The wonderful free-jazz trio Ballister rings in the new year with another spectacular album, recorded in Chicago in March of 2014. The group is made up of Dave Rempis on saxophones, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Things get off to a mighty start with "Formax" which has a supercharged full band opening with the three of them improvising collectively in a telepathic manner. Things throttle back a little bit before there is a solo of raw, scalding saxophone followed by some equally raw-boned amplified cello. Lonberg-Holm is able to have space of another guttural opening toward the end and by now the band is fully in the zone and races to the finish. "Scutum" is opened with sawing cello and drums before a thoroughly epic trio section around the six minute mark that is epic and thrilling and represents the spiritual heart of the album. The feint to a slower section of abrasive saxophone, getting heavier by the second and then developing a collective improvisation of saxophone, drums and flinty plucked cello. The album is concluded with "Vulpecula" which has a loose opening with the group biding their time led by bowed cello and skittering drums before slowly ratcheting up to the intensity before finally giving way to gales of saxophone. This was an excellent album, and shows that this group has grown into one of the most exciting groups on the contemporary jazz scene. Worse For the Wear - Aerophonic Records.
The 33 ⅓ series is a set of short books, each one taking an in depth look at a famous music album. In this case, the groundbreaking double album by the German progressive rock band Can, Tago Mago, which is one of the centerpieces of what the British cheekily called “Krautrock” and the Germans called “Kosmische.” Warner takes a roundabout way in talking about the album, preferring to place it in his own personal narrative, a coming of age story where the boy from a remote Scottish village is gradually exposed to more creative punk and new wave music and then discovers the music of Can from which there is no going back. After touching on the album in the beginning of his narrative, we timewarp back to rural Scotland in the mid-1970’s when Warner started listening to soundtracks and movie scores, gradually moving on to punk and heavy metal while scouring the NME and other music papers of the day. His interest in Can came from an interview with John Lydon in one of those magazines which sent him in search of the band’s albums in the little record store in his village. It is kind of quaint remembering the way music information was disseminated in the days before the Internet with slick music journals and underground zines leading you to search often in vain for some obscure LP. Warner is so obsessed in berating us with his own story that he doesn’t even begin to discuss the album in question until about ⅔ of the way through the book! To his credit, he examines the album in depth in a way that is easy for the non-musician to understand while also including interviews with a few members of the band, and his recollection of his first hearing has a breathless immediacy to it. So, it is recommended to fans of the album, just know what you are getting into: instead of juicy gossip and behind the scenes intrigue, you get the recollections of a self-absorbed fan. Caveat emptor. Can's Tago Mago (33 1/3) - amazon.com
Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was at a crossroads in his career when this album was recorded. The New York City police department had conspired to take away his cabaret card, which was necessary for performing live in New York City and he had not put out recordings in a few years. Monk had released a series of groundbreaking 78's for Blue Note, but this was his first LP length album. Supported by either Gary Mapp or Percy Heath on bass and either Max Roach or Art Blakey on drums, the album consists of some of his most well known compositions. The album has some of Monk's most familiar compositions like a riveting version of "Blue Monk" plus a witty solo rendition of "Just a Gigolo." "Bemsha Swing" gets a ripe and angular reading, with percussive keyboards battling the drums for supremacy, and Monk sounding quite avant-garde, with a repetitive strong section. One can just imagine Cecil Taylor taking notes. He is wonderful on "Little Rootie Tootie" playing snatches of the melody and then batting them down with three banging chords. "Bye-Ya" takes advantage of some great rattling and ramshackle drumming to make a fun and exciting performance. Some moaning scat punctuates a fine version for "Trinkle, Tinkle" and again it is the way that Monk engages with the drums that make the track all the more special. This is a wonderful album, and it is very interesting to hear Thelonious Monk in this trio setting and it is the empathetic support that throws Monk's idiosyncratic genius into bold relief. Thelonious Monk Trio [RVG Remaster] - amazon.com
The Ames Room is a powerful free jazz trio made up of Jean-Luc Guionnet on alto saxophone, Clayton Thomas on bass and Will Guthrie on drums. This album consists of four tracks recorded live in different cities from 2011 - 2014. It is a powerful statement not only of the bands prowess and control of a wide open form of music but their empathy for each other. "Theatre Kapelle" was recorded in Berlin in 2011 and it a short burt of energy music that cuts off abruptly as if the band had spontaneously combusted. "The North Terrace" recorded in Newcastle in 2013 is another relatively short performance and they act as palette cleansers for the music longer tracks like the 20 minute + epic "Cafe Oto" which was recorded at that legendary venue in 2013. This trio has no fear and they are able to spool this lengthy performance with little thought of anything but playing completely in the moment. The closing "Le Rigoletto" from Paris in 2013 is the same way developing a truly collective improvisation where each member of the band is truly free to introduce ideas that allow the music to progress ever further. This band has flown below the radar for several years now and hopefully this fine album will win them some much needed attention. Struggling In Public - Bandcamp
Cream, consisting of Jack Bruce on bass guitar and vocals, Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals and Ginger Baker on drums was one of the first rock 'n' roll super groups, a band whose virtuosity shot them to fame before acrimony and infighting brought them crashing down just a few years later. In-between there were three studio albums, and two live albums that were released posthumously. Fresh Cream introduced the band in 1966, mixing well thought originals like "I Feel Free" and "N.S.U." with a wide array of blues covers ranging from Muddy Waters to Skip James and Robert Johnson. 1967's Disraeli Gears found the band coming into their own and embracing the psychedelia of the summer of love and swinging London. They had several hits on this album which wedded their muscular approach to a pop sensibility on tracks like "Strange Brew" and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" while still making time for their roots on "Outside Woman Blues." 1968's Wheels of Fire was another first, a two record set that focused one LP on their studio work and another on their live performance from the Fillmore auditorium. It's a wide ranging affair from Ginger Baker's bizarre spoken word "Pressed Rat and Warthog" to the blistering single "White Room" and a confident performance of the blues standards "Sitting on Top of the World" and "Born Under a Bad Sign." The live album features Eric Clapton's famously blistering version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads", The harmonica blues blowout "Traintime" and lengthy jams on Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and Baker's epic drum feature, "Toad." Things were fading fast with the release of the appropriately titled Goodbye Cream. Mixing live versions of Skip James' "I'm So Glad" and Bruce's brooding "Politician" with studio material lead by Clapton's pop song "Badge." After the group had formally broken up in early 1969, there were two albums of live material released in 1970 and 1972. This makes sense not only as a cash in but because the group was at their most ferocious when playing live. They tear through the blues standard "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and some originals on Vol. 1, while Vol. 2 sported surprisingly concise readings of some of their original material featuring some of the band's hits, "White Room", "Tales of Brave Ulysses" and "Sunshine of Your Love." This boxed set contains all of Cream's output during their earlier years, without the innumerable complications that would follow in addition to an improbable reunion concert and collection in 2005. The vinyl records are well pressed and quiet, and the original album covers are faithfully reproduced. Unfortunately there is no booklet of liner notes and photos, but a fan of the band with a penchant for vinyl will certainly overlook this. Cream: 1966-1972 (LP box set) - amazon.com
American saxophonist Frank Lowe was a musician that slipped through the cracks somewhat in jazz history, scuffling for recording opportunities and gigs and then dying far too young. Originally from Memphis and deeply influenced by the soul and rhythm and blues sounds of the day, he then moved west to San Francisco studying informally with the great alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons. Chewed up by the meat-grinder of the Vietnam War, Lowe surfaced in New York City in the early 1970’s, recording with drummer Rashied Ali and making his debut as a leader with Black Beings on the ESP label in 1973. The music on this two LP set, recorded in 1974, represents what Lowe intended to be his second album. The music was recorded live at Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea loft and at the Survival Studio in the company of Joseph Bowie on trombone, William Parker on bass and Steve Reid on drums. The music is strong free jazz, with everybody blowing hard, sometimes losing their way then coming back together – they really had to trust each other to make music in such an open-minded formation. The music that was recorded at the loft and makes up the second record of this set is emblematic of the music, with two sidelong blowouts of music, one untitled, and one appropriately entitled “Whew!” This is a beautifully packaged set, with two very heavy LP’s in a classy looking strong cardboard sleeve and a lengthy booklet of notes and essays by free-jazz authority Ed Hazell. It is an expensive set of music, but for fans of free jazz and the 1970’s loft scene in particular, it is definitely something to consider. Out Loud - Triple Point Records
John Coltrane had already released his masterpiece Giant Steps and was chomping at the bit to go out on the road with his own band by the time his erstwhile employer Miles Davis coerced him to go on one final tour of Europe in the early spring of 1960. It was the swan song of Davis's first "classic quintet" with him on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums. These discs have been floating around grey market and bootleg circles for years, but this appears to be an official release although one wonders why the Davis estate didn't claim the music for their ongoing bootleg series, but regardless, the music is riveting. Davis is the leader and at the top of his game, but it is Coltrane whose lengthy, searching solos are the main event for me on these records, his solos leaving perplexed audiences in his wake. The concerts included follow much of Davis's usual repertoire from the period, "So What", "All Blues" and "Walkin'" some highlights of Kind of Blue where Miles plays with the exquisite taste that was his hallmark. He did not allow his bands to reverse, instead wanting them to be fresh on the bandstand, taking chances and allowing the material to be reexamined every night. Many of the tunes are taken at great length, 12-15 minutes, and again forgive me for hammering this home, but John Coltrane is the centerpiece looking at the source material from every conceivable angle from which is might be improvised upon and then building layer upon layer of relentless music. He's not out of control however, he's way out there on "All Blues/The Theme" from Stockholm but his quest is righteous and genuine and this attitude would continue for the remainder of his all too brief life. This is not to short the other members of the band: Kelly's hearty and earthly playing works to keep the band grounded and Chambers and Cobb are wonderfully locked in. Davis is a maestro, allowing his men to play as they wish, but always there for a pithy statement of the melody or solo that is by turns nakedly open or punchy and taught. This is a fascinating release and fans of historical mainstream jazz are well advised to pick it up. It shows two two of the most important figures in jazz history performing for the last time before departing for vastly different paths. All of You: The Last Tour, 1960 - amazon.com