DECEMBER 14, 1998:
HERBIE HANCOCKThe Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions (Blue Note)
Herbie Hancock's first big pop hit was 1974's fusion blockbuster "Chameleon,"
and not since Madonna recorded "Material Girl" has an artist so clearly
used a song title as an announcement of intent. Starting off as a hard-bop sideman,
Hancock has spent nearly 40 years changing colors, veering from the down home to
the intergalactic and stopping off at every watering hole in between. On his first
early Sixties dates for the Blue Note label, Hancock wed the earthiness of funk,
R&B, and gospel to bop's aridities without scanting the latter's harmonic rigor.
Within a couple of years, he, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams were doing advanced rhythmic
calculus in Miles Davis' most famous quintet. By the early Seventies, he was leading
the Headhunters, one of the few fusion groups that didn't fall prey to the genre's
bombastic tendencies. The Eighties found him looking simultaneously forward and backward,
recording the electro-flavored "Rockit" as well as leading the Wynton Marsalis-fronted
Davis reunion group VSOP, which had a great influence on the recent revival of "mainstream"
jazz (though Hancock should no more be blamed for that movement's excesses than he
should for fusion's). More recently, he's moved into a neoclassical period, as evidenced
by this year's conceptually sprawling tribute to Gershwin on Verve. Even if Hancock
lacks (or simply doesn't aspire to) his mentor Miles' odd negative charisma, he has
traced a similarly jagged line through jazz history for nearly 40 years. This 6-CD
box set captures a few of the more important zigs and zags along the way, as well
as making clear the knack for blending tradition and innovation he has maintained
through all the changes. Take "Succotash," off 1963's Inventions &
Dimensions. Recorded spontaneously without a predetermined melody or chord pattern,
the track instead utilizes a series of "rules." Rather than a John Zorn-like
"game," the result is a sauntering groove, massaged by Willie Bobo and
Oswaldo Martinez's Latin percussion. In 1969, after the defining triumph of Maiden
Voyage, Hancock went into the studio with six horn players and recorded one of
his most unusual and compelling endeavors, The Prisoner. Dedicated to Martin
Luther King rather than the Patrick McGoohan TV series, the album features some of
the most intriguing horn ensemble writing of the time and anticipates the return
to polyphony that David Murray and his crowd brought to jazz in the Eighties. Mingus
is usually cited as the main inspiration for that avant-gutbucket school, but Hancock,
whose greatness is always acknowledged but often taken for granted, deserves his
props too. One complaint: In addition to breaking the era's seven albums up in order
to fit onto six CDs, the producers have seen fit to place every alternate take directly
next to the master take. That rudely interrupts the flow Hancock achieved on each
of his album; a chameleon may change colors, but he
MILES DAVISThe Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia)
Miles Davis participated in the vanguard of more avant-garde movements than any jazz musician of the 20th century. He was into bop, cool, post-bop, modal jazz, the unnamed form he created with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and a few varieties of fusion. For decades, Miles remained cognizant of what the most advanced and creative musicians were doing and incorporated their ideas into his constantly evolving concepts. He worked with Charlie Parker on bop, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis on "the birth of the cool," Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey on post-bop, Bill and Gil Evans on modal jazz, and as mentioned above, Hancock and Shorter on you-name-it. He and John Coltrane influenced each other. It was 1970's Bitches Brew that really launched the fusion movement, in the sense that it had a huge impact on other musicians, even though there had been fusion work done before by, among others, the Fourth Way, Cannonball Adderley, and Tony Williams' Lifetime. Davis was aware of at least some of this. He also picked up influences, heard on his fusion recordings, of Charles Lloyd, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone, evolving toward Bitches Brew step by step; on '68's Miles in the Sky, Davis had Hancock play a Fender Rhodes electric piano, employed George Benson on electric guitar, and used some R&B rhythms, while Filles de Kilimanjaro, also '68, featured Hancock and Chick Corea playing electric piano, and '69's In a Silent Way boasts three electric pianists and rock-influenced guitarist John McLaughlin. This set the stage for the Bitches Brew sessions '69-'70. The collective personnel on the dates includes Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter and Steve Grossman, soprano sax, Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet, Hancock, Corea, Zawinul and Larry Young, electric keyboards, Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks, bass, Jack DeJohnette, Don Alias, Billy Cobham, Lennie White, Jumma Santos, Airto Moreira, and Bikari Sharma, drums and percussion, Sharma, tamboura, and Kahlil Balakrishna, sitar; you have musicians here from Brazil, England, Austria, and the Indian subcontinent. Not all of the selections on this 4-CD set were issued on the original 2-LP album, some came out later on Live/Evil, Big Fun, and Circle in the Round. Some are previously unissued. Among the reasons Bitches Brew gained so much attention and created more controversy than earlier fusion albums was that it was a more wide-ranging, ambitious effort, and featured more aggressive playing. Here we have some relatively large ensembles containing unusual combinations of instruments, some seldom heard in jazz at that time, producing unique colors and textures. There's a lot of collective improvisation here, and while it gets heated at times, the musicians always engage in coherent interplay. Davis plays with consistent inspiration; check out his lyrical work on "Sanctuary." Shorter turns in very intelligent work. Also note the advanced techniques that went into the making of these performances, the editing, the use of reverb chambers, echo effects, and tape looping. This is a landmark in 20th-century music.
