Welcome to The Run-Off Groove #225. I am John Book and things are fresh.
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Now, the column.
I say this because Universal Mind Control (Geffen) is a very different album from the man who gave us such classic hip-hop songs as “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, “Resurrection”, “Retrospect For Life”, “The Corner”, “Testify”, “The Light”, “The Question”, and the countless cameos he has made on other albums. Fans have relied on him to be different from the norm during times when hip-hop had become an overwhelming mass of something undesirable. Some called him the boho poet, while some looked to him with class and style, the ladies dug his steez while guys were always blown away by his flows and rhymes. Much of that is still on this new album, but he has (at least for the moment) entered the place that most diehards usually resist going into: the club. Yes, Common is going for the club vibe by creating songs that would fit in the club. One generally associates Common with headnodder music, not something you would see with a lot of bling and choreographed dancing but this is a man who has gone Hollywood and appeared in a number of popular movies. What in the world is Common doing?
Well, it is a stretch but the one thing you can’t deny is that Common has the style to rock any track that is given to him, and let’s be honest, had he existed as an artist in the 80’s, he would be doing tracks with The Jonzun Crew, Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force, and be considered the king of electro. Many of the songs on the album are produced by The Neptunes, so Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo offer Common a chance to be more accessible in a marketplace where it seems there’s not much room to “have style” and “be original” in a KRS-One fashion. Even though it’s odd to hear Common rhyme over club bangers, in an odd way it does work. Perhaps the reality of hip-hop being truly universal comes through in a rapper who is comfortable in making an album that is different from his past work. If Williams and Hugo offered Common a chance to do something in a N*E*R*D context, that would work too. Kanye West, ever the arrogant one, immediately states that he is the fly oen in “Punch Drunk Love”, but then Common comes up with
my uh is in your body
my uh is in your mind
check my dictionary
that ass is so defined
it’s slippery when it’s wet, girl
I can read your signs
I knock and I knock, uh
Can I come inside?
I knock and I knock, girl
Can I come inside?
I feel like it’s on when I’m in between your thighs
Yes, these are the words from Common himself, someone who always came off as a poetic gentleman only to reduce himself to being “like everyone else”. Of course he’s human so in truth he is very much amongst all of us but one reason why people felt so strongly about Common is because he did present himself as someone who was intelligent, wise, and with a gift. The voice and flows are very much on this album, but the lyrics are simply, well, common. Not Common, but common, as in “everyone has done this before”. Maybe it’s Common playing the role, wanting to know what it feels like on the other side and decides to put on a new jacket to see if it’s comfortable. The issue for me is can he return to what he has been known for. Fortunately in this day and age, rappers from the early 1990’s are a lot more successful in their careers than those who had their spotlight in the 80’s, but as someone who was a fan of his from the beginning, moreso with his second album, I’m not sure if those who have supported him will support this. I’m also not sure if those fans who will now depart will find a reason to want to hear him if they now feel he can be fickle.
It’s a different album, but maybe Universal Mind Control is a bit of a metaphor, a way to say “this is the album my label has wanted me to do for years, this is what some expect of me”. I hope that in 2009, the final year of the first decade of the 21st century, he and many others will come off strong with something that is a statement of who Common is as an artist. Think about it, if Common were to pass on, how would it feel knowing that this was his last statement? This seems to be an album made for Hollywood, and he seems to be participating in the scenario he once talked about in “I Used To Love H.E.R.” where he’s now the one moving to L.A. I agree that black music is black music, and it’s all good, but he’s now treating the music, his music, in a way that seems a bit foul. Like the “woman” in that song, maybe she needs to make the rounds to realize what she is missing, but in a small way this might be a sign of what we could be missing from him. I just hope he’ll be able to take back to make this shit stop, and whom I talk about is Common.
After releasing three albums, one of which was not released in her own home country, Amerie Rogers is saying goodbye to one label as moves forward to another. Her former label, Epic/Sony, is quick to mark this occasion by releasing a compilation of Amerie’s greatest hits. Wait, greatest hits?
Generally someone gets a greatest hits package when they’ve actually had an album of hits, but this is not being called a greatest hits package per se. Instead, this is the iPod generation’s idea of a compilation, and it’s appropriately called Playlist: The Very Best Of Amerie (Legacy). In terms of actual hits, we do have them in the four songs people will generally associate with her: “Why Don’t We Fall In Love”, “Talkin’ To Me”, “1 Thing”, and “Touch”, but the rest of the album is filled with minor hits and album tracks. I think if this is a chance for people to listen to her as an artist at a time when things are increasingly becoming catered to the single, this will work. The CD is bargain priced and you do get the hits that will no doubt receive a lot of airplay. But perhaps it would have been better to release a 5 song EP/CD5 and leave it at that. If a jump to Def Jam will prove to be a good one for her as an artist, then this CD in Legacy’s Playlist series will hopefully be the seeds of what will come to fruition.
He has been called “the Godfather of Gypsy Zen”, but Aranos is definitely one of the more creative artists in the experimental/avant-garde field. His last few albums have been complete mindtrips, and that happens once again as the mind shifts into new realms with Alone Vimalakirti Blinks (self-released).
This one features six songs, and you have to listen to each track in full to get a grasp of what he’s doing, which is to have various abstract sounds develop slowly but surely to become more durable sounds. “Rocket Sandals” sounds like someone striking a violin with a bow continuously for ten minutes as other sounds are mixed and filtered into it to where it may represent a crowded marketplace or a crowded mind. It then moves into a formal rhythm where you’re not sure where it will lead you (or how or why) but it does. The other pieces continue on the adventure, with “This Job Is So Boring” sounding like the mundane songs we sing in our heads as we deal with the daily grind, while “Better Universe No. 2” is the evolution of what we hope to seek even if it seems it takes forever to find (which is perhaps why it sounds the way it does). It’s a mixture of electronics, found sound, and real instrumentation, and Aranos does such a good job that you can’t tell which is which. He takes you into his audio world and either you go exploring with him as filtered stringed instruments dance back and forth with the sound of heavy traffic, planes, ships, and boats, or move away. I suggest moving in and perhaps becoming a part of his voyage.
The title of Saltman-Knowles new CD, Return Of The Composer (Pacific Coast Jazz is meant to be a play of words on the Star Wars film, Return Of The Jedi, and it’s meant to say that the world of jazz, if not music in general, needs to return to the strength of original compositions and new and innovating composers. The entire album features original compositions, either by double bassist Mark Saltman or pianist William Knowles, and along with vocalist Lori Williams Chisholm they show and prove that jazz music is very much alive and well in 2008 and beyond, that it doesn’t always have to rely on the same old songs to be good. In songs like “Homeland”, “Shalom And Salaam”, and “Creepin’ Up” they, along with drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson, Alvin Trask on trumpet, and Robert Landham on sax, are able to make quality jazz that could easily influence future jazz musicians and vocalists. Landham’s solo in “Bellport” comes in unexpectedly, since Saltman, Knowles, and Jackson work like an incredible jazz trio and it feels that way until Landham slips in and steals the show. Chisholm sings back and forth in a direct manner, and doing a bit of scat throughout. Her voice is the kind of jazz singing I enjoy listening to, and the silkiness makes me want to hear that all day and night. I hope she releases a full length under her own name, and as for the rest of the musicians, these guys are tight. It may be a return, but those in the know will say it’s always been here, one just had to dust off the cobwebs
(Return Of The Composer will be released on January 26, 2009.)
Two years ago I reviewed his Konvicted album and it was pure crap. In 2008… more of the same. Well okay, he does have the usual suspects: Wyclef Jean, T-Pain, Lil’ Wayne, and Kardinal Offishall, but sometimes the guests outshine the star, and perhaps that was the goal. Akon still can’t sing, the lyrics are wasteful, and if you buy an Akon album how many times do you have to say “Akon… uh huh”? How many times does one have to tolerate it?
