Archive for January, 2011

Les McCann: The Openness of Layers

January 28, 2011

Les McCann Invitation to Openness. Atlantic; 1971
McCann Layers. Atlantic; 1974

Newly-electrified American pianist Les McCann employed Latin percussion and woodwinds for the lengthy workouts of his 1971 release, Invitation to Openness. Side one is solely comprised of “The Lovers”, a twenty-six minute jam in G-major where the oboe lines of Yusef Lateef shine before the wah-wah interjections of guitarist David Spinozza. “Beaux J. Poo Boo” makes for a feisty rhythmic showcase, with the fluid fills of drummer Alphonse Mouzon trading off with the handiwork of percussionist Ralph McDonald. McCann himself finally takes center stage on “Poo Pye McGoochie (and his friends)”, pinching out cosmic lines of synth that would tickle Zawinul or Hancock with envy.

McCann opted for a tighter approach on his 1974 release, Layers, which scaled back the jams to focus more exclusively on his compositions and keyboard playing. Though the two sides of the original LP were subtitled “Songs from Boston” and “Songs from My Childhood”, the music actually alternates between two reoccurring themes across both sides.

Coming first is the tranquil “Sometimes I Cry”, a Rhodes sketch thematically bested by the rising tides of “Soaring (at Dawn)”; later recapitulated on the flipside with “Lets Play” and “Soaring (at Sunset)”. Dividing that softness is a heavier theme unveiled on this album’s key-stacked centerpiece, “The Dunbar High School Marching Band”, which soars atop a chromatic riff that recirculates in the funkified “Harlem Buck Dance Strut” and the cosmified “It Never Stopped In My Home Town”.

The cover to Layers depicting the eye of a speaker glowing red at the core – is a most befitting visual accompaniment to the music contained within.


The Mysterious Travels of Weather Report

January 21, 2011

Weather ReportWeather Report. Columbia; 1971
Weather Report
Mysterious Traveller. Columbia; 1974

Weather Report – the everlasting jazz/rock congregate led by Miles graduates Joe Zawinul (keyboards) and Wayne Shorter (saxophone) – commenced in 1971 to further mine the fluid atmospherics which they’d pioneered with their benefactor on In a Silent Way. With Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš, Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira and stateside drumming extraordinaire Alphonse Mouzon onboard, Weather Report takes measurable strides towards idiomatic unification.

“Umbrellas” bursts open with a primal Mouzon thrust that’s swiftly intercepted by the fuzzy strings of Vitouš. The bulk of the tune, however, finds the rhythm section muffled behind Airto’s tambourine spray and Zawinul’s springy sound-drops. Shorter takes the lead on “Seventh Arrow”, veering from soprano filigree on the first half to alto blasts towards the end; all revved by the manic bashing of Mouzon, with Zawinul growing ever-dissonant in the final seconds. Bookending side one are Zawinul’s initial forays into synthesized serenity: the icy, echo-laden “Milky Way” and the warmer diffusion of “Orange Lady”. Highlighting the flipside is the Miles-centric “Waterfall”, in which the Rhodes flakes of Zawinul conjure a glowing, fluid imagery akin to the Kilimanjaro/Silent Way sessions.

Following the half-live I Sing the Body Electric (1972) and funkified jamming of Sweetnighter (1973), Weather Report triumphantly hit their stride with Mysterious Traveller (1974), on which the Zawinul/Shorter frontline were now augmented by Alphonso Johnson (bass), Ishmael Wilburn (drums) and a then-fiftysomething Brazilian percussionist, Dom Um Romão. Zawinul had extended himself to an array of instruments – including kalimba, melodica, tamboura, clay drum and tack piano – that are tempting to decipher from the numerous layers of “Nubian Sundance”, a dense and lively extravaganza drawing from all corners: part folkloric fanfare; part Olympian anthem.

Zawinul’s quirkier side reigns on “Cucumber Slumber”, in which springy, trebly knob emissions pierce and jab from all ends of the speaker, replete with the crafty-handed underpinnings of Johnson. The art of ‘silent construction’ is beheld on the final track, “Jungle Book”, where motifs collide from the recesses of space – ocarina, sitar, tabla – to ensnarl a faint line of vocalese; alternately thrown afoot by a guitar/flute figure in a brisk G/F tonality. Best of all, however, is the slow glow of “Scarlet Woman”, in which the soprano spurts of Shorter flare like a crimson frock amidst the dark, lucid backdrops of Zawinul, weaving a most seductive sonic impression.

Scarlet Vision: One Man’s Descent into Psychological Blindness

January 18, 2011

The old adage that nice guys finish last has rarely been acknowledged in popular film or song. Entertainment reflects an idealized worldview, and the things which women profess in their rational daily states reflect ideals which don’t factor into the irrational state of passion. Simply put, safe and practical ‘nice guys’ don’t invoke the nature of passion that dark and edgy ‘bad boys’ do. Only since the close of the 20th century – when men’s esteem coach F.J. Shark observed how “nice guys are always on the shopping lists when going into the social marketplace, but they’re never in the shopping carts when coming out” (1) – have lifestyle experts admitted that women do indeed prefer bad boys. Yet a film released back at the close of the Second World War defied public delusions, albeit ominously.

