Category Archives: Jazz

Album review: “Flight of the Vultures” (Parsons/Buckner/Barlow)

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vultures

“Flight of the Vultures” is a snapshot of a band in ecstasis, a showcase for three jazz masters at the height of their creative powers. Trumpeter Longineu Parsons, who just recently earned his doctorate from the University of Florida, is joined by longtime collaborator Von Barlow and bassist Lawrence Buckner on a searing set of nine tunes, of which all but one are original compositions. Barlow and Buckner are well-known to local audiences from their longtime residency at the Casbah in Avondale on Sunday nights; with tenor saxophonist Eric Riehm, they comprised one of the best jazz groups working anywhere in the world.

The album starts out hot with Parsons’ own “Hannibal’s March part II”, then gets downright searing on the classic Coltrane tune “Mr. P.C.”, named for the late great bassist Paul Chambers (who played alongside Trane in the Miles Davis quintet of the 1950s). Barlow’s ride cymbal carries through into “Flute Song”, which leads into “Forward”. Buckner’s adept handling of the upright bass is featured prominently here, laying down a fantastically funky backdrop for Barlow’s tom-toms and the inimitable flute-work of the leader—shrill trills that chill and thrill as thoroughly as when you see him live, as I did at Jazzland Café just a few days ago.

From there, the band moves into their “Orgasma Suite”. Wilhelm Reich would be proud. 20 minutes of slow rising, brooding backbeats, building to a boil behind and the piercing wail of arguably the most underrated trumpeter of his generation. The recording is perfect, evocatively atmospheric; you can practically hear the shadows in the room. The last two tracks “Deeply” and “Searching”, sound like their titles, and make a fine aperitif after the stiff fluidity of the rest of the set. Overall, of my favorite albums by three of my favorite people. Good stuff…

http://tribaldisorder.com/ 

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Tony Allen: an Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, by Tony Allen and Michael E. Veal. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 192 pp, illustrated.

“There would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen,” said the late great Fela Kuti (1938-1997), leader of the Africa 70—originally Koola Lobitos, later the Nigeria 80. Together he and Allen rose together from their early years in Nigeria’s ‘Highlife” scene to the peaks of global prominence, together they built one of the hardest-hitting and smoothest-swinging big-bands of all time—a band as tight as Ellington’s or Benny Goodman’s, yet as expansive in sound as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis group–and that’s only speaking as far as the jazz aspects of it. There are infinite other angles, as the reader likely knows already.

As weird as Sun Ra and as socially-relevant as James Brown, Fela’s music has only grown in popularity since his death, and the most indispensable component of his singular sound was his drummer, Tony Allen, whose memoir was published last month. His co-author, Michael E. Veal, previously wrote a well-received biography of Fela, so he entered the project already prepared and predisposed to tell Allen’s story with the fidelity it merits.

Tony Oladipo Allen was born in Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos on August 12, 1940—well, that’s what Wikipedia says; Allen declares his birthday as July 20 on page 21. The book’s first 40-plus pages covers that early phase in his career before he linked up with Fela. Both men were highly influenced by jazz, and some of my favorite stuff in the book comes from this early session, where Allen describes the evolution of his own inimitable drum style in the context of drummers who came before—giants like Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Max Roach. This section also covers serves as a nice overview of what the Nigerian music scene was like before Fela’s crew became the dominant band of that era, in the process bringing Nigerian culture into the mainstream for the first time. The pages are peppered with long-forgotten names, and in that sense the authors have really done a service, not just for musicologists but for their country.

His career as a professional musician began around 1960. One of his earliest serious gig was drumming for Sivor Lawson and the Cool Cats when they opened for Louis Armstrong in 1960; he notes the great impression left his Pops’ drummer, Danny Barcelona (1929-2007), who became one of his first of his many friends working in western music. Allen himself would later become a major player in the fusion of African and Euro-American musical concepts, starting with the infamous Fela recordings with Ginger Baker, the former drummer for Cream. Baker lived in Nigeria for the first half of the 1970s, and his collaboration with Allen and Africa 70 became one of the great “percussion discussions” ever put to wax; their 16-minute drum battle (from 1978) is appended to the CD reissue of Fela’s album Live! (Capitol/EMI, 1971).

