ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS, The Boy Named If (Capitol). For his 32nd release, Elvis Costello has gone full Elvis Costello, reminding us of what made us love him in his punk/new wave prime of the late 70’s. Loaded with energy, passion, and a hint of snark, Costello takes on the concept of blaming abstract forces (personified here by an invisible friend named “If”) for what has gone wrong with our lives. But the concept is rendered nearly irrelevant by the strength of the songs, a fact made even more impressive since none of the musicians shared the same space to bring said music to life. This is not an artist resting in his musical laurels. Rather, it is a legend showing that plenty remains in a sizable creative tank.
AIMEE MANN, Queens of the Summer Hotel (SuperEgo). Some may see this compilation as a pivot in direction for singer/songwriter Aimee Mann. But this soundtrack awaiting its theater production is hardly that. Like Miles Davis going electric, the underlying voice remains consistent, even if the contextual vehicle has changed. Mann has replaced her intelli-pop band with the sound of an orchestra, allowing the album’s story — surrounding the 1993 book Girl, Interrupted — even more room to present itself with the utmost empathy and compassion. If anyone can address the issue of mental health in women during less sympathetic times, it’s Mann. And she does, brilliantly.
COPELAND, KING, COSMA & BELEW, Gizmodrome Live (Ear Music). Not all passion projects work. Some come off as mere exercises in self-indulgence. Fortunately, Stewart Copeland — best known for his legendary turn as drummer for The Police — was smart enough to surround himself with the kind of top-tier talent that made it easier to convey the sense of joy and good fun that comes with Gizmodrome’s slightly off-kilter compositions. The band’s studio effort is kicked into a higher gear onstage, as this set will attest. Bassist Mark King, keyboardist Vittorio Cosma, and guitarist Adrian Belew amuse themselves and the audience with hot takes from The Police, King Crimson, and Klark Kent on top of what was done on the band’s album. Their chemistry solidified, the playing is even sharper, making it easy to just sit back and relay exactly what is pictured on the album’s cover.
THE OMNIFIC, Escapades (Wild Thing Records). Having two bass players in a band is not exactly a new approach (both Miles Davis and King Crimson have done it, among many others). But rare is the day that said basses make up two-thirds of a power trio. The Omnific has created a hard grooving, head-banging, blistering release with nary a guitar in sight. It’s not every day progressive rock and funk collide, but here we are with great results. The album’s pace is high-intensity interval training, with aggressive pieces tempered by slower ones, but not for long. Yet the music remains accessible and is never overwhelming. There
must be something in the water in Australia, since they seem to be producing one quality band after another. This Melbourne trio is no exception.
KHU.ÉEX’, WOOch. Bittersweet brilliance. The sweet comes from the rump-shaking grooves created via R&B, funk, ambient soundscapes, and the lyrics and spoken word of Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Northwest, particularly Alaska. The bitter comes with the knowledge that this was the last recording project of legendary keyboardist and band co-founder Bernie Worrell, who passed away just three months after these sessions were started in early 2016. Bassist and fellow band co-founder Preston Singletary, Skerik (saxophones), and Captain Raab (guitars) make the most of the tracks Bernie left behind, establishing airtight grooves and melodies amongst the organs and clavinets. The album’s title has a dual meaning, as the word itself translates to “together” in the Tlingit language, as well as recognizing Worrell for his nickname, the Wizard of WOO. A triple LP effort, WOOch is a two-hour journey most worthy of taking again and again.
HEDVIG MOLLESTAD TRIO, Ding Dong. You’re Dead. Playful and potent, bombastic and brilliant. This powerful trio brings forth another helping of innovative fusion for listeners to absorb. Mollestad’s tangy tone invokes Mahavishnu, King Crimson, metal, blues, and other soundscapes in between, all while sounding like none of them. The rhythm section is no doubt among the most adaptable out there, more than capable of keeping up with their leader to establish grooves that lead to the creation of one of the more dynamic records of 2021. Anyone seeking a slightly out of the ordinary musical adventure is well served to make a stopover here.
