Wednesday, August 20, 2014

James Brown - The Payback (1973)

The first full-length James Brown album that I had previous experienced was Hell, with its rambling, loose, but still very funky collection of songs. Unsure of where to go with next, I picked The Payback, which was a track that I enjoyed on the compilation I have.

It turns out The Payback was originally conceived and composed as a soundtrack to a blaxploitation film and it shows in the lyrical material. The title track is a story about revenge and several tracks like "Shoot Your Shot" and "Stone to the Bone" reference violence or a character's badassery. And all of the tracks are serious funk workouts, with the second half of the album reaching track lengths beyond ten minutes.

The exceptions to the funk workout routine on the album are soul tracks "Doing the Best I Can" and "Forever Suffering", giving a little contrast and balance to the otherwise energetic funk sound. As with Hell, the tracks feature a bit of a loose improvisational structure with endless vocal riffing by James Brown like in "Doing the Best I Can" where his background singers repeat "I'm for real" over for a couple minutes as the band continues the same musical refrain and James Brown improvises a series of sentiments. But unlike Hell, the need for each track to conform to a specific purpose in the movie gives each track a kind of focus that helps tie it down despite the improvisation.

The focus on related themes gives The Payback an almost concept album feel, which helps give it a cohesion beyond the general James Brown sound that inundates the album. This is also further amplified by the high degree of execution of performance in each track by Brown and his band making it unexpectedly more interesting as an album than other James Brown releases. Some of Browns tendencies for extended repeated musical phrases over improvisation can drag at times, but it's also made up for by Brown's incredible energy with his shouts and wailing along with calls for punchy horns driving and sometimes piercing through the repeated phrases.

And all that somehow makes The Payback an engrossing musical work that not only impresses on the level that individual James Brown tracks often do, but together as an album thanks to the adherence of the tracks to a greater theme. It's a funk journey into a story of revenge, regret, and last chances filled with quality performances, memorable licks, and the kind of energy that only the hardest working man in show business could output. A must-listen for funk lovers and those that like Brown, but the extended jamming in the individual tracks might be a little much for funk or James Brown neophytes. Still one of the finest Brown releases I've ever put ear to. 9/10.

Tracklist:

  1. The Payback
  2. Doing the Best I Can
  3. Take Some... Leave Some
  4. Shoot Your Shot
  5. Forever Suffering
  6. Time Is Running Out Fast
  7. Stone to the Bone
  8. Mind Power

Links:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out (1959)

Time Out is one of The Dave Brubeck Quartet's most successful albums, a success on the pop charts, which was a rarity for jazz albums. It was also a bit of an experiment for the relatively popular Quartet as the album is built upon the idea of exploring time signatures not common to jazz, in part inspired by some of their encounters with folk music during their trip to Europe. Of course, part of how the Quartet achieves this blend of popularity and experimentation is because much of the album is still rooted in the fundamentals of their jazz style and the band generally either finds a swing in their song's time signature or reverts to a more swing-friendly time signature.

The latter is true of the opening track, "Blue Rondo à la Turk", which starts off with a pretty hectic 9/8 time before settling into common time whereupon the band finds a groove better suited for their style of improvisation, Brubeck and Desmond playing well off the groove set by Morello and Wright, frequently bursting into the main song during their melodies.

"Strange Meadow Lark" opens with an extended piano solo of unidentifiable time signature reminiscent of Brubeck Plays Brubeck before switching to a straightforward common time tune with Desmond's sax. "Take Five" was the breakout hit of the album, this one built on a 5/4 time signature (hence the title) accounting for its bouncing, dipping, sound. Desmond's opening sax is hypnotic, lulling you into the track and casting a spell while Brubeck's piano and Wright's bass provides the sonic dip that acts as a hook. The piece features an extensive drum solo by Morello, which takes up much of the track, but thanks to the bouncy rhythm, Desmond's sax bookends, and Morello's bursting performance, the track comes together perfectly.

This is followed by "Three to Get Ready", again another clever title that indicates the use of waltz-time, but this piece is actually broken into alternating waltz and common times, with melodic phrasing on the waltz and then improvisational bursts directly following in common time. While it might not experiment with any particularly unusual time signatures, the back and forth leads to an interesting sound, but tied well together by the commonality of quarter notes. "Kathy's Waltz" also does the switch between common and waltz times and opens with a playful piano solo by Brubeck. The final two tracks, "Everybody's Jumpin'" and "Pick Up Sticks" both seem to be built on 6/4 time, the former showing some shimmering aggressive piano from Brubeck at the beginning and the latter easily establishing a swing and carrying along in a more easygoing manner.

