Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz Impressions of New York (1964)

In addition to creating original music, covering standards, and loads of touring, The Dave Brubeck Quartet was also responsible for creating several soundtracks. In addition, the Quartet was known for a series of records called "Jazz Impressions", where they would take a particular place and produce an album inspired by their experience with it. Jazz Impressions of New York are where these two modes of album-making coincide, being a collection of music written for the short-lived television show, Mr. Broadway, as well as an album inspired by the New York setting of the show.

As the Quartet has previously demonstrated, they have a capacity of working within limitations without losing their identity. So soundtracks are simply a new kind of limitation to work with: in writing music for television, Brubeck has to consider scenes, themes, and time limits, but those end up being constraints that don't hinder the Quartet's music. In fact, the adventurousness of the Quartet up to this point continues to show up in their music here with several tunes written in waltz time and the Quartet also captures the metropolitan nature of the city by dipping into related genres like bossa nova ("Broadway Bossa Nova") and rumba ("Upstage Rumba").

The waltz-time tracks, including "Theme from Mr. Broadway" and "Spring in Central Time" manage to catch the pace and energy of New York quite well as Brubeck's piano creates runs on the keys that are inspired by foot and car traffic and Desmond's sax provides a contrast with his flowing, melodic performances, showing up appreciably on the latter track to capture the more idyllic nature of Central Park. But even Desmond gets in on the energy of New York on the show's theme, arpeggiating in lively succession.

The efforts of the Quartet here are particularly successful in that the compositions are strong enough on their own without picture that if you didn't know that Jazz Impressions of New York wasn't a soundtrack, then it'd be easy to just mistake it as just another entry into their "Jazz Impressions" series. It's a perfectly acceptable entry from the Quartet. However, the soundtrack album isn't quite as memorable as their most impressive work as few of the included tracks stand out from both the Quartet's long history of music-making nor within the greater cool jazz movement to which Jazz Impressions of New York belongs. As far as television soundtracks go, it's strong work, but in the greater discography of the Quartet, it's merely just good.

As such, while Jazz Impressions of New York isn't an essential album by the Quartet, I would still say that fans of the Quartet's work will want it and even less dedicated jazz listeners will still find it appreciable. It's clear that the Quartet has potential in soundtrack production from this album and perhaps will be able to get to even greater places in future work. And Mr. Broadway's soundtrack? Worth a listen for sure. 7/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Theme from Mr. Broadway
  2. Broadway Bossa Nova
  3. Autumn in Washington Square
  4. Something to Sing About
  5. Sixth Sense
  6. Spring in Central Park
  7. Lonely Mr. Broadway
  8. Summer on the Sound
  9. Winter Ballad
  10. Broadway Romance
  11. Upstage Rumba

Links:

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Daft Punk - Discovery (2001)

Daft Punk's Discovery is quite possibly one of the most all out fun albums I've ever been fortunate enough to listen to. After their initial experimentation with a variety of sounds on Homework, the French EDM duo honed in on one particular sound that they were using and pushed it to its limits. And that sound was 80's disco, funk, and rock. Taking those elements of the past and playfully embracing them in modern dance pop sensibilities, Daft Punk weaves together the kind of pop album that captures fun so effortlessly that it's impossible to sit still while listening to it.

From the horn sample at the top of the opening track, "One More Time" to Romanthony's auto-tuned vocals, the power of disco is strong, but chopped up and modulated with modern production techniques, making it a hybrid the most energetic parts of the past and present. And while the lyrics aren't going to provoke any thought, they have exactly the kind of lightness this album needs. "Music's got me feeling so free / we're gonna celebrate / celebrate and dance so free" is exactly the right theme for a dance party album.

The opening five tracks of the album are pop perfection, despite wheeling changes to inspiration like the dazzling electrified hair metal guitars that add some goofy-but-righteous rock to "Aerodyamic" to the funky "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" with talk-box vocals that would make 80's funksters Zapp proud and the much more house thumps of "Cresdendolls", complete with infectious party-chants.

"Nightvision" is a transition track that proves that Daft Punk has bigger ambitions for Discovery than simply be a party album. While they don't give up its 80's inflected dance tunes, Daft Punk does reach a little beyond for tracks like "Something About Us", giving us a meditative funk slow jam as well as "Veridis Quo" and its almost classic woodwind driven melody. But despite these seemingly more serious interludes, Daft Punk immediately upends the mood of the latter with the goofy electro-funk jam of "Short Circuit" and the cheekily named ten-minute album closer "Too Long". Which shows that the duo is willing to push themselves, but they never keep their eyes on the fun, the slower moments on the album giving listeners a chance to catch themselves before they are once again enveloped in disco-funk bass grooves.

Discovery isn't just a collection of singles like Homework, but rather a more coherent fully realized album that provides a complete musical journey. So complete that the album was the basis for an animated feature film called Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. And I think that's what elevates Discovery to being a seemingly perfect pop album: it pays attention to the greater form of the album, paying attention to the dips and dives of energy and attention over the course of an hour and adjusting for it accordingly. The result isn't just a thirty minute party disc, but an experience that takes you high, soothes you when you're low and gets you back on the dance floor at the end for another go. All done with the power of the 80's mixed with the bright electronic brilliance at the turn of the century. Thank you, Daft Punk. 10/10.

Tracklist:

  1. One More Time
  2. Aerodynamic
  3. Digital Love
  4. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
  5. Crescendolls
  6. Nightvision
  7. Superheroes
  8. High Life
  9. Something About Us
  10. Voyager
  11. Veridis Quo
  12. Short Circuit
  13. Face to Face
  14. Too Long

Links:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Brandenburg Gate: Revisited (1963)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet is not stranger to experimenting with their chosen genre of jazz music, as evidenced by their continuing experimentation with atypical time signatures on their "time" series of albums. Their 1963 album, Brandenburg Gate: Revisited has the quartet experimenting with a different element of jazz: arrangement. In particular, Brandenburg Gate: Revisited takes a set of songs that the Quartet had previously written and recorded and then rearranges those pieces for a string orchestra, creating a different sonic palette for the group to try their improvisational solos on.

The tunes are sourced from a variety of albums, but the titular "Brandenburg Gate" from Jazz Impressions of Eurasia gets the most attention with Dave's brother, Howard Brubeck orchestrating the tune and extending it out into ten additional sections, giving space to explore counterpoint. Then the orchestra plays with sensitivity to the Quartet, but not interplaying with the Quartet as the four jazz musicians work their magic within the sweep of the strings.

It's an interesting tension that's created as the usual looseness and discovery that is common to jazz improvisation is given a leash by the orchestrated composition, giving the Quartet a limit to the time and musical space they have to work. This is especially challenging, I think for drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright as their roles as the keepers of time are partially subsumed by the orchestra's relentless playing. However, Howard Brubeck created plenty of space in his arrangement for everyone to get a chance to work and both Morello and Wright manage to make their solo spaces work.

Also the more tightened musical space is kind of made up for by the Quartet having a foreknowledge of the music that they will be playing against and beside, even more so than a typical jazz composition, and that foreknowledge of what's coming allows the Quartet to play more deftly with the space allotted to their performance.

Certainly, the stately presence of a string orchestra does on surface threaten the possibility that the resulting music could be stodgy, but the Quartet actually manages to work well within the scheme. On "Summer Song", the orchestra actually manages to stay within the background giving lots of space for Brubeck and Desmond to shine and just swelling here and there when appropriate, with the Quartet giving and taking musical presence accordingly.

It's also kind of fun to hear many of these tracks get a new interpretation with Brubeck's previous solo piano piece, "In Your Own Sweet Way" from Brubeck Plays Brubeck getting an incredibly full lush sound from its transition to this format, not only gaining from the presence of his Quartet, but also from the string orchestra which builds in some points of interaction with Brubeck's keys. "Kathy's Waltz" immigrates from Time Out and actually manages to capture an even greater sense of connectedness to traditional waltzes and Desmond plays well with the brass and woodwinds behind him in the full symphony orchestra. And even with the scope and presence of the orchestra, the Quartet remains front and center off their bright and playful improvisations.

As such, it's not hard to conclude that Brandenburg Gate: Revisited is a success. I will admit that sometimes the rigidity of having to work within the frame of responding to or improvising within a pre-orchestrated piece does at time make the Quartet seem just a bit constrained, but they still manage to sell their performances, which is pretty impressive. This isn't their first experiment with working with orchestras, as they previously have with Brubeck Plays Bernstein Plays Brubeck and it shows in how well they tackle their transformed material. Good stuff here. Especially recommended for fans of Brubeck and those wanting to try out a record that marries jazz with an orchestra. 7/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Brandenburg Gate
  2. Summer Song
  3. In Your Own Sweet Way
  4. G Flat Theme
  5. Kathy's Waltz

Links:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Daft Punk - Homework (1997)

Daft Punk had quite the time just last year on the heels of the release of their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories. It seemed like the robots that made the music were just about everywhere. However, there was a time, long ago in the 1990's, when the duo were not yet robots. This was the time of their debut album, Homework. Listening to the album, it's clear where those robot identities would come from and it's easy to seen the strains of the music that they would further explore on their later albums too. But while later albums would be more focused, this seeming collection of singles is still well unified by a sound that comes from the trailblazing French duo.

Homework is an amalgam of many different influences including house, techno, funk, disco, and hip hop with "Teachers" being a straightforward track that's dedicated to the many artists that have influenced the duo in their music production. The more robotic aspects come from Daft Punk's usage of synthesized and electronic or digital sound manipulation and the sometimes choppy editing of beats. This is evident from the moment the album opens with "Daftendirekt"'s flanged out vocals leading into a straightforward kick-hi-hat four stomp with the eventual synth loops sealing the technologic sound.

That's not to say that it's all inorganic as Daft Punk cuts as much from funk and disco, including the Chic-like guitar hook that pops in and out of "Da Funk", a head-bobbing, bass-thumping tune that brings in a set of claps to extra catchiness and builds and drops different elements through its time. More disco elements are apparent shortly thereafter on "Phœnix" as well as "Fresh" with their disco samples helping to accent or power the tune respectively. "Fresh" in particular hints at what's to come on their discotastic follow-up album, Discovery.

Sometimes the album can get a little kitschy, like on "Around the World" with its bleeps, bloops, and title phrase vocoded, but that doesn't stop the tracks from being pretty fun. The only time that the tracks suffer is when they drag a little too long, like with "Rollin' and Scratchin'" and "Rock'n Roll", which are both a little too abrasive for their length. In contrast, the similarly abrasive "Oh Yeah" cuts in at just over two minutes and is an enjoyable break between tracks.

As mentioned, the album doesn't really have any overall theme or focus, but Daft Punk does trade in a particular sound that's almost unique to them in their blending of their influences. The album's title in some ways is indicative that this is an album that shows the duo still learning their own sound, which explains both the enthusiasm as well as the simplicity with which they craft their tunes. There is a little roughness in the production, but I think it works with the idea that this is the duo still learning their craft of getting butts shaking on the dance floor. And that part, I think they handle well. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Daftendireckt
  2. WDPK 83.7 FM
  3. Revolution 909
  4. Da Funk
  5. Phœnix
  6. Fresh
  7. Around the World
  8. Rollin' & Scratchin'
  9. Teachers
  10. High Fidelity
  11. Rock'n Roll
  12. Oh Yeah
  13. Burnin'
  14. Indo Silver Club
  15. Alive
  16. Funk Ad

Links:

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962)

By the time I reached the third in The Dave Brubeck Quartet's experimentation with time signatures, I really thought I'd see a drop-off in quality. After all, the time signature trickery was a kind of gimmick. However, Countdown: Time in Outer Space turns out to be a surprisingly good record. Perhaps rather than being a gimmick, the Quartet uses the limitation of experimenting with atypical time signatures for jazz to be a means to push the boundaries of their creativity. And they do it well with their third album in the series.

Countdown doesn't have the unifying theme of being an interpretation of a painting. There is a loose theme of blasting off into outer space and returning, as the album is bookended by the tracks "Countdown" and "Back to Earth", relying more on the use of atypical time signature and sometimes asynchronous tempos to cover the "out of this world" sense of the title in between. But Brubeck and company, despite their explorations of meter and time, they rather true to the roots of jazz music, which really keep the album grounded.

That's not to say that grounded is bad. In fact, it's quite good. Countdown has quite a bit of energy and this is evident from the opening title track with Joe Morello going wild with the timpani at the top before the group finds their swing and Brubeck going fiery on the piano alongside Wright's twelve bar blues on the bass. The swing doesn't stop on the following track, which is the aptly titled "Eleven Four", the band somehow finding space in the incongruous 11/4 time for Paul Desmond to draw his typically smooth solos.

