Monday, 11 January 2016

New year, new start, new blog? RIP David Bowie

This had been on my mind for a while now. Getting this blog moving again. Writing had and has always been a passion, and music is always my biggest love. Writing about music then (but positively, there's already too much negativity in reviews etc out there) was always a no-brainer. And the small collection of unfinished novels was just getting bigger and bigger. Writing smaller more concise pieces just made sense.

Getting married in April 2014 was great. Getting diagnosed with cancer four weeks later was not. I'll touch on this more regularly as I write posts here, and people find out more, but basically cancer messed up a lot of my life. Chemo, surgery, lots more chemo, other drugs, fatigue...people surprising me with being not as helpful as I'd hoped, everything got stopped, delayed, or outright cancelled. I'm trying now to effectively reboot/restart everything, but it's proving difficult. I'm still doing it though.

This then now becomes my blog. It'll still have music stuff, but equally it's going to be me, rambling, writing, thinking, probably whining. We'll see.

Today then got off to a bad start with hearing the news of David Bowie's passing. Bowie was a huge part of my life, musical and otherwise. I loved everything he did (excepting the ropey Tonight and Never Let Me Down albums from the mid-eighties), he was the link that bonded me with my future wife, and his music for me still stands above anyone elses. One mistake people made though was to always refer to him as a 'rock star'. Not incorrect, but it in many ways missed what Bowie was. The term rock star conjures an image, an image that Bowie was distinctly differently from. A well-read, articulate man, that played to some level of skill a dozen different instruments, spoke seven languages fluently, was well-versed in all forms of music and cinema, he personally and musically was in fact more of an avant-garde artist that had found mainstream rock success. Hyperbole? Possibly.

Some things to consider then. At the height of his early rock success, he killed his hugely popular character off and retired his successful band formula. His next move? To attempt an art-rock take on George Orwell's famous '1984'. Eventually he dumped rock and released a soul album. This met with huge success, gifting him an American number one single in 'Fame' (which James Brown then ripped off in the form of 'Hot'). Bowie's next move was to record an album that blended soul with a colder, more introspective, more European sound, before abandoning this direction entirely and decamping to first France, then Germany and then finally Switzerland. Not to record, like everyone else, some quickly back-to-basics punk rock, or some garish attempts to jump on the brief disco bandwagon, but instead to record a trilogy of distinctly left-leaning experimental electronic and world music with ambient pioneer Brian Eno. From here a return to hard rock lead to gigantic mega pop success that would for a while be his undoing, before again diving into heavy metal, dance rock, full-on ambient, jungle...

Some would simple-mindedly, and mean-spiritedly, say he was 'selling out'. But that frankly is not an argument that stands up to much scrutiny. Jungle and it's related dance genres were never mainstream popular, so recording an album of material taking in those was that selling out? Retreating from massive American sales to record electronica before electronica was even a thing, and when everyone else was making disco? How is THAT selling out? Ambient music? How does an artist sell out by making ambient? His most recent album was incorrectly described by uninformed music press peoples as having dumped rock and embracing jazz, and some had said this was merely an attempt to be 'edgy'. This was a half truth at best.

David Bowie was the artist who first got me into a lot of different music. 'Low', 'Heroes' and 'Lodger' alone pointed me towards Kraftwerk, Can, Ashra, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, King Crimson, The ProjeKcts. And so many more. But Bowie also showed me and many others Iggy Pop, The Stooges, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Pixies, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush...but for me he was also the man who got me into jazz too.

He had always spoken highly of his love for various jazz players and albums, and I'd always enjoyed the stories of how he and his band would experiment and improvise in the studio, but as usual it was the music that spoke for itself. The album 'Aladdin Sane' featured superb American pianist Mike Garson who added some out of the world jazz piano and made the songs something more than just the songs, for 'Black Tie White Noise' the guitar was almost completely absent, replaced by both Bowie's own saxophone and jazz great Lester Bowie's peerless trumpet playing. The piece 'Looking For Lester' was an incredible slice of modern jazz against a proto techno funk backing, with turns being taken between both Bowie's and Garson's dazzling piano runs. This alone inspired me to check out more of this music, and it was not long before I was regularly listening to Keith Jarrett, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Matthew Shipp, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Coltrane and lots more.

David Bowie had for the vast majority of his career always done things differently. It's just that some people weren't paying attention. On his more recent more standard 'rock' albums, he was still finding alternative ways of doing things; performing with the Kronos Quartet, using the stylophone as an actual musical instrument, hell, 2003's 'Reality' even finished with the seven-minute low key jazz-esque piece 'Bring Me The Disco King'.

Buying Bowie's 'Black Star' was an exciting day for me. Buying a new record from a beloved musical hero yes, but more than that. For me, something to force myself to overcome my physical and mental weaknesses. Listening to it for the first time was a strange and wonderful experience. Instrumentally perfect, with brilliant snapping drums throughout and some incredible sax work, the tone of the album is from the start very dark, and dark even by David Bowie's standards (we're talking about the usual miserable love songs or break-up whines here, this is a man who has written songs featuring  commentary on domestic abuse, dystopia in societies and infanticide). And yet, it ends with an uplifting nearly upbeat piece in 'I Can't Give Everything Away'. I found it quite happily moving on first listen. After hearing about his death though the song takes on an eerie other tone, with lyrics that seemingly directly reference his coming passing. The song now is simultaneously tinged with sadness yet bizarrely warmly uplifting.

It's a great way to end a great album, and it's a fitting end to a stellar career and life. Thank you David.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: Masada - Sanhedrin – 1994-1997 Unreleased Studio Recordings

Masada have hardly been a slouch in recording terms, creating ten studio works and releasing a strong fistful of live albums, with most coming from just one seven-year stretch. And yet here, you would have thought impossibly, we have an out-takes selection.

Made up of pieces taken from eight separate sessions over a four year period, ‘Sanhedrin’ actually features pieces that for the most part have been released before, but in a different take; and this being John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, none of the takes here sound like the perhaps more familiar versions. Rather each serves as a springboard for a very different improvisation.

And that’s where the fun lies; hearing how each of the players and the group as a whole vary in each of their solos and interactions, even though they probably only just laid down a different version only minutes before (or later).

It is in truth though not an essential Masada work, due to the partially mish-mash feel that this mix of different sessions over different times can give. It can feel like a collection of off-cuts, but does work better than one or two of the ‘official’ Masada studio albums that themselves felt like albums of scraps.

Whether this is for you depends on just how much Masada you already have and how much more you want. If you absolutely must have everything, then this is a good compilation that sits nicely alongside everything else. For anyone else it’s probably preferable to ‘Dalet’ and ‘Zayin’, the fourth and seventh studio volumes, but you would easily be better served by getting every other studio and live release by this stellar group before you invest in ‘Sanhedrin’. As a collection of its type though, its standard is very high and should not be dismissed as just a barrel-scraping exercise like many similar recordings of this ilk frequently, yet justifiably, are.


Review: Masada - Live At Tonic 2001

‘Live At Tonic’ is perhaps Masada’s greatest live album, benefitting from being not only one of the later, tighter and more muscular live entries, but also crucially being recorded in front of a home crowd, who really add to the atmosphere and excitement levels.

Featuring two complete sets from the same night, we have here more than two total hours of music that takes in everything (almost) from the Masada arsenal. And as with all of the quartets live recordings, the music reaches even higher levels than the already excellent studio works.

Throughout we get beautiful balladry with sultry atmospheres, and languid solos, and also furious frenzies with pounding rhythms and the front-line of John Zorn’s saxophone and Dave Douglas’ trumpet playing interwining and mult-layering dual melody lines.

