This EP of tracks from 1995 was a refreshing reminder to me of what “electronic listening music” was all about in the early 90’s: exploration and a sense of wonder. Before there was much of a “scene” to compare their work with or against, artists like The Black Dog were inventing a new musical language. And compared to much of today’s electronica, this sounds practically ambient. The tracks move at their own pace, stopping and restarting, or shifting rhythmic gears altogether, but always progressing, never redundant. There is some achingly beautiful music on here; thanks to Warp for giving us an opportunity to hear it after all this time.
Vera Bila has been dubbed “the Ella Fitzgerald of gypsy music” and that moniker seems entirely apt, because this second album by Vera and her band Kale swings like a mother! No stodgy traditional folk music here; this stuff is alive and kickin’. The album is filled with original compositions, steeped in traditional gypsy music but sounding quite contemporary. The band shares vocals (and some incredible harmonies) with Vera, and back her with guitar, bass, and a whole mess of tamborines. Given the sadness of the (translated) lyrics, it’s ironic that the music is so uplifting.
Ethno-jazz fusion par excellence! Former Axiom label manager Peter Wetherbee co-produces and plays hand drums on this massive double-CD of live performances at New York City’s Bell Cafe. Tablas, digeridoos, and other (more obscure) ethnic instruments collide with electric guitars in a psychedelic world-music jam session, sounding something like a more improvised version of Material’s HALLUCINATION ENGINE. A dub sensibility is evident in the production, as vocals fade in and out, and bass and drums each take their turn in the spotlight. This is an exotic trip that is definitely worth taking…already firmly ensconced in my Top Ten for 1998.
As bands go, you can’t get much more basic than this: a bass player and a singer. That’s all. And that’s all you need, for this is the sound of Basque: spacious yet intimate, dramatic yet honest, simple yet unique. Aiming somewhere between the bluesier avenues of Portishead and the gothic sounds of Dead Can Dance, this Brooklyn duo creates a mystical blend of pop that’s totally compelling from start to finish. Music for candlelight and incense; a powerfully simple debut that’s going to be hard to improve on for future releases.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Fortunately this new interpretation of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” swings mightily. Originally recorded in 1966, following several trips to Asia and the Middle East, the suite blends the sounds of the jazz orchestra with musical instruments and concepts from Iran, Japan and China. To commemorate Ellington’s 100th birthday, director/conductor Anthony Brown has re-arranged the work for his 12-piece Asian American Orchestra. This album contains great pieces of almost every length, from the short, swinging “Depk” to the 15- minute “Ad Lib on Nippon” that’s almost a suite unto itself. Also be sure to check out “Mount Harissa,” which starts and ends with a beautiful piano/percussion duet, and the powerful big band sound on “Amad.”
Following the deaths of founding members Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, the future of the Art Ensemble may be open to question. But there’s certainly no question that SIRIUS CALLING is a strong release from a venerable band. Recorded before Favors’ death in January 2004, this album features shorter tracks than the Ensemble is typically noted for, and in so doing, may be a good entry point for new listeners. Instrumentally, it’s just as eclectic as ever, with a variety of percussion instruments, flutes, recorders, bells, whistles, and what-not. It all sounds about as comfortable and effortless as free jazz can get, with all four players contributing in equal measure.
Under a grant from the Odwalla juice company, the venerable Art Ensemble of Chicago was recently given an all-expense-paid trip to Jamaica and over two months of studio time to record this, their first studio album in six years. Odwalla’s generosity is our gain: COMING HOME JAMAICA is one of the finest jazz albums of the year and possibly of the Art Ensemble’s entire 30+ year career. Their motto, “great black music: ancient to the future,” continues to provide inspiration in this recording, which features elements of everything from blues, ragtime, and swing to African and Caribbean rhythms. The album’s tracks are more tightly structured than many previous Ensemble recordings, but the players’ outstanding solos and inventive use of percussion keep things interesting throughout.
Arovane’s 4-track debut EP comes to us from Germany’s Din Records, who’ve previously delivered fine releases from Pole and Monolake. It’s prime bedroom electronica, full of ratchety rhythms and melancholy melodies. A very austere and beautiful release, which should appeal to fans of Autechre or Funkstorung. (Like me!) Bonus points for inventive use of static as a percussion instrument.
Originally released in 1992, “Digeridoo” is one of the first half-dozen releases from Richard D. James, and quite a milestone in the annals of electronic dance music. There are no digeridoos here, only the sound of a Roland 303 synth that has been tweaked, processed, or otherwise manhandled to emulate the sound of that Australian aboriginal instrument. Alternating between fairly ambient passages and stabbingly propulsive beats, the sound of “Digeridoo” is in fact the sound of the drugs kicking in. The other three tracks here operate in similar sonic territory, but none quite as successfully as the title track.
Recorded live at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May of 1998, BASSER LIVE is Tatsu Aoki’s seventh album of solo bass improvisations. And by the sounds on this album, there’s still plenty of exploration going on within those narrow confines. Of the eight long tracks here, two are augmented by Asian percussion (“Wed Lock” and “Fisherman’s Song”), and one is an arrangement of a Japanese pop song (“Sukiyaki”). Complex rhythms and funkiness abound. Though some of the tracks may go on a bit too long, Aoki is obviously having a good time, and you will too.
Drummer Tony Allen is the most significant figure in the development of Afrobeat outside of Fela Kuti himself. A member of Fela’s band from the early days on up through the late 70’s, Allen developed the rhythmic patterns that lay the foundation for Afrobeat. This recording from 1978 was the third and final solo release that Allen recorded with Fela’s band, Africa 70. Musically it’s as strong as any Fela record, but vocally Allen falls short of the master, as he talks his way through both side-long tracks. The title track is a 17-minute political statement about a mishandled government relocation effort that occurred in the 70’s. “African Message” is a more intimate rumination on the uplifting power of African rhythms. While lacking the impact of Fela’s best work, it’s still great to have this significant and fairly obscure musical document back in print.
Growing up in the 70’s, I was pretty sure that the decade sucked. But apparently I wasn’t listening to the right music. Here we have a dozen alternating tracks from two great 70’s Jamaican deejays, Dennis Alcapone & Jah Lloyd. Toasting over classic dub tracks recorded at Randy’s, Harry J’s, Channel One, and the infamous Black Ark, Alcapone and Lloyd rap about Jah, smoking herb, rude boys…you know, the usual stuff. Oh yeah, and there s one track all about Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. (Go figure.) I’m not sure I like the deejay battle approach to the sequencing; I’d have preferred one whole side of Alcapone, followed by a side of Lloyd. But whichever way you sequence it, these are some classic tracks.
Thanks to Wim Wenders’ wonderful film portrait, the world has fallen in love with the members of the BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB. And for once in a blue (Havana) moon, mass popularity and quality music are not such strange bedfellows. This second album by Juan de Marcos’ Afro Cuban All Stars features BUENA VISTA regulars Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, and others, along with younger musicians who give the record a more modern sound. Extremely danceable and extremely elegant.