Akon makes silly ass music that makes me wonder why anyone cares for him as an artist, and do people think he has talent? Who said that voice of his is good? Mediocre at best. Pure crap.
Vocalist Joani Taylor swings in a fashion that I want to hear, as she is comfortable being backed by a band with a mean ass Hammond B-3 player (Bob Murphy) and musicians who know how to make the joint jump. While she calls her album In My Own Voice, I had to look at the CD a few times because Taylor reminded me a lot of Monday Michiru, both in style and tone. In other words, this lady rips and anyone who wants to hear a great, powerful female jazz singer will have to buy this album immediately.
Taylor has released many albums over the years, but this is my first listen to her voice and music. She is often billed as “Canada’s first lady of the jazz ballad”, but on this album she shows she is much more than a balladeer, there’s even a bit of hip-hop flavor in her version of Paul Desmond‘s “Take Five”, with a rap done in 5/4 from Jay Kin). It was unexpected, but it was definitely welcome on an album that ranges from the acid jazz vibe of the late 60’s and early 70’s to bebop. Taylor shows her experience throughout this album, able to wrap herself around the music and making it her own, and the majority of this album features original Taylor/Murphy compositions and whether it’s a passionate love song or one with a hint of the blues, you listen to her and believe in it because she most likely has felt these things, you can hear the joy, fear, pain, and pleasure with every word, line, and verse.
In My Own Voice was recorded live in the studio with everyone in the same room at one time, and it’s a probably good indication of what her live shows are like. Let’s hope she’ll perform at jazz festivals next year, showing her old fans what they’ve come to see and hear and showing new fans that all one needs to find is a powerful jazz singer who knows their craft. Taylor is someone who knows and honors the craft of jazz.
When a new album comes across my way by an artist I hadn’t heard before, I get semi-upset (not really) that I hadn’t heard of them before. Fortunately if I really like them, I’ll want to hunt down their previous work, and I can say that about Stephen Wilkinson, a British bloke who goes by the simple one-word moniker Bibio, and he makes one-man music.
His new, third album is called Vignetting The Compost, has him creating all of the sounds heard and what hit me at first was how lo-fi and raw it sounded. It immediately reminded me of some of the surf movie soundtracks I’ve heard over the years, a bit of rock and pop with a love for folk sensibilities. In Bibio’s case it probably comes from his upbringing, but it’s the kind of music that brings to mind a sense of freedom that was once heard in those songs, representing that era very well. The lo-fi quality comes from the fact that, according to his bio, he uses cassette decks, a half-broken sampler, dictaphones, and experimental ways of affecting sounds, so the end result is different audio textures that is nice to hear in a time when twisting sounds is often done in an artificial/computerized way. “Flesh Rots, Pip Sown” opens the album as water cascades downs the falls and makes ready for the sun to come up and greet the day, at least that’s how I hear it. The entire album has that earthy quality where you can imagine dirt and dust collecting on the instruments, but what you hear within your assumed muck is well-written music done by someone who attempts and succeeds at capturing a dated sound without him sounding dated. That can be a challenge for some artists who don’t seem to grasp the power of a certain style, but he does. Each layer of his music pulls you in and never wants to let you go, and you never want to lose its grasp as you hear his guitar work in “The Ephemeral Bluebell”, “Over The Far And Hills Away”, or “The Garden Shelter”, nor do you want these songs to become too electrified (although it would work perfectly in the hands of other artists).
Bibio, at least with this album, is folksy, wholesome, surfy, melancholy, and colorful. It’s the sound of someone who makes music with cassette players. In the past those tapes would go into a shoebox and perhaps never heard of again. It has a personal feel, perhaps I’m applying my sensibility to the cassettes of yesteryears, but it’s a welcome change from the too-clean sounds of today.
(Vignetting The Compost will be released on February 3, 2009.)
