Return of a Jazz-Rock Fusion Pioneer
Where has the pioneering Jan Hammer been for the last decade? As a member of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the ‘70s, he set new keyboard standards. When he played with Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Neal Schon and other rock luminaries, he made to sure to add the kind of synthesized swirls that added a jazz-rock fusion veneer to whatever rock star rang him up for help. And it was his Moog mania that made the soundtrack to four seasons of Miami Vice so cool. He is also one of the first musicians to tour with a Mini-Moog Synthesizer, thus he’s an electronica pioneer as well. His 28 albums as leader of his own bands attests to his long-term consistency and excellence.
But what has he done for us lately?
The 13 tracks on his Seasons Pt. 1 (Red Gate Records) is like a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist. It is cinematic, romantic and lush, filled with melodic constructions, zippy soloing, roundabout paths that lead nowhere but feel good getting there, and, best of all, that unerring swirl. Call it prog-pop. And it’s all him. He can make his synthesized squiggles sound like an acoustic guitar, electric lead guitar, bass or drums. “Miami Night” picks up where Vice left off. “Suite European” is a classical gas gas gas. “68 Reasons” could be a radio hit single. “Cyclone” sounds like the 70-year-old might’ve been listening to some hip-hop. As they say, it’s all good.
Real Rabid Rock ’n’ Roll
If you’re ever in Florida, Charlie Pickett will See You In Miami (Y&T Music). REM’s Peter Buck produced his last album In The Wilderness 30 years ago. In the ‘80s, Charlie Pickett & The Eggs rocked like alt-punk with the regional hit “If This Is Love (Can I Get My Money Back).” Nowadays, he sounds more like Hard-Americana but make no mistake about it, in an era today where real good true rock ’n’ roll is far and few between, Pickett picks it hard on songs about sex (“Travelust Revisited”), love (“Four Chambered Heart”), and the city he loves (“Miami Interlude”), this last one so bare-bones rockin’ it’s just him and a drummer.
Pickett, like most punks, saw no future. So, after scavenging around at late-night bar gigs, he up and quit at 35 (what’s more pathetic than an aging punk with no future, right?) to go to law school. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Bloodshot Records put out an Eggs compilation, Bar Band Americanus, that revived his career. But he already passed the bar exam and started his own law practice. So, he did both.
Although his Eggs have been cracked open, Pickett is proudly defiant. He still has Peter Buck in his corner, spewing out short lead lines and coming up with “So Long Johnny”, a tribute to legendary South Florida lead guitarist Johnny Salton, taken away by cancer way too young. The other tracks are in-your-face, fuck-you-if-you-don’t like-it post-punk. And I like it just fine.
The Duke of Uke
No one plays ukulele like Jake Shimabukuru. The Greatest Day (Mailboat Records) features his quartet augmented with the kitchen sink: keyboards galore, vibes, vocals, horns and even Nashville legend Jerry Douglas on lap steel. From the 1966 Beatle favorite “Eleanor Rigby” and the 1967 pop psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” to the 1968 Zombies hit “Time of the Season” and the 1984 Leonard Cohen standard “Hallelujah”, Jakes makes it all work, his uke stunning, slippery, sliding into zones heretofore unchallenged. There’s even a bonus live section at the end with an eight-minute jam on the 1972 Bill Withers hit “Use Me” and a 12-minute reprise of the song that originally catapulted Jake to stardom as a 2005 YouTube sensation, George Harrison’s mighty “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. His originals are satisfyingly complex. He makes his ukulele sting like an electric guitar and sing like a plaintive folk song. The guy’s a damn genius.
Polish guitarist/composer Rafal Sarnecki is Climbing Trees (Outside In) with his New York City septet of seven years. If you’ve been to Smalls Jazz Club downtown on 10th Street in Manhattan (a very cool room), you might have seen Sarnecki as part of the post-bop swinging No Net Nonet, two of which — saxophonist/bass clarinetist Lucas Pino and pianist Glenn Zaleski — are here creating holy havoc on 10 Sarnecki originals. Those two are non-stop on this wildly paced, thoroughly entertaining, at times tense but highly melodic mélange of what can only be described as beyond-post-bop, into another zone entirely, another stratosphere. There’s no net here either. It’s all very daring and one misstep could mean the whole thing tumbles like a house of cards.
But it doesn’t.
Sarnecki keeps it moving. Throughout the crazy angles, the circuitous routes, the creative new ways to surprise even listeners who claim to have heard it all, his guitar — crystal-clear on a series of one-note-after-another cascading runs — emphasizes the strangeness of the arrangements. It also brings things back down to Earth with sterling solos like Wes Montgomery on acid.
The nine-minute “Dadaism” is a microcosm of the whole album. It goes through the kind of changes that requires numerous listenings to fully digest. Sarnecki studied Dada — an art movement of the European avant-garde — while at the Chopin Music University in Warsaw, Poland, where he was born. “Zhongguo” is more Rachmaninoff than Charlie Christian [1916-1942] whose traces can still be heard in jazz guitarists today. Jazz was banned in China for 30 years but “Zhongguo” is in tribute to Chinese culture which the guitarist fell so much in love with that he returns there to teach on an annual basis.
All 10 tracks are the highlights.
Her Father’s Daughter
Singer/Songwriter Galen Ayers ran so far away from creating music like her father — Soft Machine co-founder Kevin Ayers [1944-2013] — that she received a Master’s Degree in Religious Psychology and Buddhism while also studying ethnomusicology. Perhaps it was this last pursuit that brought her around to what her DNA was crying out for. Her Monument debut (Bombinate Records) is filled with lush dream-pop and Lilith-style alt-folk, heavy on the Joni Mitchell side of so-personal-it-hurts confessional.
It’s her second stab at it. An earlier project with Talking Heads Weymouth and Frantz went unreleased. The two years after her dad died were spent writing tortured songs on the island of Hydra off the coast of Greece that communicated her grief. They turn up here as does the delightful “Run Baby Run”, sung in her airy bilingual soprano, backed by woodwinds and keyboards. “U-Turn” is even more heavenly, bringing up classic ‘50s/’60s teenage pop like Leslie Gore sprinkled with sugar.
The grief is still palpable, though, on four other gems. Once she gets it out of her system, bets should be high for her follow-up.