KICK THE CAT, Gurgle. It doesn’t get much more fun than Kick the Cat. The music is controlled mayhem in a fusion-driven package, calling on and modernizing past luminaries of the genre. Guitarist Chris Siebold is firmly in control of his Frank Zappa influences, performing fretboard wizardry worthy of Frank’s finest “stunt guitarists.” Drummer Kris Meyers (Umphrey’s McGee) nimbly brings his best jam-driven chops forward, while bassist Chris Clementine and keyboardist Vijay Tellis-Nayak run amok within the mix. The album is serious music from artists clearly not taking themselves too seriously. Rather, they prefer to let it all hang out and let the wind take them wherever it chooses, be it strictly composed or not.
NATHAN BORTON, Each Step (OA2). A nice step back in time, where guitarist Nathan Borton takes us back to that smoky nightclub for a 2 a.m. set of post-bop grooves that remind us of Joe Pass. Borton seamlessly sneaks in a couple of standards to go with his highly tasteful original tunes, deftly handled by his band. Diego Rivera (sax) and Chris Glassman (bass trombone) play rock solid leads as well. A quality set of high-class jazz.
BELEDO, Seriously Deep (MoonJune Records). The epitome of tasteful guitar and keyboard playing, Beledo plays fluid and graceful lead lines, sneaking in the occasional Allan Holdsworth-like angularity. His melodies are free to go where he pleases thanks to the solid foundation laid by bassist Tony Levin and drummer Kenny Grohowski. Their signature voices compliment what is being said out front in the finest fashion. The smooth tones played throughout still carry solid weight, even as they give the listener more than enough room to breathe and take them all in. A solid entry from a solid musician.
CIRDECSONGS GET(S) BACK
Like a few million others, I found myself rooted to my television and Disney-plus for three consecutive nights while Get Back, Peter Jackson’s definitive documentary of the Beatles during their 1969 creation of Let it Be, unfurled before us almost as though it was in real time.
We were treated to the trials and tribulations that came with this album’s inception, rehearsal, and ultimate recording. At its climax, the film took us to the rooftop of the band’s Apple Studio on London’s Saville Row. Once there, The Beatles brought us their final live performance, a 30-plus minute jam that drew praise and ire from the unsuspecting fans and non-fans in the immediate area.
As I watched, I scribbled down a few notes. It’s not a review as much as it is s series of observations. Not everyone saw the film the same way I did. I guess that’s what the comments are for. I also took a minute to look at my thoughts a couple of weeks after the fact. That’s where the additional notes come from.
Here are my thoughts. All three parts are covered, so pace yourself.
* The quality of the film is stunning. It might not look like it was filmed yesterday, but it’s very, very close.
* Had I been in the band, I don’t know how enthused I would’ve been working in that large, open space like Twickenham Studios. It’s a massive echo chamber. Rooms like that bug me. But what do I know?
* Yoko’s presence also bugs me. George has friends there, but they maintain their distance. Yoko acts like she and John are literally joined at the hip. Boundaries, woman! Sheesh!
* The initial idea was incredible, even for the Beatles. New material for an album and a live gig — all being filmed — in two weeks? That doesn’t feel realistic. Glad I’ve never had to work like that.
* No real contention until Day 3, when Paul seemed to be getting frustrated with George, who goes passive and tries to acquiesce to Paul (or at least pretend to), with mixed results.
* Hearing “Get Back” take shape as it comes out of the ether is a really cool moment. George and Ringo knew Paul was onto something, and loved it.
* The band is feeling the loss of Brian Epstein, who kept them disciplined and productive. Paul seems to feel that the band is spinning its collective wheels more often than not.
* Material from All Things Must Pass, Abbey Road, and Paul’s solo albums were trying to make their way to the surface. And Paul’s piano build of “The Long and Winding Road” was gorgeous!
* Hey, guys? George is walking out! George, where you going? George? George? Oh, crap …
* SHUT UP, YOKO!!! NOBODY wants to hear your alleged singing voice!!!
Listen: I’m no full-on Yoko basher. I don’t say she’s the reason The Beatles broke up or any silliness like that. The breakup had a few moving parts, and is much more nuanced than the presence of a band member’s girlfriend. And I get that her singing was a goof during a jam. So no harm, no foul.
To me, the issue was a question of professionalism. That being said, I’m quite certain she was sitting next to John all the time for a reason. My guess is that she served as a buffer between John and Paul, as tensions were pretty high within the group at this time. So in a way, it may have been a GOOD thing she was there. But I’ll never know for sure, since John isn’t around to answer the question.
* The “Yoko Factor” is addressed right off the bat. She does alter the band’s dynamic, whether one chooses to believe it or not.