5 Stars --Harvey Pekar
THE COMPLETE HANK WILLIAMS(Mercury)
Hank Williams was a man in serious, serious pain. Whether because of the agonizing physical disability from which he suffered, a degenerative spinal disorder that plagued him like the torment of hell, or emotional demons stemming from a domineering mother, an absent father, and a series of tempestuous relationships with various wives and mistresses, the achy cry of Williams' voice wasn't simply the result of his singing, it was the country star's soul crying out. An alcoholic who died on New Year's Eve 1952 at the age of 29 after a lifetime of drinking and drugging, Williams was crowned the undisputed king of country music not long after his death based on a recorded legacy that spans 1946-1952. On The Complete Hank Williams, a 10-CD box set collecting a total of 225 tracks, 53 of which are previously unissued, the evidence for Williams' greatness isn't only indisputable, it's overwhelmingly depressing. Summed up in microcosm on the set's first disc, The Complete Hank Williams begins on a note of salvation with the third song, "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul," seguing quickly into another penitent tune from his own pen, "When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels," but by the fifth and sixth songs, "I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)," and "My Love for You (Has Turned to Hate)," the Alabama-born musician commits his life to one of sin; the chilling "I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)" leaves no doubt that Williams was consciously killing himself with his lifestyle. Before the listener can recover from this juxtaposition of sin and salvation, the hits start coming with "Honky Tonkin'" and the universally covered Williams gem, "Move It on Over." "I Saw the Light" seemingly renounces the singer's wicked ways, but then "Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)" maps out exactly where this story is headed, even as playful pokes like "Fly Trouble" and "Rootie Tootie" seek to distract you from the bleak darkness that permeates Williams' oeuvre. The first four CDs compile Williams' studio work for the Sterling & MGM labels, and are 100-proof country music at its most deadly, the Luke the Drifter material being particularly hard to knock back. Disc 5 features demos and radio performances from Montgomery, and with Williams' oftimes flat live delivery, they pale in personality to the first four CDs, though the emotionless drawl of "We're Getting Closer to the Grave" and "I'm Going Home" are all-out scary. Discs 6 and 7 are better, though both uneven, featuring demos and radio performances from Shreveport, 1949, when Williams was a regular on The Louisiana Hayride, while discs 8 and 9, "The Nashville Demos," are flat-out priceless collections of better and lesser-known Williams material, raw in their off-the-cuff feel and revealing in an utterly unself-conscious way. The last disc, which compiles various radio, concert, and television performances, may just be the best in its B-sides glory, especially given that it ends this mammoth undertaking with the spoken "Apology #2," which finds Williams at home and immobile after a spine fusion, humbly apologizing for missing a show in Washington. Hearing Williams' grim tone says as much about the pain he lived and died in as the 225 songs on this set. In his essay "No More Darkness, No More Light" (both box set booklets are lavish), Daniel Cooper compares Williams to Billie Holiday and Robert Johnson for having absorbed "Americans' needs to localize psychic demolition," and that's exactly what The CompleteHank Williams is -- serious, serious psychic demolition.