Countdown also contains some references to previous albums, including another take on "Someday My Prince Will Come", last seen on Dave Digs Disney, where the band was already playing around with atypical time signatures. The following pair of "Castilian Blues" and "Castilian Drums" echoes Time Further Out's "Far More Blues" and "Far More Drums". On Countdown, the two are actually much more related than on the preceding album, building off the same basic tune but the latter being a 5/4 polyrhythm drum workout for Morello. It's not quite as impressive as "Far More Drums" or "Take Five", but a modestly decent listen nonetheless.

The album closes out with a quartet of songs actually come from a ballet of Brubeck's called "Maiden in the Tower", alternating between common and waltz time for two characters before encountering a third in "Three's a Crowd". As each character carries a specific time signature, "Three's a Crowd", revolving around three characters actually blends and shifts its time signatures as the various dancers take point. While the time signature play does work with greater continuance of experimentation with time signatures, this quartet of tunes would then seem to be its own separate collection. Fortunately, the sound of the Quartet remains strong in the four pieces tying them to the rest of the album by familiarity.

Ultimately, Countdown: Time in Outer Space is as good as you might expect from the Quartet's time signature-based works and possibly better if you, like me, were expecting them to run out of music to explore. While the album doesn't really manage to capture an overarching theme and is a little divided between different approaches, that largely remains theoretical and not practical as the Quartet's overall musical approach keeps each track flowering pretty well into the next. Countdown doesn't quite have the more introspective moments of its predecessors, but that doesn't stop each track from carrying itself well and making it a collection of strong tunes. As their previous albums, it's certainly worth listening to for any fan of Brubeck and cool jazz. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Countdown
  2. Eleven Four
  3. Why Phillis
  4. Someday My Prince Will Come
  5. Castilian Blues
  6. Castilian Drums
  7. Fast Life
  8. Waltz Limp
  9. Three's a Crowd
  10. Danse Duet
  11. Back to Earth
  12. Fatha

Links:

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hendrix - Band of Gypsys (1970)

The albums of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, for the short time that they were together as a group, are some of the most potent and influential rock records of the 1960's. While the group's hard working and hard partying lifestyle, as well as creative differences between the members, led to the dissolution of the Experience, Jimi Hendrix would continue on, at least until his untimely death a year later. The only officially released album in the time before his death was Band of Gypsys, a live album capturing the New Years Day performance of Hendrix and bandmembers Billy Cox and Buddy Miles at the Fillmore East in New York. The resulting album is a bit on the rough side, but it does at least leave a document of Hendrix's musical direction post-Experience and is still an engaging listen, despite the roughness.

The performance is composed wholly of new material by Hendrix and Miles with lots of space given to Hendrix for virtuoso guitar solos. This is most obvious on the 12:41 jam of "Machine Gun", which features the exemplary blues rock style that Hendrix had perfected previously on tracks like on Electric Ladyland's "Voodoo Chile", with Miles rattling off his drums like the titular machine gun and trading on vocal duties as well. Miles is a particularly distinct presence on Band of Gypsys as his two songwriting contributions actually feature a rock style that is especially noticeably different from the Experience. This is especially obvious on the Miles-led "Changes" as he leads the band and crowd in call-and-response with a one-two drumming style that is reminiscent of his work with Wilson Pickett.

While Electric Ladyland was especially notable for Hendrix's studio experimentation, the context of live performance strips away much of those tricks, giving Band of Gypsys a significantly different musical context. Instead live with Miles and Cox, Hendrix digs deeper into improvisational passages, building upon looser song structures akin to jazz. He manages to diversify the sounds he can produce from his guitar with some effects pedals, but this isn't anywhere on the level of his performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Instead he keeps his effect usage more contained to the context of the improvisational rock music the Gypsys trades in.

Two tracks in particular, "Power to Love" and "Message to Love" also gather some funk elements, both in theme as well as in some of the vocal choices, like the repetition of "With the power of soul / anything is possible" in "Power to Love". Even the guitar opening of "Message to Love" is funk-like, with the guitar taking the place of what might have otherwise been arranged as horns in a more traditional funk unit.

