Chris McGregor grew up in South Africa and made his first mark on jazz as a member of The Blue Notes, a racially-integrated band that combined traditional African rhythms with the free improvisation of American jazz. Unfortunately, that band was forced into exile, along with other notable South Africans like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, during the tumultuous apartheid regime of the 1960’s. Relocated to London, McGregor began to emulate one of his musical heroes, Duke Ellington, by forming his own big band, a large ensemble that included members of The Blue Notes along with some of the best ‘free jazz? musicians Britain had to offer at the time. This 1971 release is the first recording by McGregor’s large ensemble, dubbed the Brotherhood of Breath, which continued to tour and record throughout the 70’s and 80’s with a revolving cast of characters. Side One of this record features three compositions of medium length, two energetic ensemble pieces bookending a quieter middle section that focuses on a smaller ‘jazz combo? sound. Be sure to check out saxophonist John Surman’s highly impassioned contributions on the third track, ‘The Bride.’ Side Two delves even more deeply into the band’s African roots, starting with a lively foray into township swing, followed by a 20-minute improvisation that sounds like Sun Ra if he’d come from South Africa instead of Saturn. The final track is a quick but sprightly march, driven along at jazz tempo. All in all, an auspicious debut for McGregor’s Brotherhood.
When you’re ready to hone your turntablist skills on the 1’s and 2’s, you could find a lot worse than this collage of obscure battle breaks and beats from the Netherlands. According to the label, this is the first volume of a trilogy focusing on Dutch vinyl rarities from the last three decades, done up in a hip-hop mix-tape style. Occasionally you’ll hear a few snatches of American tunes like ‘Crimson and Clover? and ‘Oh What a Nite,? but mostly it’s a mixture of euro pop, rock riffs, funky breaks, musical instruction records, easy listening, and other thrift store sounds, all thoughtfully sequenced and ready for your scratchin’ pleasure.
Irdial-Discs will probably forever be known as the label that gave us the CONET Project: an amazing collection of recordings from short-wave ‘numbers? stations. But they’ve also released some stunningly beautiful techno records, like this rare 12″ from the Ramjac Corporation. ‘Analogue City? is an 11+ minute instrumental of dubby electronic goodness that sounds as fresh today as when it was first released in 1992. And ‘Baby Got Soul? may well have been the first modern recording to use samples from Alan Lomax, as the prison work song featured here predates the first Little Axe album by two years. A timeless techno classic.
The ‘SMM? series from Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International intends to explore the more ambient/ethereal side of techno music from the Midwest. First up on this mini-compilation, Twine’s ‘Gliding In On? combines some languid guitar with electronic noises that will convince you your stereo is about to die. Next, Kiln brings us more of their pastoral techno, sounding a bit like Boards of Canada having brunch at the Penguin Caf?. Side B delivers two atmospheric tracks from Kosik, about whom I know f*ck-all, and wraps things up with a rather crunchy/industrial-sounding remix of Kiln by Mifune. Looking forward to Volume 2!
The intersection of electronics and jazz is THE most interesting musical vertex for me: thawing out the iciness of digital technology with the warmth of human improvisation and real musical chops. Australian band Triosk was formed around just such a mission, and they discovered a kindred soul in Germany’s Jan Jelinek via the latter’s ‘Loop-finding Jazz Records? release. After taking some samples from that album and working them into their own original compositions, Triosk hooked up with Jelinek himself to swap tracks and collaborate on original material via the mail. ‘1 + 3 + 1? is the result of that collaboration. If you’re a fan of the Tied & Tickled Trio or Isotope 217, you’ll probably dig these guys, too. It’s delicate, late-night music for smoky bars, or for home listening in the wee hours of semi-consciousness. Just let the music wash over and around you as you start to nod off?
Soundway label boss and musical archaeologist Miles Cleret comes correct with another outstanding collection of funky, obscure sounds from 1970’s Ghana. It’s hard to pick out favorites on a collection as rich as this one, but I’ll give it my best shot. First up, there’s the previously-unreleased and criminally-short ‘Olufeme, – an Afro-beat love song from Oscar Sulley, who’s making his return appearance here on Volume 2. On a jazzier tip, you’ve got guitarist Ebo Taylor, also returning from Volume 1, this time with the track ‘Atwer Abroba.’ Next, Ebo Junior gets even funkier than his daddy, with some help from Wuta Wazutu, on ‘Mondo Soul Funky.’ One of my favorite keyboard sounds, the Farfisa, shows up all over this compilation and features prominently on The Sweet Talks? ‘Kye Kye Pe Aware.’ Highlife makes a token appearance on ‘Aboagyewaa? by K. Frimpong & Vis a Vis, though it’s a strikingly unusual and moody take on the genre. The fourth and final side of wax brings us a classic James Brown funk workout, courtesy of The African Brothers? ‘Sakatumbe,? and Marijata’s enthusiasm on ‘No Condition is Permanent? appears to be quite a challenge for those African VU meters in the recording studio. In a market seemingly glutted with Afro-funk compilations, let us pause and give thanks to Mr. Cleret, who continues to unearth and expose some of the most valuable music never heard outside of Africa. Please sir, I want some more!
Texas-born saxophonist Billy Harper had played with many of the greats (Gil Evans, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones) before recording this first album as a leader in 1973. Influenced heavily by Coltrane, Harper was part of the ‘black consciousness? movement in jazz, which fueled such artist-owned labels as Strata-East in New York, Tribe Records in Detroit, and Black Jazz in Chicago. This session for Strata-East features an all-star cast, including George Cables (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), Julian Priester (trombone), Billy Cobham (drums), and more, including a special appearance by drummer Elvin Jones on the track ‘Sir Galahad.’ One of the quintessential traits of this strain of jazz, the vocal chorus, is featured prominently on the two tracks from Side Black, linking the music to its roots in gospel. The equally-important blues influence shines through clearly, as well; just check out the track ‘New Breed? for evidence of that. All in all, an impressive debut from Mr. Harper. Interesting bit of trivia: Harper’s next album release was BLACK SAINT, inaugurating the label of the same name, which is still active today.
Not many jazz musicians have a back story as interesting as that of bassist Henry Grimes. Trained at Julliard, Grimes spent the 1960’s as sideman to jazz legends like Coltrane, Mingus, Shepp, Ayler, Rollins, and others. Then around 1970, Grimes moved to the West coast and dropped out of the jazz scene entirely. Spending most of the 70’s battling with manic depression and working odd jobs, Grimes completely lost touch with his former jazz associates, and even sold his bass! Then in 2002, he was re-located by writer and social worker Marshall Marrotte, who re-introduced Grimes to the music world through an influential article in The Wire. Given a new bass to play by William Parker, Grimes was soon ready for more musical action. This live trio date, featuring Hamid Drake on drums and David Murray on sax and clarinet, finds Grimes on equal footing with his forward-thinking counterparts. The trio format, in particular, seems to be a good one for showcasing the bass, and Grimes contributes two of the four original compositions here, as well. Energetic and passionate playing from all involved.
Toronto-based Jason Amm, aka Solvent, takes a break from his own Suction Records label to release his fourth album of retro synth-pop on Ghostly International. The instrumentals are very Kraftwerkian in feel, though the tracks featuring Amm’s vocodored vocals (3, 6, 7, 9) sound a little bit more personal. Of the latter, ‘My Radio? is probably the hit, with its infectious bassline, melancholy melody, and wistful lyrics about radio’s past. It’s all quite sweet, but not saccharine.
Lobbing another musical salvo in our direction, the Berlin-based Shitkatapult label presents some four-on-the-floor Finnish techno, courtesy of one Sami Koivikko. Named after a popular Finnish brand of schnapps, SALMIAKKI is Koivikko’s debut CD, an album pulsing with the influence of techno’s Detroit pioneers, as well as an occasional nod toward the more dub-infused sounds of Berlin’s Basic Channel, Chain Reaction, et al. Though all tracks here throb with the 4/4 beat, things tend to get a bit warmer and more reflective toward the end. Exactly what you’d want from an album that desires to work its magic on the dancefloor as well as in your armchair.
The Notwist present music from the film ‘Lichter,? directed by Hans-Christian Schmid. This film, made in 2003 but not yet distributed in the U.S., weaves together several different stories of life near the Polish/German border. Immigration troubles, petty thievery, jealousy, and betrayal are just some of the day-to-day travails explored by the film. This soundtrack EP presents four different variations on a musical theme from ‘Lichter,? all very minimal and haunting, with heavy emphasis on Sebastian Hess? cello. Martin Gretschmann (aka Console) takes up remix duties on one of the tracks, resulting in a more electronic, beat-driven variation. All tracks are quite compelling and no doubt a wonderful accompaniment to the film.
An ambient electro classic from 1994, courtesy of Can Oral (aka Khan) and the Mille Plateaux label. Part 1 of ‘Sweet Pink Lemonade? is a delicious 10-minute excursion into throbbing basslines, stuttering percussion, and oscillating, interweaving melodies. Flip the record over for Part 2 and you will find two shorter tracks, the first one a bit more rhythmically quirky (think Plaid, Black Dog, etc.) and the second one slightly more ambient. This lemonade may be over ten years old, but it still tastes mighty sweet to me.
Umod is yet another alias for the prolific Dominic Stanton (aka Domu), a veteran of the drum and bass scene who, in more recent years, has gravitated toward the more melodically-inclined genre of broken beats. (He’s also released tracks as Sonar Circle, Bakura, Realsides, Rima, Yotoko, and Zoltar.) Dominic’s Umod productions are more sample-based than his other work. In Dominic’s words, ‘Umod is about going backwards to go forwards.’ This 12″ features remixes of tracks from his ENTER THE UMOD album, released on Jazzanova’s Sonar Kollektiv label. The A-Side (at 33 RPM) features a techy Domu remix and a somewhat grittier full-length mix of ‘Tromboline.’ The B-Side’s Zoltar remix of ‘On the Down Low? (at 45 RPM) features a housier beat and an almost-recognizable hip hop vocal sample. (Maybe you can place it?)
Inspired by the revolutionary events in Paris circa May-June 1968, L?’V’NEMENTS is the fourth full-length release from Australia’s Bucketrider. And as you might expect from that inspiration, there’s a riot goin’ on! The album’s central suite of 12 ‘events? alternates between unruly instrumental chaos and near-silence for most of its running time. Bookending this 12-step program are two opening and two closing tracks that I think are considerably more successful at integrating the rock and free improv influences motivating the band. Guitars, bass, drums, sax, trombone, synth, oboe, piccolo and even a toy piano all contribute to the energetic and muscular sound of this instrumental ensemble.
Cultural disorientation is the name of the game on this Plug Research release, which finds German vocalist Henning Fritzenwalder crooning Brazilian bossa nova (in German!), with electronic backing textures provided by the American duo previously known as Chessie. Guaranteed to make you prick up your ears on first listen, this seemingly incompatible juxtaposition eventually begins to work its magic. Camping’s languid melodies and delicate acoustic guitar sounds lure you into a world that’s simultaneously familiar and alien, yet totally unique.
At first glance, you might think this is just another compilation of classic reggae tracks. But look closer, because it’s actually a brand-new album featuring vocal contributions from reggae legends like Glen Brown, Sugar Minott, Sister Nancy, Yabby You, and others. Recorded at Version City studios in New Jersey between 2001-2003, DARKER ROOTS features the NYC-based Version City Rockers band in collaboration with several of their musical idols and is guaranteed to keep that classic 1970’s roots vibe alive in the oh-five. Personal favorites include Ranking Joe bongdiddling his way through ‘Africa,? Little John’s heartfelt musical psalm, ‘Give Jah All the Praise,? and Congo Ashanti Roy’s meditation on the horrors of 9/11 in ‘Why Dem a Galong So.’ Melancholy yet uplifting, this is a real roots revival.
SURF is a 1999 release from sound sculptor Philip Jeck, utilizing turntables, tape decks, and Casio keyboards. Originally recorded to accompany live theater and dance projects, these dark ambient soundscapes lose none of their power by sacrificing the visual element. Like fellow deconstructionist Christian Marclay, Jeck is just as concerned with the processes of analog recording and playback as he is with the content. Consequently, you’ll hear lots of analog skips and scratchiness in Jeck’s sampled source material. My favorite track is ‘Spirits Up,? an 11-minute investigation into melody and distortion. The album’s final track, ‘I Just Wanted to Know,? is very unsettling, beginning with some quietly whispered words to a dying loved one, then gradually mutating into an electronic requiem. Powerful stuff.
First solo recordings from Christina Carter of Charalambides, recorded in a Houston boathouse in 1995. Primarily consisting of improvised piano and voice, this is a late-night album if there ever was one. Wistful and dreamy, melancholy and haunting, BASTARD WING is an impressionistic musical vision made all the more so by a post-production mix that adds some well-placed reverb and environmental sounds.
The debut release from NYC-based Home Video is a pop/electronica hybrid that fits right in with a lot of New York’s output of late. ‘That You Might? features a thudding, retro synth beat straight out of New Order and some faintly croony, Thom Yorke-ish vocals, culminating in a crescendo of electronic distortion. ‘Dialogue Box? on the flip is a little more atmospheric and electronic, Boards of Canada style, with multi-tracked, dubby vocals. Still not sure what they’re singin’ about, though!
Plug Research returns with what is surely one of their most interesting projects to date. “Voices in My Lunchbox” features four tracks–no, wait–four songs (my god, when was the last time we used that term in electronic music?) from a variety of producers, each exploring the possibilities of vocals in an electronic context. First up is Carmen Tejada, grafting operatic vocals onto some minimal electronic beats and jazzy electric guitar. Next is Quarks, with not much more than a snatch of koto and a metronomic ticking to accompany some whispery female vocals in Japanese. Smyglyssna and Cornelia open Side 2 with a track that begins with an insectoid buzzing and ends with a long, low hum. And finally there’s Kit Clayton, offering up some abstract dubbiness along with slurry vocals from Mike Donovan. I’m not really sure what all these people are singing about but it’s sounds good to me. Anxiously awaiting Vol. 2…