* The “private” conversation between John and Paul — mostly about George, who’s still AWOL — really humanizes the band. It also helps generate a bit of empathy for George, who might’ve been feeling like a third wheel within the writing/playing dynamic. The guys feel for him, but they want what they want, while each is trying to defer leadership of the band to the other to avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
* I really feel for Ringo, who seems to just want to get on with it, already! At times he seems positively BORED with all the drama going on around him. I can’t say I blame him.
* George comes back (duh!) and seems to be as silent as ever at first. But nobody is pestering him, so I guess he’s all right. He does finally chime in during some playbacks, which is good. And he gets more vocal as we go forward. John and Paul finally seem to hear him!
* Had this been a reality show, I’m sure the “George left” segment would have REALLY been played up. “Will he come back? What will the band do without him?” But we know the history, so there wasn’t a lot of suspense there. That being said, this is the part where the band really digs in, and that makes it a very interesting watch.
* The band seemed more inspired by the move to Apple Studios, but that could just be editing. I, for one, felt MUCH better about moving to the more intimate space that doesn’t sound like a massive echo chamber.
* Billy Preston wins the “Best Timing” award, showing up precisely when he was needed … by accident! The look on Paul’s face when Billy plays his first riff on “I Got a Feeling” is worth the price of admission. Billy was the ultimate breath of fresh air the Beatles needed.
* It was good to see the band have a sense of humor about the endless stories being written about them, especially considering the number of falsehoods they contained.
* Call me an old fogey, but how cool is it to see all this music going down to tape, as opposed to seeing it as input on a computer screen?
* Recording “Get Back” has been the highlight of the session so far. The guys are really in tune with each other, and having fun.
* The stage is being set for the rooftop concert. It just gets more interesting from here …
I don’t have a lot of extra thoughts here past feeling vindicated by my Yoko theory. One thing was certain: I was fully invested in what was taking place, to the point of occasionally talking to the screen like the band could hear me.
* We open with family members scattered throughout the recording space. This I don’t have an issue with, since this is clearly Family Time before the serious work starts. Everyone seems to have brought someone with them.
* Heather Eastman (Linda’s young daughter) doing her best Yoko impression is a hoot! She knows what she’s doing, too. She cuts her eyes right at Yoko while she “sings!”
* Three days short of the live performance, and the band is free and loose. It’s nice to see.
* It was also nice to see Paul and Ringo enthusiastically support George while he works out “Old Brown Shoe.”
* While I’m on the subject, this is where George really starts to assert himself. The rest of the band pays attention, which is, again, great to see.
* Once again, Billy Preston is the tonic to all musical ailments. He truly is the fifth Beatle. John in particular makes sure his presence is known and felt.
* Whatcha smoking there, Paul? Is it helping?
* Allen Klein starts to enter the picture. You can almost see the shadow starting to envelop the band.
* Paul is doing his damndest to turn the live show into a serious Thing. Problem is, he seems to be alone in this sentiment. As the Apollo astronauts said, John has “Go Fever.” He’s not worried about a grand performance. Everyone seems a bit clueless about what they want to do with all the film footage as it relates to the album.
* You can tell when John and Paul are comfortable with a new song, because they start getting completely goofy as they play it, like “Two of Us” being sung with their teeth clenched.
* The initial “What the hell …?” look from the people on street level when the band starts playing on the roof is priceless. It doesn’t take long for people in neighboring buildings to catch on and make it to this and other rooftops. Most people seem cool with it, but there are a couple of curmudgeons upset with the volume.
* Bonus points for keeping the guitars in tune on an obviously chilly day.
* It would’ve been nice to have some shots of Billy when he soloed. I get why they didn’t, but it’s still uncool.
* Cheese it, fellas! The cops have shown up! I hated breaking up events like these when I was on the Job, especially if the band was good. It’s possible that I might have occasionally dragged my feet a little before engaging the band. Well, I’m sure the Beatles could handle any fine levied on them.
* I’m surprised the cops were willing to have their faces shown while they tried to break up the show. I’m assuming they had to sign some kind of release, since they’re identified by name.
* This was the Beatles last live performance. Since they did it on a roof, I’m trying desperately not to make a joke about going out on top. Oops … sorry.
A confession: I’ve never seen the Let it Be film, so I’m unable to do a “compare and contrast.” But I have a hunch that Peter Jackson’s film will prove to be the definitive statement about the recording of this album. It’s nicely edited and give a nice “you are there” vibe.