5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
KRONOS QUARTET25 Years (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.)
Question: What do Don Walser, Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, and Joan Armatrading have in common? Answer: Kronos Quartet. In their 25-year existence, the San Francisco string quartet has performed works by these -- and many other -- diverse musicians. This century's most vital string quartet, consisting of David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Joan Jeanrenaud (cello), is also the most prolific, claiming over 400 works composed or arranged for them -- more than double the number of quartets by Beethoven, Shubert, Brahms, Hayden, and Mozart. Combined. Kronos' complete repertoire consists of over 600 works, including "Purple Haze" and "Amazing Grace," so when it comes to compiling their box set, the obvious query is: What to include? In balancing the cost/completeness dilemma, Nonesuch leaned toward the latter; 25 Years boasts 10 CDs, each one showcasing the group's ability to breath life into compositions as varied as Steve Reich's "Different Trains," a work that calls for the synchronization of sampled sound and voice tape loops, three taped quartets, and one live quartet; and Peter Sculthorpe's "From Ubirr," where the quartet plays with two didgeridoos. In addition to sampling the aesthetic spectrum, 25 Years also spans the group's history, from their first commission in 1973, Ken Benshoof's "Travelling Music" (for which Kronos founder Harrington paid the composer a bag of doughnuts), to Arvo Pärt's "Summa," recorded last year. This retrospective also embraces works by other well-knowns such as Henryk Górecki, Phillip Glass, and Astor Piazzola, as well as Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Vietnam's P. Q. Phan. And since 25 Years doesn't include works by Walser, Zappa, Ra, Armatrading, or Hendrix, one has to wonder what else missed the cut; some will complain that 25 Years doesn't contain enough from their recent, soul-stirring Early Music (Lachrymae Antiquae) or their highly successful Pieces of Africa, but such critiques miss the point. 25 Years is an overview of the quartet's prodigious and diverse career, not another valueless record company "Best of" compilation, and this highlighting of the classic works of the manifold Kronos repertoire (including over two hours of new recordings, available only in this box set) will take a lifetime to digest and enjoy. It's a testament to Kronos that other quartets try to emulate their technical proficiency and creative vigor, but none come close. Kronos is simply the best. And 25 Years, as intense, subtle, and dedicated as the band it represents, proves it.
5 Stars -- David Lynch
JUDY GARLANDJudy (32)
No Hollywood film, no Broadway play, could have created a heroine more tragic than Judy Garland. More importantly, American show tune composers could have hardly dreamed a better instrument than the voice of Judy Garland. Inside the exquisitely designed, frustrating-to-read box set Judy are four CDs, a 30-minute video, a booklet flush with glowing accolades, and naturally, many photographs. Unfortunately, all the disc credits have to be gleaned from the booklet, because the two nicely cased double CDs carry no song lists on either the CD box or the discs themselves. This isn't really as big a problem, because if just the notion of this box set is something that sets your pulse pounding, you won't be disappointed. Garland is captured from age seven, warbling "Blue Butterfly," "Hang on to a Rainbow," "When the Butterflies Kiss the Buttercups Goodbye," and "Land of Let's Pretend" to her final London performance in 1969 of "Over the Rainbow," and is aural proof that the Yellow Brick Road was fraught with more peril than winged monkeys and sleep-inducing poppies. Starting at the age of 13, Garland's voice already possessed a remarkable maturity, as demonstrated on the first disc with "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart." By her 14th birthday, she had recorded her first single, "Stompin' at the Savoy," and by the time she reached 15, Garland had her first hit, "Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You)." It would be two more years before The Wizard of Oz made her Dorothy of our hearts, and in a way, her life really was over after that. The three discs that follow the early years highlight what will always be some of the finest American pop music of the century from composers like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart, and Lerner and Loewe, among others. That magnificent voice! And the songs! "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Get Happy," "Rockabye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody)," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "The Man That Got Away," "Born in a Trunk," and yes, "Over the Rainbow." Though she publicly said "Rainbow" was her favorite song, it was really "Through the Years"; Garland once lashed out at a babbling fan, saying, "Lady, I've got rainbows coming out of my ass!" When Judy Garland died of an overdose in 1969 at the age of 46, it may well have been that she was simply tired of living her life in the public eye. For four decades, however, she was one of the greatest talents ever to step before a microphone on stage or screen, and there's not a song among the 50-odd offerings that doesn't confirm that, right down to the last whisper of her voice.