Circus is far from sounding anything like Lenny Kravitz‘s Circus, which is a far better album than this leftover bowl of tripe stew. It’s warmed over dookie and no amount of sugar sprinkles will make this shit sound sweet (thank you Jemini The Gifted One.) So what’s on it? Well, Britney Spears sings, again in a higher pitch so that her music sounds less womanly and more girly, even the ballads sound like a pre-teen who is ready to grow up. But is she? Through the crap, it seems obvious that she wants to reveal that she is a woman with heart and someone who cares, but is afraid that being stuck in the spotlight has and will hold her back. The liner notes claim she had a hand in five of the tracks, but I’m not sure what input she actually had in them, but most of the album is done from an autobigraphical point of view, as if she’s telling her family, friends, and world that she lives in a circus, and someone forgot to clean up the elephant shit. To be honest, it works in that sense but the music isn’t adventurous, risky, or mindblowing, it’s all been done before by everyone from Pink to Kelly Clarkson, it sounds more American Idol-influenced than the music of someone who eventually influenced others to follow her “lead”. She has worked with the best, but this album features names that, outside of Danja, don’t really stand out. It’s a risk for her to be releasing music like this at this stage in her career with people who simply want to add Spears to their growing resumes, and that’s fine, we all network.
But… for someone who is pushing herself to be better than best, and as someone who people feel is this generation’s Madonna, she really doesn’t have the voice, material, or producers to deserve that status. It sounds like everyone else who is out there, and yet people still view her as one of the best. Maybe she is one of the best, but it’s certainly not as a musical artist.
The duo of Darunam/Milan have made music together for a few years, and with The Last Angel On Earth (64-56 Media) they feel that the power of the world can be found through spirituality. They do this by combining elements of pop, electronic music, and various worldly sounds to create a fusion that will please fans of Trilok Gurtu and the more recent works of Peter Gabriel. The album goes through different movements, the path of which is indicated in the track titles:
Lyrically they get into the temptations that exist within the world, and the lure of the entities that create ones sense of spirituality. It’s an adventurous road that will take the listener through a lot of emotions, as if you’re traveling throughout the countries gathering the elements and information towards your final place. It requires a deep listen, and will suit fans who may feel that today’s music is missing a little extra something.
Chuck Bernstein is a member of the group Monk’s Bones (whom I reviewed awhile back) but is also a musician and songwriter who gets into his muse and comes up with some incredible and often very interesting music. For Delta Berimbau Blues (CMB) his instrument of choice is the Brazilian Berimbau, but he has tweaked it to where it becomes similar to a Diddley Bow, and it has a built-in wah-wah! Can a one-string instrument pull off a full blues album? It can when you’re accompanied by some powerful musicians, including Greg Douglass, Sister Debbie Sipes, Sam Bevan, Roswell Rudd, and Lisa Kindred among many others.
The songs are either duets or trio situations where Bernstein’s playing, often coming off like Indian drones, backs up a guitarist or bassist. It gets more interesting when two berimbau players are playing with each other, as is the case with “Viola Foot Stompin’ Blues”. It feels more rural and arguably more backwoods, but you can imagine the crickets and the creek in the back as you hear these. Delta Berimbau Blues is not your typical blues album, but it’s that reason alone that makes this a worthwhile listen, as it takes the blues out of its normal home, takes it to Brazil and brings it back, showing that any sound can be turned into the blues with the right knowledge and appreciation from the best musicians.
(Delta Berimbau Blues will be released on January 27, 2009.)
Leonisa Ardizzone, depending on the song, tends to sound like across between Sade Adu and Carole King, with a touch of Michael Franks. While she is being promoted as a jazz artist, she could easily be a pop or folk artist if she wanted to, as her vocals are quite versatile. On The Scent Of Bitter Almonds (self-released) she performs with her quintet through a nice range of material, including “Take The A Train”, “”Well You Needn’t”, “Scary Face” (written by her drummer, Justin Hines, “On The Ropes” (written by her guitarist, Chris Jennings, and her own “The Architect’s Lament”. Her voice is very lively, able to create an instant mood without any vocal theatics that often make some jazz singers go beyond overboard. She is subtle yet effective, and with a quintet that includes Hines, Jennings, Bob Bowen (bass), Bob Sabin (bass), and Jess Jurkovic (piano), they allow each other to challenge and take each other into places often unexpected. “Midnight Sun” is a song that one could easily find Steely Dan pulling off. I was at first put off by the drum solo in the song, which is odd for me since I’m a huge fan of them (drum solos that is), but it made me think of the song in a rock fashion where it’s thrown in as a way to create an unexpected sense of momentum. Hines does that before the quintet goes right back into the theme of the song again before it feels as if they pulled the plug unexpectedly, Ellington-style.
