Brown, Rob (Ensemble) – “Crown Trunk Root Funk ” – [Aum Fidelity]

Daryl Licht   3/26/2008   CD, Jazz

Despite being a respected presence in the contemporary jazz scene for many years now, alto saxophonist, Rob Brown, remains somewhat overlooked and under appreciated, in my humble opinion. During his 20+ year career, he has produced very few recordings as a leader, a fact which I find unfortunate, as I???ve always enjoyed his unique tone and distinctive style. His 1989 release on Silkheart, ???Breath Rhyme??? is still a personal favorite. Brown originally formed this current quartet (which includes the legendary, William Parker, on bass, Gerald Clever, on drums, and the well-known, but often lightweight, Craig Taborn, on piano and electronics) for a performance at the 2006 edition of NYC???s great Vision Festival.

Supported by this ensemble, Brown explores new sonic territory on ???Crown Trunk Root Funk???, incorporating elements of funk and experimental electronics into his music. Brown slowly immerses listeners into his expanded vocabulary, opening the disc with the solid ???Rocking Horse???, a funky, slightly fusion-inflected free bopper that doesn???t stray too far from his earlier work. By the set???s third track, however, Brown is deep into uncharted waters. In ???Sonic Ecosystem??? Taborn and Cleaver lay down a minimal (but slowly building) foundation of experimental electronics and sporadic percussive accents over which, eventually, Brown, with an almost mournful alto, and Parker, with bowed bass, play a plaintive theme in unison. In sharp contrast, the next track ???Ghost Dog??? is the album???s most accessible piece, a slick, nearly regrettable, pop-leaning, funky strutter. The group returns to familiar ground with ???Exuberance???, an excellent blast of classic Brown free bop stylings. The CD closes with the beautiful ???World’s Spinning???, in which Cleaver, Parker and Taborn create a dark, impressionistic backdrop for Brown???s soulful, lyrical lines. While his experiments on ???Crown Trunk Root Funk??? are not uniformly successful, it still contains plenty of great contemporary jazz and Brown is to be commended for attempting to explore new sonic horizons. DL

Vandermark 5, The – “Beat Reader ” – [Atavistic]

Daryl Licht   3/12/2008   CD, Jazz

???Beat Reader??? is the tenth studio recording from esteemed performer/composer/leader Ken Vandermark???s flagship ensemble, the Vandermark 5. As always, Vandermark and crew deliver a diverse set of contemporary jazz over the eight tracks of this set, with material that strikes an almost perfect balance between composition and improvisation and which integrates a wide range of sonic elements from hard bop and blistering free jazz to slamming funk and searing out-rock. The ongoing evolution of the group is clearly displayed on ???Beat Reader???, with the quintet???s newest member, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, being featured more prominently than any other performer, except Vandermark. From the beginning of the excellent opening piece ???Friction??? to the conclusion of the scorching final track ???Desireless???, Lonberg-Holm makes his mark, with contributions ranging from subtle, chamber music stylings to driving, angular riffing and raucous, electrified skronk, the latter of which providing the group with its most acidic, rock-tinged edge since former trombonist/guitarist Jeb Bishop retired his electric guitar after 2000???s ???Burn The Incline???. Personal favorites included ???Further From The Truth???, a subduded, yet tasty, little piece that almost sounds as if it could have been taken from Zorn???s Masada songbook, the funky free bop of ???Speedplay???, and the aforementioned ???Desireless???. Although they are now in their second decade, as ???Beat Reader??? clearly demonstrates, the Vandermark 5 are not resting on their laurels, rather, they continue to evolve and create compelling contemporary jazz with an almost unparalleled passion and artistry. Play! DL

Bridge 61 – “Journal ” – [Atavistic]

Daryl Licht   3/11/2008   CD, Jazz

An outstanding new project led by Ken Vandermark. The first and last tracks are some of the most slamming modern Jazz I???ve heard in quite some time. The tracks in between, while much more restrained, are equally musicianly and only slightly less enjoyable. Smokin???! DL

You Got Yours! East Bay Garage 1965-67 [coll] – [Big Beat Records]

Daryl Licht   11/14/2007   A Library, CD

In this reissue crazy era, there is an almost endless stream of 60’s garage/punk/psych collections being released, most of which are pretty marginal, at best. Each year, however, there are a handful of real winners, like”Scream Loud!!! The Fenton Story” triple LP set (issued earlier this year by Way Back) and, now, this CD, the latest installment in Big Beat’s Nuggets From The Golden State series “You Got Yours!: East Bay Garage 1965-67”.

