What We’re Listening to This Week
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Miles Davis: Miles At the Fillmore, 1970, Bootleg Series: No. 3 (Columbia, 2014)
The long-awaited new Miles Davis bootleg, At the Fillmore 1970, offers more than 3 hours of live, unedited performances over four consecutive nights, when Bill Graham booked one of Miles’ funkiest bands to open for the rather sedate songstress Laura Nyro. As the opening act, Davis’ band was constrained to a mere 45 minutes of playing. This may have been an advantage, as the soloing is kept to a minimum and the songs, largely taken from Bitches’ Brew and Jack Johnson, flow seamlessly into a single continuous performance. This is a band in transition and so is the music. The first novelty is the configuration of the band itself: two percussionists, two keyboardists, tenor sax and Miles’ trumpet. It’s a large stage, but the players are wedged in tight, almost huddled together, keying off of each other. Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams had just left the group, replaced by Steve Grossman and Jack DeJohnette. Guitarist John McLaughlin was otherwise engaged. The Fillmore, of course, is a rock venue and that’s precisely what Davis’ band was playing that week, although rock music unlike anything that had ever been played live before. The playing is loud, furious, almost assaultive. Part of the strange, dense flavor of the music is that there’s no guitarist on stage, even though Miles’ intention was to assemble a jazz band that played in the style of Jimi Hendrix, with metallic shrieking and crackling distortion. Most of the burden for manufacturing that kind of extreme sound falls on Keith Jarrett, who isn’t so much playing as frantically shredding an electric organ, throwing off sparks, howls, hisses, amid the blazing runs, and generally riding the keyboard to where perhaps only Sun Ra had ventured before him. On the other side of the stage, Chick Corea keeps things relatively grounded with liquid melodies flowing out of his Fender Rhodes. One of the most mesmerizing and inventive performances is on the lone rendition of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” where Davis trades serpentine licks with Steve Grossman on sax, accompanied by some seriously bizarre vamping by Jarrett and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira making weird polyrhythmic jungle noises on his, well, whatever the hell it is he was playing. The other standout is a spooky call-and-response version of “Spanish Key,” where Miles leads the band deep into the primordial heart of funk. Reactionary jazz purists, like Stanley Crouch, recoiled at these performances, accusing Davis of selling out. In fact, Miles was exactly where he’d always been, way out ahead of everyone, forging the music of the future.
André Cymone: The Stone (Blind Tango, 2014)
After a nearly 28-year absence from the recording studio, Prince’s former bassist unfurls this exquisitely hand-crafted album on the Blind Tango label. Andre Cymone grew up on the northside of Minneapolis, where he went to high school with the precocious young Prince. After Prince’s parents split up, Prince moved into Andre’s parents house. They played basketball together in high school and Prince recruited Andre to play electric bass in his first band, 94 East, and later Grand Central, which became Champagne. Cymone played and toured with the early Revolution and then split after tensions with Prince mounted and embarked a solo career. His three solo records in the early 80s, where very much in the Paisley Park mode, sly, funky songs about sex and liberation in the onset of Reagan-time. Then Cymone vanished from the scene. On The Stone, Cymone wrote all 11 songs on “The Stone,” plays a funky electric guitar, as well as his trusty bass with its blistery Jaco-like sound. His voice has aged over the years and all for the better. He sings these blue-driven rockers, about desire, racism and hard-living on the ragged streets of America, with a gritty authority. Cymone has grown up, but there’s no sign he’s lost any of his energy or creativity. Let’s hope this is just the first tantalizing entry in a sequence of new recordings.
Stewart Francke: A Familiar Fire (Blue Boundary, 2014)
An hour of blue-eyed soul from a neglected master of the genre. A Familiar Fire is Francke’s tenth album, but there’s nothing repetitive about it. The years on the road have only made him wiser and deepened the grooves. There’s a surety and individuality to Francke’s singing on these songs of heartbreak and loss that moves him past his idol Mitch Ryder. Years ago, Francke fought a fierce battle against leukemia and it changed his music, made it more humane and profound. Take a listen to “Love’s Very Marrow.” On the surface, it’s a break-up song, but that word “marrow” is a sign-post for a deeper message about the fragility and vitality of love and life. For Francke, the personal is political, as in his medley Time to Listen: “When the cops stop knockin’ its gonna be a different day / When the doors need lockin’ gonna be hell to pay.” This is the kind of music that only heavy experience can yield, the hard-won sound of a real soul survivor.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits.
Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge Records, 2013)
I’ll be honest, I’ve liked much of Arcade Fire’s previous efforts, but their latest is a bomb despite what their devoted fans may say. It’s boring, self-indulgent and over-produced. Perhaps what makes things even worse is that Reflektor is two discs long – dragging out the agony. Lead singer Win Butler has always had an inflated sense of his own importance, but the self-indulgence in these songs is unrivaled (save for Justin Bieber) with lyrics like, “Our song escapes on little silver discs, Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits”. While Reflektor’s painfully drawn out slumber may be a perfect fit for the Urban Outfitters set, I’ll take two and pass.
The Shins: Port of Morrow (Columbia, 2012)
Sure to upset all those out there that glean their musical tastes from the predictable snobs over at Pitchfork, I’ll have to say I could easily wait ten more years for the next Shins album. Their last effort from 2012 was a complete snooze fest. James Mercer, the leader of the pack, appears to be the only Shin left standing. The rest of his New Mexican pals, likely fed up with Mercer’s self-aggrandizement, are no longer in the band. What’s left is a flavorless corporate shit-show that’s void of any enthusiasm. The Shins peaked early. I remember seeing them play well before success got the better of Mercer when they opened for The Minders in Portland, Oregon, circa 2001. Back then The Shins were original, exciting and vibrant. Now? Not so much.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch.
Richard Buckner: The Hill (Overcoat Recordings, 2009)
Richard Buckner, a hulky, brooding alt-country singer, has lived everywhere from Edmonton, Alberta, to Brooklyn, New York, in the past decade or so. He creates some sublime hymns with his score to Edgar Lee Masters’ classic book of poems, Spoon River Anthology, which narrates the lives of desperate, fuming citizens buried six-feet-under in a cemetery in rural Illinois, their secrets, their regrets and their often violent deaths – either a long, fearful, self-destructive chronicle of refusing to ever take a breath, or suffering the consequences of freedom with a swift blow. The whole album is one track, so you can’t skip around to seek relief.
My favorite is “Elizabeth Childers.” Hers is a story of stillbirth. And Buckner sings Masters’ words sweetly, churning the strings on his guitar.
Another gem is the call and return between Reuben Painter and his mistress, the local school teacher, Emily Sparks. Reuben describes his escape to the Rue de Rivoli, and empty debauchery, but she never leaves his mind. Emily’s response is refashioned as a curt, closed instrumental that evokes stern work and princely salvation.
The album, and Masters’ poems, are solemn reminders that we have one shot at this. The project questions the ethical chill of America. Where I grew up, it’s unquestionably commonplace to accept with stoicism a life unlived. The “what if’s” linger, through percussion breaking like glass and haunting pedal-steel guitar.
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
P.O.D.: Satellite (WEA, 2001)
Toots and the Maytals: Pressure Drop: The Definitive Collection (Trojan, 2005)
Warrior Soul: Last Decade Dead Century (Escapi, 2009)
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine.
British women this week in all their loopy glory.
PJ Harvey: Man Size
Sally Timms is a singer, songwriter and member of The Mekons. Her most recent solo record is ‘World of Him.‘ She lives in Chicago.
John Stetch, Off With the Cuffs (Addo Records, 2013)
This remarkable pianist, whose wealth of styles and ideas cannot easily be contained even in that increasingly expansive realm known as jazz, seems never to have heard a musical border he did not want to cross. A Canadian of Ukrainian extraction, Stetch has often worked in the folk music traditions of his own heritage, as in his vivid and virtuosic Ukrainianism (2002). On that disc, dark ruminations on catastrophe—“Famine” and the closing track, “Children of Chernobyl”—are interleaved with affirmations such as his “Carpathian Blues.” More than a decade on, Stetch continues to explore new terrain, this time out taking three beloved piano works of European art music for a spin: down the back alleys of the blues; bumping over the off-beat ruts of Eastern folk idioms; and careening into unexpected excursions attributable only to his creativity and the abundance of unnamed influences stored in his inner ear. The trip is fueled not least by an iconoclastic humor, one required by the very project of grabbing some beers and going joy-riding with Mozart (Sonata in B-Flat, K. 33), J. S. Bach (Italian Concerto, BWV 971), and Chopin (Ballade in G minor, op. 23). To listen to Stetch pilot these luxury vehicles over the off-road of his imagination is wildly inspiring, usefully disconcerting, and just plain fun. The CD closes with Stetch’s idiosyncratic and illuminating readings of three preludes by Shostakovich followed by an original, Kapustin Rag. The dents of the journey through the classics are polished up at the close in the unlikeliest of Rag meters (7/8 and 11/8) in this piece named in honor of the Ukrainian-Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin. With Putin marching into the Crimea and glowering at the rest of the Ukraine it is good to know that in Stetch’s hands the borders will always remain open.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY
Bob Marley & The Wailers: Babylon by Bus (Tuff Gong/Island Records 1978.)
The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East (Capricorn Records, 1971.)
James Brown and The Famous Flames: Live at the Apollo. (King Records, 1963.)
Kevin Gray’s latest book, Killing Trayvon, (co-edited with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair) will be published by CounterPunch this spring.
Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars.
This newly released album by Cash was recorded in the 1980s and shelved until now. Backed by an extremely competent country band, Cash sings songs about rambling and murder tempered with stories of domesticity and religion, many with a touch of humor. Classic Cash.
Steve Miller Band: Children of the Future.
Miller’s first album is an underrated psychedelic masterpiece. The lineup features Miller and Boz Scaggs on guitar, Lonnie Turner on bass, Jim Peterman on Hammond organ and mellotron, Tim Davis on drums, with all of the group sharing vocals. The first song is one of several such songs heralding the new dawn common in rock’s first psychedelic era. Bob Dylan talked about a “thin, mercury” sound to describe his Blonde on Blonde album. Miller and company create their own version of that sound here. Ben Sidran sits in on harpsichord on “Baby’s Calling Me Home,” the tune that opens the second side.
This eponymous disc is the only set ever released by Ramsey, the one recorded Texan identified with the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s who never got the recognition he deserved. Recorded on Leon Russell’s label Shelter, it features Russell and a good number of his band The Shelter People. Several of the tunes on this disc were popularized by other musicians, ranging from The Captain and Tennille to Jimmy Buffett and Widespread Panic.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
François Bourassa Quartet: Idiosyncrasie.
Existing somewhere between Thelonious Monk and Sviatoslav Richter, François Bourassa hits the piano with everything from the clang of a methed-out pipe wrench to the whisper of a shy virgin butterfly. His songs are caution-thrown-to-the-wind explorations of where jazz can be taken and where it can take us. The rest of the quartet: André Leroux on saxophones and clarinet, Guy Boisvert on bass and Philippe Melanson on percussion, all add solid and complementary voices to the whole, moving from neo-classical hauntings to experimental tripping out-thereness, with moments reminiscent of the best of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Claude Bolling and Horace Silver’s Jazz Messengers days (yes, the Hank Mobley sax comparison is apropos – Leroux is killer). I caught their show at the Sunset-Sunside Jazz Club in Paris and somehow avoided a third bottle of wine in order to have the cash to pick up this CD – they were that good.
Marc Beaudin edits the Poets’ Basement for CounterPunch.