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JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Paul Bley: Play Blue (ECM, 2014)
Play Blue is a pun, a scrambling of letters, a cunning play on words. And so is Paul Bley’s playing: ambitious, theatrical, risky and at times confounding. Bley’s catalogue bulges with more than 100 releases and who knows how many more performances fermenting in various vaults. Bley has been forging the contours of post-modern jazz since the 1950s. He’s a living link to Charlie Parker and has accompanied artists as varied as Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Jimmy Giuffre and Charles Mingus.
Bley also possesses an unrivaled ear for young talent and radically new approaches to music. Among the musicians who spent time in their formative years playing with Bley are: Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Carla Bley, and Bill Frisell. Perhaps only Miles Davis nurtured more musicians who went on to become ground-breaking players. But Bley is more generous than Miles when it comes to owning up to how much those young artists influenced and shaped his own playing, none more so than Ornette Coleman, the man who shattered the last formal barriers in American music. For various reasons, Bley has never received the accolades (or death threats) that came Ornette’s direction, but he’s traveled just as far out, ventured to the distant reaches of the sound galaxy, unfettered by the shackles of genre, tradition or critical expectation. This is what freely improvised jazz is all about: following the sound in your head, wherever it takes you, whatever the consequences and without regrets.
For Bley, the whole piano is an instrument to be played, not just the keys and pedals. The fall board is there to be punched and scraped, the legs kicked, the lid slapped and drummed, the strings plucked and strummed. Think John Cage infused with the anarchic energy of Cecil Taylor. Bley was one of the first jazz keyboardist to eagerly adopt the new technologies of synthesizers and electronics. In 1969, Bley became one of the first to play Robert Moog’s spooky and notoriously prickly invention in a live setting, along with his then wife, the marvelously innovative Annette Peacock.
In 1972, Bley recorded Open, to Love, a solo piano performance for ECM. Open, to Love was a game-changing record that seemed to augur an entirely new style for extended improvisation. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Bley who followed down the free-form path he pioneered, but Keith Jarrett, who a year later recorded the landmark Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne and in 1975 The Köln Concert, which became the best-selling solo piano record in history. But repetition has always been anathema to Bley. He waited 35 years to record Solo in Mondsee, whose surging extrapolations blend together into a strangely beautiful fractal-like pattern.
Bley’s music is so hard to encapsulize because it is so mercurial, always probing for new variations on themes, questing for new ways of restating old phrases, new approaches to tempo and fresh ways to warp a chord change. On Play Blue, his latest solo performance, crisply recorded live in Oslo in 2008 by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug, Bley’s playing puns, alludes, quotes, abstracts and deconstructs. He has the power to twist a simple blues pattern into an atonal excursion and back again. He can stop abruptly in the middle of a phrase, as if at the edge of a cliff, as he does on “Flame,” leaving the audience suspended in negative space or ascend a seemingly endless series of modal switchbacks, as on the opening track “Far North,” which unfolds for an impressive 17 minutes. Bley, now 81, takes a couple breaths after that long improvisation and then launches into the meandering “Way Down South Suite,” a 15-minute expedition which has a lushly riverine quality, aswirl in lines drawn from blues, ragtime and Dixieland.
When Bley’s not crushing the keys with his elbows or forearms, his touch has a metallic clarity, the runs are sharp and shimmering, as showcased on the luminous flourishes of “Longer.” For the set’s encore, Bley revisits his earliest days, when he played in Sonny Rollins’ band, with “Pent-Up House,” a bop masterpiece that Bley transforms into an intense meditation on tone and modulation. The pianist first seduces the crowd with its familiar and groovy melody line, then, as he breaks the song apart, note by note, and reassembles it into a strange new shape, Bley compels the audience to confront and then embrace the music’s crazy complexity. Bley’s demanding music isn’t for everyone, but what fun would that be?
Coldplay: Ghost Stories (Parlophone 2014)
Shrewdly released a few days after Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow announced that their curious partnership had predictably gone bust, Ghost Stories is a maudlin breakup record that squirms in self-pity for 42 interminable minutes. The melodies are dull and plodding and the lyrics are so petulant and torpid that they make Taylor Swift’s songs of romantic revenge sound like profound pronouncements on the vagaries of love from the pen of Colette. The ghosts in these contrived songs all must have died of boredom.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits. His latest book, Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (co-edited with Kevin Alexander Gray and JoAnn Wypijewski) will be released in June by CounterPunch Books.
Soundgarden, Superunknown, (UME 1994/2014)
When one looks back on early Seattle rock of the early 1990s (labeled as ‘grunge’ by the record industry) it’s easy to gaze past Soundgarden and focus on the other bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam for putting The Emerald City on the map. Few realize Soundgarden actually came to fruition in the mid-1980s, years before Nirvana struck their first chord or Eddie Vedder moved to town. Nonetheless, by the time Superunknown was released (the band’s fourth album), Seattle music was all over the airwaves. Flannel shirts were being sold at Macy’s and Eddie Vedder was on the cover of Time magazine. In some cases bands were pulling out of the spotlight. Pearl Jam turned their back on MTV and stopped making music videos and Kurt Cobain was only months away from suicide. Superunknown, however, was able to bridge the gap between the old, gritty and largely underground Seattle and the new Seattle that had been exploited and mimicked across the country. Chris Cornell and company’s Superuknown, with songs like “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun”, were a breath of fresh air – a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of Seattle music. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Soundgarden’s pivotal album, which was remastered and re-released this past week. It’s just as alive and relevant as it was two decades ago. In fact, it’s so good it’s all I’ve been listening to this week.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He lives in the LBC.