This collection focuses on the mid-60s garage scene in the San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay, which contains cities and towns in the counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, like Berkeley, Castro Valley, Hayward, Oakland, and San Leandro. Its 24 tracks contain a nice mix of tracks from rare singles and previously unissued material, ranging from blue-eyed soul rave-ups (such as the Donnybrookes and the Spyders) to post-British invasion power pop pleasers (like the Baytovens and the Shillings) and, of course, tough garage punk. Personal favorites included “Her Heart Said No” by The Blue Lite Conspiracy,”I’m Feeling Good” from The Bristol Boxkite, The Gants’ “Look At The Sun”, “Humpty Dumpty” from The Epics and “Get Out Of My Eye” by The Soul Vendors.

My only slight criticism might be that this collection could have even been more representative of the overall scene during those years if it had tracks by groups such as the Crystal Garden, Misanthropes, and the Remaining Few (all of whom had either singles or, at least, recorded material with the legendary Leo de Gar Kulka at Golden State Recorders!), rather than multiple tracks from groups like the Baytovens and the Harbinger Complex (who were certainly one of the premier bands of the era, but whose tracks here pale in comparison to their other material) or, even worse, recycled tracks that Big Beat has already used on previous collections in the Nuggets From The Golden State series. That all being stated, “You Got Yours!: East Bay Garage 1965-67” is still a pretty solid and welcome overview of a previously overlooked and underappreciated scene. DL

Zelienople – “His/Hers ” – [Type Recordings]

Daryl Licht   11/13/2007   12-inch, A Library

???His/Hers??? is the latest full-length release from this Chicago-based trio. It???s their fifth, overall, and, coincidentally, contains five relatively lengthy tracks. While the material on this album contains similar sonic elements as their previous releases, the band has definitely shifted its focus to the more electric and improvisational aspects of their sound. Two tracks, ???Family Beast??? and ???Parts Are Lost???, feature Zelienople???s trademark blend of slow motion, hazy, acid folk, with reverb drenched tones, softly spoken vocals/moans and, in general, lots of ambient atmosphere. The beginning segment of the LP???s best track, ???Moss Man???, continues in that vein before erupting at around the midway point with a blast of dense, noisy, free improv glory. ???Forced March??? reverses that approach, opening with an excellent segment of drone rock, before drifting off into a combination of minimal drones and echoing tones. Only the album???s closing track ???Sweet Ali???, a very minimal, experimental piece, failed to satisfy. Overall, however, ???His/Hers??? is another intriguing and engaging collage of sound from Zelienople. DL

El Saffar, Amir – “Two Rivers ” – [Pi Recordings]

Daryl Licht   10/29/2007   CD, Jazz

AMIR EL SAFFAR: Two Rivers CD (Pi Recordings) – I must confess that I had never previously heard of Iraqi-American Amir El Saffar nor of any of the members of his solid ensemble. As the material on the appropriately titled ???Two Rivers??? (referring, literally, to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but also, symbolically, to the combination of two different musical traditions in the music on this CD) reveals, he???s a talented multi-instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader. Not only has El Saffar received extensive training in classical and jazz music in the United States, but he has also traveled to Iraq and immersed himself in a traditional form of the Iraqi music, the maqam.