The Leonisa Ardizzone Quintet sound like a group I would enjoy in a live setting, and it would have been a nice bit of extra if she had added a live recording as a bonus track (maybe next time). The Scent Of Bitter Almonds is a vocal jazz album that doesn’t get stale during its duration, which for me is a very good thing.
Jazz pianist Pamela Hines has impressed me with her last two albums with the kind of playing that I feel should put her up there with some of the greats, as she’s already up there. For her new album she takes the Christmas route and eases up a bit in her approach, but it allows the listener to hear the subtleties in her playing with an applied, delicate touch.
New Christmas (Spice Rack) may sound short with a 9-song line-up, but five of the songs clock in at over five minutes, one that comes close to reaching the seven minute mark (“Custom Santa”). The playing that I found on previous albums is still here, hearing her solo in “What Chance Have I?” makes one hope this will be the kind of Christmas music that will be on mainstream airwaves for the next forty years. For this album she brings in a group of three ladies who alternate with eack track, and then coming together for two tracks. Patricia Williamson, April Hill, and Monica Hatch have all had their share of awards and accolates, and in these songs they show why they’ve made an impression on thousands of jazz fans. I was most impressed by Williamson’s voice, who can do a bit of jazz scat with ease (as she does in “Gift Of Giving”) and then caress the mic ever so nicely in “Custom Santa”. Add to this the great rhythm section of bassist Dave Landoni and drummer Miki Matsuki, and Hines was definitely with good company during these sessions, and that strength only helps make Hines play like the professional she is. Regardless of the holiday, Hines is the kind of player that should be heard year round, and in a better world she would be world famous.
Rebecca Cline & Hilary Noble are a duo that like their jazz to be played with funk and strengf (yes, that’s spelt “s-t-r-e-n-g-f”). Cline (piano) and Noble (saxophone) are a part of the group Enclave, and in fact this is is a new Enclave album but perhaps by placing actual names and faces on the cover, people may be able to identify with them and their music a bit more. The album is called Enclave Diaspora (self-released), and it is an energetic album that is pretty much Latin jazz at its best, showing its heavy influence from New Orleans and its connection to the Caribbean. It seems that Hurricane Katrina has allowed many musicians to go back and strengthen their love of jazz and one of the cities that it calls home, and this album is full of the richness that makes this music great. What moves me the most is the fact that most of these songs are original compositions, so in many ways this is Cline’s and Noble’s way of thanking the places and cultures that offered this music, while adding their little bit to the push for continuity for more. “Chorinho pre lemãnjá”, “Iyá Modupué”, and “Nameless” sound like the kind of wicked hybrids that would’ve fit perfectly on albums by Herbie Mann, Ramsey Lewis (Cline’s Fender Rhodes solo in “Rue de Buci” is reminscent of Lewis’ work from the early to mid 70’s), and Herbie Hancock (think “Sly” from Head Hunters if it was lead by Gato Barbieri or The Fania All-Stars). It’s non-stop energy from start to finish, and the only think that holds this back from being perfect is the elementary looking CD cover that gives it a slightly cheap look, far from what the music itself suggests. In truth the cover is secondary, and yet it might hold people back from wanting to buy this. Look past the cover and find out why I like the music so much. Then make your own cover.
It would be a bit foolish to say that in the vast world of recorded jazz, you still have to look for music of substance. Considering how much jazz is released on a regular basis, there’s more than enough music to go around, but sometimes they end up bring nothing but sonic clutter. Gene Ess is not clutter, in fact for some it may be the jazz album you’ve been seeking for for most of your life.
