GOGO PENGUIN, GoGo Penguin (Blue Note, 2020). Say what you will about GoGo Penguin — they are consistent. The English trio’s third release for Blue Note Records (counting a soundtrack EP they released last year) pretty muck picks up where the last full LP, A Humdrum Star, left off. Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (bass), and Rob Turner (drums) add to their “FutureJazz” oeuvre with a fresh set of tunes that are not quite full-on jazz, not quite post-rock, but definitely influenced by electronica and other modern sounds. This album, however, has more of a mellow vibe than the previous two. And while the music is still very good, it lacks that one “head bobber” that would really draw a new listener in. A tune in the same vein as “One Percent” (from the Version 2.0 album) would have provided a nice kick in the pants. That being said, the trio’s sound continues to take up a great deal of space, with tunes like “Signal in the Noise” and “F Maj Pixie” leading the charge. There’s no bad place to start learning about GoGo Penguin. Feel free to start here, and work your way back.
SOFT MACHINE, Live at the Baked Potato (MoonJune, 2020). Some music translates better live than others. Soft Machine’s sound translates very well, indeed. Recorded at Los Angeles’s Baked Potato (a room frequented by Mike Keneally), the band’s sound feels as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. All the listener has to do is settle in, and the rest of the work is done for them. John Etheridge (guitar) and Theo Travis (sax, flute, and piano) smolder along with just the right amount of intensity. The music burns, but it never gets out of control. Meanwhile, Roy Babbington (bass) and John Marshall (drums) make the music groove gracefully despite the occasional rhythmic complexity. They, too, have found a nice comfortable place within the mix. This is the gig (and recording of same) Softs fans crave: no big surprises, just a boatload of really good music, played in top-notch fashion, at a nice, intimate venue that makes for great listening from any angle.
BLAER, Yellow (Ronin Rhythm Records, 2020). One of those pleasant surprises that walks in unannounced, Blaer’s music finds a lovely groove and makes itself at home there. The music is being driven primarily by pianist Maja Nydegger, who’s riffs help to establish the tone of each song before the long and languid lead lines of Mils Fischer (sax and clarinet) and Claudio von Arx enter the gentle fray. The band’s sound alternates between ambient and groovy, sometimes blurring the line between the two, thanks to the rhythmic efforts of Simon Iten (bass) and Phillippe Ducommun (drums). Blaer’s music is smooth and tranquil with a mildly jagged edge that ensures the listener is paying attention. Read or enjoy a meal to it, but expect to do the occasional head bob as you do so.
BILL LASWELL, Against Empire (M.O.D. Reloaded, 2020). Bill Laswell continues to expertly blur the lines between preconceived musical genres with his latest effort, a powerhouse display of acoustic/electronic jazz-infused, dub-oriented rock-related suites in four movements. Each movement is anchored by a different drummer: Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Hideo Yamaki (Japan’s top drummer), and Satoyasu Shomura (a highly regarded Japanese pop performer). But that is merely the beginning. These tracks are combined to make a statement against much of what is taking place in the United States today. In short, Laswell and his fellow musicians (which include keyboardist Herbie Hancock and sax legend Pharoah Sanders) have created an audio protest march, and it is in our best interest to take heed of what’s being said. It should surprise no one that the grooves are tight and the leads are powerful, emotional, and spot-on. This is one of those performances better experienced than written about. And the experience will be quite transformative.
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