Your introduction to maqam begins with the opening track ???Menba??? (Maqam Bayat) / Jourjina???, a showcase for El Saffar on trumpet, voice, and the beautiful and hypnotic santoor, which is an Iraqi hammered-dulcimer. While a few other cuts, most notably, the album???s other lengthy piece ???Blood and Ink (Maqam Awshar) / Aneen (Maqam Mukhalif)??? also focus mainly on the traditional sounds of maqam, the majority of the compositions on this disc are an excellent synthesis of the instrumentation (like the buzuq, dumbek, and oud) and stylistic elements of the maqam form and those of modern jazz. The resultant music is what one might expect/hope for: an organic, flowing, Middle Eastern-influenced style of ethno-jazz, which is best exemplified by tracks such as ???Flood (Maqam Hijaz Kar)???, ???Diaspora (Maqam Lami)???, and ???Khosh Reng (Maqam Awj)???, in which El Saffar and Mahanthappa engage in a fiery exchange of short solos. Genre-blurring, innovative, and well-executed, ???Two Rivers???, for the most part, hits all the right notes! DL

Bad Trips, The – “Bad Trips, The ” – [Rocketship]

Daryl Licht   10/27/2007   12-inch, A Library

Debut LP (limited to 500 copies on vinyl only!) from the Bad Trips, a new SoCal-based project led by psychedelic guitarist extraordinaire, Grady Runyon, of Monoshock and Liquorball fame. 5 tracks of lo-fi, instrumental kraut-psych jamming. Like most live to cassette basement recordings, this tends to lose focus at times, but scorchers like ???War On Drugs??? and ???First Priority??? make this a clear winner! DL

Serpent Power – “Ourobouros ” – [Locust Music]

Daryl Licht   10/27/2007   12-inch, A Library

Originally, Serpent Power was a Bay Area group, led by poet David Meltzer, whose music was a nice blend of lysergic folk and pop elements. They released one album on Vanguard in 1967 that is well regarded among many collectors. Soon after making that first recording, the original group disbanded for a variety of reasons and Meltzer put together a new incarnation of Serpent Power. This limited, vinyl only release documents previously unissued recordings made at the studios of legendary Berkeley, CA radio station KPFA in 1969 by this ???Mark II??? version of Serpent Power. It contains two side-long tracks of authentic hippie free psych jamming, highlighted by segments that feature unique sonic treatments such as eastern-influenced banjo freakouts (courtesy of J. P. Pickens) and (Daniel Moore???s) wailing shenai. While I???ll readily admit that there???s nothing particularly groundbreaking nor exceptional about these recordings (though they???re surely every bit as significant and worthy as the next release from NNCK or Sunburned Hand Of The Man!), this is still a nice artifact from those long destroyed acid days. DL

Branca, Glenn – “Symphonies Nos. 8 & 10 ” – [Blast First]

Daryl Licht   10/27/2007   A Library, CD

For the recording of “Symphony Nos. 8 & 10 (The Mysteries) ” Branca assembled an orchestra consisting of a drummer, a bassist/keyboardist, and 8 guitarists. Together they create the trademark dense, yet still dynamic, wall of evolving riffs, drones, feedback, and tones (all propelled forward in many segments by simple, but relentless, percussion) on which Branca has built his reputation. It seems as though each movement gets more harsh and jarring as the album progresses and, personally, my favorite track was the sublime Second Movement of Symphony Number 8, which strikes the best balance between droning, shimmering walls of beautiful sound and raw power.

If you???re not yet aware of Branca, this CD might very well be a good place to begin your explorations, as these seminal recordings are among his best and most ???accessible??? (if such a term can really be accurately applied to any of Branca???s work) compositions and, for better or worse, clearly influenced the development the ???post-rock??? movement made so popular in recent years by bands such as Godspeed You Black Emperor and Mono. DL

Apothecary Hymns – “Trowel and Era ” – [Locust Music]

Daryl Licht   10/27/2007   12-inch, A Library

“Trowel and Era ” is the debut full length from former Court & Spark member Alex Stimmel’s solo project, Apothecary Hymns. On this release Stimmel takes elements of indie rock, “American primitive”, 60’s British psych and folk, and 70’s major label rock (which, I know, sounds potentially bad, but is incorporated tastefully by Stimmel) to create a diverse range of excellent pop and rock tracks. Over the course of the album’s 9 tracks there are solid takes on contemporary indie rock (“Abandoned Factories”), acid folk (“The Father”), retro-sounding popsike (“Watching The Bay”), late 60’s/early 70’s English “group folk” (“The Marigold” and “A Sailor Song”), and, even, some over the top fuzz boogie (“All True Love Is Happiness”). In summary, “Trowel And Era” is a well-crafted and stylistically diverse set that’s not to be overlooked and I look forward with great anticipation to future releases from Stimmel’s Apothecary Hymns. DL

Parker, William & Drake, Hamid – “Summer Snow ” – [Aum Fidelity]

Daryl Licht   10/27/2007   CD, Jazz

I was very impressed with Parker and Drake???s first duo release, 2001???s ???Piercing The Veil???, so it was with much anticipation that I greeted their long awaited second volume of studio recordings ???Summer Snow???. Once again, Parker and Drake use an interesting assortment of instruments (doson’ngoni, shakuhachi, dumbek, water bowl, talking drum, frame drum, gongs, and tablas, in addition to their normal tools in the Jazz trade, the bass and drum kit) to create these intriguing, hypnotic, and beautiful tracks which incorporate Jazz improvisation with pan-global ethnic musical traditions. Although they apply a similar basic approach and instrumentation, this material on this set is decidely more focused on quieter, more meditative pieces and, as a result, I found this to be, overall, somewhat less impressive than ???Piercing The Veil???. Still, with excellent ethno-groovers like ???Sky???, ???Pahos???, and ???Faces???, there???s plenty of material to satisfy those who crave unique, genre-blurring sounds. DL

Raccoo-oo-oon – “Behold Secret Kingdom ” – [release the bats]

Daryl Licht   10/26/2007   A Library, CD

Iowa City???s prolific Racoo-oo-oon returns with their most cohesive, raucous, and best release to date, ???Behold Secret Kingdom???. The
Racoo-oo-oon sound is built on a foundation of percussion – ranging from simple, heavy tribal pounding to minimal, organic basement percussion improvisations, and even the percussive effects of elements not traditionally associated with the ???rhythm section??? of a “rock” band, such as tripped-out electronics. They then pile on (in varying combinations and intensities on each track) noisy blasts of guitar, droning, gurgling synths and electronic washes, wailing saxophone, and seemingly wordless, reverbed and delayed vocals (more like moans and wails) that function more as an additional instrument in this awesome aural assault, than as a means to convey any actual lyrical content. The final result of this sonic synthesis are these eight incredible tracks of joyous free-psych

The excellent opening track ???Black Branches??? sets the tone for the entire album. Like most of the tracks on this release, it begins with a vaguely ???normal??? heavy rock progression that builds as it develops, with additional dissonant guitar, wailing vocals, electronic noises, and percussion increasing the tempo, intensity, and volume of the piece until it reaches the breaking point – collapses – and then coalesces, only to begin the cycle all over again on the next track. So proceeds the rest of the disc: from the epic ???Antler Mask??? to the absolutely scorching ???Invisible Sun??? and on to the ultra-heavy stoner crush of the album???s closing track ???Tail At Prospect Peak???. There are a couple of more ambient pieces that provide a brief respite from this outstanding sonic onslaught, but even these, especially ???Fangs And Arrows???, eventually evolve until they reach a fairly feverish peak. With ???Behold Secret Kingdom???, Racoo-oo-oon has delivered a potent dose of artistic psychedelic out-rock that???s not to be missed! DL

Hala Strana – “Heave The Gambrel Roof ” – [Music Fellowship]

Daryl Licht   10/26/2007   12-inch, A Library

Steven R. Smith is, in my humble opinion, a nearly criminally overlooked and underappreciated musician who has been creating great music as both a solo artist and as a member of such projects as Thuja and Mirza for many years. He began his Hala Strana project in 2002 and ???Heave The Gambrel Roof??? is the fourth full length release under the Hala Strana name. Although numerous musicians have contributed to the project over the years, most Hala Strana recordings are solo productions and only the opening track of this LP features any outside contributors. As always, Smith uses an array of instruments (many which he built himself!) such as the bouzouki, cello, harmonium, hurdy gurdy, spike fiddle, and, of course, the more common tools of the modern music trade, the electric guitar and organ, to create this collection of dronescape miniatures and dazzling, pan-global acid folk.