Personally, my first experience with Tony Allen’s solo material came via the World Music section of the Jacksonville Public Library, downtown. There was a compilation CD of music from Nigeria, and one of the tracks remains my favorite of his: “Get Together”, whose locomotive beat, fat bass lines and vocal harmonies—understated, but resonant—offered an ideal introduction to the man’s work. I still put it on mixes and such, a decade later.

Casual fans may recall the song “Heat”, by Common, an instant-classic from his Like Water For Chocolate album (MCA, 2000); was built around a beat J. Dilla sampled from Allen’s “Asiko”, track one on 1999’s Black Voices.

As it turns out, Allen’s experience extends well before and after his tenure (1968-79) with Africa 70, and this book really helps flesh out that history. The concert in Berlin that yielded the drum battle with Baker in 1978 was also Allen’s last as a member of Africa 70. By that point, the band had undergone significant trauma, much of it focused on the leader himself, who had made powerful enemies with his brazen critiques of Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Only by coincidence was Allen not at Fela’s home (known as the “Kalakuta Republic”) when it was raided by a thousand soldiers of the Nigerian military in 1977; it one of the most brutal examples of state-sponsored suppression of art in the post-war era. Fela was nearly beaten to death, his life only spared by an officer’s intervention, but the compound was burned to the ground along with his studio, his instruments and master-tapes. Worst of all, Fela’s mother was defenestrated through of a second-story window, causing fatal injuries, and one of the soldiers shit on her face afterwards. Neither Fela nor his music were ever the same again, and neither would Tony Allen.

Allen’s final break with Fela comes on page 127, and the remaining 58 pages covers the years after, as the author became an ambassador of Afrobeat and a touring act in great demand around the world. His solo work displays the same inimitable rhythms he pioneered with Fela, but the music itself is quite different; Allen long ago began to fuse his native sounds with the emergent aesthetic of hip-hop resulting in some of the most compelling music of the past 30 years.

There’s really very little, if anything, to complain about here, but for exactitude’s sake, a few quick points. First, this book would’ve benefitted from a few sparse footnotes, offering biographical details of some of the artists Allen mentions in the text. Many of the names will be familiar to casual fans, but a lot of them will be unknown and obscure even to obsessive fans of Afrobeat; in some cases, there is literally no information available about them at all. The book walks us back through the rise and evolution of the music, but footnotes would’ve helped flesh out the narrative and situate Allen’s work more comfortably in its broader context. To that end, while the book has a decent selected discography also could’ve used a sessionography—although that, too, is a minor complaint, since that information is available online, for anyone who might be interested.

All in all, Allen and Veal have combined to tell one of the most remarkable stories of the last 40 years of music history. They have also managed to flesh out the history of a man who has never quite been recognized for the vastness of his influence. Ultimately, Tony Allen deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as legends like Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson Jr. and Bernard Purdie—a true innovator, and master of a sound that would simply not exist without his efforts. That is a fact, and hopefully it will become even more apparent as time goes by.

Millcent Martin: Mavericky!

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I’d never heard of Millicent Martin until just a few days ago, when I found myself looking for old David Frost stuff on YouTube after his death earlier this week. Miss Martin has had a long career, but may be best-known for singing satirical songs on Frost’s short-lived but groundbreaking public-affairs show “That Was the Week That Was” (aka “TW3”), which kinda presages not only much of the British comedy boom of that decade, but virtually pioneered the use of comedy as a means of direct engagement with the political process via mainstream television.

The show was entire unique, starting with its opening theme–a swinging swath of British bop (which sounds a lot like West Coast stuff) popular enough to market as its own studio album… 

The lyrics were reworked for new episodes, to encompass the news of the day. The quality of the writing seems uniformly strong, in particular the poetry and song-lyrics, all of which is smoothly articulated by the singer, if not always the panelists. It’s a tricky enough matter in America these days, let alone in the BBC structure of 50 years ago. TW3 was the beginning of Frost’s lifelong push to establish himself in the newest, freshest broadcast formats; he went on to co-found the infamous TV-am network, and he was working for al-Jazeera at the time of his death. To see TW3 at its most bold, brash and biting, check Millicent Martin in the lead on “Mississippi”, which ruthlessly lampoons America’s racial climate at that time.