I would’ve loved to see a film like this for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band , as that is the album that is credited for changing rock music as it was known. That being said, this document is more than satisfactory. I’ll be watching it again before long. And I swear, I’m not out to bash Yoko.
THE BEATLES, Let it Be: Special Edition (UMG/Apple Corps Limited). Countless words have been written about this album, the last official release from The Beatles (though not the last recorded, which was Abbey Road). Many of those words were written not so much about the band, but the influence of producer Phil Spector, who oversaw the mix of this album, including the addition of some of this famous “wall of sound” touches, much to the chagrin of many Beatlemaniacs.
Those fans were happy to hear Let it Be … Naked in 2003, which came closer to capturing the “live in the studio” aesthetic Paul McCartney had sought to capture when the album was originally released in 1970. in 2009, the album was re-released again with a fresh remaster, which gave the album even more presence. With the new Let it Be: Special Edition box set, things are taken up yet another notch, thanks to a fresh remix by Giles Martin. And there’s so much more.
Martin’s new mix is more “in the moment” than ever, featuring a bit more separation between the instruments and voices, and a nice touch of “air” that gives the listener a chance to feel like he’s in the room with the band. As has been the case with Martin’s other remixes, we are treated to more details we couldn’t hear or were buried by previous mixes. It’s nice to hear a 50-year-old mix sound like it was recorded last Friday.
The box contains six discs total, which includes two remarkable CDs worth of rehearsals and jams that help point the way to not only this album, but Abbey Road as well. Disc Four is the Get Back LP mixed by Glyn Johns. It provides yet another interesting point of view for this project, but it can be understood why The Beatles opted not to use it. It’s not bad. It’s just not quite … it.
Disc 5 is the Let it Be EP, which offers up different takes and angles from the songs included on the final LP. Once again, we are allowed to feel like we are part of the process as we listen to the band chat with one another as they seek to get the music to go where they feel it needs to go. It’s a fascinating listen. Disc 6 offers up the album via blu-ray. And to top it all off, the package also contains a fantastically detailed hardcover book destined to keep readers quite busy indeed.
Like any box set, Let it Be is geared primarily toward completists with musical FOMO (fear of missing out). That being said, it would be a shame to skip over the new mix believing one has heard all that is required of this album. It is well worth checking out.
ZAPPA, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Zappa Records). How does one encapsulate a 100-plus album career into four sides of vinyl? Where the official soundtrack of Alex Winter’s documentary of Frank Zappa is concerned, not too badly at all!
This is not to say this collection is complete or comprehensive. It isn’t. What it does do, however, is give new fans a chance to follow the career arc of one of the most important composers of the 20th century, from his first doo-wop sounding recordings — which come off as relatively simple — to his highly sophisticated classical compositions being played by talented orchestras just before Zappa died in 1993. And most points in between.
The LPs are well-paced, as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music available in the Zappa catalog. The first two-and-half sides are all about giving the uninitiated time to settle in and absorb the music’s increasing complexity and sophistication. The real transition occurs when the finale of The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky makes its presence known, followed by a soundbite from Zappa himself explaining that he has essentially dismissed rock music as a listener. From there, we’re off and running!
There’s more than enough music here to help a casual listener decide whether or not to become a fan. Meanwhile, fans have a chance to remember why Zappa’s music is so meaningful. Record 5 contains the music written for the film by John Frizzell, which is quite lovely primarily because he does NOT try to emulate Zappa. The last word is given to Frank via a beautiful rendition of “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” It’s poetic that the track — recorded live — fades rather than ends, because Zappa’s music is forever. The inference here is that this composition goes on without end. Perfect.
BENT KNEE, Frosting. No one will ever accuse avant-pop artists Bent Knee of treading musical water. With every successive album, there is a pivot for the listener absorb. And with every successive album, there is a great payoff. Frosting is no exception. The sonic shift might be blamed on COVID, which forced the band to work on the album individually, as opposed to their usual collaborative “all in one room” approach. As such, we come to learn more about the band as individuals. Keyboardist and primary vocalist Courtney Swain now shares the singing duties with Jessica Kion (bass), Chris Baum (violin), and Ben Levin (guitar), making an already colorful musical palate into a true kaleidoscope. Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums) and Vince Welch (guitar, production) also expand their voices by way of additional electronics, adding spice to an already delicious mix. This is Bent Knee at their most innovative. It’s a shame this album had to end.
THE WORLD IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE & I AM NO LONGER AFRAID TO DIE, Illusory Walls. Indie rockin’, atmospheric colored music with progressive rock tendencies. This is an incredibly ambitious album from a truly inspired band. The breakout comes quickly and never lets up throughout its 70-plus minute run time. The guitars run from clean and reverb-drenched to brutal de-tuned metal, but never seem out of place. Basslines groove hard in lockstep with the drums. Ethereal keyboards and steady vocal harmonies float over the din to create a glorious sonic mix. Sit down, put on your headphones, and let the sounds wash over you.
GATES, Here and Now. A six-song ep whose only flaw is not being six songs longer. The New Brunswick, New Jersey band declared itself emerging from “tumultuous darkness” after five years between releases. That sound is conveyed in the indie rock grooves with post-rock overtones carried by lush melodies. The music draws you in right away and doesn’t let go. And like a favorite amusement park ride, it’s over before you know it. Here’s hoping there is more to come, and soon.
WELCOME 2 AMERICA: SOLIDIFYING PRINCE’S LEGACY
PRINCE, Welcome 2 America (NPG, 2021). Posthumous releases are tricky. While hardcore fans will clamor for any- and everything their favorite artists recorded after the artist’s passing, cynics will often sense little more than a money grab. The artist didn’t release this material for a reason, they say. Best it remain unreleased.
Still, the estates of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Miles Davis have done a respectable job of unearthing and releasing material that only adds to the artist’s lore and further solidifies their already rock-solid legacies.
It’s time to add Prince to that list.
No doubt millions of words have already been written about the superstar and his legendary vault containing dozens of albums worth of unreleased material. It’s possible Prince would’ve happily dug into this treasure trove and doled out gem after gem for years. But his sudden and unexpected passing in 2016 left us wondering what would become of this material. Lucky for us, the music appears to have fallen into the right hands.
Retro-deluxe releases for classic albums like 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign ‘O’ The Times have already been released. It’s relatively easy to add bonus material to a classic. But now we have an entirely new album, Welcome 2 America, which Prince recorded, assembled, completed, and then basically abandoned by the time it was ready to be played live.
While fans would’ve been thrilled to hear the album in “real time,” Prince was already on to other things. The man was not one to rest on his creative laurels. Like Miles, his need to keep driving forward was almost a curse. Change was not only inevitable, it was necessary. Lucky for us, the album was still in place, waiting for its moment in the sun.
Welcome 2 America was the next step in Prince’s evolution as both musician and world citizen. The world was changing — in many ways for the worse — and the seemingly self-sequestered hit-maker had taken notice. Already well-known for his hyper-sexuality and funk-driven hits, this album shows Prince trading titillation for trepidation as he looked at the world around him and pondered its present and future.
(Fans of the “old” Prince needn’t worry. He sneaks a couple of signature “wink and nod” moments in, too.)
With the ability to play more than two dozen instruments, Prince often recorded as a self-contained entity. But it can be argued that he did some of his best work as frontman and guitarist/keyboardist while allowing others to flesh out the rhythm and support parts. Bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman are the perfect case in point, as they provide the support needed to propel many of the album’s grooves forward. Meanwhile, Prince can focus on getting the song’s (often quite deep) meanings across.
There is nothing money grab-oriented about Welcome 2 America. It is deep and introspective, but not without moments of good fun and humor. The playing is very much up to Prince standards, which is to say relatively flawless. It would be a welcome addition to any fan’s collection.
Fans looking for THE concert video experience would benefit greatly from purchasing this album’s Deluxe edition box set. Not only do you get the album on CD and LP, a packet of charming trinkets, a poster, and a 32-page book loaded with awesome photos, there is also a Blu-ray Disc containing a fantastic concert recorded at the L.A. Forum on April 28, 2011.
The show truly captures what a Prince concert was all about. The hits are there — sometimes sandwiched and re-arranged — alongside some choice covers (many of which are Prince tunes recorded by other bands) and party anthems that no doubt made it impossible for the sold-out crowd to sit down.
Once again Prince puts a fantastic band onstage with him, and has no problem stepping aside periodically to allow each member to shine. Highlights are too numerous to list here, and are best experienced without some review telling listeners what to expect.
That being said, the concert alone is worth the price of admission. It is Prince at his finest, pouring another layer of cement on an already legendary foundation.
FRANK ZAPPA, Zappa ‘88: The Last U.S. Show (Zappa Records, 2021). Just when you think you’ve heard all the acrobatics from an artist and his band, they up and prove you wrong. Prior to its implosion, Frank Zappa’s 1988 band — which featured the likes of Ike Willis (guitar and vocals), Chad Wackerman (drums), Scott Thunes (bass), and Mike Keneally (guitar and keyboards) — brought forth some of the most remarkable notes in the Zappa universe. Sadly, not everyone got a chance to see and hear it. The band played its last American show at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York on March 25 of that year. This release documents that performance. The band is beyond air-tight and firing on all cylinders. Classic tunes are taken to the next level with fresh arrangements and new approaches. Those looking for Zappa the Guitar Hero will be thrilled beyond belief, particularly on “City of Tiny Lights.” Three albums have been released featuring this particular ensemble already. This fourth release is every bit as essential.
UMPHREY’S MCGEE, You Walked Up Shaking in Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull (2021). The album title is a mouthful, but for a band like Umphrey’s McGee, it makes perfect sense. Known as one of the pre-eminent “jam” bands, UM has released a completely instrumental album that gives them a chance to do what they do best: settle into a groove, establish its identity, then walk around in it for awhile. The sounds range from semi-metal to virtual 80’s synthesizer jams, leaving plenty of room for the soloist take his time and make the composition his own, if only during those moments. Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brenan Bayliss definitely take advantage of the open space, while keyboardist Joel Cummins lies down lush soundscapes to help capture the mood of each jam. This is the music Umphre’s likes to play in between their established numbers, heard in a slightly different context. It turns out these jams stand on their own just fine.
CINDY BLACKMAN-SANTANA, Give the Drummer Some (Copperline Music Group, 2020). Anyone asking who this woman is will most definitely have the answer by the end of this record. Drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana let’s it hall hang out on Give the Drummer Some, a phrase coined by James Brown and taken to heart by the percussionist. Blackman-Santana puts her eclectic chops on display in contexts as diverse as jazz, soul, pop, rock, and fusion, constantly staying “up on the one” like nobody’s business. Cameos by the likes of John McLaughlin, Narada Michael Walden, Vernon Reid, and her husband Carlos Santana add spice to a mix that was already sizzling hot. Versatility, thy name be Cindy!
JUSTICE COW, Underglam (2021). As a band, Bent Knee has proven time and time again just how remarkably talented they are as they push avant-pop toward the stratosphere and beyond. What more people need to know is just how talented the band members are as individuals, when it is possible to hear not only what each member brings to the Bent Knee table, but what they leave off that table to save for personal exploration. Bassist/vocalist Jessica Kion drives that point home with staggering proficiency via her band, Justice Cow, and their latest effort, Underglam. Layered with lush vocals and melodies, driving beats and rhythms subtle and overt, and just enough experimentalism to keep things slightly off-balance, Kion and company have produced a modern-day Kate Bush-like masterpiece that sounds every bit as earnest and sincere as anything she might have taken to Bent Knee. This is Kion stretching out, discovering what else is out there musically, and then making the absolute most of it. This is easily one of the better records of 2021.
JOHN MCLAUGHLN, Liberation Time (Abstract Logix, 2021). The “inner mounting flame” continues to burn brightly inside guitar/fusion legend John McLaughlin. His high-energy, high-wire fretboard acrobatics continue to dazzle even in his 80th year on the planet. Liberation Time, an album recorded with the help of the likes of Gary Husband (drums and piano), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Etienne MBappe (bass), and Julian Siegel, and Roger Rossignol (piano) drives the point home nicely, informing us that McLaughlin still has a lot to say. While his technique and speed are on full display, this is not a case of McLaughlin playing fast simply for the sake of doing so. These tunes are highly lyrical with melodies that blend beautifully with the provided grooves. And while he may be a fusion legend, McLaughlin also reminds us that he’s more than capable of firing off some remarkable straight-ahead jazz, as he does with Siegel’s help on “Right Here, Right Now, Right On.” There’s plenty left in McLaughlin’s musical tank. This is a great way to join him for the journey ahead.
PERCY JONES, ALEX SKOLNICK, KENNY GROHOWSKI, TIM MOTZER, PAKT (MoonJune Records, 2021). Put four legendary powerhouse musicians in a room together and interesting things are bound to happen. Bassist Percy Jones (Brand X), guitarists Alex Skolnick (Testament), and Tim Motzer (Bandit65, Orion Tango), and drummer Kenny Grohowski (Brand X, John Zorn) entered that musical room together, and walked out with a fascinating bit of extended improvisations. The music lilts and darts, rarely giving the listener the opportunity to become musically complacent. Some jams are longer than others, but all offer up a visceral challenge that will keep listeners amused for a long time to come. While it would be equally interesting to hear what these four players could do with a set of pre-composed pieces, it is also quite interesting to hear these players in a new context, where musical magic is captured in the moment and caution is thrown to the wind.
A TRUE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER
There is a true blockbuster movie playing this summer. And I’m not talking about Black Widow.
In the summer of 1969, a major music and culture festival was held in the state of New York. The event featured a “Who’s Who?” of musical giants, playing to a huge, captive audience. It was one of the greatest concert events held in the rock era. And I’m not talking about Woodstock. The tale of this festival is lovingly told in the film Summer of Soul.
Thanks to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (drummer for The Roots), we are now able to see this incredible music festival, which took place in New York City during the same summer as the legendary music festival at Woodstock, known by nearly anyone who has explored music. The Harlem Culture Festival took place a mere 100 yards south, yet it was all but buried from common knowledge.
Like many, I have the same two questions: HOW did I NOT know about this event? And WHY on earth was it buried?
The most commonly held answer from the mainstream studios (read, mostly white executives of the time) was that making a feature out of this festival was not a viable option, due to a lack of marketability. They believed a festival featuring African-Americans playing to African-American audiences lacked the appeal of the everyday music fan. One needs very high boots indeed to wade through that level of bullshit.
Granted, I am looking at this from a retrospective point of view. Still, given the reverence offered to Jimi Hendrix for his performance at Woodstock, I find it hard to believe that musically open-minded people, regardless of ethnicity, would not find this festival every bit as compelling as Woodstock.
This film and the artists it features (Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone among them) explains about 80 percent of the music I saw in my parent’s collection throughout the 70’s. Soul, R&B, Blues, Jazz, Gospel … it’s all here in one form or another. The sound is top-notch, and the picture is above reproach.
One would think a film of this quality would have at least rated some private viewings, which no doubt would have triggered a massive “word of mouth” advertising campaign. But that didn’t happen, so the film and all its brilliance sat in a basement for decades.
I’ve said it before about other music, but this is a series of performances better heard and seen than spoken or written about. Everything in this film holds up wonderfully 50-plus years after the fact. And unlike other summer movie blockbusters, it will be difficult to remember every scene and line, which makes repeated viewings not only a necessity but a genuine pleasure.
See this film. You can go to the theater or stream it at home on Hulu.
BILLY BARNETT, Hold On (Barnwerks, 2021). This might be one of the most appropriate album titles ever, as the listener must brace for the frequent stylistic shifts guitarist (and occasional violinist) Billy Barnett brings forth on this album. Known throughout St. Louis as a blues and jazz player, Barnett shows he’s much more than that. The title track is straight out of 1967, missing only an appearance by Otis Redding; “Because of You” is a lovely bit of psychedelica; and “The Boy from Lee’s Summit” is a micro-step from Bossa Nova. And yes, many points in between are visited, even as the album clocks in at a lean 39 minutes. Strap in and enjoy the ride.
PORTICO QUARTET, Terrain (Gondwana, 2021). The best music often defies genre. Portico Quartet is highly adept at this, triangulating nicely between ambient, post-rock, and jazz without ever spending a lot of time in any of them. They also possess and sense of groove that makes it easy for the neophyte to find an element they enjoy to hold on to while the rest of the music swirls around them. It’s a deeply pleasant foreground or background soundscape that pays off even more with repeated listens. If Branford Marsalis made an album with Tortoise and Brian Eno produced, it would probably sound like this.