Andrew Manze and the English Concert, Mozart; 3 Violin Concertos (harmonia mundi, 2006)
The graceful spontaneity of these performances by Andrew Manze leading the venerable period instrument ensemble the English Concert from his position upfront as soloist, gleams with the optimism of the age and of the teenage composer. In the purity and flexibility of Manze’s tone more colors emerge from this music than under the heavy arms and interpretations of the virtuoso violinists of yore. And the use of vibrato as ornament rather than as all-purpose sonic sauce oozing over every note allows one to taste the subtleties and surprises of these beloved works anew—and repeatedly.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
Big Star: Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 (Volcano)
Arvo Part: Alina (ECM Records)
Kyuss: Welcome to Sky Valley (Elektra)
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
Shovels and Rope: O’Be Joyful (2012, Dualtone Records)
Sure, this Charleston, South Carolina duo sort of enjoyed doing murder ballads, you know—somebody was doing bad things with rope, and others burying the details. So that’s the origin of this band name, but I suspect it’s really a ploy to put a little menace behind a folk band requesting the removal of brown M&Ms. Nobody will listen if you’re folk! Even if it’s in the contract. Laughter will ensue. But name yourself something like this and they might at least remove a couple just in case. Better than having to smash your harmonicas on stage for appropriate gravel road cred. No dignity in that, smashing those little things with your fist. Anyway, it’s just a couple of guitars, a kick drum and a snare, and not a whole lot more that make up these lusciously propelled tunes. Horns show up here and there, screaming with just the appropriate level of ragged glee.“Birmingham” has a whiplash snap and a throaty pull. “Keeper” and “Hail Hail” don’t so much pull, as push and pull, shoving you about with the vengeance of a sentient tornado. And sentient tornadoes are terrible, but this album is wonderful. Shovels and Rope have a new album coming out later this summer, but for now……..O’Be Joyful.
Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture for CounterPunch. She lives somewhere in the Midwest.
Brecht, Weill, Lenya et al – Die Dreigroschenoper, Original Cast Recording 1930
Fragmentary recording from 1930. Raucous, abrasive, gorgeous and still utterly revolutionary.
Hassānīya Music from the Western Sahara and Mauritania
Incredible compilation of Sahel music. Includes rare tracks from Group Doueh, as well as a killer cut from the legendary Abdul Rahman Al-Gheid, an elusive genius and innovator who might be called the Sahrawi Blind Willie Johnson. The whole album is great.
Iqbal Bano – Dasht e Tanhai – Live
The Pakistani Diva delivers a spine-tingling version of a lyric by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great socialist poet, political prisoner, and winner of the Lenin Prize.
Sally Timms is a singer, songwriter and member of The Mekons. Her most recent solo record is ‘World of Him.‘ She lives in Chicago.
After hearing confirmation that the last Allman Brothers shows will be this Fall, I went on a binge. This album is where it all began for those of us not in Georgia. It is actually the first two albums, The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South combined. One of the great American bands, their story has it all. Success, hard times, death, drugs, betrayal, alcohol abuse, tours galore, and some of the best groupings of musicians in the genre. This album features what was probably their best configuration. Duane Allman on slide guitar set the standard for every other person who picked up the instrument after him. Dickey Betts did more than shadow Duane. Their current (and apparently final) configuration is almost a match, with Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks trading guitar licks. The ever-present voice of Gregg Allman (whose snitching out of the band’s manager in 1975 caused the band to break up for a few years) and the percussion section of Berry Oakley and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson are the constant element of the group, having been present since its inception. From the catchy road blues of ”Midnight Rider” to the hippie gospel sounds of “Revival” and the soaring guitar of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” this collection just plain rocks. I’m gonna’ miss these guys.
I’ve Been Doing Some Thinking—Mose Allison.
I could have listened to any of the Mose Allison collections I have on CD or my Mp3 player, but I chose this 1968 album instead. All of them are pretty good from beginning to end. This particular disc includes two of my favorite Mose Allison songs: “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” and “Your Molecular Structure.” The first, which has been recorded by numerous artists including Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello, represents Allison’s sense of social justice while the second features his always humorous take on romance and humanity in Western culture. Then again, there isn’t a throwaway track on the disc. Mose’s piano playing is unique in its phrasing and is the perfect foil for his somewhat unusual voice—all enhanced by Red Mitchell on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
Ike and Tina Turner, What You Hear is What You Get: Live at Carnegie Hall (United Artists, 1971)
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Be badass.
Marc Beaudin edits poetry for CounterPunch, and is the frontman of the most likely completely defunct poetry band Remington Streamliner. He can be reached at crowvoice.com.
Miranda Lambert: “Gravity is a Bitch” (Platinum)
True Mathematics: “After Dark” (Select)
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine. Check out RRC’s latest video: Dreamscape.