Disc  one even touches on early 70’s era Miles Davis, in the heady brew and thick atmosphere generated, especially the driving pacy rhythms created by the winning combination of Greg Cohen’s bass finesse and Joey Baron’s incredibly multi-faceted drumming (whose hand drums in particular are one hell of a secret weapon). A seventeen minute epic ‘Karaim’ makes for a beautiful yet blistering opener, carried the whole way throughout by an undulating desert wind-swept sounding hypnotic bass that anchors everything else here, be the unified or split horns, or Baron’s mix of hand and drumstick percussion playing. ‘Ner Tamid’ that follows manages to be distinctly different, with a more straight-ahead bop style (comparatively) that winds to a close in a relatively succinct five minutes.

‘Acharai Mot’ is John Zorn does Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, and throwing in some Ornette for good measure, with everyone playing full-force, and cooking up a storming maelstrom of sound. ‘Kisofim’ returns us to a desert-at-midnight’ pulse, with typical dual playing from Zorn and Douglas, but Zorn just edging it with a wistful yet focused and melodic solo that should hopefully silence any still curmudgenly critics out there. ‘Jachin’ opens up with a fast paced yet soulful bass groove, with Baron’s drum skittering over the top that becomes more insistent as it goes on.

The second set here is even better, with the focus being on the more intense and the more dramatic. Cohen shines throughout; standing strong and providng a driving yet anchored pulse that impressively never wavers, even in the face of the storm of horns and Barons thunderous drumming reaches new levels of power.

Over two sets you could be forgiven for expecting repeats of certain tunes, but of course, this being Zorn and Masada, with a catalogue of hundreds of pieces, there is just the one. ‘Malkhut’ is perhaps Masada’s take on Zorn’s other most famous group Naked City, possessing the same stop-start surf-punk-jazz feel as that outfit, but filtered through Masada’s own distinctive lense. Sadly both versions are perhaps the weakest things on the sets, but then, you can’t have everything.

Even if you have every studio recording Masada ever made, you would be well recommended to invest in some of the live albums, given the full strength of playing, occasion and excitement that each is able to generate, and just how much more full-bodied Greg Cohen’s bass is in a live context. But even if you already own every other live recording, ‘Live At Tonic 2001’ still offers something more - when the final piece here comes to an end you can feel the palpable euphoria emenating from the stage. And that is something you want to experience.


Review: Masada - Live In Sevilla 2000

‘Live In Sevilla’, recorded in 2000, is another stellar live effort from one of the then most-recorded quartets in modern jazz. Live Masada albums of course are far from being short in supply, but Sevilla is perhaps a strong contender for first port of call for anyone who wants to look into the group, live or otherwise.

Notably the sound is absolutely pristine, with excellent sonics, and superb clearly defined instruments. But most of all the band on the night and the recording itself just crackles; with energy, with spontanaeity and with incredible intensity.

The band play at a personal peak here, with John Zorn having upped his more lyrical side, and trumpeter Dave Douglas having become simultaneously one of the most distinctive players on the scene and also Zorn’s perfect counter soloist. The rhythm section here however are exemplary, with a strong groove feeling throughout, and Joey Baron providing some soulful yet driving drumming, entirely with his hands in place of the sticks (which most often works best in this group), whilst Greg Cohen provides deep and resonant pulsing bass everywhere.

So, the best sound, of one of the best recorded nights of a band playing at their very best; ‘Live In Sevilla’ is a first rate album from a group that continues to make a distinctive Eastern free jazz that both goes more out there, yet is also incredibly accessible. Richly ethnically infused jazz, this is a fantastic recording.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review: Masada - Live In Middleheim 1999

Masada’s ‘Live In Middleheim’ gives us the band possibly at the peak of their powers, in 1999, where the quartet had developed such an interplay together that anything they would play live would be bound to guarantee a high level of excellence.

The group absolutely explodes into action with the thrilling ‘Nevuah’, with John Zorn and Dave Douglas playing a dual solo lead that has a thunderous backing courtesy of Greg Cohen’s bass and Joey Baron’s storming drums. If you ever doubted Baron’s potential as best contemporary jazz drummer then this alone should convince you otherwise. ‘Sippur’ too maintains the intense nature of the music, albeit in a slightly quieter fashion, while after this things tend to ease off a little bit.