RUBÉN REINALDO & KELLY GARCIA, Acuarel (Freecode, 2020). Direct from Spain comes a guitar duet designed to soothe the restless soul. These guitar duets get to the very heart of the laid-back guitar duo, as Rubén Reinaldo and Kelly Garcia causally and pleasantly trade lines in Joe Pass-like fashion. The songs are constructed in a way that makes the journey far more important than the destination. Intense study reveals the skill of these two musicians, who have created an album worthy of picking apart note by note for hidden musical treasures. Or you can just put it on and let the music envelop you as it transports you to more tranquil places. Either way this is an enjoyable bit of music made for those who prefer a warm fire over flash.
ANI DIFRANCO, Revolutionary Love (Righteous Babe, 2021). Ani DiFranco is a powerhouse. For more than three decades she has worn her musical heart on her sleeve and has never been shy about making her feelings known. With Revolutionary Love, her thoughts and emotions are once again on display, but the old percussive punk-folk sound has been replaced by a smooth and seasoned groove that would fit nicely in the Stax Records catalog. The overall sound, like Ani herself, is tough but vulnerable. Tunes like the title track, “Chloroform,” and “Do or Die” are full of lyrically emotional rough edges smoothed out by the benefits of age and experience. The band even manages to sneak in an instrumental! One doesn’t to use the cliché about an artist getting better with age like a fine wine, but … yeah.
FROST*, Day and Age (InsideOut 2021). Despite its dark overall tone, Frost*’s latest effort manages to make that which seems sad remarkably catchy! Progressive rock is rarely described in terms of hooks and grooves, yet there are plenty to be found here. Jen Godfrey, Nathan King, and John Mitchell use three different drummers, each bringing their own contributions to the whole. Meanwhile, the lyrics reflect what many may be feeling during the age of pandemic, namely isolation, desperation, and the need to be free of that which plagues us internally.
COWBOYS & FRENCHMEN, Our Highway (2021). “Cinematic free-jazz” is how Cowboys & Frenchmen have chosen to describe their new record. It fits like a glove. What starts out as an avant-garde musical challenge transitions nicely into a heavy, steady groove that swings even as it pushes musical boundaries. The music is accessible even while being aggressive, with more than a couple of airy touches like “American Witness” to calm things down a bit. This is a fine record that pays off nicely when all is said and done.
MOLESOME, Are You There? (Roth-handle 2021). The most predictable thing about a Molesome album is it’s complete and utter UNpredictability! Robert Fripp often says King Crimson is not an end unto itself, but rather means to an end. Welcome to the next step in that evolution. Mattias Olsson consistently and continuously swings for the fences with every musical outing. This is no exception. This album is more based in groove than the past couple of Molesome efforts, but what’s done with those grooves simply cannot be predicted, only enjoyed. And then it shifts direction. Get used to it.
LYLE WORKMAN, Uncommon Measures (Blue Canoe Records). Multi-faceted composer/musician Lyle Workman pulls out all the creative stops for Uncommon Measures, an album of instrumental works four years in the making. The album’s sound is that of a man undertaking a labor of love and making the most of it. The album is based in the hallmarks of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and orchestral works each used to its maximum potential. Anyone capable of creating a light-hearted 9/8 groove, as Workman does to open the album, is completely worthy of our attention and respect. Some of the songs rock, while others are epic soundtrack-worthy pieces. Having drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Matt Chamberlin along with bassist Tim Lefebvre and pedal steel player Greg Leisz only up the musical ante. Workman has found his comfort zone with this release and it’s pretty much EVERYWHERE.
SANDY MCKNIGHT and FERNANDO PERDOMO, San Fernando Blitz ( 2020). A nice piece of prog-pop with an old school college rock vibe is brought forth by the vocals and bass of Sandy McKnight, along with the guitars, keyboards and drums of Fernando Perdomo. The album maintains a steady pace, while the songs are direct and to the point. The playing is honest and passionate with a touch of whimsy. This music is perfect for this duo, who appear to have found a way to keep the arrangements lean, allowing them to make the most of the song at hand without muddying up the works. It’s a fast-paced EP, so don’t let your attention wander!
RICH PELLEGRIN, Solitude (OA2). A pianist with a deft sense of touch and a good feel for melody, Rich Pellegrini goes it alone with this album of improvisations recorded over the summer of 2019. The pieces are relatively short (rarely lasting more than two minutes), but sometimes it doesn’t take long to convey the message. Pellegrini is not as raw or abstract as Keith Jarrett, finding his voice inside comfortable chords and direct single-note melodies. Pellegrini is able to make himself heard without making a lot of noise.