1963 saw the show’s peak, and its subsequent demise, just a month after the murder of JFK–a crime that stirred the cast to cold, sober sanctimony in the darkest moment yet for their generation. After some reflective words from the panel, Martin adds her voice, singing “In the Summer Of His Years” in honor of the fallen president…

By year’s end, the show would be off the air, but not before yielding another masterpiece from Millicent Martin, who duets with herself in split-screen for a run of rollicking vocalese on “Goodbye”, from the show’s finale. Those who saw the show then never forgot, while those who weren’t around–like myself–get to experience it anew…

Random Thoughts on “Besame Mucho”…

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Sunday morning finds me up early and, at present, listening through versions of Consuelo Velasquez’s “Besame Mucho”, a jazz and pop standard that has retained its full potency in the 73 years since its composition in 1940. I have no idea how many times the song has been performed or recorded in that time–hundreds, easily. I’ve probably heard 100 myself over the last 20 years, including several new ones just a few minutes ago. The universality of the tune makes it readily accessible as the embodiment of  a certain mood, so rooted in that time and place that it, The melody is ubiquitous; it can float in the background like spiderwebs in a breeze, or be battle-axed with bravura bombast. It’s all good, as they say.  Put most simply, “Besame Mucho” is America’s “Dark Eyes”.

Firstly, let’s just get this out of the way right now, since it can’t rightly be ignored, especially with the display of circular breathing at the end. I never expected to ever heard anything by Kenny G I could even stand, let alone really enjoy, but if it happens again, I will consult a priest…

The Johnny Hepbir Trio does a really nice Gypsy Swing rendition…

The late, great pianist Michel Petrucciani (1962-1999)made regular use of the song during his too-short but masterful run in the 1980s and ’90s. My favorite of the bunch comes from his Live Solo album (1999, recorded 1997), which also contains arguably the greatest solo piano version of “Caravan” ever (although Dick Hyman’s version at Maybeck maybe exceeds his, in terms of sheer balls-out virtuosity)…

Petrucciani augmented his piano with the Graffiti String Quartet for this version from 1994. They add the proverbial brooding intensity, which probably matches the artist’s own feelings at that point in his life…

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoXdoV1IER4]

Another great pianist to tackle the tune is Dave Brubeck, who recorded this version (which includes some sweet boo-bamming) in 2000…

The trio led by bassist Avishai Cohen (not to be confused with trumpeter Avishai Cohen) wholly appropriated the tune during their Cully Jazz set in 2011, offering one of the freshest, most forward-thinking renderings ever; note his epic little bass solo to start things out…

I had no idea the Beatles had recorded “Besame Mucho” as well. Apparently they used the tune as part of their infamous failed audition for Decca Records on New Year’s Day, 1962, one of the more fateful fuckups in music history. Decca instead chose a band called Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, which was a pretty good band that had some hits but, by virtue of having not been the Beatles, have been reduced largely to a trivia question, if not a punchline. Meanwhile, the Beatles signed to EMI that May, and Pete Best was fired after their first recording session for the label in August, replaced by Ringo, and it was off to the races…

What got me started browsing “Besame Mucho”s on the YouTube was the desire to hear what’s probably my favorite version ever (though that Cohen has me reconsidering): This 1962 take from a quartet led by vibraphonist Dave Pike, with bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Walter Perkins, featuring a guest appearance by the great pianist Bill Evans. As the story goes, this rare sideman gig from November 1961 was Evans’ first recording session since the tragic car crash the previous July that killed his friend, the groundbreaking bassist Scott LaFaro, whose work at the Village Vanguard earlier that year remains a signpost of modern music. Evans’ solo is viewed by some (like myself) as a kind of stylistic and emotional encomium for his fallen colleague, whose death at just 25 was a blow to the business similar to Clifford Brown demise five years earlier. Note, also, Perkins’ solo, which adds a sort of martial touch to a track already infused with dramatic tension. Since it was the first version I went for, it makes sense to put it last…

Besame Mucho – Jonny Hepbir Trio

Interview with Alessandra Altamura, author of “Music Club Toscana”

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Music Club Toscana: Music time stories, by Alessandra Altamura. Piombino, Italy: Edizioni IL FOGLIO. 192 pp. www.ilfoglioletterario.it

"Music Club Toscana" cover

It was mid-afternoon in late March when the postman’s knock interrupted my nap. (Being in journalistic exile leaves much room for napping, and other forms of self-reflection.) The package I signed for had ten stamps on it—five depicting the Terme Di Bonifacio VIII, and a row of five up top depicting the late singer Nino Reitano (1944-2009)—totaling 12.50 Euros, the equivalent of $16.07. Interesting: I hadn’t even opened the package yet, and I’d already learned something! That was to prove a useful omen.