‘Kochot’ showcases Dave Douglas playing with a highly understated, yet enormously beautiful trumpet, that shows exactly why he’s been in so much demand for his entire career, while ‘Kedushah’ is Greg Cohen’s biggest moment in the sun, perfectly blending yearning beauty with full-blooded aggression.

Everywhere on here shows us a perfect melding of Eastern sounds and the avant jazz world, with the best pieces here being a very fine and deep-grooved ‘Ne’eman’, highlighting Zorn at his restrained and more-minimal best, and the stunningly gorgeous ‘Ashnah’ that surely is one of the very best group performance pieces by this quartet.

‘Live In Middelheim’ is without doubt one of the strongest, if shorter, of the Masada live albums (possessing just the one set/disc, as opposed to the usual two), and is a clear example of the musical telepathy displayed by the four men – all the more breathtaking given that this performance was their first appearance together in almost a whole half year. The recording quality too is pristine, giving us some deeply inspired solo and group playing with a full rich palette of sound. An ideal starting point for anyone interested in some Masada, live or otherwise, this is essential for anyone who counts themselves a fan of any of the musicians here, and even godfather of free-jazz Ornette Coleman. It’s that good.


Review: Masada - Live In Taipei 1995

Masada possesses a rich catalogue of live albums, that in size almost rivals that of the studio works, but in quality is just something else. Like the studio sets however the live collections also suffer from having a dud here and there. ‘Live In Taipei 1995’ then is that dud.

The quartet is playing on top form throughout, delivering blistering takes on material from the studio albums volume 5 through to 7. And the highlights here are both exhilarating and enchanting, with typically brilliant interplay between the four men.

However it, surprisingly given Masada’s usual quality standards, is a substantially below-par sound recording. The acoustics are all wrong, and noticeably distorts Dave Douglas’ trumpet, while the bass is swampy and blurred. And that’s what effectively knackers the album for most, especially when a good number of the performances here exist in better recorded versions on other live sets. The sound is not terrible, but it is a deal below what you would expect – especially from an official release.

Not a terrible album, just a lesser quality one, and any fan would do well to get hold of every other live effort before this one, but for the dedicated many, once you have everything else, this isn’t a bad completion to the live collection.


Review: Masada - Live In Jerusalem 1994

‘Live In Jerusalem 1994’ is a double-disc set documenting and celebrating Masada’s trip to Israel and highly raved-about appearance at the Jerusalem Festival, having in that year only just appeared on the scene and also laid down material for their first four albums (‘Alef’, ‘Beit’, ‘Gimel’ and ‘Dalet’). The occasion is obviously an important one, to both the band and the audience, and a sense of this is palpable in the atmosphere throughout. So whilst much of this music can be easily found on Masada’s studio albums, the numbers here, and the feeling of each, is powerfully different, and perhaps even more compelling.

As with the best Masada, the key here is the tension in the music, and the way it can build, pushing higher and higher, further and further, with second piece ‘Bith-Aneth’ being a strong example of this. Beginning subtley and quietly, with the rhythm team of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron suitably hushed, before Zorn and Douglas play the main theme, and then start soloing, playing together, and interlocking with each other, and Zorn continuing to egg Douglas on just that little bit more.

‘Live In Jerusalem 1994’ is a superb live recording of a momentous performance that throughout it’s two hour running time sounds like an exhilarating blend of celebration and catharsis. Musically faultless and oozing raw power, you also benefit from a genuine feel of the connection between the band and audience – indeed the reception and response from the crowd is absolutely ecstatic.

If there is too be one complaint made, it is that Greg Cohen’s normally full, deep, rich and rounded bass is just a little too quiet in the mix – something that normally would not be too big an issue with most other groups, but given Cohen’s skill and sound on the instrument, it is slightly disappointing. Barring this however, the album is a fantastic document, perhaps the best live recording from their earlier days, and is a must have. Highly recommended.