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:

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: