Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thelonious Monk: Epistrophy, 1980

My introduction to the jazz aesthetic was Misterioso, one of Monk's live albums recorded during sessions at New York's Five Spot in the 50's. Very few albums have had as great an effect on my music appreciation as that one, and it continues to touch me in a way that few albums can. Misterioso will always be my favorite, but I love how Monk's other recordings document the way that he continued to modify his compositions and sound over the course of his career. In addition to his contribution to the jazz sound itself, Monk also became a masterful exponent of the jazz practice of producing infinite variations on musical themes.

This recording captures a Paris appearance by Monk's quartet in 1970. Monk gives every note a lot of weight by playing with a rare sparseness, especially on Sweet and Lovely, which takes up the entire A side. Every member of the band leaves plenty of room for the others, giving the performance a more delicate quality than other Monk recordings. I know nothing about Affinity, the Spanish label that released this album first, but the recording was made by BYG people and the sound quality is very clear. Personally, I would go so far as to rank this album among Monk's classic recordings, but that distinction is usually reserved for major label releases.

Crepescule with Nellie by Easy Jams

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pandit Samta Prasad: Tabla Recital, 1974

This one comes from the Gramophone Company of India Limited, an EMI subsidiary, and although there is violin and tanpura accompaniment, the focus in unquestionably Prasad's tabla playing. He has a very intricate style, establishing patterns and then quickly moving on to other ones. Prasad comes out of the Benares gharana, achieved significant recognition for his skills in his lifetime and had a relatively prolific recording career. On this album he played the first side in tritaal, or tintal, the 16 beat cycle, and the second in roopaktal, the 7 beat cycle.

Since Prasad plays in the Benares style, I became curious about how he compared to the other great Benares tabla player I've heard, Lachchu Maharaj. As soon as I saw Maharaj playing tabla on this video, I was struck by the way that his rhythmic genius appealed to a jazz standard of beauty. Prasad's music has a different kind of rough elegance. Unlike some performers who only hit the drum heads with sharp, definitive strikes, Prasad is not afraid to use the sound of his palm brushing against the skin of the tabla.

While both of these men were educated in versions of the Benares gharana (apparently the gharana's true style is disputed) Maharaj also studied under a variety of masters from all different parts of India and created a unique style by combining techniques. There are considerable differences between the playing on the Maharaj video and the Prasad album, but the performance contexts were also very different. Prasad's was a formal studio recording session and Maharaj's an intimate concert in which he could let his personality shine through a little bit more. I have no idea about the relationship between these two men if there ever was one, but both of them play remarkably different music with similar levels of creativity. Plus both recordings feature the tabla as the solo instrument. I'd be interested to hear more Benares tabla if anyone has any recommendations.

Tritaal by Easy Jams

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tico All-Stars: Descargas Vol. 3, 1966

This is the third and last Descargas album, part of a live recording of a concert organized by New York salsa DJ Symphony Sid that featured many of the great Tico Records musicians. The concert went on for hours, and this volume captures songs from late in the night, when the band was deep into the jams. The sound quality is less than perfect, probably because there were so many musicians and not a lot of time to set up the mics, but the music has an energy that cuts through the roughness of the recording.

On the back cover, Tico president Morris Levy included a note of thanks to the DJ. Levy would go on to lead a much-criticized career in the music industry. He ventured into jazz and rock, famously engaged in a series of lawsuits with John Lennon and a few major labels, and died after being convicted of extortion. It was not Levy's career specifically that interested me so much as the breadth of the music that he managed to involve himself in. It got me thinking about the way that music fans go about finding music.

People interested in exploring the world of recorded music learn to dig for new recordings by chasing what I call threads. These threads can be almost anything: they are typically musicians, but they can include producers, arrangers, recording engineers, labels, genres, countries of origin, record cover aesthetics, and so on. Morris Levy's career is a perfect example of how erratically these threads can zigzag and connect in unexpected ways, visibly intersecting on records.

Sometimes these threads lead us astray and frustrate us; just today, I picked out what I thought was a samba record to find that it was closer to disco. Just as often, it is also the unpredictable pathways of these threads that make the hunt for new music magical, because they lead us through oblique channels to amazing recordings that we could have otherwise missed. The more threads we follow, the more we realize the vastness of the entire body of recorded music and how impossible it is to listen to more than an insignificant fraction of it. At the same time, though, we also get a sense of the interconnection between artists and genres that we would consider unrelated if we didn't know better.

Saxes: Alfred Abreu and Robert Porcelli
Trumpets: Pedro Boulong, Vincent Frisaura, Victor Paz, Alfredo Armenteros
Trombones: Jose Rodrigues, Barry Rogers
Flute: Johnny Pacheco
Piano: Eddie Palmieri, Richard Maldonado, Charlie Palmieri
Bass: Bobby Rodriguez, Israel Lopez
Congas: Joe Cuba, Candido Camero, Ray Barretto
Timbales: Tito Puente, Jimmy Sabater
Vibes: Tito Puente
Cow bell: Chino Pozo, John Rodriguez
Bongo: John Rodriguez
Vocals: Santos Colon, Rafael Davila, Jose Feliciano, Ramon SardiƱas

Descarga Pompo by Easy Jams

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

George Pang and Friends: At Skateland Live, 1984

This album is available elsewhere but I'm posting it because I have a pretty clean copy and because I wanted to use it as a jumping off point for a follow up article to the occupy piece I wrote last week. This album features a number of famous and lesser known dancehall singers freestyling over drum and bass beats supplied by producer George Pang, who sampled them from Sly and Robbie. The lyrics cover everything from social issues to love to the dangers of smoking. As is the case with a lot of dancehall, some of the lyrics of homophobic and mysogynist, but Lady Ann also sings a song about how hard it is for female DJs to make it in the face of the prejudice that characterizes the male-dominated music industry. On the opening track, Buro Banton sings about all the politicians and foreigners who smuggle guns to poor Jamaicans. He says that although the politicians consider the Soviets enemies, these politicians have done more harm to the community than the Soviets, who never sent a single gun to the Jamaican ghetto. By inciting violence through the sale of guns, powerful outsiders continue to influence Jamaican society even as Jamaicans try to take back their identities and their lives by embracing rastafarianism and its doctrine of non-violence and detachment from Western materialism. Internal fighting holds everyone back and makes life in black Jamaica more difficult.

On the surface, this topic seems to have little to do with the occupy movement. Where Buro laments that powerful outsiders are turning poor Jamaicans against each other and therefore themselves, the occupants fear that they are being completely excluded from important decisions that affect all members of society equally. One group wants less contact with power altogether while the other desires a greater role in it. But one thing that sets the occupy protests apart from countless other American protests is the fraught role of police in the movement. As usual, the police are vilified for excessive and unnecessary use of force, (the response to the incidents in Oakland is a prime example of this,) but many protesters have also been reaching out to cops, or at least expressing solidarity with them, on the grounds that they too belong to the 99%. These protesters believe that the cops who use violence to suppress the occupants have been trained by the 1% to act contrary to their self-interest and the interests of their peers. This critique is very similar Buro's.

The trend of considering cops allies rather than foes, if it becomes a major feature of the occupy ideology, will distinguish these protests dramatically from most radical protests of the last half century. In the protests of the 60's, clashes with the police were more than a part of the movement; eruptions of violence became the symbolic staging ground for the two Americas to prove their allegiance to their ideologies. The police at that time did more than enforce order, they represented the order that the protesters sought to overthrow, and their violence against the protesters demonstrated how very entrenched that order was. In more recent protest movements, clashes with the police have tended to eclipse the issues that inspired the protests in the first place. I believe that the protesters will significantly empower themselves if they reappropriate the meaning of police, characterizing employment by the police department as a marker of working class identity rather than alliance with the state project. I'm sure such a semantic shift will be hard to orchestrate, not least because many cops will probably not go along with it, but if it can be done, I think it will help the movement achieve a new level of credibility in the eyes of many critics.

Buro by Easy Jams