Archive for November, 2009

*Posted This Month at JazzTimes.com*

In an industry becoming increasingly overcrowded with crossover acts, Portland, Oregon’s Trio Subtonic has carved out their own identity on their latest release, Cave Dwellers. Recorded off the heels of tours on both coasts, this tightly constructed disc features concise tunes bursting with melodic and rhythmic ideas, including hip-hop beats, exotic Brazilian rhythms and a flair for catchy start-stop arrangements.

Enhancing their keys/bass/drums lineup with a few touches of horns, Trio Subtonic kicks off the party off with “Bombast.” Opened by Jesse Brooke’s commanding drums, Bill Athens’ slick bassline follows, laying a thick foundation for Galen Clark’s keyboards, which come blasting through with swinging authority. Once the horns kick in, it’s like a slice of pure funk heaven. With a three-minute runtime, it’s a bold beginning and immediately accessible.

“Oak Smoke & Moonshine” reverses the approach, beginning with a hard-driving, bluesy piano figure, followed by a churning beat and another head-bobbing bassline. “Subtronix” features slightly fuzzed-out guitar work by Chris Mosley with tasteful placement of octaves, and “Why Are the Mountains Crying?” features darker-toned work on the bass by Athens; the marvelous marriage of wood and strings can be heard perfectly, every thump and “thwick” clearly ringing through. Clark’s trickling piano in “Escape” locks in perfectly with Brooke’s deft drum pattern, evoking the perfect late-night soundscape to match the balance of exceptional grooves and mellow moments that make up the remainder of the record.

With respect for and place within a community that’s likely better known for its established indie rock scene, the group’s approach to making music – call it jazz, funk, soul or bossa-surf – particularly on this record, isn’t a distasteful clash of styles. Rather, the trio has embraced the sounds that surround them and crafted a cohesive, expertly sequenced record that should pack dancefloors and demand careful listening.

[listen to Cave Dweller here.]


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Put Down the Duckie

Sesame Street turns 40 in five days.  There’s a fun collection of videos from the timeless show over at popmatters.com.  Note the video for “Put Down the Duckie,” a simple, charming tune by an ensemble that includes Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Itzhak Perlman and a trumpet player I can’t identify Wynton Marsalis alongside unlikely musical guests including the New York Mets, the New York Giants, Pee Wee Herman and Danny DeVito, among others.

Dig the hip-talkin’, Louis Armstrong-mockin’ owl of a bandleader. Hey, PBS!  This band is hoot hot!  Bring ’em back!

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Vince Guaraldi: The Definitive Vince Guaraldi

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

Put yourself in Lee Mendelson’s position for a moment. Imagine it’s 1963 and you’re a television documentary producer driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, thinking about the film you’re developing in collaboration with the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, Charles Schulz. What type of music would fit the setting of the story of Charlie Brown, his pals and his ever-loyal dog?

Upon flipping on a jazz station on the radio [because there was still jazz on the radio in ‘63], pianist Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” comes through your speakers. The infectious lilt of Monty Budwig’s buttery bass and Colin Bailey’s gently brushed drums mixes with Guaraldi’s rolling piano, which wavers between a slinky Latin groove and a bluesy bounce. It’s three minutes of pure musical joy, and then you realize it: this man has the feeling, the imagination and the perfect idea of how to translate childhood whimsy into a timeless track.

One day later, you’re having lunch with the formidable pianist to propose that he compose the soundtrack for the film. One week later, you receive a call from Guaraldi; he sets the receiver by his piano, and suddenly the theme of “Linus and Lucy” emerges from the other end of the phone. It’s the “a-ha!” moment so many producers long for, yet your delight is quickly deflated as another two years pass before your film is finally picked up by a sponsor with a connection to an established American institution: Coca-Cola.  An individual at the soda empire’s ad agency proposes the idea of a Charlie Brown Christmas Special, again with music written by Vince Guaraldi. And so a new American institution was born…


Many years before A Charlie Brown Christmas ever hit the airwaves and Americans fell hard and fast for the lovable group of kids, Vince Guaraldi—the man who came to be dubbed “Dr. Funk” by his colleagues—was churning out compelling compositions equally cheerful and uplifting as they were contemplative and melancholic. You can even hear traces of Peanuts tunes in his fingers that pre-dated the music of the iconic Schulz comic, and in the tunes that followed.

With steady resolve to “make it”, the self-described “reformed boogie-woogie player” became an establishment himself in San Francisco’s 1950s jam sessions, sitting in with visiting name groups and even earning a spot recording with Latin jazz stalwart Cal Tjader—at age 23.

Gigs with established bandleaders aside, including a stint with Woody Herman, Guaraldi’s finest work is compiled here on The Definitive Vince Guaraldi, featuring recordings by his first trio with bassist Dean Reilly and guitarist Eddie Duran; his late 1950s trio with Budwig and Bailey; explorations of The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi with Duran, bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli; the Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete and several other notable musicians.

Featuring alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, opener “Calling Dr. Funk” prowls along like the score for a spy movie or an old-school detective drama. “Never Never Land” features Guaraldi unaccompanied and inspiring—you can almost picture him sitting alone at the piano, head bowed as he investigates the keys with delicate intensity. “Manha de Carnaval” is hushed, shadowed and sublime.

Moving versions of “Moon River” and “On Green Dolphin Street” spill over with remarkable alternations between deep, soul-stirring chords and spine-tingling single note runs. Uptempo numbers like “Jitterbug Waltz”, “Work Song”, “The Girl from Ipanema”, and “El Matador” showcase Guaraldi’s piano work swinging, swaying, and slipping in and out of the arrangements with a deft touch.

And then there’s the Peanuts work. “Oh, Good Grief” happily bounces along with childlike innocence; the classic & timeless “Linus and Lucy” shuffles along with playful and pensive moments; and in “Christmas Time is Here”, Guaraldi’s almost-tearful delivery of the melody gracefully skates over the top of the sparse, muted rhythm laid down by Marshall and Granelli. Previously unreleased tracks “Autumn Leaves” and “Blues for Peanuts” are simple and stunning, while the St. Paul’s Church of San Rafael choir’s turn on “Theme to Grace” is spiritual and stellar.

Vince Guaraldi almost quit playing the piano entirely when sharing the intermission piano duties with Art Tatum at San Francisco’s Black Hawk club in the early 1950s. Thankfully, he didn’t, and continued to search for his own voice, a journey that led him to discover a sound that has resonated through the years in the minds and hearts of listeners. The buoyant brilliance of his tunes transport you to another place—and can even make you feel like a kid again, or like dancing on a piano.  Isn’t that what all music is supposed to do?

[click link at top of post for audio]

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lightonthesouthsideVarious Artists: Light on the South Side

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon: the trifecta of Chicago blues.  Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells: also men of stature in the Windy City tradition.  Elmore James, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed: the list of blues giants in the Chicago style goes on.  When the blues moved out of the country and into the city, plugged in and packed clubs, these were the men that defined the sounds that came out of Chicago.  But there’s another chapter in the legacy of the genre, an often-overlooked crop of artists that slathered the original stomp ‘n’ swagger with gobs of funk and soul in the mid-1970s, turning South Side venues like Pepper’s Hideout and the Patio Lounge into havens for club-goers hungry for blues that didn’t so much swing as it slithered.

Formed in 2003, the Chicago-based Numero Group has been “dragging brilliant recordings, films and photography out of unwarranted obscurity… we’re on a dirty, labor-intensive mission… and it’s urgent as all hell.  Time kills of precious bits of passed-over sound, story and ephemera every day, just as fast as we can haul this sprawling archive of under-heard recordings—along with the musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs who created them—out of exile.”  Light on the South Side, the latest addition to the label’s collection of about 60 officially released titles, ranging from power pop to vintage New York disco and rap, soul, gospel, folk, and more, is an enthralling look into the lost South Side nightclubs, patrons, and musicians through a 12″x12” book featuring 132 pages of remarkable black-and-white photos, a few essays, and “Pepper’s Jukebox”, an accompanying compilation soundtrack with 18 of the nastiest blues-funk tunes ever laid down.

Light on the South Side bumps along, sounding like golden outtakes from lost sessions where James Brown’s backing band got together with Booker T and the MGs at the Stax studios—all while an insanely talented batch of unknown singers took turns at the mic, wavering from vocal approaches hot, bothered, and throat-tearing to cool, sleek, and silky.

Chicago-style blues harmonica is omnipresent, albeit it in smaller doses; in fact, harmonica and guitar solos are almost completely absent here—the searing, stinging licks typically associated with blues recordings are substituted for tight horn sections, revival-tent organ, and only occasionally, a syrupy string section.  Further pushing along the blues paradox, the guitar work here interlocks with the bottomless bass ‘n’ drums groove, employing an impressive range of sounds from a dirty, fuzzed-out tube-amp mess to trebly, clean lines to classic, chikka-chikka wah-wah swells—no slide guitar, no flashy, lightning-fast runs up and down the fretboard, no guitar heroes.

Slow-burners like Little Mack Simmons’ “The Same One” and Willie Davis’ “I Learned My Lesson” are perfectly balanced with straight-up dance numbers like Hugh Hawkins’ “Bring it Down Front” and Artie White’s “Gimme Some of Yours” to incredible effect.  Many of these blues pieces sound more troubled than the tunes associated with the aforementioned blues pantheon—yet so much of it sounds even more joyous, celebratory, and uplifting than the cheeriest of tunes in the vast blues catalog.

The only downside?  To some, it’s a plus: this beast of a collection is being released (almost) exclusively on vinyl. Only the first 250 copies (already sold out) come with a link to download the album as 320kps MP3s.  So if you want to hear this, you better get yourself a turntable—and why wouldn’t you?  This stuff has got to sound unbelievable through a needle.  Or find a friend with one of the early copies.  Otherwise, here’s hoping that it’s reissued later in digital form.  This is such an incredible find, and the music is far too great, to just put it in the hands of those who can summon these sounds out of a stylus.

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Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Blues and Beyond

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

Although the blues permeate through just about any form of music heard today, it can be heard as a glaring reference or a subtle slip in the mix. Its very nature as our musical architecture often allows for fascinating genre-blends and collaborations, and in others, it can be a confusing collision of sounds. By its namesake, The Rough Guide to Blues and Beyond, indicates perhaps an easily digestible and accessible entry point to the raw, expressive power of the blues; however, the music here is filtered through many genres with mixed results.

Chris Thomas King’s hip-hop opener “Mississippi Kkkrossroads” samples a basic Delta blues slide-guitar lick over a tightly programmed rhythm, but the juxtaposition of an artificial beat and an open-tuned National guitar comes across as a mangled marriage of musical styles.  On the other hand, Outrageous Cherry’s fuzzed-out, slightly psychedelic take on “Lord Have Mercy on Me”, replete with braying guitars and thumping drums, tops the established masters of the juke joint, the North Mississippi All-Stars, who are also featured here with “Shake (Yo Mama)”.

Robert Plant and Justin Adams’ “Win My Train Fare Home (If Ever Get Lucky)”, perhaps one of the best tracks on the compilation, is a slightly disorienting, hazy crawl through a swirling Delta drone. When stacked up alongside Corey Harris’ reggae-tinged “Mami Wata”, Tangle Eye’s R&B slow-jam, “Parchman Blues”, funk-soul excursions and West African jams, the music on The Rough Guide to Blues and Beyond ultimately creates an uneven listening experience and fails to live up to its title.

[click link at top of post for access to audio]

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