1996 Records To Die For Page 6
With all these wonderful new releases, not to mention fairly recent releases and undiscovered golden oldies from my 8000+ vinyl and CD collection, where do I begin? What criteria should I use for my first BIG FIVE? Do I cover only eclectic stuff, do I go for a balanced blend, SHOULD I MAKE A STATEMENT? I shall use one very simple criterion.
These five recordings are those which have received the most plays on my system over the past six months. For whatever reasons, they've got me hooked.
STRAVINSKY: Les Noces, The Rite of Spring
Eric Kujawsky, Redwood Symphony , Oakland Symphony Chorus
Clarity CCD-1005 (CD). TT: 59:47
Ever since I saw a remarkable performance of Les Noces 15 years ago, I've been hooked by this boisterous and energetic depiction of a Russian peasant wedding. Maybe it's because I'm a pianist and fan of percussion recordings: this work is scored for four pianos, four percussionists, and chorus. Although this performance is captivating and the sound is up Clarity's usual high standards, I'm particularly touched that this is the only English-language version on record that I'm aware of. And, for you Zappa trivia fans, I believe that much of the more obtuse music (and choreography) from FZ's 200 Motels was lifted directly from this work.
CECIL TAYLOR: Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88
Cecil Taylor, piano; others
FMP LC 4557 (11 CDs). Jost Gebers, prod. TT: 12:04:01
Cecil Taylor, the most innovative jazz pianist alive today, is not the most accessible jazz artist. As he approaches the instrument more like 88 tuned percussion instruments, I've generally found his most captivating work to be his solo recordings; his quartets and larger groups tend to the cacophonous. This 11-CD set is Cecil at his best. In 1988, Taylor jetted to Berlin and did a series of duet concerts with Europe's leading avant-garde improvisers. All of the concerts, as well as some solo and orchestral performances, are included here. Taylor knows his partners' idiosyncratic styles well, approaching each duet differently. Of particular interest are the duets with percussionist Hann Bennink and unorthodox guitarist Derek Bailey.
KING CRIMSON: Thrak
Virgin 8 40313 2 (CD). King Crimson, David Bottrill, prods., engs. TT: 56:39
Angular, dense, obtuse guitarist and songwriter Robert Fripp has created this, his most captivating and advanced King Crimson yet. This two-guitar, two-bass/Chapman stick, two-percussionist lineup looks and sounds like a rock band, but the compositions are delicately crafted ensemble pieces more akin to what you'd find written for a classical sextet. There are few solos on this live recording, as most songs (half are instrumental) are through -composed, each minimalist line woven into a dense tapestry with the other musicians. On a captivating system, this recording transports me back to the concert. (XVIII-8)
SONIC YOUTH: Washing Machine
Geffen DGC 24825 (LP, CD). Sonic Youth , John Ziket, engs., prods. TT: 65:25
In the late '70s, guitarist Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, after performing some of Glenn Branca's early works in just intonation for electric guitars, got the idea of transferring the technique to a rock band. Sonic Youth was born.
When applied to guitars cranked through Marshall amps, the pre- Baroque natural tunings produce a moving, resonant wall of sound not unlike being caught in a church bell tower at noon. On this, their musical and sonic best yet (and it's on vinyl), the band blends delicate minimalist guitar counterpoint with dramatic surges as a varied backdrop to Kim Gordon's breathy vocals on what are basically catchy pop tunes. This is the one Sonic Youth to buy. I play it daily. (XIX-2)
JANIS IAN: Breaking Silence
Morgan Creek 2959-20023-2 (CD). Janis Ian, prod.; Jeff Balding, prod., eng. AAD. TT: 48:51
Analogue Productions AAPP 027 (LP). Doug Sax, mastering. AAA. TT: 44:44
Although with this release Janis Ian runs the risk of joining Amanda McBroom and Jennifer Warnes in the audio-geek wetdream vocalist hall of fame, I'm glad to help celebrate the return (and emergence from the closet) of one of our most innovative and underappreciated songwriters.
Ian has always been ahead of her time. (Imagine, in 1965, being the engineer on "Society's Child" and being told by this 15-year-old kid: "I want a Hammmond B-3 and a harpsichord on this.") The songs are typically moody , introspective, and dark, but the sound is extraordinary. I want to thank Chad Kassem for rereleasing this treasure on vinyl. I also want to wring his neck for omitting my favorite cut, "I Guess You Had to Be There." (XVII-1, XVIII-2)
ORNETTE COLEMAN: Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Ornette Coleman, alto & tenor sax; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet, cornet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, drums; others
Rhino/Atlantic R2-71410 (6 CDs). Nesuhi Ertegun, prod.; Yves Beavais, reissue prod. ADD. TT: 7:06:18
O.C. is among the most historically significant musicians the jazz idiom has produced; the man who (along with Cecil Taylor and, later, John Coltrane) freed the music from its purely technical constraints, thereby ushering in the first---and, some maintain, only---major advance since bebop. This sonically stunning set comprises Coleman's entire still-extant output from May 1959 to March 1961. These performances are some of the best of their own or any other era; Coleman's intensely intuitive, heartfelt music truly did outline "the shape of jazz to come." The greatest revelation awaiting those who may have previously shied away from this material is how joyful and organic it all sounds today. Asked to choose only one early Coleman disc, I'd opt for Twins in its British vinyl edition, K40278. (XVII-3)
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND: Trout Mask Replica
Reprise 2027-2 (CD only). Frank Zappa, prod.; Dick Kunc, eng. AAD. TT: 79:06
This is the digitally remastered incarnation of one of the thorniest "rock" recordings of all time, an album so lyrically uncompromising and instrumentally far-sighted it's still a daunting listen, even by today's post-punk standards. The CD far more detailed than the vinyl pressings on Straight---you can "hear the room" in which the rip-snorting "China Pig" was recorded. Musically, it's unparalleled. Don Van Vliet (The Captain) took the loose feel of rural American blues and folk settings, filtered them through free-jazz angularity, and adorned them with fiercely poetic, wildly humorous imagery. The result is a unique experience far too influential not to be included in a list such as R2D4.
LOVE: Love Story
Elektra Traditions/Rhino R2 73500 (2 CDs). Jac Holzman, Mark Abramson, Paul Rothchild, Bruce Botnick, Arthur Lee, prods. Compilation produced by Bill Inglot, Gary Stewart, Andrew Sandoval. ADD? TT: 2:39:04
Over the years I've brought two different LP pressings of Forever Changes home with me, suffered through Elektra's first execrable CD, and even had it on 8-track back in '68. They all sounded muffled. This, a career-retrospective compilation that contains an excellent-sounding version of the entire Forever Changes, the group's crowning achievement, is without question the edition that best serves the music's gorgeous, dreamy flow. You can hear every delicious instrumental layer, clearly. Led by resident visionary Arthur Lee, Love struck a deep, rich vein of inspiration on these 11 tracks of delicate, resilient psychedelia. They've stood the test of time. The remainder of the material varies in quality, though it's generally rather high.
TOM WAITS: Franks Wild Years
Island 90572-2 (CD). Tom Waits, prod.; Danny Leake, Biff Dawes, eng. AAD? TT: 56:46
Tom Waits' entire 1980s output, beginning with "On the Nickle" from Heartattack And Vine and concluding with the moving "Train Song" from the live Big Time, is amazing, but this is his most consistently mature and satisfying outing. Though some can't tolerate his vocal tics, his narrative skills are abundant. He's apt to make you cry as often as he causes you to guffaw. Franks completes the loosely structured trilogy begun with Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, and features Waits' most adventurous band in the service of a strong, diverse selection of psychologically resonant vignettes. I've played this album for hardcore Bart;aok fanatics, country-western nuts, and people with no particular musical interests, and they're all knocked out by it, with good reason. (XI-1)
PAUL SIMON: The Rhythm of the Saints
Warner Bros. 26098-2 (CD). Paul Simon, prod.; Roy Halee, eng. TT: 44:40
Paul Simon is one of the great popular songwriters of this or any generation, but, unlike Burt Bacharach or Marvin Hambone, he can carry a tune. Though Graceland may have more innate emotional impact, with repeated listenings I've come to regard Rhythm as his shining moment: a coherent statement full of intricately subtle playing and singing. To get the most out of these tunes, try sequencing them the way Simon intended before the boys in Warners' front office insisted the "hit single" ("The Obvious Child," the record's least interesting track) be given pride of place: 3-6-4-7-8-1-2-9-5-10. See if you don't agree. (XIV-2)
PAUL ROBESON: The Odyssey of Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson, vocals; Alan Booth, Lawrence Brown, piano; Sonny Terry, harmonica; Brownie McGhee, guitar
Omega Classics OCD 3007 (CD). Seymour Solomon, Paul Robeson, Jr., prods.; David Baker, digital eng. AAD(?). TT: 72:40
Performances from 1952-58 (some are mono, sue me), taken from the private collection of Robeson's son, are presented here with warm, intimate sound. Robeson's voice was such a powerful instrument, and he communicated so directly, that listening to this disc I always feel his presence---full of warmth, compassion, and, above all, nobility. It's hard to pick one highlight: "No More Auction Block" is too powerful for words, but many others, including "Motherless Child" and "Old Man River," are hardly less so. Forced to choose, I'd pick "Danny Boy," usually a tired cliché, here transformed by a transcendental reading.
CHARLES MINGUS: Thirteen Pictures
Charles Mingus, bass, piano; Duke Ellington, piano; Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, John Handy, Yusef Lateef, saxes; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Dannir Richmond, Max Roach, drums; others
Rhino/Atlantic Jazz Gallery R2 71402 (2 CDs). Joel Dorn, Hal Wilner, prods.; Gene Paul, remastering. AAD(?). TT: 2:08:59
As impossible as it is to describe as immense a talent as Mingus's in a scant two hours, Rhino has succeeded admirably. This may be only the beginning, but it's a great beginning. Mingus ranks among the greatest jazz composers, instrumentalists, and band leaders---this disc pulls together superb examples of each of those strengths. First among equals here are "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion," a 27-minute suite in which he builds a world as compelling and complex as the one we inhabit; and "Haitian Fight Song," a mesmerizing example of Mingus's instrumental prowess, swing, and acerbic intensity.