Inside the envelope was a fresh new copy of the debut collection of 22 short-stories by Alessandra Altamura, an Italian-born literature teacher who turns 40 this November and graduated from the Liceo Classico Macchiavelli and the University of Pisa. The contents were pleasant, but of no surprise; I’d been waiting for it for a few days. Altamura, the author, had sent it off from her home in Lucca (near Pisa), in Tuscany in the great historic country of Italy on March 12. Two weeks days to travel across the Mediterranean, the European continent and the Atlantic Ocean seemed quite reasonable.

I was looking forward to seeing it for myself, and I was in no way disappointed. Music Club Toscana: Music time stories is a labor of love in the most literal sense; it combines her dual passions for music and her own native culture. Translated from the original Italian, the writing is vibrant and briskly-paced; the text moves fast over 192 pages. The book’s contents are like its packaging: smooth, compact and colorful. Speaking as someone who no longer makes regular practice of reading much fiction, I enjoyed the book immensely. After reading her book, I got the chance to briefly interview Ms. Altamura via email from New York City, where she arrived to begin her book tour last week.

SDH: How long did it take to write this book? Where did the idea come from?

AA: I wrote my book in a few months, less than one year, but I collected the material for these stories [over] my whole life. The idea comes from my love for music, especially live music. I have many friends who are musicians, also my brother plays the guitar. Other than that, music clubs are full of stories and characters.

SDH: Are your characters all real people, all fictional, or a combination?

AA: Some characters are real, with their real names, some are fictional and some are a mix of reality and fantasy.

SDH: What kind of music do you like?

AA: The first story was born in a club in Florence where my friends usually play, then came all the others. In the book there are many kinds of music, because each person needs a different kind of music. Personally I prefer jazz, the great songwriters and in general a music that makes people meet and think.

SDH: Which of the venues did you visit first?

AA: I visited first the places closest to my town. Lucca, Pisa, Florence. Then I went to the farest, like Siena, Arezzo or Grosseto, just to have a complete vision for my book.

SDH: Which venue in the book is your favorite?

AA: My favorite venue and also my favorite story is the one that takes place at Le Murate, that was the prison of Florence before becoming a club.

SDH: Tell me a bit about the lady who translated the book into English…

AA: Shayna Hobbs is a friend of a friend, who lived some time in Italy and taught me English. Now they live in Georgia and they will host me after Florida. oh, this is a funny thing, because each story is translated from a different friend. So in English there are really many characters and voices. Then a lady read it to see if there were mistakes. Maybe there are still some mistakes, because we did all quickly when I was leaving to London, but the English version is a proof that my friends love me…

SDH: Do you plan to write more books? Have you decided on the topic yet?

AA: I think to write another book, with stories that take place all over the world. In fact I’m trying to travel and know better other countries.

SDH: Who are your favorite Italian musicians?

AA: My favourite Italian musicians are the big songwriters, who are also poets: de Andrè, Fossati, Guccini, De Gregori and others. I went to the concerts of many of them and I liked much, but I’m sorry, because I never listened to a concert of de Andrè, before he died.

[She will be at Chamblin’s Uptown, in downtown Jacksonville, on Sunday, July 21 to sign copies and give a presentation on her work. If you’re into travel literature or jazz, it’s well-worth checking out.]

sheltonhull@gmail.com

July 19, 2013

Notes on Gene Krupa: “Dial M For Music”, 1967

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May 11, 1937: Krupa sweats through his suit as the Benny Goodman band challenges Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Some estimates suggest that between 4,000 and 20,000 people went in, through and around the venue that night…

Multi-instrumentalist Eddie Shu did epic work with Gene Krupa in the mid-’50s, following up from Charlie Ventura in the ’40s. Parts of this were in the old DCI VHS on Krupa (which, like the whole series, never went digital); so was the session with Sid Catlett on “Boy, What A Girl!” For some reason, after 20 years, the full videos of both find their way online, entirely unrelated–in this case, thanks to Shu’s children. Here Krupa, a devout Catholic, lays it down for some teenagers in Chicago, and basically does a shoot interview; truly essential stuff. He’s 58 here. If Krupa were a wrestler, he’d be Lou Thesz