Four of the eleven tracks are interpretations of Albanian folk tunes and two of these are among the highlights of the album. The spectacular ???Wedding Of The Blind??? opens the B-Side with a rich dronescape that builds until Smith cuts in on guitar with a righteous, almost rockin??? groove. The title track displays, at least, a reflection of its Balkan roots, combining layers of plucked, strummed, and frenetically bowed acoustic instruments to mesmerizing effect. Several of Smith???s original pieces are also quite impressive. ???Grain??? is the best among several more contemporary sounding acid folk tracks on the LP. ???Molars Of Smoke??? exhibits a Far Eastern influence, with lots of hand percussion, bells, and, in general, a spacious ambience that makes it the album???s most psychedelic track. ???Marl??? is a jubilant piece that borders on ???pop??? territory. ???Heave The Gambrel Roof??? is a carefully constructed, beautiful, and hypnotic release that???s truly one of Smith???s best! DL

Wooden Shjips – “Dance, California ” – [Sick Thirst Records]

Daryl Licht   10/26/2007   7-inch, A Library

This is the debut 7??? from local project, Wooden Shjips. The A-Side, ???Dance, California???, is an amphetamine driven mixture of white hot, acid punk guitar leads over crunching, Kraut/Spacerock rhythms that would fit quite comfortably next to bands like Simply Saucer, Chrome, and Shatter. The B-Side, ???Clouds Over Earthquake???, is an excellent, more traditional take on the classic Kraut/Spacerock sound. I look forward with anticipation to their upcoming full-length on Holy Mountain, which is due to be released soon, as these tracks are both outstanding! DL

Wooden Shjips – “Wooden Shjips ” – [Holy Mountain]

Daryl Licht   10/26/2007   12-inch, A Library

After a couple of limited 7???s and one 10??? EP comes the highly anticipated the debut full-length release from the Bay Area???s Wooden Shjips. It contains five tracks of excellent psych jamming. The rhythm section of Dusty Jermier (bass) and Omar Ahsanuddin (drums) lays down steady, stone grooves which provide the foundation for layers of Nash Whalen???s droning, pulsating keyboards and Erik “Ripley” Johnson???s fuzz/wah/echoplexed guitar freakouts. The tracks on this release seem to build in intensity as the album progresses, with the final two cuts ???Blue Sky Bends??? and ???Shine Like Suns??? being the highlights of this disc. A solid debut that???s sure to be a crowd pleaser. I look forward with great anticipation to hearing the Wooden Shjips fulfill their full potential with even more peaked performances in the future. DL

MV & EE With The Bummer Road – “Mother of Thousands ” – [Time-Lag]

Daryl Licht   10/26/2007   12-inch, A Library

I???ve got to admit that I think that a) the whole MV/EE thing is way overhyped and b) they were better when acting as part of a greater whole in the Tower Recordings. So, I???ll admit that I was skeptical about this new double LP release from MV, EE, and The Bummer Road on Time Lag that has been getting lots of hype as being their best work to date. Reluctantly, I???ve got to admit that it is. There are several tracks of fairly pleasing acid folk, most notably, ???Sunshine Girl??? and ???Canned Heat Blues???. That being stated, however, about 50% of the material here is still only semi-competant basement ramble that, quite frankly, is no better than the hundreds of hours of tapes that I have of me and my friends jamming, so I could hardly call this release an unqualified winner. If you???re really into the whole acid folk, basement psych, drone raga scene, then you probably want this. If not, well…you???ve been warned. A keeper, but barely, in my humble opinion. DL

Bunalim – “Bunalim ” – [Shadoks]

Daryl Licht   10/26/2007   12-inch, A Library

One might have thought that the well of high quality 60???s/70???s underground music from Turkey must have just about run dry, but the fairly recent releases of gems by Selda, Ersen, and, now, this LP by Bunalim prove otherwise. This LP compiles tracks from singles recorded by various permutations of the band between 1969 and 1972. The majority of the tracks are the cool mix of Eastern folk and Western rock (Anadolu rock!) that I???ve come to expect, know, and love from Turkey. A couple of the tracks veer into less satisfying hard rock territory. Overall, pretty cool. DL

Tucker, Alexander – “Furrowed Brow ” – [Atp]

Daryl Licht   10/25/2007   A Library, CD

This is the third solo release from musician and cool visual artist, as well, Alexander Tucker. The A-Side is simply stunning, containing some tracks that are pretty straightforward, rich and resonant acid-folk and others that mix in electric leads and electro-drones to mesmerizing effect. The B-Side is dominated by somewhat less successful material of a more experimental nature (although there is one more fine acid-folk track), that combines various loops, drones, and even (on the final track) thick, powerful, distorto-bass. A big improvement upon his, ???Old Fog???, release from 2005 and a solid, if a bit uneven at times, entry into the very crowded solo outsider acid-folk/psych field.

Rivulets – “You Are My Home ” – [Important Records]

Daryl Licht   10/25/2007   A Library, CD

This is the third full-length release from Nathan Amundson???s project, Rivulets. 11 tracks of mostly minimal, dark pop, built upon Amundson???s poignant lyrics/vocals and acoustic guitar and fortified tastefully by the efforts of guests such as Jessica Bailiff (electric guitar and mellotron!) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (strings), among others. A few tracks (most notably, the great, ???Happy Ending???) are punctuated by crisp distorto-guitar riffs that gives them an almost sweeping pop granduer reminiscent of the work of his associate, Alan Sparhawk, who recorded and released the first two Rivulets??? albums. Overall, this is Amundson???s best release to date.

Exploding Star Orchestra – “We Are All From Somewhere Else. ” – [Thrill Jockey Records]

Daryl Licht   10/25/2007   CD, Jazz

I???ll readily admit to being an aficionado of modern, Big Band Jazz projects, so I was intrigued by this debut from the Exploding Star Orchestra, a new project led by Chicago Underground???s, Rob Mazurek, which features an all-star cast of some of the Windy City???s finest improvisers.

While Jazz is certainly the point of departure for the group, other influences are also incorporated into the music on this CD. This album contains two suites, which are separated by the short piano interlude, ???Black Sun???.

The first suite, ???Sting Ray And The Beginning Of Time???, covers the album???s first 26 minutes in four parts. ???Part 1???, which, at nearly 12 minutes, is the lengthiest segment of this piece, kicks things off with driving Jazz groove that features excellent solos by Jeb Bishop (Vandermark 5) on trombone and Jeff Parker (Tortoise) on guitar. ???Part 3 (Psycho-Tropic Electric Eel Dream)???, is a fairly minimal (and lackluster) experimental electronics piece, which consumes nearly 8 minutes before making way for the smooth, spacey jazz of ???Part 4???, that concludes this suite.

The second suite, ???Cosmic Tomes For Sleepwalking Lovers???, covers the album???s final 5 tracks. It opens with a transcendant segment of the composed, but chaotic sounding, group improvisations that were so common on many of the recordings made by large Free Jazz ensembles in the 60???s. ???Part 2??? is repetitive piece that seems influenced by minimalist, modern composers, such as Steve Reich. ???Part 5??? closes out the CD with a pleasing, atmospheric piece (featuring Jason Adasiewicz on vibes!) that sounds like it could be from one of John Zorn???s Filmworks releases.

Like many projects with such an ambitious scope, this release does suffer from some inconsistency at times, but, overall, this is a pretty satisfying dose of contemporary large ensemble Jazz.

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