4.5 Stars -- Margaret Moser
RANDY NEWMANGuilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman (Rhino)
With his passion for the written word and harmonic sophistication, Randy Newman could have easily been the next Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, or George Gershwin. Instead, he gave us classics like "Davy the Fat Boy" and "Rednecks." This 4-CD retrospective might explain to the uninitiated what the fuss over Randy Newman is all about. Then again, maybe not; Los Angeles proclaimed his Top 40 hit "I Love L.A." the anthem of the 1984 Summer Olympics and gave Newman the key to the city, never acknowledging the absurdity of a song glorifying such non-landmarks as Santa Monica Boulevard, while outraged organizations of vertically challenged people failed to identify the voice beneath the pop veneer of "Short People" as that of a raving lunatic. There hasn't been much precedent for a writer like Newman; it's easy to see why his audience was unprepared for the biting "God's Song" or the too-close-for-comfort "My Life Is Good." Spending his early years at a west coast version of the Brill building "trying to be Carole King," Newman soon dropped the lofty goal and instead found his own way without succumbing to the navel-gazing so endemic to other California singer-songwriters. There's a joke he has beat to death in order to illustrate his peculiar bent on the songwriting process: "I couldn't write a song like 'Just the Way You Are.' If I did, it would come out 'I love you just the way you are, you c**t.' I'd fuck it up somehow." Yet it's exactly this tendency to subvert that makes Newman's work so fascinating. His protagonists are bigots, louts, selfish yuppies, crooks, slave traders, child murderers, well-meaning losers -- his songs are their stories personified, written with depth, humor, and in the best instances, compassion. His satire is framed in a gorgeous, rich musical tapestry of southern Americana. Guilty explores his indispensable 10 albums of songs on the first two discs, with the smart selections and curious omissions typical of such hopeless endeavors, while the majority of the third disc contains many intriguing and entertaining outtakes and demos, including his unbearable first single (produced by Pat Boone!), "Golden Gridiron Boy." The final disc is made up of selections from Newman's skillful, emotion-charged motion picture soundtracks, which rank right alongside the work of his famed Oscar-winning Uncle Lionel. It was no doubt a tough job condensing such a fearless, surprising, and undeniable body of work, and more room could have been utilized by saving his film work (which Newman treats much more as a day job kind of thing) for a separate collection. For such a slow and meticulous writer, Newman's hardly released a disposable song (well, at least before the outtake disc. OK, maybe "Pants"). Still, Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, is a fitting, if slightly remiss, tribute to a one-of-a-kind talent.
4 Stars -- Jeff McCord
BURT BACHARACHThe Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (Rhino)
It's a good time to be Burt Bacharach. With a cameo in the campy Austin Powers, a recent TV tribute special, and a terrific collaboration with Elvis Costello currently on the shelves, Bacharach is suddenly hipper than hip. But don't be swayed by fashion; trendy or not, Bacharach is a songwriting monster -- huge is what he is. His 40-year career has notched Number One hits on the R&B, country and western, and pop charts, and his songs have been interpreted by artists as diverse as Dionne Warwick, Marty Robbins, Herb Alpert, Manfred Mann, Tony Orlando, and the Shirelles. Remarkably crossing genres and disparate styles, Bacharach has managed to stamp each tune with his unmistakable signature. Be it the schmaltzy and lush electric piano chords of "This Guy's in Love With You" (Herb Alpert) or the contrived cowboy confection "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" (B.J. Thomas), Bacharach has created his own melodic idiom. Of course, he's also responsible for some criminally bad creations. Sure, there's "Alfie" (Cilla Black), but there's also "The Blob" (the Five Blobs), while classics like "Only Love Can Break a Heart" (Gene Pitney) share space with crucifiers like "Me Japanese Boy I Love You" (Bobby Goldsboro). Even so, the amount of classic American sweater pop here is almost overwhelming: "Promises, Promises," "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," "The Look of Love," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," "Walk on By," "What's New Pussycat?" And Rhino has navigated the licensing minefield to provide the definitive version of each song. For example, even though both Richard Chamberlain and Dionne Warwick recorded "(They Long to Be) Close to You," it's the Carpenters' version that appears in this collection. The liner notes feature a forward by Bacharach himself, a detailed history, extensive song commentaries, and sections on Warwick, who accounts for 17 of the 75 tracks on the 3-CD set, and lyricist Hal David. In fact, the set is a tribute to Hal David as much as it is to Bacharach, as David put the words to almost all of Bacharach's biggest hits. Bacharach's recent popularity increase may be largely a revivalist contrivance since everything old gets a turn at being cool again these days, but The Look of Love is a wonderful excuse to rediscover (or simply discover) one of America's elder pop statesmen, a master of the domain.
3.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
BRUCE SPRINGSTEENTracks (Columbia)
When Born in the USA swept the world like a tidal wave of blue-collar soul, one of the more compelling legends accompanying the release was that the album had been culled from over 100 songs. Fans and devotees couldn't help but wonder with awe at the fate of those leftovers, as well as songs kept off preceding albums like The River, Darkness on the Edge of Town, etc. With the 4-CD Tracks, they don't have to wonder any longer. Featuring 66 mostly unheard tunes from the vaults of the Boss, recorded at every stage in his career, from his very first audition for Columbia ("Mary Queen of Arkansas" in '72) up to "Gave It a Name," recorded in the spring of this year, Tracks is a brilliantly conceived and sequenced account of the development of one of the most important American pop artists of the last 20 years. Fans of Springsteen will revel and wallow in the wealth of material here as well as treasure the beautifully designed and constructed, tri-fold, self-contained packaging (with a book of all the lyrics). Once you dive in, you'll find there's plenty worth hearing, and mourn the fact you didn't hear them 10, 20 years ago: the acoustic audition of "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," the anthemic foreshadowing of "Seaside Bar Song," the joyous shuffle of "Give the Girl a Kiss." And that's only the first CD. There are also, however, plenty of songs that should have stayed in the vaults. In developing a style as passionate and dramatic as Springsteen perfected with songs like "Jungleland," "Thunder Road," and "Badlands," slipping over the top was inevitable, and songs like "Linda Let Me Be the One," the dorky "Where the Bands Are," and the goofily repeated crescendos of "Frankie" were wisely discarded. What this box set does offer is a comprehensive examination of Springsteen's maturation as a songwriter who has adapted and developed at every point of his almost 30-year career. Moreover, Springsteen remains as vital today as he did in the Seventies, the quieter, more introspective tone of "The Streets of Philadelphia" and The Ghost of Tom Joad, beautifully represented here on part of the third CD and most of the fourth with tunes like "Gave It a Name," "Loose Change," and "Happy" -- especially "Happy." Two songs on Tracks, "Brothers Under the Bridges (83)" and "Brothers Under the Bridge," mirror the Jersey native's development from early E-Streeter to Bob Dylan's successor. The first, from 1983, the recording that led to Born in the USA, epitomizes Springsteen's heroic anthems, while the latter, recorded in 1995, takes the same idea, trades the glorification and disillusionment of the first for the resigned-but-still-hopeful realist of the time-tainted man, and is far superior in effect and execution. It's this version that instills yet again the sense of hope that's central to the music of Bruuuuce.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Hess
RAY CHARLESThe Complete Country and Western Recordings 1959-1986 (Rhino)
This 4-CD set taken from Ray Charles' Atlantic, ABC, and Columbia albums contain the singer's most popular recorded material. Originally, it was aimed at a mass audience and some of the charts, though well-crafted, are generic, but Charles sings so well that it doesn't make a lot of difference. This is true not only of his ABC stuff, but the later, less-publicized Columbia work, on which Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Rickie Skaggs appear. Charles is one of this country's great vocalists, and on this collection, he's performing material whose high quality suits him. Naturally, the results are impressive. A lot has been claimed for Charles' recordings of compositions associated with country and western artists. It's certainly reasonable to say that they helped popularize the genre. Beyond that, however, some writers assert that they've improved race relations in this country. Raul Mota states in his foreword that Modern Sounds in Country and Western is one of the most important records of our time, not only because of its content, but also due to its social and political ramifications. The fact that Charles not only made a country music album, but also did it in his own inimitable way, proved that the genre did not solely belong to white people. Actually, Charles' albums did not result in a significant increase in the number of African-American C&W artists or fans. In fact, Charles' performances here don't fit neatly into a C&W category. Charles employs the same vocal style he uses on R&B albums; he's not imitating Charlie Pride. And some of the arrangements are jazz-influenced. So what we have here is stylistic hybridization, bringing together two distinct black and white Southern music forms. Jimmie Rodgers sang material associated with African-Americans; Charles and other black performers have performed music associated with Southern whites. Is this surprising to anyone? After all, Charles and the white singers he works with here are from the same geographical region. Listen to the similarity of their styles; it's apparent. This is good music, but it hasn't brought about the millennium. If you want the best Ray Charles, get his Atlantic R&B stuff. If you can't handle it, this will do fine.