The live album does have some flaws, especially in the somewhat unbalanced recording with the vocals sometimes getting lost behind the instruments and some of the recording is a bit muddy. I also think that Band of Gypsys probably played many more songs than the six selected here at forty-six minutes and to really capture the concert experience, we really could have taken in a full double LP of the show to further capture the experience.

But I think the most significant contribution that Band of Gypsys has to offer is a document of Hendrix live. With the Experience, he had a trio of studio albums and those all show Hendrix and the Experience in a specifically controlled environment. Now Band of Gypsys isn't the Experience, but it does give listeners an opportunity to listen to Hendrix perform live and unedited, not choosing from a dozen different takes of his performances to lock together the perfect track. Instead you get to hear his singing and guitarwork as he performed them, giving it a kind of immediacy that you don't get on the studio albums and Hendrix proves to be quite the performer live with Band of Gypsys. To hear that dynamism alone is worth listening to Band of Gypsys for fans of Hendrix. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Who Knows
  2. Machine Gun
  3. Changes
  4. Power to Love
  5. Message to Love
  6. We Gotta Live Together

Links:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Further Out: Miro Reflections (1961)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out was an enormous commercial success, scoring both the Quartet and jazz itself high mainstream appeal. While the Quartet has seen a strong degree of success overall, with success this great it is almost required that they follow up on the gimmick that made Time Out stand out: atypical time signatures. And the following album is shameless in being a follow up, entitled Time Further Out: Miró Reflections. Fortunately, the set of songs on this album is strong, several of them benefiting from the irregular time signatures and resulting in an album that's as good as its predecessor and arguably better.

The tracks are actually sequenced in order of ascending beats per measure, the album itself being an interpretation of a painting by Joan Miró, which features the numbers three through nine prominently its it artwork. Accordingly, the album's nine original tracks include a time signature from each of those values, including a pair of waltzes and two pieces in 5/4 time. And it's just really good music from top to bottom.

The Quartet work in elements from several genre roots from ragtime piano on the opening "It's a Raggy Waltz" to blues--four tracks including "blue" in the title--with the energetic "Bru's Boogie Woogie" built very clearly on the classic blues scale and Brubeck going to town on the piano while Eugene Wright keeps the tune charging along on his bass in 8/8 time. Paul Desmond and Brubeck show excellent chemistry as they trade passages on the mellow "Bluette".

The pair of 5/4 tracks, "Far More Blue" and "Far More Drums", share similar titles, the former drawing out similar piano work from Brubeck as "Take Five" from Time Out, if a touch quieter. On the other hand, the drum solo has accordingly moved to "Far More Drums" and the track is quite simply an extended drum jam by Joe Morello and it's highly engaging. Probably the most angular and memorable track on the album is "Unsquare Blues" with its 7/4 time and handclap fueled rhythms played against Wright's bass. It's somehow both addicting, yet challenging to clap and dance to at the same time with the percussion work from Morello again carrying much of the song all by itself.

Time Further Out concludes in 9/8 with Blue Shadows in the Street which is a stark departure from its sister European folk dance fueled "Rondo à la Turk" from Time Out, being a cool low key bluesy tune. While I can't fully say just how the time signature business effectively works as an interpretation of Miró's painting, it does impart a kind of structure that the Quartet ends up working with to their advantage without ever being pinned into any particular sound by the requirements of the time signature. In fact, even with all the genre traversal that the Quartet does on Time Further Out, the album sounds tight and distinct, the band's measured, thoughtful approach clearly coming through.

And I think that, along with the fact that the album so evenly presented a set of equally enjoyable tunes, makes Time Further Out actually superior to its predecessor. And a must for fans of this era of jazz. 9/10.

Note: The CD version of the album also includes two bonus tracks, "Slow and Easy (A.K.A Lawless Mike)", which doesn't quite fit the gimmick of the album as it appears to be in 4/4 time, and a live version of "It's a Raggy Waltz" with a great performance by Desmond on his solo.

Tracklist:

  1. It's a Raggy Waltz
  2. Bluette
  3. Charles Matthew Hallelujah
  4. Far More Blue
  5. Far More Drums
  6. Maori Blues
  7. Unsquare Dance
  8. Bru's Boogie Woogie
  9. Blue Shadows in the Street
  10. Slow and Easy (A.K.A. Lawless Mike)
  11. It's a Raggy Waltz (live at Carnegie Hall)

Links: