Thursday, December 29, 2011

Session featuring M. Al Azeem, See Up Azeem: 1980

This disc features a couple of interesting tracks and some unusual production techniques like boosting the shakers higher in the mix than the drums and other instruments, but the truth is that what interests me most about this album is its geography. M. Al Azeem, the singer, songwriter, and recording engineer, recorded and mixed all these songs at his studio in Oakland and sent the tracks down to LA to be mastered. Sly Dunbar was the only musician I recognized in the credits, and while I'm not sure where any of the others lived at the time of the recording, it is clear that Azeem had established himself in Northern California. If you recall the Super Jerry album that I posted a couple months ago, you'll remember that that one was recorded in California as well.

I wonder if there is a lot more to this California reggae connection than a few apparently unrelated recordings. A great many reggae giants such as Ras Michael and Scientist call Los Angeles home today, but I'm curious when and how the West Coast became established as a center of reggae production and culture. Whether or not California was a distant corner of the reggae world in 1980, Sly Dunbar's presence on this album indicates that if nothing else, California was on the reggae map.

A separable but related topic that this record brings up is the idea of the circuits in which records circulate. Basically, depending on what part of the world you live in, you have a higher level of access to certain kinds of records while others are harder to find. People living in Paris will have any easier time picking up original pressings of Congolese soukous because of the French-Congolese connection but will have less luck hunting down most norteño recordings than someone living in LA. (Incidentally, I recently discovered that LA is a more significant site in the norteño record circuit than certain areas of Mexico, namely Cancún.) I wonder how widely some of the more underground California reggae records spread: how available they are in Jamaica, on the East Coast, in the UK, and in other more marginal zones of the reggae world? The more we know about this, the more we can deduce about how integrated the California reggae scene was into the international reggae phenomenon.

This point brings me back to the idea of artistic "threads" that I discussed in the Descargas post in November. The more I can chase down threads of California's early reggae scene, the better I will understand the connections between California reggae and reggae from other parts of the world. Of course, this is more a wish than a promise; I have little to no control over the records that I come across, but I'd love to hear more about this from any informed readers in the comments section. Although I haven't heard as much ex-pat reggae that satisfies my listening desires like the homeland stuff does, I'm always interested to learn more about the under-reported activities taking place in the (transnational) margins of this (or any) genre.

M. Al Azeem: lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, and percussion
Sly Dunbar: drums on tracks 1, 2, 5, 6
Maxwell Beaumont: keyboards, background vocals, and percussion
Mike Gambs: lead guitar on tracks 3, 4
Natty Jahzuff: drums track on 4
Steve Greshin: bass on track 4
Willie T. Killer: drums on track 8
Rashaan: congas and percussion
Raslam Atiba: congas and percussion
Dennis Jackson: alto sax and trumpet
Umlah Sadau: tenor sax, soprano sax
background vocals: Frances Johnson, Belita Ragsdale, Diane Strong, Earlene Rabiu, J.T. Hamond, Maxwell Beaumont and John Smith

Natty Rebel Now by Easy Jams

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Wrigglers: Sing Calypso at the Arawak, 1958

On this disc, the Wrigglers offer up calypso standards and songs I hadn't heard before. It was released as a souvenir/ advertisement for the Arawak hotel in Jamaica, so the liner notes are dedicated to talking up the resort and give almost no information about the band other than the name of the singer, Denzil Laing. Some of these songs appear on the Jamaica Mento 1951-1958 compilation where they are credited to the Wrigglers featuring Ernest Ranglin, and Ranglin's guitar graces all the songs on this album.

Many Jamaican musicians followed changing musical trends as the nation's music industry exploded beginning in the fifties, moving from mento to ska or ska to reggae, but Ranglin contributed more significantly to a greater number of these genres than almost any musician I can name. On this recording, he sounds at home in a mento setting, and he had already begun shaping the ska sound by the late fifties. He is also featured on a lot of jazz recordings, notably many of Monty Alexander's classic albums including "Rass!" He also earned recognition from the jazz world in his own right and toured to England with a trio as early as the mid sixties, recording at least one live album there. According to wikipedia, he also worked as an arranger, studio musician, and live guitarist for reggae greats like Lee Perry, Jimmy Cliff, and the Melodians. In short, Ranglin has had one of the most versatile careers that a musician could hope to have, and he stands out as a national musical treasure in a country where revolutionary musicians abound. Ranglin's playing on the Arawak makes the depth of his musical vision apparent, even at that early stage of his formidable career. This album does not even begin to tell the story of Ranglin's musical diversity nor the immensity of his contributions to Jamaican music and music in general, but as is the case with so many of his recordings, his playing here is both fun and thoughtful.

Saxophone by Easy Jams

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bach/ Biber/ Tartini: Max Rostal et al., 1957

I've been trying to explore classical music lately, mostly small combo pieces and music for strings. I've been having trouble consistently finding things that I like because the genre is deep in a way that's so foreign to me. I haven't figured out how to spot the albums I like because so many of the great composers and performers were so prolific. Until you listen to a record, you have no idea how it will sound unless you know the composition ahead of time. If anyone has any recommendations based on the clip below, please let me know.

This week's album contains pieces by three composers: Sonata in E Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, Passacaglia by H.I.F. von Biber, and Concerto in G Minor by Giuseppe Tartini. Listening to Bach's sonata was something of a breakthrough for me because it was the first time I ever enjoyed the harpsichord. I usually think its sound is less refined and expressive than other instruments', and it doesn't help that the volume and timbre of each note are fixed regardless of how hard you hit the keys. When a harpsichord is high in the mix it's in your face for the whole song. In the sonata, the harpsichord and the cello lay down a foundation for the violin and the rich tones of the harpsichord blend into the background smoothly. The violin part is very striking and the harpsichord and cello create a lush texture throughout the song.

Max Rostal, violin on Passacaglia
Max Rostal , violin; Frank Pelleg, Harpsichord; Antonio Tusa, Cello on Sonata
Max Rostal, violin; Winterthur Symphony Orchestra, Walter Goehr, conductor on Concerto

Sonata in E Minor 1st movement by Easy Jams

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Brasil Maior Vol 1: Various Artists, 1980

This might be the first compilation on the blog. It's a collection of Brazilian music that's not 100% essential listening, but it includes some really nice tracks, especially on the second side. My favorite is Ela Desatinou, written by Chico Buarque and performed by Nara Leão. The song was originally released in 1980 on Leão's album Com Açúcar, Com Afeto. In the middle of the 70's, she had left the music world altogether to focus on her family and study psychology. She had already started recording again when she learned that she had inoperable brain cancer in 1979, and in the subsequent 10 years before her death she was incredibly prolific.

The beauty of this song caught my attention right away, and when I learned that she recorded it a year after receiving her diagnosis, I was inspired. It was not the strength of her spirit in the face of death so much as the way that she was able to take control of her creative impulse and produce not only an incredible quantity of music, but a song this beautiful to top it off. I don't have much more to say than that Leão is a beautiful example of the endless creative potential that people possess. It's amazing to witness the incredible feats, artistic and otherwise, that great people manage.

Ela Desatinou by Easy Jams