, Booker Little’s Out Front:

Pretty tasty, huh?

Well, I’m glad to turn you on to some amazing music. Pick up a copy, turn a few other folks on.

Which brings us to the real purpose of this post: Mr. Priester is in trouble, and could use some help. A retired professor, he is not making sufficient funds to cover the expenses some recent –and serious– health issues are prompting. A site has been set up HERE, and you can can donate some money if so inspired. I did. Perhaps once you listen to his music (and realize he has spent the last several decades teaching and evangelizing, literally dedicating his life to his craft, and doing whatever he can to augment awareness of it), you might consider making a donation.

Check this out: he is hanging in there until he can get a kidney transplant. Once that happens, he wants to get back on the road, where he can earn money from playing before crowds, and continuing his life’s work: bringing jazz into the world. Here’s hoping, with some help, he will be able to do this for a long while yet.

Peace.

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Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lies: The Evolution of a Masterpiece

Sonny.

The man from Saturn had roots (deep ones) and, for a time, swam in the same waters any striving musician in the early ’50s had to dive into.

He dove deeply, and drank up an entire ocean before he came out bigger, badder and a hell of a lot weirder.

And I’ve got a LOT more to say on this subject, soon.

For now, it’s astonishing and ceaselessly fascinating to hear how grounded, groovy and –for lack of a better word– normal his early work (collected on the indispensable Singles double-disc) sounds.

Proof that even when he kept up with the Joneses, he did it as good as anyone. And it’s even better when you know that he was already jonesin’ for outer space.

To be continued…

Version One:

Version Two:

Version Three:

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The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Revisited)

Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and (insert other sites here) are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

C-peter-gabriel-2

Marvin Gaye!

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

Category Two: Jazz!

keithtippett711ft5

Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

Category Three: Personal Favorites

Standing_on_the_verge_of_getting_it_on

And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

planet-of-the-apes

And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead meets Hitchcock:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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Got Mars?

So this is pretty neat, huh?

Look at us Earthlings, getting our Mars on. It’s too bad Ray Bradbury did not live long enough to see this, as he surely would have gotten a kick out of it.

To honor the occasion, and being the kind of person I am, it seems appropriate to consider the musicians who have paid musical tribute to the planet that has played such an inspired role in our literature (and imaginations).

First, props to the great George Russell for “going there” before we ever really went there. (And props to G.R. for being a genius and an American musician of the first order who does not get nearly as much love and attention as he warrants.)

How about the best way to travel? I’ll take the Coltrane. From a piece I wrote a few years back:

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

A lot more on Coltrane, HERE.

And huge props for the huge balls it took Nels Cline (another scarcely well-enough discussed iconoclast) to do an almost painfully –in a good way– faithful interpretation of Trane’s monument to infinity.

How about the man who truly did it first? Can we get some love for Gustav up in this MF?

How freaky, super-scary and intense is that noise? Classical kicks ass, yo!

And look who may have been tapping into that vibe? None other than you-know-who, the band that was originally (and, for the purposes of this discussion, ironically) called Earth.

Certainly wizards, warnings and wickedness abound on their debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah blah blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the band that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.

A lot more about this band, here.

And tying many of the threads together: a band that was inspired by Holst; so much so that they changed the name of their note-by-note “tribute” in order to avoid the pesky payment of royalties. (Something, to his credit, Greg Lake would not duplicate with ELP when he/they gave full credit to both Bartok and Ginastera. Uber-irony, then, that the ever surly and penny-pinching Robert Fripp could so shamelessly steal from the masters.)

This tune, “The Devil’s Triangle”, is ideally named. Here is what I had to say about it back in 2010, on the occasion of it’s 40th anniversary.

Album centerpiece “The Devil’s Triangle (Parts 1-3)” is an unacknowledged riff on Holst’s classical piece “Mars” (from Planets), functioning as a descent even further into the abyss, following the title track that concludes the first album. Clearly this was the one Melody Maker had in mind when they suggested, in 1970, “If Wagner were alive, he’d work with King Crimson.” Nonsense like that makes it a little more understandable why this era was difficult for so many to stomach. Featuring more mellotron than most bands could conceivably cram into a double album, “The Devil’s Triangle” utilizes a drum and bass march, balancing dread and release with wind effects and jarring foghorn cries. Adore it or detest it, most honest listeners would concede that few bands did beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

More on that album, here.

And since we kicked it off with a nod to George Russell thinking about where we might be going, let’s close it out with Sun Ra, who knew where we’d already been.

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Music From The World Tomorrow: Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics

Even though I’m sincere when I insist that this release is the most impressive album I listened to in 2010, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. That said, I do believe anyone with a remotely open mind could be quickly convinced. Convinced of what, exactly? That your world was too small without it, for starters. Not unlike the way a great novel, movie or even a new type of cuisine will remind you that there are places and times you were unaware of, and that someone—or something—else can transport you without the use of machines or magic (or even drugs). If, understandably, that sounds a tad too precious, this is music you can put on while you meditate, do yoga, think or have sex. So there’s that.

The Heliocentrics have not wasted any time establishing themselves as an indispensable part of the contemporary avant-garde. In addition to their impressive 2007 release Out There (a nice nod to Eric Dolphy), in 2009, they collaborated with legendary Ethiopian maestro Mulatu Astatke and dropped one of the best releases of that year, Inspiration Information 3.

Who, you ask, is Lloyd Miller? Do a Google search and you’ll find he’s been around for a long time (we’re talking decades) and has been an influential force in world music. His distinct amalgamation of Persian music, American jazz and a sort of psychedelic far-east vibe (think zither and gongs) is quite unlike anything anyone else has done, although serious fans will hear traces of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and even Santana (circa Caravanserai). For an amazing—and addictive—overview of what he’s done, check out the very fittingly titled collection A Lifetime In Oriental Jazz. Considering how much music he has made, it’s disconcerting how little he seems to have recorded. Let’s hope there are lots of dusty treats in the vaults waiting to see the light of day.

The challenge in reviewing Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics is twofold: it is necessary to convey how remarkable the music is, and it is necessary to attempt describing what it actually sounds like. For starters, it is not only reminiscent of Sun Ra, it’s reminiscent of peak Sun Ra, circa The Futuristic Sounds album (which, for anyone interested, is an ideal gateway to that wonderful and eccentric artist’s intimidating catalog). But that comparison is inadequate, because even Sun Ra, circa 1958, was incorporating Eastern sounds and rhythms into his Arkestra. Eventually, those tapestries would grow larger, and longer and, for many ears, overwhelming. But from the mid-’50s until the early-to-mid-’60s his compositions were tight, focused and brimming with musical delights that, despite the bizarre persona he cultivated and encouraged, were very much of this world. All of which is to say it is probably more accurate to observe that Miller (and The Heliocentrics) are invoking similar sounds and motifs, from a more ancient-feeling place: far East passing through a syncopated prism of strings, flutes and percussion.

Where Miller’s earlier work, understandably, features time signatures and instruments (oud, anyone?) more associated with Eastern cultures, this collaboration with The Heliocentrics—aside from being inspired—manages to further erode any distinctions between Persian music and modern jazz. It sounds improbable on the page (as well as in theory, this being 2011, not 1972) but it is executed practically to perfection throughout this astonishing album. Miller’s reputation and history precedes him, so we should not be surprised at the consistent quality of this work. Special mention, then, must be made of how sympathetic and seamless The Heliocentrics’ accompaniment is throughout these proceedings.

The propulsive bass grounds album opener “Electricone” in a contemporary jazz groove, and the flute and percussion drive a blend of exotic sounds off into the distance. Perhaps the most straightforward number, “Nava”, could easily fit in on an early ‘70s McCoy Tyner album, with its post-bop momentum flavored with Eastern spices. “Bali Bronze” invokes the cymbal-laden call and response of the Balinese Gamelan; flute and gongs weaving a hazy mist that conjures up an Opium dream straight outta Coleridge. One of the standout tracks is the appropriately named “Spiritual Jazz”: Opening with a gorgeous and languid piano soliloquy, it slowly opens up, like a flower straining to reach the sun. Perhaps intentionally, album closer “Sunda Sunset” circles back from tomorrow and gently drifts into the past, like closing titles for an imaginary Kurosawa film.

Miller and his band are effortlessly tapping into feelings that are at once peaceful and ever-so-slightly disorienting. Unforced and never formulaic, this music manages to be adventurous without descending into pretense or abrasiveness—it is reminiscent of far-away times and places, but ultimately situated comfortably in the here-and-now. Our world is big enough for that, now, and Lloyd Miller has helped make this possible.

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Henry Threadgill: This Brings Us To, Volume 1

HTThis is a difficult review to write, knowing that the folks who follow Henry Threadgill are likely already aware of (or in possession of) this new release—his first in eight very long years. On the other hand, this is an easy review to write, since it is pretty painless to recommend exceptional music. So let it serve as a friendly reminder for fans and an introduction of sorts for the uninitiated.

Perhaps the most illuminating way to attempt discussing Henry Threadgill’s music is to begin by discussing the man himself. Biographically speaking, Threadgill is one of the most respected, if recalcitrant members of the post-‘70s avant-garde. Of course, his roots stretch back a bit further, as he first made a name through his association with AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in the ‘60s. By the way, referring to him as recalcitrant is intended as the highest form of praise. Though he spent a minute signed to a major label (his mid-‘90s work for Columbia Records produced some quiet masterpieces which, being both masterpieces and jazz albums, sold enough copies to ensure that the association was brief). Threadgill, suffice it to say, has always followed his own path, making no apologies for the wonderfully challenging music he makes. Upon winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, his extended hiatus from recording was starting to seem ominous, which makes the release of This Brings Us To, Volume 1 cause for considerable joy.

Virtually any Threadgill recording is like the indiscreet hole in the wall joint that happens to serve the best food in town. No bells or whistles, no valet parking or wait lists, but it manages to stay in business by retaining the loyal clients it attracts. Take the name of his working band, Zooid. For the benefit of folks who had difficulty with math class (like myself), the name does not signify the number of musicians (Octet…Nonet…Zooid?). A zooid, to quote the press materials, “is a cell that is able to move independently of the larger organism to which it belongs.” To be certain, there are examples of pretense without sense (we can all think of examples without naming names), and then there is intelligence so genuine and unrestrained it is slightly intimidating but ultimately exhilarating. Just listing the titles of select Threadgill compositions illustrates his keen and refreshingly unorthodox mind: “Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket”, “First Church of This”, “I Love You With an Asterisk”, “Dirty in the Right Places”, “Go to Far”. One always gets an adequate sense of Threadgill’s perception of the world, and the amount of thought and attention that has occurred, before a single note is played.

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And that is where the listener comes in. This Brings Us To, Volume 1 is, once again, Threadgill’s first release since 2001, and a most worthy companion piece to the excellent Up Popped the Two Lips. A few words about the Zooid. A handful of people in the world who are inspired, or forced by their parents, to play tuba actually grow up to become badass musicians: one of them, Jose Davila—who also plays trombone—is in this band. The rest of the quintet is comprised of Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Liberty Ellman (acoustic guitar). Then there is Threadgill himself, who alternates between alto sax and flute.

The music, as usual, has overtones of Eastern influence but is firmly rooted in Western (jazz) tradition. As always, it obliges the listener to slow down, concentrate, and receive. The opening track (and enigmatically titled) “White Wednesday Off the Wall” is a tone poem of subtle expression: the flute whisks in between the strings being plucked and pulled, while the tuba crouches like a crocodile, just beneath the surface. It is, like much of Threadgill’s calmer pieces, beautiful but ever so slightly foreboding. It also conveys a certain prehistoric vibe that recalls the first installment of Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds series.

The pace quickens with “To Undertake My Corners Open”, showcasing Kavee while Ellman makes cerebral, always tasteful contributions throughout. “Chairmaster” opens up ample space for Davila, who takes an extended solo before dueling with Threadgill’s serpentine flute runs. “After Some Time” is an insanely syncopated—and appropriately named—workout for Threadgill on alto saxophone, with Kavee gamely keeping pace at every turn. The bandleader remains on alto for “Sap”, another frenetic romp that encourages Ellman to stretch out, working into a hurry-up-to-slow-down solo that is reminiscent of Marc Ribot. Finally, “Mirror Mirror the Verb” is a quirky exclamation point on the proceedings, and sounds more than a little like Eric Dolphy woodshedding with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

So, like I said, this is not music for everyone, but it is music for anyone. Even for jazz hounds, Henry Threadgill is somewhat of an acquired taste; not so much because his music is impenetrable or off-putting, but because it is a foreign film that does not provide subtitles. You may not always be able to follow it, but you always know what is going on. Hopefully it goes without saying that I mean that in a good way.

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The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Part One: Music)

 

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Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and LimeWire are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

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Marvin Gaye!

  

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

 

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

 

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

 

Category Two: Jazz!

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Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

 

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

 

Category Three: Personal Favorites

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And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

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And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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