2018 Honorable Jazz Mentions
As the last of the 2018 CDs dribble forth from my speakers, I would be remiss for letting mere deadlines prevent me from mentioning more of last year’s gems. Weighting (ESP-Disk)—the fourth studio CD by pianist/composer Gabriel Zucker — has drummer Tyshawn Sorey, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and saxophonist Eric Trudel. It’s a mighty effort — up amongst the best of last year’s jazz—written by this Yale grad and Rhodes Scholar in six months five years ago. An extended hour-long composition in eight movements, it debuted live in Brooklyn in 2015 but this marks its CD debut.
Hidden Treasures Monday Nights Volume #1 (Bopper Spock Suns Music) by The Gil Evans Orchestra, now fronted by the late arranger’s two sons, brings back to life the weekly big-band jam that lasted at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village NYC from ‘83 to ‘94. As the first studio recording of this legendary ensemble in over 40 years, it’s filled with the kind of arrangements that traverse genre from swing and post-bop to jazz-rock fusion.
Maria McKee was still a teenager when her proto-typical cowpunk band Lone Justice recorded these sterling demos. I remember thinking of her as a cross between Loretta Lynn and Patti Smith. Now 54, she’s had a solid career as an Americana pioneer. The Western Tapes 1983 (Omnivore Recordings) is a peek into her soul, a six-song EP of such startlingly talented proportions, one would have to wonder why Lone Justice wasn’t as big as, say, Alabama. They certainly were hipper. (The band only lasted four years.) “Working Late,” written by her brother, Bryan MacLean, of the legendary L.A. ‘60s band Love, is a highlight, as is his “Don’t Toss Us Away,” which Patti Loveless took to #5 on the country charts in 1988.
The raging snowstorm on Nov. 12, 1968, wasn’t enough to keep me, at 17, from seeing San Francisco psychedelic band Big Brother & The Holding Company at The Stanley Theater in Jersey City. The place was empty. So we scuttled from our cheap seats right down in front to see lead singer Janis Joplin. That’s when security goons started yelling at us. Janis watched it all from the stage, stopped the show, told the rent-a-cops to leave us alone, and we settled into our stoned haze front-row center.
I’ll never forget it.
I had bought Cheap Thrills a few months earlier. The band was already famous for their blistering set at Monterey Pop the previous year. It would be their major label debut, though, Cheap Thrills, that catapulted them into the upper echelons of real rock stardom. Columbia Records President Clive Davis had seen them at Monterey and immediately signed them, turning down Joplin’s request to seal the deal with sex. I had no idea at the time that it wasn’t really a live album. Its crowd noise was dubbed in at the studio. To celebrate its 50th Anniversary, Columbia/Legacy has released the album with the crowd noise taken and original censored title. Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills. It would prove to be Joplin’s final foray with guitarist/boyfriend Sam Andrews, guitarist James Gurley, bassist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz (who, along with Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, contributes personalized liner notes). Now a 2-CD package with all but five of 30 performances unreleased and all but one studio outtakes (a truly live Big Mama Thornton cover of “Ball And Chain” is from the Winterland Ballroom), it’s nothing short of a revelation. Here you hear what Janis was like in the studio, bantering with the boys. Her vocals are seismic. Her cackling laugh is infectious. Soon she would leave the band to front a series of lesser back-up units, one of which sounded like rank amateurs at Woodstock in ‘69, especially when contrasted to what followed them on that historic weekend, the interstellar overdrive of Sly & The Family Stone. Big Brother wasn’t the greatest band in the world. They were a little sludgy, mired in the kind of by-the-numbers 4/4 common-time rock that fit their comfort zone. But they proved a fertile breeding ground for the excesses — both onstage and off — of their charismatic lead singer.
A stunning bluegrass version of Beatle George Harrison’s 1965 “If I Needed Someone” isn’t the only reason to latch on to Aeonic (Mountain Home Music Company) by Balsam Range, the celebrated ‘grass band with the overflowing harmony and muscled jam-happy acoustic banjo/mandolin/guitar/upright bass/fiddle/no drums aesthetic. All 11 tracks hit home hard like whiskey on the front porch at midnight.
Anguish Never Sounded So Good
Consider my mind officially blown. The self-titled RareNoise Records debut of Anguish is an assault on the senses. Members of the experimental Jersey hiphop group Dalek has joined forces with members of the Swedish free-jazz craziness of Fire! Orchestra and ‘70s German Krautrock band Faust (keyboardist Hans Joachim Irmler, 68) to form the first inter-generational industrial noise band Anguish. Five guys on rapped vocals, samples, effect-pedals, MOOG synthesizer, grand piano, tenor saxophone, live electronics, more synths, guitar, more electronics, drums and various percussive elements to create the kind of whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s wild…uninhibited…adventurous…almost ridiculous but eminently listenable. After the first listen, I went, “What was that?” After the second listen, I went, “Damn, that was amazing.” Suffice it to say, I’m looking forward to the third listen and I want to play it when friends are around just to see their reaction. There’s no describing this deep-tissue aural massage.
When these three friends — singer/songwriters all — got together in Philadelphia to record the five covers and six originals of Sunset Avenue Sessions (Transoceanic Records), Lizanne Knott, Jesse Terry and Michael Logen felt the vibe. Loose and creative, acoustic, rustic, brimming with Americana smarts, they all sing lead, they all sing pristine harmony, and, depending upon the track, have the kind of musically satisfying backing that’s reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield (from whom they cover “For What It’s Worth.”) The two Tom Petty songs (“Learning To Fly” and “Wildflowers”) are the highlights but maybe that’s because I miss Petty so much. (They also cover Pink’s “Try” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.”)
Their originals are finely etched snapshots of life on the run, life yearning for the pleasures of home, unfulfilled promises and character studies, one of which, “Stargazer,” features another friend from their inner circle, the supremely talented singer/songwriter Dar Williams. Multi-instrumentalist Tom Hampton is on hand for colorful splashes of mandolin, electric guitar, dobro and lap steel. Keyboards fill the spaces too. This one’s a gem.