In Fritz Lang’s 1945 film noir Scarlet Street, the meek, middle-aged Christopher Cross summons his inner-White Knight upon seeing a young woman, Kitty, enscuffled below a streetlight. While becoming acquainted, he swiftly falls for her, only to be swindled, for Kitty is not the angel that Christopher envisioned. Yet he grants her even further leeway, only to reap vehement scorn, which finally drives him over the edge.

In the modern parlance of MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), Christopher would be viewed as a ‘mangina’: a typical nice guy who supplicates to women (2). His romanticized view of women is so ingrained that he falls in love at whim and deludes himself amidst the pratfalls. Consequently, women use him up immeasurably. Not only is there Kitty, the nubile harlot who usurps Christopher’s professional credits at her pimp’s behest; there’s also Adele, Christopher’s scolding, unappreciative battleaxe of a wife. Sadly, Christopher’s initial good intentions beget mental and financial fallout, as proof to the old adage.

Both these women direct their passions elsewhere, and their choices expose the feminine psyche with bluntness rare to film. Masculine virtue in the eyes of Kitty is embodied in the man who functions as her pimp, Johnny. Smarmy and scheming up to his timely disposal, we first witness Johnny doubling as Kitty’s street-corner assailant. Adele, meanwhile, is stuck on her presumably deceased first husband, for whom reverence is bestowed with blindness to fact. But upon finding that he and Adele are finished, Christopher lapses in a heartbeat and proposes to Kitty. There’s a name for doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time, and indeed it becomes Christopher.

As one who favors objectivism over existentialism, I won’t excuse Christopher for his bad choices. In no way do I see him as some poor, hapless man who got swept into the darkened vortex of fate; just a man whose lack of dignity and restraint had the severest of consequence. Like most men, he was ill-trained in his handlings of the ‘fairer’ (sic) sex. And like most people, he’d been subconsciously hoodwinked by the ill-begotten notion of selflessness, which rendered him defenseless amidst the self-seeking women in his life. Christopher had no concept of rational self-interest, and thereby failed it when he put his identity, finances and liberty at stake – by surrendering credit on his paintings, stealing money from his place of employment, and ultimately plunging an ice-pick into Kitty.

Nice guys are typically ascribed as seeing the world through rose colored lenses. With Christopher Cross, such delusions spawned a lethal case of scarlet vision.


Chick Corea: A Crystal Fiesta

January 16, 2011

Return to ForeverReturn to Forever. ECM-1022; 1972

The premiere of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever set cross-cultural strides, with his signature Rhodes work woven into the recently imported samba style, courtesy of expat Brazilian newlyweds Airto Moreira (percussion) and Flora Purim (vocals). With four-string wunderkind Stanley Clarke and woodwindist Joe Farrell in tow, this international quintet graced their debut platter with two sonic undertakings of utmost expansion.

On their twelve-minute ‘treble’ (a title-sake piece to an eponymous album) Corea formulates a Rhodes pattern over Moreira’s indigenous brushstrokes, whereupon Farrell’s butterfly flutes and Purim’s heavenly vocalese color the landscape. They crank the heat on the second half, where Purim yelps and moans over some boiling filigree, cooked by the fluid fingers of Clarke and Corea.

The mammoth “Sometime Ago – La Fiesta” is a slow riser, with seven minutes of light twiddling serving as prelude to the seaside ambiance of “Sometime”, on which Purim, Farrell, and Corea entwine over an ever-foreboding bassline. Clarke then wipes the floor with Farrell on “Fiesta”, where samba jubilance is swept into a modulated fever.

Bisecting those sonic castles are the album’s two pearls: the lilting Purim showcase “What Game Shall We Play Today” and the Farrell/Corea sedative “Crystal Silence”; the former alight in sensual contours, and the latter adrift in rhythmless, Rhodes/sax moonlight.

The Glowing Ring of Burton

January 7, 2011

The Gary Burton Quintet (w/ Eberhard Weber)Ring. ECM 1042; 1974.

American vibes-man Gary Burton crafted an angular/autumny set of sound sketches on Ring, backed by German double-bassist Eberhard Weber and six-string wunderkind Pat Metheny. The opening “Melevia” weaves the glowing, luminous tones of Burton’s vibraphone with Metheny’s light, legato fretwork, fusing a pastel sonic impressionism. Elsewhere, the jagged meters and punctual rhythms of “Unfinished Symphony” unveils a fiery contrast between Weber’s ostinatos and the Burton/Metheny filigree. Drummer Bob Moses shines on the short and twisted “Intrude”, alternating cymbal spray with martial figures, replete with the double-tracked, oddly sinister interjections of Metheny. Highlighting this set is the vibes-lifted rendition of Weber’s signature piece, “The Colours of Chloë”, where the whole ensemble rises amidst sweeping tempos and shifting high-chords, careening to the ultimate climax.