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Archive for January, 2010

Blues-Rock, Buffed

Tinsley Ellis – Speak No Evil

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

Comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan aside, guitarist Tinsley Ellis is considered by many to be one of the few in the mass of followers who has managed to carve out his own identity in the world of blues-rock, a genre too often overcrowded with guitarist/vocalists immensely talented, but completely unoriginal.  Dipping into the Texas blues of Freddie King and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, B.B. King’s sweet-but-stinging style, and the funky soul of Memphis, Ellis—who’s a far better guitarist than vocalist—is probably one of the most polarizing players on the scene, drawing praise and criticism at every turn.

Now, 20 years into his relationship with the venerable blues label Alligator, Ellis continues to pound away at the blues with the force of a battering ram on Speak No Evil, leading his band through 12 tunes of loud, distorted, and dirty blues rock.  From the filthy wah-wah work on opener “Sunlight of Love” and the thick tremolo of “Slip and Fall”, to the de-tuned bass of “The Other Side” and the frantic leads in the title track, it’s clear that Ellis is itching to see how much his amplifiers can handle.

While “It Takes What It Takes” recalls a grungier Robert Cray (if he were to play harmonized leads), and the atmospheric B-3 organ of “The Night Is Easy” is offset by more squealing guitar leads. “Left of Your Mind” kicks off the second half of the disc with crisp, polished production that cleans off the muck, grime, and grub that should have been left on and made this a nasty (the good kind) disc.  Ellis’ playing is impressive and he commands a tight-knit band, but many of the tunes on Speak No Evil would best be served if they were dragged through a bit of mud—hopefully whomever is behind the controls on the next disc will make this happen.

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Poncho Sanchez – Psychedelic Blues

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

The story of Poncho Sanchez—recognized in many circles as the reigning king of Latin jazz—is one that’s been told countless times.  The percussionist grew up in L.A. and was raised on straight-ahead jazz and American soul, finding equal inspiration in John Coltrane and Miles Davis as he did in Wilson Pickett and James Brown.  But it was another group of sounds—Latin jazz—that he found his true calling and his biggest musical hero:  legendary bandleader and vibraphonist Cal Tjader, with whom he landed a gig and remained until the elder musician’s death in 1982.

With Tjader’s death came a new chapter in Sanchez’s career, as he signed with Concord that same year and released his label debut, Sonando!.  Nearly 30 years and two dozen recordings later, Sanchez and Concord continue to make their mark in the world of Latin jazz, and 2009 brought the latest installment in the extensive Sanchez discography: Psychedelic Blues.

A 10-track collection of groovy, danceable trademark Sanchez, Psychedelic Blues is enjoyable but inessential.  Adding a little more Latin flavor to the record than his recent soul-inflected releases, Sanchez surrounds himself with longtime collaborators and a couple of guest players to conjure up the sounds of his 1980s records, back when his prolific relationship with Concord first began.

Among Sanchez’s studio cohorts are keyboardist/arranger David Torres, saxophonist Javíer Vergara, trumpeter/flugelhornist Ron Blake, trombonist/arranger Francisco Torres, bassist/vocalist Tony Banda, timbalero George Ortiz, and percussionist/vocalist Joey De León.  Baritone saxophonist Scott Martin and percussionist Alfredo Ortize—both veterans of early Sanchez bands—also make an appearance on Psychedelic Blues.  But the newcomer here, guitarist Andrew Synowiec (of the L.A.-based Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band), is the most welcome addition, and adds some piquant playing on a couple of tracks, spicing up an otherwise tasty-but-unremarkable dish of tunes.

Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” leads off Psychedelic Blues with some fine soloing from Synowiec and Torres, but the track never gets above a simmer when it should burn.  Freddie Hubbard’s “Crisis” follows and features a guest appearance from Latin jazz stalwart Arturo Sandoval, who lends some smoking trumpet.  The title track, a mambo moving at a meteor’s pace, pushes the disc forward and segues nicely into the best track of the disc, a Willie Bobo medley that includes “I Don’t Know”, “Fried Neckbones and Some Homefries”, and “Spanish Grease”.  Featuring a strong vocal turn from Joey De León (and some on-point harmonies from the band), the disc hits its stride, and unfortunately, its peak, by the time “Neckbones” fades into “Grease”.

For the remainder of the record, Sanchez and his bandmates weave in and out of tunes that will either have listeners shakin’ their hips or their heads.  How is Psychedelic Blues an appropriate title for this session?  There isn’t too much—or, really, anything—here that recalls anything of the sort.  Closing track “Con Sabor Latino” (translation: with Latin flavor) is a more apt description for this record, but it’s just missing something.  Listeners are better off catching Sanchez live the next time he comes to town.  When the salsa swings onstage, it’s far more irresistible—much more so than this collection.

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Fred Anderson: 21st Century Chase:

80th Birthday Bash, Live at the Velvet Lounge

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

Saxophonist Fred Anderson, a longtime fixture on the Chicago jazz scene, has been at it since the 1960s, cranking out some of the most inspired playing to come out of the Windy City – or any city, for that matter.  Guided by the ghost of Charlie Parker, the ballads of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and the ever-bold Ornette Coleman, Anderson is chameleon-like in his approach, balancing beautiful and blustery tones.  As a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the owner of Chicago’s Velvet Lounge, one of city’s centers for jazz and experimental music, he has been a mentor to countless young musicians and still exhibits an adventurous spirit.

To be able to play with the energy, imagination and sheer force Anderson showcases on 21st Century Chase would be a feat for any musician—but at age 80, it’s flat-out mind-blowing.  Recorded live in March 2009 at his home club on Chicago’s south side, Anderson is joined for his birthday gig by bassist Harrison Bankhead, drummer Chad Taylor, guitarist Jeff Parker (of Tortoise renown), and New Orleans’ Edward “Kidd” Jordan on tenor sax for three long-form pieces that skronk, squeal, soothe, and swing.

The opening “21st Century Chase, Pt.1” clocks in at nearly 40 minutes, leading off with two minutes of Anderson playing solo, shrieking and squeezing soul out of his horn before the rest of the ensemble swoops in and locks into a relentless, hard-driving groove.  While it’s packed with brilliant playing, the exhilaration soon turns to exhaust—even the most hardcore avant-garde lovers might tire of the interminable track.

“21st Century Chase, Pt. 2” finds the two tenors continuing their battle, meandering between sounds melodic and mangled for another 15 minutes.  The 17-minute “Ode to Fielder” (written for fellow AACM founder and drummer Alvin Fielder) wraps up the set as the members of the fiery quintet push and pull each other in daring directions.  While he’s backed by a top-notch group, Anderson is the star here.  His ability to command a stage—but to also yield to those making music with him—is impressive.  To burn as intensely as Anderson does is something for all musicians to aspire to—whether they’re 18 or 80.  Some just might prefer a shorter fuse.

(Note: A DVD version of 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live at the Velvet Lounge features a bonus track, “Gone But Not Forgotten”, with bassist Henry Grimes.)

*Below: Fred Anderson / Kidd Jordan Quartet*

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*review originally posted at www.jazztimes.com 1/14/2010*

A formidable player on the NYC jazz scene, Ron Horton has gained tremendous respect as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger, praised for his tonal clarity and precise lines on the trumpet and flugelhorn. Although he’s been at work since the early 1980s, he first appeared as a leader in 1999 on Omnitone with Genius Envy, an impressive debut that marked the arrival of a bold new bandleader.  Two releases on Fresh Sound New Talent followed (Subtextures in 2003 and Everything in a Dream in 2006) and in 2009, Horton’s fourth recording as a leader appeared on Abeat Records.

The culmination of several concerts Horton played in Italy in 2005 and 2006 with Italian composer/pianist Antonio Zambrini, It’s a Gadget World was recorded in New York in late 2006 and features the pianist, bassist/composer Ben Allison and drummer Tony Moreno. Performing compositions by Horton, Zambrini, Paul Motian and Andrew Hill, the quartet displays a superb dynamic range and excellent instrumental interplay.

The title track opens the disc with a percussive, funky bassline from Allison, Zambrini’s stabbing piano fills, Horton’s three-note theme and Moreno’s rolling drums. When Horton and Zambrini drop out of the mix and Moreno’s slick hi-hat work provides a subtle shade to Allison’s whining, bluesy solo, it’s a feast for the ears. The drifting melody and fluttery trumpet of “Gaia” is exquisitely matched by rippling, playful and contemplative piano work. Horton and Zambrini’s chemistry is delightful to hear, as the trumpeter’s gentle touch and warm tone blends beautifully with the pianist’s lucid, meticulous strokes on “Waiting for That.”

The bandleader’s tender vibrato and wonderful melody on “9 x 9” is doubled by Allison’s bass and rests easily on waves of piano chords and cymbal washes. “Toeing the Line” opens with a slightly ominous feel but shifts with ease into a gently swinging, bluesy number with brushed drums and Allison bending, flecking and snapping the strings of his bass.

With playing that’s cool, confident and calculated – but also edgy, spirited and full of emotional depth, Horton has crafted an exceptional record that despite its title showcases that an acoustic jazz quartet can still make waves in a world dominated by digital devices.

# # #

*This reviewer also wishes to add that Horton is one of the most laid-back, down-to-earth, passionate and articulate musicians out there. I had the opportunity to hang with Ron, Ben Allison, Steve Cardenas and a drummer-whose-name-I-can’t-recall prior to a performance at the Blue Room at 18th & Vine in Kansas City, MO. All were very classy guys, loved to talk about music, Kansas City, BBQ [plenty of which they were stuffed with prior to the show – maybe that’s why they let me hang?] and a handful of other topics.

Then, somehow after being weighed down with the contents of a President’s Platter from Gates, they managed to pull off a show that was at once loud, wild & unhinged – and also hushed, intricate and intimate. When the doors closed that night, my ears were ringing, my muscles ached and my head spun. In all, for lack of a better phrase, it was simply one of the most kick-ass shows ever produced in the club , one that I’ll always recall as a favorite next to Dr. Lonnie Smith.

But that’s a whole ‘nutha tale…

*Ben Allison & Man-Size Safe w/Ron Horton >> “Language of Love”

*Ben Allison & Man-Size Safe w/Ron Horton >> “Respiration”

*Ben Allison & Man-Size Safe w/Ron Horton >> “Four Folk Songs”

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*written for University of Maryland’s Between the Columns*

reposted from Stage & Studio: January 2010

[with a few minor alterations]

Inspiration for great art can come from anywhere, and it often comes from unlikely sources. Violinist David Harrington, leader of the world-renowned Kronos Quartet, found musical inspiration several years ago while exploring a 300-year-old house from southeastern China.

Yin Yu Tang, as it is known, housed eight generations of the prosperous Huang family. It was dismantled piece by piece in 1997 and rebuilt in the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts over the course of three years. It inspired the group to create the multimedia piece “A Chinese Home” opening on Feb. 12.

“Visiting Yin Yu Tang was an overwhelming experience; it caused us to think about what kinds of sounds and spirits live in the space, and how we might attempt to capture it,” says Harrington. “In a culture as ancient, rich and deep as China’s, nothing is lost, it’s hidden. Researching and creating ‘A Chinese Home’ together was the musical equivalent of walking in the Grand Canyon—and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done.”

The work, co-commissioned by and featured at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center next month, is a visually stunning, multimedia exploration of China’s passage through the 20th century and into the 21st. The production incorporates an array of traditional and contemporary Chinese music along with archival and modern projected images in a four-part performance created by visionary stage director Chen Shi-Zheng. It opens in the center’s Ina and Jack Kay Theatre at 8 p.m.

The program’s co-creator Wu Man will perform on the pipa, a pear-shaped, four-stringed Chinese instrument belonging to the family of plucked instruments. In one segment of the program, she will also play the first-ever created electric pipa. The electric pipa filters the sounds and textures of an acoustic instrument that first appeared during the Han Dynasty in 220 B.C. through modern-day manipulations of distortion, feedback and wah-wah pedals.

Hear Wu Man take on “Iron Man” [if only this clip were longer]

The electric pipa was designed by experimental luthier Walter Kitundu, who’s been building new instruments out of turntables and other assorted “junk.”  The clip below shows the innovative musician talking about his creations and demonstrating a few of them as well.

A collaboration led by several Maryland faculty cements the center’s reputation for partnering with academic units to push the performing arts into innovative and unfamiliar territories.

During a three-week winter term course led by Harold Burgess II, director of the College Park Scholars Arts Program and assistant professor of theatre; Ronit Eisenbach, associate professor of architecture; and Sharon Mansur, assistant professor of dance, students had the opportunity to design, construct and participate in inter-related aspects of exhibition design, architectural structure, ritual and performance that explore the themes of home, place and being.

