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The Art Ensemble of Chicago

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

We Are On The Edge

Pi Recordings

The jazz my high school band director forced down my throat didn’t move me. His idea of jazz began with Glenn Miller and ended with Benny Goodman. They were giants of the big band era, but they didn’t excite me as a kid in the ’70s. I sort of wrote off jazz as a dead letter until I got to college. It was there, thanks to the great selection in the used bin at Flat, Black and Circular that I discovered there was more to jazz. I was introduced to iconoclasts like Max Roach, Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These artists blew my mind and shattered my preconceptions of what music could be. I owe Don Cherry, Carla Bley and Ralph Towner a lot for opening my mind to a world of sonic possibilities.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago were incredible teachers. The band grew out of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The original ensemble includes Lester Bowie, the trumpeter who always wore lab coats on stage, reed man Joseph Jarman, bassist Malachi Favors along with drummer Famadou Don Moye and reed player Roscoe Mitchell. We Are On The Edge celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble, although only Mitchell and Moye are still with us on this plane of existence.

We Are On The Edge sees the Art Ensemble of Chicago embrace their most expansive line up. 18 musicians contribute to this recording that fully embraces the groups motto, Great Black Music, Ancient to Future. The first disc are studio recordings of the mega ensemble. The recording opens with an oratorio featuring Rodolfo Cordova called “Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace.” The highly orchestrated piece reflects Roscoe Mitchell’s recent work at Mills College where he’s been focused on composition and structure. “We Are On The Edge” looks to the streets with Avant-noise artist Moore Mother providing a spoken word break down. She lists the ills that the black community has persevered through over the decades, only to declare, “We are on the edge of victory.” It’s a song of hope. In all their various incarnations, that’s the core of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago has always been about.

The second disc of this set was recorded live at Edge Fest in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Art Ensemble of Chicago has always thrived in a live setting where composition and inspired improvisation can play freely. The second disc features looser versions of “We Are On The Edge” and “Oasis at Dusk.” The live disc also revisits “Tutankhamen” and “Odwalla/tbe Theme” that have been part of the Art Ensemble’s repertoire for decades. In a way, the expanded version of the Art Ensemble is a passing of the torch. Roscoe and Malachi may be the only surviving members, but there is are new generations coming up who will keep the ideal of Great Black Music – Ancient to Future alive and challenging for decades to come.

http:/pirecordings.com

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Music Reviews

Allen Ginsberg & William Blake

Allen Ginsberg & William Blake

The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience

Omnivore Recordings

Allen Ginsberg claimed that the idea to put William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to music came to him in a vision of Blake around 1948 but considering Allen’s fondness for pot, it might have been somewhat less divine then that. But however it came to him, we’re all the better for it. Allen Ginsburg was not only one of America’s greatest poets, he was an ambassador for all things creative, and his “tunings” of Blake’s epic poetry comes from the same passion that led him to create “Howl” and his initial record, First Blues from 1971. (Which was released in an expanded edition by Omnivore in 2016 as The Last Word On First Blues).

Ginsberg wasn’t the first to conceive of putting Blake’s words to music. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, as well as artists as diverse as Jah Wobble, Tangerine Dream and folkie Greg Brown, who released 16 of the poems on a 1987 album- had done so before. What Ginsberg brought to the project was a poet’s voice. If you’ve listened to his readings of his own works, such as “Howl” or the overwhelming emotive “Kaddish”, you are continually struck by the dramatic cast he brings to the written word. With his New York accent he made the stanzas breathe, and Songs of Innocence and Experience gives many examples of this, from “The Shepherd” to “Ah! Sun Flower” to a great “The Grey Monk”, where Allen holds his own with musicians such as drummer Elvin Jones and avant-gardist Don Cherry. It is truly wild.

This 2 CD collection contains the original recording from 1969 that Ginsberg recorded in New York City, as well as “Blake Songs”, a largely unreleased work from 1968. Also included are 3 Tibetan mantras that he recorded in his beloved San Francisco in 1971, which are enthused with the same fervor and regard as the Blake works. Allen Ginsberg was without a doubt one of our most passionate geniuses, and kudos to Omnivore to remind us of this fact. As William Blake wrote – and Allen sang – on “Holy Thursday” : Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song.

Amen.

Omnivorerecordings.com

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Music Reviews

Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman

Something Else!!!!

Riverside

There’s a bunch of exclamation points in this title, but the music backs it up. Coleman played alto sax and takes us into the heart of the bop movement, a dark and foreboding continent first charted in the 1950s. His 13-bar arrangements abandon the chords and chord progressions that underpinned Western music and composition for centuries, and after a lifetime of “getting used to” this style of bebop jazz, it’s still a challenge for any of us to sift through the sounds and reconstruct just what Coleman is doing. Maybe that’s thinking too hard about the sound; it is possible to sit back and groove along so long as you don’t try to snap your fingers. Coleman will trick you into a groove and then jump somewhere else so fast your head spins.

Opening this disc we hear “Invisible.” It almost sounds like he’s playing it backwards, but the piano (Walter Norris) and drums (Billy Higgins) ground this tune in a reasonably conventional sound as Coleman plays around them like a child fueled on Lucky Charms and Pepsi. Sometimes a single note fills a bar, other times 20 or 30 take flight. “The Blessing” and “Jayne” follow, each holding to the same premise: the guys in the back are just that, backdrop, and they counterpoint the wild explorations of the guy in front. By “Chippie,” the piano slides forward a bit, Coleman allows it a chord or two, but soon he’s flying ahead with the band in tow. Don Cherry gets in a trumpet lick now and again, and a guy named Don Payne valiantly trundles along on bass, but this is Coleman’s show, make no mistake. There are nine tracks here and no bonus material, but this album is plenty strong in its original format. While each bar is different in each song, there’s a unity of sound here. The opening and closing tracks seem brighter and harder, but all reflect a precision and wildness in Coleman’s composition style. This may be the least accessible disc in this recent Concord/Riverside re-release project, but it’s certainly the most interesting. But it never answers the biggest question: how does he keep all these notes straight in his head?

Concord Music Group: www.concordmusicgroup.com

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Jazz and Traditions

Jazz and Traditions

For as long as there have been musicians playing jazz, there have been critics trying to safeguard the purity of the music. Many of these critics have decried the desecration of the jazz tradition when innovations take hold. There were folks who said that big band wasn’t real jazz. Then there were people who threw up their hands and declared bebop noise. I won’t even mention the ripping of clothes and shouts of protest over free jazz and fusion. Despite all these assaults to the purity of the jazz tradition, the music goes on evolving, changing and finding new and different ways of expressing the spirit of jazz.

I came to jazz through the ethnic explorations of performers such as Don Cherry and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These performers linked jazz to other cultural traditions. The Art Ensemble called their music Great Black Music, Ancient to Future. Don Cherry actively pursued collaborations with musicians from other cultures. The two CDs I want to tell you about today continue this process of linking jazz with other traditions. Lenke Lichtenberg explores the union of jazz and Yiddish culture. The Sunny Jain Collective filters jazz through their Indian cultural traditions. While these cannot be called “pure” jazz releases, their purity of spirit is something to behold.

Lenke Lichtenberg was a teen pop star in Czechoslovakia before moving to Canada to further her studies. She earned a degree in ethnomusicology at York University in Toronto and has performed in just about every musical genre imaginable. Her passion, though, is exploring Jewish traditions, including cantorial and Yiddish music.

Pashtes/Simplicity, is a collaboration with Brian Katz setting the poetry of Simcha Simchovitch to music. Lichtenberg first encountered Simchovitch at the 2003 Jewish Book Fair in Toronto. She became friends with the poet and decided to take his words in another direction. Lichtenberg and Katz crafted music that allows even non-Yiddish speakers to appreciate the beauty of the words. To my ears, their settings are primarily chamber jazz arrangements with touches of Brazilian, flamenco, classical and theater music adding color. The opening track, “The Golden Peacock,” floats on a moody bass riff that recalls Jaco Pastorious’ work with Joni Mitchell. “The Garden Party” makes me think of the early work of the Paul Winter Consort. Throughout the disc, Lichtenberg and Katz infuse the music with such a joy for living that it crosses linguistic and cultural borders. Listening to Pashtes/Simplicity makes you feel good, no matter what language you speak.,

New York-based percussionist Sunny Jain is an exponent of Indo Jazz, the melding of jazz and South Asian musical traditions. Jain has performed in many settings on the New York jazz scene. With his group, the Sunny Jain Collective, he has toured India three times. The collective is a multicultural unit which draws on a wide range of traditions. You’ll hear echoes of John Coltrane bounce off ideas derived from Chinese poetry, Hindustani classical music and laptop electronic improvisations..

Sunny Jain Collective

Sunny Jain Collective

Avaaz (Hindu for sound) is the second release from the Sunny Jain Collective. From the opening track, the Collective treats us to an organic blending of traditions. “Sialkot,” kicks things off with Samita Sinha singing over a bouncy, Bollywood-meets-Birdland groove. The song’s pulsing beat and Sinha’s soaring voice give the song a festive feel. Sialkot is a city in Punjab which became part of Pakistan in 1947. The lyric comes from an Urdu poem by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and speaks to the hardship caused by the partition of India and Pakistan.

Each song explores a different emotion. “Pink City” sounds as if it were inspired by David Holland while paying homage to the city of Jaipur. “Awaara Hoon” is an arrangement of a song that originally appeared in a 1951 Bollywood film while “Baraat” is inspired by traditional Indian wedding processions. “Wo Xiang Ni” is inspired by a Mandarin Chinese poem. While I quite enjoy this album, I find that I’m particularly drawn to Samita Sinha’s vocals. When she sings, it feels like the songs take on added vibrancy.

As I wrote about these CDs, I thought about what attracts me to these sorts of projects. What is it about music that combines various musical and cultural traditions that fascinates me? Then I heard the news on the radio in the background. Aside from the fact that these artists are making wonderful music, they are also showing us through their actions that people of different ethnicities, religions and traditions can live and work together. These artists demonstrate that harmony is possible in this world. For the duration of a CD, it is possible to believe that the cultural and political differences that are tearing the world apart can be overcome. For as long as the disc plays, there is harmony in the world.

http://www.lenkalichtenberg.com, www.jainsounds.com

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Music Reviews

SS Puft Quartet with Dave Rempis

SS Puft Quartet with Dave Rempis

Live at Earthshaking Music

Solponticello

There are two complaints that one will often hear when someone doesn’t enjoy/like/understand the music they’re listening to: “it all sounds the same to me,” and “what the hell’s that noise?” Though intended to be indictments on the music, they usually expose the personal tastes of the listener. Well, not to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but: “What the hell is this noise?”

To the untrained ear, free jazz’s sole purpose is noise. Admittedly, my pinna, cochlea, malleus, the whole damned organ ain’t never had much schoolin’ in this area. To me, the more traditional forms of jazz represent the zenith of individual achievement in the womb of the collective while free jazz is what happens when the ego runs amok. I’m probably wrong, and I’ll admit my shortcomings and my bucolic romanticism of more traditionally structured songs. With all its squawks, squeaks, and screeches, Live at Earthshaking Music is way too heady for me (and I love Henry Threadgill). This is for the intellect that finds Foucault too timid and Derrida a laugh riot. I wish I were up to the challenge.

Solponticello Records: http://www.solponticello.com

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Music Reviews

Eagle-Eye Cherry

Eagle-Eye Cherry

Present/Future

MCA

For a young man in Sweden, born into a family of musicians and striving to be one himself, the success of Eagle-Eye Cherry’s 1998 single “Save Tonight,” from his first album Desireless, was overwhelming. Originally just trying to release a small album through an independent label in Sweden, Cherry had no intention of making it big in Europe, and surely in his wildest dreams, not America either. The truth be told, he did both in one try, and his second album, Present/Future, has the same possibility and the same promise. The first single, “Feels So Right,” currently getting friendly with the airwaves of contemporary adult stations, is the first attempt. Along with his own musical ventures, Cherry — brother of pop singer Neneh Cherry and son of jazz master Don Cherry — also has worked with Carlos Santana (“Wishing It Was” on Santana’s Supernatural) and recorded songs with The Dust Brothers and Maxim from The Prodigy. A few of the best tracks on his own record are “Been Here Once Before,” “Crashing Down,” “Lonely Days (Miles Away),” and “Together.” All the songs are 100%. Unedited feeling, work, and complete artistic vision make each track single-worthy.

MCA Records: http://www.mcarecords.com • Eagle-Eye Cherry: http://www.eagle-eye-cherry.com