4 Stars -- Harvey Pekar
JOHN COLTRANEThe Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (Impulse!)
Thirty years after his death, John Coltrane remains one of the most influential, passionate, and serious practitioners of jazz to ever pick up a horn. His official cause of death, at age 41, is on the books as liver cancer, but there are plenty who swear he blew himself to an early grave. This set chronicles the watershed years, 1961-65, with Coltrane's "classic" quartet; quartets, actually, since Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner are the only true constants. The band begin to coalesce during a particularly fertile week of sessions in 1960 that produced, among others, the signature hit My Favorite Things. A year later, the lineup more or less solidified, and Coltrane became the first artist signed to the new Impulse! label, where he was granted unprecedented artistic freedom. In Tyner, the saxophonist found the perfect foil, a powerhouse player who matched his intensity note for note, sounding at times like six hands on the keyboard, while a confident Coltrane haunted the lower registers of the tenor with a warm and fierce buzzing tone, or sounded the soprano with alacrity and vision. Together with propulsive drummer Elvin Jones (or the more musical Roy Haynes) and a variety of bassists, this quartet played spellbinding music. Much has been made of Coltrane's conversion, his denouncement of drugs and alcohol that launched his peak years as a leader, but regardless of any hype, it's impossible to separate the man's spirituality from the music included here. One could not exist without the other. Only the true quartet studio recordings are featured: the mainstream swing of Coltrane and Ballads; the studio portions of Impressions and Live at Birdland, featuring the moving "Alabama," Coltrane's finest moment; Crescent, perhaps his best album; the tone poem A Love Supreme; plus The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, and Kulu Se Mama, along with all the odd compilation tracks, posthumous vault recordings, and a generous slab of completely unreleased material. Arranged chronologically, listening to the eight CD's in sequence (though the liner notes strangely encourage you to program the discs in their original album order) has the effect of a long gradual crescendo. Never one to sit still, Coltrane kept upping the stakes and the intensity, so much so that it finally drove Tyner and Jones from the band. Yet here, there's not a throwaway track in the lot, and alongside the Village Vanguard live recordings (the subject of an earlier Impulse! box), this material remains the most fully realized and exciting of the saxophonist's career.
5 Stars -- Jeff McCord
CHARLIE PARKERThe Complete Live Performances on Savoy (Savoy Jazz)
Bird Lives, yes, but drop the "s" and you have Bird Live, a DIY tape-recording phenomenon that predates the cassette culture of punk and hip-hop by half a century. Back in the Forties, jazzheads would sneak into Charlie Parker club gigs and tape the great saxophonist's performances, one enthusiast going so far as to start and stop his machine at the beginning and end of Parker's solos. These lo-fi transcriptions aren't uncommon, but when Bird fans catalog each and every note that didn't get immortalized on tape, they grieve with all the force of a feminist poetry scholar contemplating Ted Hughes torching Sylvia Plath's diaries. The Complete Live Performances on Savoy offers nothing previously unissued, but it does bring together a series of club and concert hall dates from the late Forties and early Fifties that have never sat side by side before. This 4-CD collection also does the listener the favor of cutting down the proto-beatnik jabberings of MC "Symphony Sid" Torin that cluttered up previous releases of the same material. The salutory result is a portrait of Parker as musical genius, rather than hipster icon. The performances, featuring the likes of Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie, are golden -- assuming you can tolerate the sound, which, despite some digital cleaning up, still approaches Live at the Hollywood Bowl levels of ambience. The big revelations are the five tracks from a Chicago date Parker did with a pickup band, including guitarist George Freeman and his brother, drummer Bruz Freeman, siblings of tenor legend Von Freeman (and uncles of Chico). George's solos are something of a revelation, using effects and distortion in a manner that harks from another era; his unusual solos point out that these are unusual tracks -- jam sessions stretch as long as nine or 10 minutes, rather than the four or five minutes most bop of that era held itself to. Though there's much to be said for that tradition of concision, listening to these men stretch out raises the musical question of what Parker would have done with the more extended forms that became a jazz commonplace after his premature death. Contrary to what reel-to-reel militants might have you believe, the great tragedy isn't the Charlie Parker performances that never got recorded, it's the Charlie Parker performances that never got performed.
4 Stars -- Jeff Salamon
BONGWATERBox of Bongwater (Shimmy Disc)
Unlike many box sets which actually come in something more akin to a folder, the Box of Bongwater is four discs, minimal liner notes, and just under five hours of music packed inside an actual box. Semantics aside, the more salient issue is: Why a Bongwater box set at all? Even as a known name during the pre-Nirvana heyday of college radio, Bongwater, essentially just Shimmy Disc mastermind Kramer and Ann Magnuson, was never an "important" band by any reckoning. Possible explanations for Box of Bongwater, then, are two. First, Shimmy Disc wanted to bolster catalog sales, and with Bongwater having put out five releases in its lifetime ('87-'91), Breaking No New Ground, Double Bummer, Too Much Sleep, The Power of Pussy, and The Big Sell-Out, it's the label's only band with enough material to actually fill a box (unless you count all of Kramer's other dinkings: Kramer and Jad Fair, Kramer and John Hall, Kramer and David Hild, Kramer and Hugh Hopper, and even just plain ol' Kramer). Second, Bongwater had enough good material to warrant a box. While the band evinced moments of near brilliance in its brief, four-year existence, they were spaced out over far too many experimental lapses. Bongwater was at its best when Magnuson was directing her rage either towards the music industry, "Frank," "David Bowie Wants Ideas," "Talent Is a Vampire," "Nick Cave Dolls," and any one of about 10 tracks where Magnuson alludes to her Jimmy Page obsession, or towards sex, "Obscene & Pornographic Art," "Pornography," "Talent Is a Vampire," "Nick Cave Dolls," and any one of about 10 tracks where Magnuson alludes to her Jimmy Page obsession. Funny how those two overlap so much. Actually, the majority of Bongwater's material has some kind of overt sexual component to it. Of course the band was also good for a frequent mangling of a cover, like "Dazed and Chinese," "Julia" "Rock N Roll Pt. 2," and "Ride My Seesaw," though it was with "Folk Song" that Bongwater made its "Stairway to Heaven" (or is that its "Roundabout"?) as Magnuson attacked everything about late Eighties "culture." After that, just in time for The Big Sell-Out, Bongwater pretty much ran out of ideas; Magnuson had run out of anger and run off to join Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis on the short-lived sitcom Anything But Love, whileguitarist Dave Rick ran off to join the major label version of King Missile, leaving behind enough material for a box and barely enough sufficient reason for its existence.
3 Stars --Michael Bertin
XTCTransistor Blast: The Best of the BBC Sessions (TVT)
The Peel Sessions and other BBC recordings of bands in the studio exist not out of any brilliant idea to create alternate versions of great songs; rather, they are the result of bizarre UK regulations that require a certain amount of aired material to be produced in-house. Moreover, XTC are not a band known for improvisation; they are lauded by their fans as masters of pop craft whose albums are carefully produced to bring their delicate harmonies and quirky melodies to the ears in nigh-perfect fashion. It would seem, then, that this 4-CD set tracking the band's studio and live recordings for the radio network between 1978-'80 would be superfluous, if not altogether redundant. Such is not the case. While the later material here, notably "The Meeting Place" and "Grass" from Skylarking, adds little insight to the original album versions, the post-1980 tracks make up only a tiny percentage of the set, and it's XTC's younger days that are spotlighted in Transistor Blast. Familiar tunes are heard in many shades of new light in the studio recordings, often with a speedier tempo, more often bearing a more spare sound than their album counterparts. A switched instrumental emphasis here or a reworked bass line there results in a fresh new approach to some of the songs, and glimpse other directions the band could've taken -- some of which might've been better, all of which are at least interesting. One way in which XTC paralleled their spiritual forbears the Beatles was to abandon live performance for the studio at an early point in their career, and like the Beatles' later-released vintage live performances, the XTC concerts presented on Transistor Blast offer a look at a band of young, energetic upstarts with a surprisingly powerful live show (made all the more shocking when you realize the reason they gave up touring was because front man Andy Partridge suffers from stage fright). The music is urgent, the vocals frankly growly, and the songs are as perfectly crafted as they ever were. Though it's hard to believe that this set could be more than a curiosity, Transistor Blast is actually quite a revelatory treat for the XTC fan. God save the Queen, and God bless the bureaucracy.
3 Stars -- Ken Lieck
NUGGETSOriginal Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (Rhino)
If most rock bands were truly capable of album-length enchantment, we wouldn't have the mix tape. Both commerce and convenience helped make the single into rock & roll's lowest common denominator during AM radio's heyday, but let's not forget the role of ability (or lack thereof) in that equation. This is especially true in mid-Sixties America between the British Invasion and the weighty onset of AOR. Inspired by the girlie action of the Beatles and the sneer of the Rolling Stones, inexperienced youth from Bangor to Bakersfield armed themselves with guitars, stormed suburban garages, and ruined many a cocktail hour with their libidinous noise. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds were both light years beyond the grasp of these groups, but a fleeting hit single on a tiny regional label was still a distinct possibility. Nuggets is a joyous celebration of that possibility. The original Nuggets was a double LP released by Elektra in 1972 to mainstream indifference. Compiled by future Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Nuggets mixed 27 forgotten Top 40 hits, regional should-have-beens, and acid-tinged oddities to create the compilation to end all compilations. Hearing the Standells' "Dirty Water," the Remains' "Don't Look Back," and the Magic Mushrooms' "It's-A-Happening" in one sitting lends stunning cohesion to this musical era which spawned an obsessive cult dedicated to unearthing all the lost garage punk gems of the Sixties. In the face of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the obvious response for others in Nuggets' tiny coterie was to start bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Although it only sold about 50,000 copies upon its release, Nuggets was a harbinger and a half of DIY's worldwide metastasis. It's taken way too long for the original Nuggets to make it to CD; Rhino's three earlier titles under the Nuggets banner were mere pretenders to the throne, because raunchier tunes such as the Sonics' "Strychnine" and the Premiers' "Farmer John" always seemed to get left off in favor of Monkees songs. As if to make up for past errors, Rhino's new box set contains the original double album on one disc along with three new discs containing 91 more songs culled from many of the obscure reissues that followed Nuggets -- such as Greg Shaw's Pebbles series. Texas is particularly well-represented here by the 13th Floor Elevators ("You're Gonna Miss Me," of course), Mouse & the Traps (with the Dylan-nicking "A Public Execution"), and the Zachary Thaks (slamming out of Corpus Christi with "Bad Girl"). Whether it's the dumb-as-drool appeal of the Elastik Band's "Spazz," the jabbing decrepitude of the Monks' "Complication," or the perfect sneer of the Uniques' "You Ain't Tuff" (featuring a young, pre-country Joe Stampley!), the expanded Nuggets artfully reinforces Kaye's original vision. Although some of the bigger hits ("Louie, Louie," "Wooly Bully," "Incense and Peppermints") are universally available elsewhere, their inclusion makes sense in the context of a genre-defining collection. Besides, the vast majority of songs will be unheard music for all but the most fastidious listeners. These fuzzed-out tales of vibrant lust and junk food hooks play on like a wondrous mix tape meticulously compiled by someone who stands up dates to scour booths at record conventions. Nuggets is a treasure trove chock-full of manna for those who care a little too much about rock & roll.
5 Stars -- Greg Beets
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