Using bamboo donated by the local community and blended with works created by College Park Art Scholars, students developed an exhibit based on Chinese “desire houses.” These ancient structures were constructed to contain items that would accompany the spirits of the deceased into the afterlife in a ritual burning. They will be presented in the center’s Grand Pavilion in conjunction with “A Chinese Home.”

In a choreographed processional preceding the performance on Feb. 12, students will carry one desire house through the Grand Pavilion and burn it in the outdoor courtyard at the rear of the building as a symbolic gesture.

“As faculty, we are truly inspired by the premise of the project, but draw even greater reward from working with the students as partners in the overall development of each phase of the exhibit,” says Burgess.

“The intersection of these different elements is what we hope will serve to build tangible connections between disciplines and provoke creative exploration and expression among the students.”

More information is available at www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

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Various Artists: Things About Comin My Way: A Tribute to the Music of the Mississippi Sheiks

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

First things first – the music compiled on this disc is back porch, summertime music, contrary to its fall release date.  That’s not to say that it can only be enjoyed while sweating, but the vibe here isn’t suited to shivering.  These may be recreations of classic 1930s Mississippi blues songs – music created in darker times – but the sunny production turns this collection into a feelgood jam. Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to the Music of The Mississippi Sheiks

contains a few gems scattered throughout its expansive 17-track presentation.

The music of The Mississippi Sheiks, a group that only lasted five years but left an immense body of work, has been given treatment by countless artists spanning multiple generations.  Perhaps their most recognizable tune, “Sittin’ on Top of the World” has been covered by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, the Grateful Dead, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Big Bill Broonzy, Carl Perkins, Doc Watson, Van Morrison, and, even more recently, Jack White.

Muddy Waters himself, who recorded some of the dirtiest blues ever laid to tape, claimed to have walked 10 miles to see them play: “they was high-time…makin’ them good records, man”.

The sons of slaves, the Chatmon Brothers, along with Walter Vinson, were notorious for their music that revved up audiences in venues all across the country.  According to the well-written and thorough liner notes, the Mississippi Sheiks’ songs “took a suffering generation on a ride through a universe populated with characters that walked the razor’s edge between sin and redemption, grace and depravity”.  With tales of their fiery vocals and gutbucket guitar leaving audiences in a frenzy in Mississippi juke houses, one can only imagine what the Sheiks’ gigs must have been like.

While few tracks on Things About Comin’ My Way breeze by more than they burn, and three slow numbers placed in the middle of the disc make a break in the pace that’s slightly jarring, there’s some outstanding playing on this disc that balances well with less remarkable material.  The opening guitar lick on the title track lifts the melody to “Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as does the tune itself, sung by Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Ndidi Onukwulu, with strong but fluttery vocals.The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ guitar-n-fiddle-n-banjo take on “Sittin’” itself eases along as joyfully as a good porch swing.

Danny Barnes’ twangy drawl meshes well with Jeanne Tolmie’s harmony vocals on “Too Long”. His country-jazz scat singing, played in unison with his banjo licks, is a pure joy.  Kelly Joe Phelps’ unusual, slightly dissonant chording and fluid fretwork on the national guitar is haunting on “Livin’ In a Strain”, providing a nice follow-up to Madeleine Peyroux’s lazy shuffle through “Please Baby”.  Producer Steve Dawson’s slide guitar work on “Lonely One in This Town” is quite tasty, as is the Hammond organ work by Wayne Horvitz.

The use of a session band on several tracks, while making for a consistent sound to back up the vocalists, sounds just like what it is: a session band with a singer, lacking the well-seasoned group interplay and musical dialogue that can only be gained through hours of rehearsals and gigs together.  It’s not a total miss – the best blues often comes from spontaneous moments – but some of Things About Comin’ My Way feels too polished, too planned, and not raw enough.

Doug Heselgrave’s essay in the liner notes states, “there aren’t many CDs like this one being recorded today.  Life is short, and like the song says you may only be ‘sitting on top of the world’ for a moment”.  This is true. More people do need to discover and re-discover this music.  Things About Comin’ My Way is a fine place to start, but there’s so much more to it than this.

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