The party vibe was strong at this one-off concert put together by Jamaican historian Herbie Miller for Harlem Stage at Aaron Davis Hall. It was an oldschool massive, and it was as if everybody pretty much knew everybody else, friends of the seven musicians shouting out to their countrymen and getting a shout back from the stage. A strong case could be made for the contention that for the past several decades, no other country has had more talented musicians per square mile than little Jamaica, and this casual yet dazzling display of three generations of island jazz talent only bolstered that argument. Serving as bandleader was iconic, ageless guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who in his six-decade career has played with just about every legendary Jamaican musician in calypso, jazz, ska and reggae. Former Sun Ra sideman Cedric “Im” Brooks and Douglas Ewart on sax joined in representing the older generation, with pianist Orville Hammond and longtime Gil Scott-Heron percussionist Larry McDonald filling in the middle and a young-gun rhythm section of Wayne Batchelor on bass and frequent Jimmy Cliff and Monty Alexander sideman Desmond Jones on drums. Running through a set heavily stacked with old mento standards, the group were loose and conversational but buckled down when they had to, with often exhilarating results.
Jazz from Jamaica tends to be especially melodically oriented, and tonight it was Hammond holding it down with the rhythm section pushing along on the basic, soul- or blues-based changes. Often Brooks would ham it up, opening the set with an amusing if ill-advised turn on vocals, serving as a foil to Ranglin’s counterintuitive sophistication. Now 76, Ranglin has never played better: given a chance to take center stage, he chose his spots and then wailed through some strikingly intense, even piercing solos, generally eschewing the fluttery Les Paul-inflected chordal style that’s been his trademark for so long. Hammond had fewer chances to cut loose, but made the best of them, bringing a masterfully eerie noir lounge touch to the few minor-key songs in the set. Brooks and Ewart were remarkably similar, each showing off a soulful, slowly crescendoing, thoughtful style that gave their cohorts ample opportunity to contribute or, in the case of Ranglin, echo and bend a phrase into a completely unexpected shape.
At their most boisterous, Jones would get out from behind his kit and pummel a big bass drum, McDonald coming over from his congas, joined by both Ewart and Brooks, creating a free-for-all that would eventually drown out the rest of the band. There were also a couple of perhaps expected, perhaps surprise special guests, namely a couple of older gentlemen who took the stage in front of the band and got the crowd roaring with their impressively agile dance moves while the security guards looked on bemusedly from the edge of the stage. Before the encore, Miller explained to the crowd that they had been ripping up the yard since way back in the day. And then the less frenetic of the two grabbed the mic and indulged in a long exhortation to the Rastas in the crowd, ending with a fervent suggestion to read Isaiah, Chapter 43 (a passage which doesn’t make much sense other than to say that God will mess with you if you don’t behave). And nobody stopped him or shut off the mic: no problem, mon. For about an hour and a half, it was like being in Montego Bay – or Ogetnom, as one of the night’s most beautifully haunting numbers was playfully titled.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Saturday’s song is #515:
Rocket from the Tombs – 30 Seconds Over Tokyo
The legendary, theatrical Cleveland proto-punk band that spawned both the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu released two studio versions of this paint-peeling evocation of the WWII Tokyo firebombing raids, one on a lo-fi compilation of tinny digitized 1974 rehearsal tapes and another on the lacklustre 2004 reunion cd Rocket Redux. Best to look for a bootleg: their version from the second 2003 Maxwell’s show is the best we’ve heard.
Through an interpreter (his excellent acoustic guitarist), South Korean star Jang Sa-ik explained that due to jet lag (thirty hours, door to door from another time zone), he was only singing at thirty percent.
If what he delivered was less than a third of what he’s capable of, a full-strength show would defy the laws of physics. You heard it here first – Jang Sa-ik is the next world music star. Playing to a crowd of mostly music industry insiders and journalists, he held the audience riveted throughout a stark, intense trio set, backed only by acoustic guitar and drums instead of the chamber ensemble and choir who typically accompany him on his home turf. As a vocalist, Jang projects powerfully but without any of the campy kabuki theatricality that typifies so many popular Asian performers. Throughout the show, it always seemed that he had something in reserve, even on the biggest crescendos. In his delivery were hints of both Roy Orbison and Bobby Bland, especially when he’d add a tinge of grit at the end of a phrase, or let it trail off with a slight vibrato. Essentially, Jang is a soul singer, a fact that translated viscerally to the at least fifty percent American crowd, despite the fact that he sang only in Korean.
Vocals aside, Jang’s greatest strength is his songwriting, revealing itself as influenced by late 50s/early 60s American pop and blues as much, maybe if not more, than any traditional sound. He opened the set with a spiritual, a funeral march whose title translates as The Way to Heaven, intoning ominously like Howlin’ Wolf as the slow, haunting anthem got underway. Like something from the Harry Smith anthology, it sounded half slave hymn, half minimalist delta blues, except with lyrics in Korean and a big, dramatic conclusion where the narrator can finally see his golden reward.
The second song of the set was Jang’s biggest Korean hit, Wild Rose, a dark and eerie pop song with a noir 60s feel – wait til David Lynch finds out about this guy. Its theme is bittersweetness, although it felt much darker. Daejeon Blues – a swinging, ominous minor-key blues song – maintained the edgy intensity, a sad narrative told from the point of view of an intinerant worker having to leave his girlfriend behind because now he has to take a different, low-budget train to a different, low-budget city. Another 60s-inflected pop song, Spring Rain brought back the noir vibe, with vocalese on the outro that screamed out quietly for a singalong. He closed the set with what he said was the “Korean national anthem,” Airirang, a sardonically metaphorical folk song whose narrator cautions the woman who’s leaving him that she won’t get far before her feet get sore. Jang earned great acclaim (and considerable notoriety, on the north side anyway) for singing this before a soccer match between the South and North Korean national teams.
Jang is also something of a feel-good story (it’s a made-for-tv movie waiting to happen). Born in 1949, the son of an amateur oboeist, he only began playing his father’s instrument in adulthood. Well into his forties, after years of itinerant work, one dead-end job after another, he finally made his debut as a singer. In 1993, he embarked on a fulltime career in music and has never looked back. Now, at 59, he’s looking to conquer the west. It’s bound to happen, the only question is when – his New York City debut, at City Center in 2007, was a sellout. Discover him now for the sake of cachet…and for the haunting intensity of his voice and his songs.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #516:
Badfinger – Baby Blue
The greatest powerpop song ever written? Maybe. One of those songs that pretty much every band alive – every good band, anyway – knows and has run through in rehearsal at least once or twice, because it’s so much fun. MP3s are everywhere; if you’re looking for vinyl, good luck finding the 1972 Straight Up lp
There was a nip in the air, but inside the church the atmosphere was beckoning and warm – just as it should be. In yet another demonstration of the parish’s dedication to bringing strikingly diverse and often brilliant music programming to the downtown community, Trio Threed, a new wind ensemble including oboeists Kathy Halvorson and Mark Snyder as well as English horn player/oboeist Katie Scheele, treated the afternoon crowd to a seamless program of old and new material.
They opened with German baroque composer Johann Quantz’s Sonata in D Major, K. 46. Quantz, a flutist, wrote mainly for that instrument, but this five-segment partita had more of an orchestral feel. Its best sections were its upbeat, Vivaldiesque opening prelude and the plaintive aria that followed. Beethoven’s Trio for Two Oboes and English Horn, Op. 87 was next, warmly atmospheric with a similar baroque feel. From the opening largo through the rather boisterous adagio that closed the piece, the group maintained a fluid, conversational legato even in its sparser passages. As often is the case with new groups, it’s apparent why they play so well together: they clearly enjoy each other’s company, and this carried over to the audience.
A trio originally written for 3 flutes by Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin proved amusing and silly in places with its romping oompah melody; Gordon Jacob’s Two Pieces for Two Oboes and Cor Anglais was a gorgeous, obviously more modern work. It was an auspicious way for the trio onstage to go out: an atmospheric, circular, Alpine intro, followed by a brief, lively dance ending on a somewhat stark, adagio note, then bitter and restless but eventually rising to a clever, playful, rapidfire chase sequence. The group played with an effortless dexterity, as if the piece had been written for them. If chamber music is your thing, keep your eye on this talented trio.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #517:
Genesis – Home by the Sea
Don’t laugh: keyboardist Tony Banks’ swirling, ominous organ tune has a beauty that transcends the presence of both a drum machine AND Phil Collins, no small achievement. MP3s are everywhere; if you’re looking for vinyl, dig through the dollar bins for Genesis’ 1983 self-titled album.
Many of the Malian Tuareg rockers in Tinariwen are freedom fighters, heroes to their compatriates, especially in the diaspora. Frontman and group founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib served in the Tuareg resistance for many years, notably as driver for rebel leader Iyag Ag Ghali, leading numerous successful raids against predatory government troops. When Alhabib was a young child, his father was murdered by the government; Alhabib subsequently was forced into exile in Algeria. Aside from finding reliable food and shelter, his first motivation for joining the Libyan-supported rebels was revenge. But soon he discovered that the guitar is mightier than the sword.
Alhabib founded Tinariwen – meaning “deserts” in his native Tamashek language – as a trio in the late 70s. There were no Tuareg newspapers in the desert, but there were cassette players, and Tinariwen’s music – just as Chuck D said about rap in 1988 – became its own version of CNN for their own frequently persecuted countrymen. Most of their lyrics are in Tamashek, and surprisingly, not frequently dedicated to either revenge or politics, instead updating centuries-old, mystical desert songs or simply longing for return to a long-lost land. Like everything else the band seems to do, they are resolute and defiant, transcending any potential use as propaganda. The music on the full-length concert section of their new DVD most closely resembles a more intricately arranged version of the desert blues popularized by the late great Ali Farka Toure and then Boubacar Traore. A sense of forebearance pervades everything: the songs unwind slowly and hypnotically, rarely changing chords, rarely reaching any kind of crescendo. It’s not loud music, perhaps as a matter of taste for the band, perhaps because in the desert, there is no electricity: guitarists use car batteries to power their amps, and if you’re going to jam all night (as can be the case), you have to conserve and keep the volume down.
The Tuaregs, like the Roma in Europe and the Indians here, are commonly associated with witchcraft, something that Alhabib is not shy about alluding to, if only as a defense mechanism when dealing with those in the ethnic majority. Perhaps as a result (or perhaps because those all-night desert jams tend to be fueled by ganja as much as by battery juice), there’s an otherworldly feel to Tinariwen’s music. Recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon in a suitably dodgy London neighborhood, the DVD is filmed in the classic 60s/early 70s music doc style, lots of close-ups of fingers and fretboards. What jumps out at the viewer first is that while there are sometimes seven or eight people onstage, the sound is strikingly clean and uncluttered. Nobody’s soloing over anyone else, in fact, no one is usually soloing at all. The busiest player is the bassist, and unless you have your DVD hooked up to a good stereo system (very highly recommended, because the stereo quality of the DVD is excellent), he’s very low in the mix.
What else is immediately obvious is that this is lyrically-driven music: the crowd know a lot of the lyrics and sing, or at least chant along. Taken as as whole (other than a brief and very well-received departure into hip-hop on the second song of the show), it seems like a long invocation, a secret rite that feels almost voyeuristic to watch, at least through western eyes. World music fans will devour this: if, as their label asserts, Tinariwen are the world’s favorite African band, this will secure their spot at the top. .
An interview with Alhabib – in heavily Tamashek-accented French, with excellent English subtitles – is also included. Dour and frequently inscrutable – given his past, this is hardly unexpected – he lightens up the most when the topic of his native land comes up. Yet as much as he seems to long for a permanent return to his country, he also seems resigned to life on the road, playing in front of thousands of westerners who don’t understand a single word but find common ground in the stoically hypnotic, slowly undulating music underneath. There’s also a very informative seven-minute interview with producer Justin Adams – in English – as well as a brief – and also very informative! – demonstration on how to tie a shesh, the headscarf that the Tuaregs use to keep the sun off the head and the desert sand out of the mouth.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #518:
Radio Birdman – We’ve Come So Far to Be Here Today
From the band’s triumphant comeback cd Zeno Beach, our choice for best album of 2006. Everyone in this legendary Australian band except the drummer were over fifty by the time they’d recorded this searing, pounding, macabre punk/surf/garage masterpiece. And they rocked harder – and still do – than most people half their age. The link above is to their myspace where you can hear it.
Because we didn’t give the ladies enough props last week we’ve packed this week’s Top Ten with beautiful voices. Except for #1 which is so good it doesn’t need a beautiful voice.
1. The Brooklyn What – Gentrification Rock
Oh yeahhhh babee the Brooklyn What at the top of the charts again. Someday all those the luxury housing sites turning into crackhouses and squats. This is a ferocious youtube clip from the show last summer that made our Top 20 NYC Area Concerts of the Year list. They’re at Don Pedro’s on 3/5.
2. The Blasting Company – Sinking Ships
Balkan noir cabaret from San Francisco that we discovered looking for a completely different band. Good stuff.
3. Black Sea Hotel – Makedonsko Devojche
Brooklyn‘s own all-female Balkan vocal quartet have an amazing debut cd coming out and this characteristically haunting number is one of them. Good guess is that the title means “Macedonian Girl.” They’re at Trophy Bar at 10 on 2/25
4. Hope DeBates & North Forty – Pink and Mean
This is a soul song, but the South Dakota expat also sings country. One of the most impressive voices to hit town in a long time, with a great band behind her. She does a marvelously deadpan-sultry cover of the Tom Petty AM radio monstrosity Breakdown
5. AE – Across the Blue Mountains
OK, even more beautiful voices. This an old Appalachian folk song, but the duo of Aurelia Lucy Shrenker and Eva Salina Primack are also part of the Balkan underground scene.
6. Balthrop Alabama – God Loves My Country
The Bush regime may be over but the memory lingers. Lest we forget, here’s something funny and spot-on.
7. Randi Russo – Swallow
This is a brand-new one, one of her quieter, hypnotic post-Velvets songs. Unrecorded, but she’s been doing it a lot live recently. Get well soon Randi!
8. Helen Reddy & ELO – Poor Little Fool
OK OK OK, this is the schlocky Aussie singer from the 70s responsible for the odious I Am Woman (written by a guy – figures, right?). But since she didn’t write any of her songs, once in awhile she’d do something good and this is a good example, a Jeff Lynne pop song, with what sounds like the band playing it behind her! Weird or what! Just discovered this on youtube…
9. The Ahn Trio – Dies Irae
Absolutely beautiful violin/cello/piano composition from this sister act playing Barbes on 3/7 at 8.
10. Soil & “Pimp” Sessions – Crush
Fast groove jazz with a wild sax and a tinge of hip-hop. From Japan. Fun stuff. From their new cd now up on itunes.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #519:
The Grateful Dead – China Doll
Dark, serious and beautiful, it’s a meditation on violence:
Tell me what you done it for
No I won’t tell you a thing
The 1974 recorded version on Mars Hotel is actually not bad, but as with pretty much everything the Dead ever did, nothing beats a good live take. Portland, Maine, May 1985 maybe? Tons of stuff up at archive.org.