He was born Gene Shimosato, a cool enougn name right there but that’s besides the point. For now he is known as Gene Ess, which in a way is cool in itself but that will leave potential listeners and fans to question “what’s Ess?” Now you know. He could’ve been Gene @, and people would’ve asked “at what?” At his music, that’s what, and his music is incredibly played and recorded on his brand new album, Modes Of Limited Transcendence (Simp). Ess produced this alongside engineer Randy Crafton and mix engineer Sal Mormando, and on top of that, Ess mastered this disc himself. The Japanese tend to have a keen ear, and as I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Olver Sacks Musicophilia I learned that there is a strong belief that some ethnicities do have a better sense of listening and comprehension, although it is uncertain still as to how this happened. Is it with the ear canal, or the hairs within the ear? That’s besides the point, for we are talking about Gene Ess.
Ess plays the guitar in a Pat Martino-style occasionally offering a few Pat Metheny touches, or at least this is what I hear. Whether it’s a luxurious solo or something that plays along the piano melody (courtesy of Tigran Hamasyan, he plays with such elegance and grace that you wished he would record more so you could buy his entire discography, or hopes he performs at a nearby jazz venue for two weeks so you could skip meals and check out whatever they play. Then there’s the incredible rhythm section of Tyshawn Sorey drums and Harvie S. (no relation to Ess, on bass), and these guys play with the kind of finesse reminiscent of some of the best jazz albums of the 1970’s, when freeform could weave itself into bebop or bop while mellowing out in the ECM range. “Messiaen Shuffle” is a track that combines all of these elements into an energetic song where you can visualize the walk and strut created by Ess while the traffic and disgrunted faces (created beautifully by Hamasyan, S, and Sorey) are put in view. The tone that Ess has is most welcome, not distorted nor complex, not unlike Larry Coryell. The contrasts and coloring of these musicians are not so much precise, but… how do I say this, it’s an exciting listen to not only hear musicians play like this, but to hear it recorded and mixed so well.
Keen musicianships, keen ears, keen love of jazz and music, and creativity in general. If you welcome these things, welcome Gene Ess into your mental vicinity. One of the best jazz albums of 2008.
While some people don’t enjoy cover version, I enjoy them if they are creative and the artist makes an attempt in trying something different. It doesn’t have to be that way, because a good song is a good song, but when given a new hat, give it a new twist. Wave Mechanics Union are a trio consisting of Ryan Fraley, Ralph Johnson and vocalist Lydia McAdams, and for their debut album they decide to tackle progressive and classic rock and give it a jazz motif. Second Season (HX Music), the title of which is taken from Led Zeppelin‘s “The Rain Song” (covered here in an excellent arrangement), gives these classic songs a fresh set of clothes to change into, not only showing their love of the material but also how fine these musicians are. Wave Mechanics Union are a trio that collaborate with a wide range of musicians, including horn players and a string quartet so their sound is full and rich to the point of no return. A lot of these songs are often thought of with a penis attached, so to have them performed with a woman singing them is a welcome chance, especially upon hearing the war chestnut “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (The Who) or “Killer Queen” (Queen). They even get into Rush‘s “Available Night” to where you might not even recognize it as a Rush song. For those who were raised on these songs, the jazzy approach may sound like something Norah Jones would be comfortable in doing, but McAdams voice’ is stronger and perhaps more comforting. One of the song’s defining moments has to be their cover of Yes‘ “Heart Of The Sunrise”, which truly sounds like something you’d hear on a high school band album if high school bands were this cool and skilled. Screw the Airmen Of Note, this is Wave Mechanics Union!
Some songs are given the instrumental treatment. The Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby” features an arrangement that makes it sound like something you’d hear on a Stan Kenton (who is referred to in the liner notes) or Johnny Harris album, while Pink Floyd‘s “The Great Gig In The Sky” could have been destroyed if the upbeat (!!!) arrangement featured vocals and fortunately it doesn’t.
It’s a jazz album with a twist, one that is actually good without it being predictable. Curious to know where this group will lead us next.