The only somewhat challenging piece is the opener thanks to its rather intense meter as the Quartet largely builds their music atop of solid quarter time, which plays well to the swing of jazz. As such, while Time Out is still certainly something different when it comes to jazz of its era, it still certainly sounds and plays like a Dave Brubeck Quartet album, especially since the interplay between Brubeck and Desmond shines here as well as they usually do. And the original compositions have lots of memorable little pieces, often derived from the need to find music to fit their choices of meter.

In that sense, despite the continuing theme of using atypical time signatures, the album still remains a Dave Brubeck Quartet album, through and though. The use of atypical time signatures gives the album and the Quartet a bit more of an identity, which helps make Time Out more memorable, but Time Out primarily wins its audience over with all the performance, composition, and improvisation elements that they've always used to build their fan base. Time Out just happens to be an excellent example of that. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Blue Rondo à la Turk
  2. Strange Meadow Lark
  3. Take Five
  4. Three to Get Ready
  5. Kathy's Waltz
  6. Everybody's Jumpin'
  7. Pick Up Sticks

Links:

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Original Album Classics

Even though I had Time Out and really liked it, I didn't realize that The Dave Brubeck Quartet had made a series of albums exploring alternative time signatures. Now, Time Out was one of the Quartet's biggest his, so perhaps this is no surprise, but liking it as much as I did, I wanted to further explore the series and Original Album Classics turned out to be a great way to do so when it was on sale.

Granted, I already had Time Out, so I would end up with a redundant disc if I did, but the price was so good that it was worth it, so I bought it. The set is very much like its solo artist attributed sibling, being a hard paper slipcase containing five cardboard album cover replica slipcases that contain the discs. It's a pretty good space saver if that matters to you. But unlike that release, this one gets extra points for having a well focused theme, even if the name of the set, "Original Album Classics", really doesn't describe it.

While those looking for a little more content should look to the box set For All Time, if you just want the music and some nice album cover replicas, Original Album Classics has you covered. Those looking jump headfirst into the music of The Dave Brubeck Quartet could do well going with this set, since it includes their biggest hit and, if you like it, several other musical experiments stemming from it. On the other hand, it is a bit of a commitment, since if you don't like Time Out, you might be stuck with several additional albums that you might not like as well. But if this collection is on sale, the value is usually good enough that it's hard to ignore. 8/10.

Contents:

  • Time Out
  • Countdown: Time In Outer Space
  • Time Further Out
  • Time Changes
  • Time In

Links:

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Gone with the Wind (1959)

There are two major themes in The Dave Brubeck Quartet's discography in the 50's. First is that there are several live recordings taken from college campuses, which was one of the group's early successful circuits. The second theme, as seen on Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A., Dave Digs Disney, and Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, is that the Quartet also liked to record music inspired by a specific place. And that's where their 1959 album, Gone with the Wind, comes from, taking its inspiration from historic music from Georgia and Florida.

The album features nine tracks, all covers of older Southern music or music inspired by the south, including "Georgia on My Mind", which would become a major hit the following year when recorded by Ray Charles, as well as the Florida state song, "Swanee River" (also known as "Old Folks at Home"). The latter song, as well as the two different renditions of "Camptown Races" are minstrel songs, so although the former lacks its rather pro-slavery lyrics, their inclusion complicates an appreciation for the album today. That's not to say that the Quartet doesn't do interesting things with the songs: "Swanee River" has a wonderfully subtle opening as Dave Brubeck and relative newcomer and final member of the classic quartet, bassist Gene Wright have a nice interplay, the main song only really showing up in noticeable form towards the middle of the nearly six minute track. And, interestingly enough, it's when the original tune becomes evident that the performance feels a little tired. There's also some great back and forth between Brubeck and drummer Joe Morello towards the end of the track, the latter putting some great pop into it. Similarly, the two "Camptown Races" takes derive a lot of energy from the orignal, speeding along and Brubeck's keys finding a live wire during the short chorus.

The Quartet's interpretation of the folk tune, "The Lonesome Road", has a wonderful mellow opening with Brubeck's keys before brightening to Paul Desmond's sax, which also wakes up Brubeck in response. In its seven-plus minutes, it offers a transition to a faster bop pace halfway and even includes a quote from George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" towards the end of that part. "Georgia on My Mind" on the other hand grooves along at a slower pace through out its six-plus minutes and really catches with its bluesy tone.

Other parts to note are a fantastic drum solo from Morello on "Short'nin' Bread", the cool jazz take on the Dixieland "Basin Street Blues" and the inclusion of a show tune: "Ol' Man River", from show boat, another tune with a racial comment, albeit a more sympathetic one from the perspective of African Americans. "Ol' Man River" is a bit of a rough transition given the showtune's more lyrically significant approach--Wright's bass taking on the role of the singer can be a little subtle, even if he lends the role a little more credibility by being the black member of the band.

However, in the end, the whole effort does seem a little more dated because the source songs are all quite old, hearkening back to a far older era of music, much of which, like the minstrel songs, have somewhat faded from popular consciousness. Dave Digs Disney manages to stay somewhat relevant if only because of Disney's continued efforts to keep their properties alive. And I think it's specifically because of that limitation of the song selection that doesn't quite connect as well as perhaps their other records. Still a fine album with some decent swing and fans the Quartet will certainly find this a pleasant addition to their ears. But it doesn't quite reach the level of essential or even especially memorable in comparison to the Quartet's other albums. 6/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Swanee River
  2. The Lonesome Road
  3. Georgia on My Mind
  4. Camptown Races
  5. Camptown Races
  6. Short'nin' Break
  7. Basin Street Blues
  8. Ol' Man River
  9. Gone with the Wind

Links:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Dave Digs Disney (1957)

Dave Digs Disney is a far better album than it has any right being. Granted, the Quartet had apparently long been interpreting classic Disney film tunes via their cool jazz filter for a while, but if this is the first time you're hearing Dave Digs Disney, the results might be surprising. Normally when you think of jazzified Disney tunes, you think of all that syrupy sweetness turning into a light-as-air confection of fluffy sound, like what you'd expect of elevator music, but this album is much more a Dave Brubeck Quartet album than it is smooth jazz covers of Disney tunes.

The opening track, "Alice in Wonderland" is pretty much an accurate treat of what's in store. It's a nine and a half minute musical venture that opens with Brubeck playing the theme straight on piano before the band comes in, riffing on the tune with Paul Desmond taking the first major solo, immediately drawing a contrast to Brubeck's piano with his fluid melody. If you've a knowledge of jazz history, then you know that this tune in particular was a popular choice for jazz musicians to cover, becoming a standard.

Of course not every Disney tune on Dave Digs Disney is a jazz standard and the various tunes vary in length, tempo and scope. For example, "Heigh-Ho (The Dwarfs' Marching Song)" is a speedy number just under four minutes and contains a lengthy drum solo from newcomer to the quartet, Joe Morello, and bassist Norman Bates, propelling the tune forward. The contrast to that tune would be the cool take on its soundtrack sibling, "Some Day My Prince Will Come", with its even tempered tempo, opening the improvisation with a lovely melody from Desmond's sax after Brubeck's straight-played intro and closing with Brubecks more angular and chunky chords.

Dave Digs Disney also hints at what's to come from the Quartet as they experiment with time signatures on "Alice" and again on "Some Day My Prince Will Come" with an interplay between common time and waltz time in both cases. Otherwise, this is a fairly straightforward album from the Quartet. It also has the benefit of being perhaps one of the Quartet's most accessible albums simply because of the familiarity to the songs that many will have going into the album and the inclusion of those songs give each piece a structure that has much more "pop" than the average original jazz composition.

That's not to say that this is some kind of jazz pop hybrid--while the tunes are built around the originals, the improvisation and ways that each selection is built is just as much the product of the Quartet as it is of the original songwriters and Brubeck in particular brings a dosage of complexity to his parts that balances the simplicity of the Disney originals well. But on top of all that, this is just a wonderfully performed set of tracks featuring the Quartet in fine form. Perhaps even more so than Time Out, Dave Digs Disney is an excellent entry point into both the work of The Dave Brubeck Quartet as well as jazz, but I think that, like it's soundtrack cousin, Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dave Digs Disney is a classic for it's sheer enjoyability. 9/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Alice in Wonderland
  2. Give a Little Whistle
  3. Heigh-Ho (The Dwarfs' Marching Song)
  4. When You Wish Upon a Star
  5. Some Day My Prince Will Come
  6. One Song
  7. Very Good Advice
  8. So This Is Love

Links:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dave Brubeck - Brubeck Plays Brubeck (1956)

I've only ever known Dave Brubeck in the context of his most famous group, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, so it was a bit of a surprise for me to discover that he had a solo album, Brubeck Plays Brubeck. Once I put it the CD, I was further surprised to discover that not only was it a solo album, but it was truly just Brubeck and his piano. Having been acclimatized to hearing him--and perhaps most jazz--in the context of arrangements for groups, it was a bit surprising to hear a truly solo performance. However, once I gave the album a couple listens to sink in, there was a lot of enjoyment in the simplicity of the included pieces.

In nine tracks, Brubeck covers a surprising amount of ground. The opening track, "Swing Bells", is possibly the most unorthodox composition/improvisation on the album, which is why Brubeck Plays Brubeck might seem particularly surprising at first. It opens with some complex improvised melodies which don't really follow any formal key structure before the piece finds itself, Brubeck adding in the left hand accompaniment as it develops into a pleasant jazzy tune. In some ways, we are witnessing the discovery of the song on the track and so while it might be one of the least immediately accessible on the album, it ends up being one of the most revealing too.

Other tracks, like the second, "Walkin' Line" and "The Duke" (a tribute to Duke Ellington), demonstrate a more prepared approach. The former creates a steady bassline on a blues scale for the melody to play around, while the latter's crescendic chords and dancing melodies betray a great deal of forethought.

While many of the pieces are relatively simple, this is a Brubeck effort, so more complex works are included. "Two-Piece Contention", like "Swing Bells", is such a work, broken up into three distinct segments--opening with a two-line approach were the left melody plays in unison and then the left hand answering the right on occasion, before changing into a more swinging grove, but never losing sight of the double-line unison melody. The piece then slows down a bit before accelerating to more rapid tempo. This might seem disjointed in description, but the piece stays well unified thanks to the call back to the initial melody line.

With lovely moments like "When I Was Young" and "One Moment Worth Years" crossed with more dramatic ones like "Weep No More" atop the more challenging pieces, Brubeck Plays Brubeck, I think, provides a lot scope for what the man was capable of, even without the collaboration and backing of his fellow quartet members. And even if it takes a moment to get used to the more solitary sound, and excepting some slightly indulgent moments on the more dramatic pieces, Brubeck Plays Brubeck is a wonderful little moment with the artist himself. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Swing Bells
  2. Walkin' Line
  3. In Your Own Sweet Way
  4. Two-Part Contention
  5. Weep No More
  6. The Duke
  7. When I Was Young
  8. One Moment Worth Years
  9. The Waltz

Links:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Velvet Underground - Loaded (1970)

With the lineup of The Velvet Underground mostly stable since their eponymous third album, it's no surprise that band largely continues on with the more straightforward rock music from that previous album on their fourth, Loaded. Loaded would also prove to be the band's final original album and although it doesn't have the wild experimental tension of their original two albums, it is appropriately loaded with a solid set of songs, courtesy of Lou Reed and company.

Musically, Loaded fits right in with the band's contemporaries, while retaining Reed's particular tendencies for tender vocals and contrasted raggedness. Opening track "Who Loves the Sun" is not a far stretch from "Candy Says", in mood, even if the track has a larger chorus that bends more towards the kind of harmonies that The Beatles were championing since Rubber Soul. However, the mid-tempo beat really helps push the album forward into its sequential hits: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll".

"Sweet Jane" opens up with Reed in a talk-song, which chugs along, hints of what's to come with the first title chorus. As the track moves along, Reed becomes increasingly animated and Doug Yule joins in on supporting the chorus. By the time of the song's final bridge, the infectiousness of Reed and Yule's yell-singing encourages singing along with some fine fat synth accents. "Rock & Roll" is the kind of straightforward rock tune that is enhanced by Reed's talk-song vocals and great accents, like when he double emphasizes "fine" in falsetto before leading into an energetic guitar solo, with a more tempered contrasting solo.

Much of the rest of the album is this kind of fine rock and roll with a few shifts towards more contemplative or melancholy, especially when Yule takes over vocal duties on tracks like the opener, "Who Loves the Sun", "New Age" and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'". The one exception for Yule leads is the fast charging folk rock meets boogie woogie of "Lonesome Cowboy Bill", which boasts some country-style guitarwork.

Not unlike their third album, Loaded, doesn't quite hit the same highs as their more experimental initial works, but nevertheless remains a fine rock album, packed to the brim with highly enjoyable rock songs. And that easily makes it worth listening to, especially for fans of mainstream classic rock. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Who Loves the Sun
  2. Sweet Jane
  3. Rock & Roll
  4. Cool It Down
  5. New Age
  6. Head Held High
  7. Lonesome Cowboy Bill
  8. I Found a Reason
  9. Train Round the Bend
  10. Oh! Sweet Nuthin'

Links: