Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Fela – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

If all the songs featured in the musical were played at their original length, this would be a five-hour box set. That the shortened versions here are worth hearing at all is an achievement. That they’re as fiery, and fun, and as true to the originals as they are, given the constraints of their use in a Broadway show, is nothing short of extraordinary. The original soundtrack to Fela, the most important Broadway show of our time (and arguably the most relevant Broadway show ever) more than lives up to its hype. For fans of world music, this album (just out on Knitting Factory Records) is essential; diehard Fela fans will not be disappointed. The band is killer, which is no surprise since the musicians have been drawn from the collective that started this whole thing, the western world’s best Afrobeat conglomerate, Antibalas. The percussion clatters, the bass slinks, the horns punch and soar. As the show’s star singer, Sahr Ngaujah does a mighty good Fela impersonation, although during the album’s occasional spoken interludes, he comes across far more lucidly and articulately than Fela ever did. Ngaujah eschews any attempt at projecting Fela’s defiant, dangerously stoned vibe: for whatever reason, he sounds a lot like Linton Kwesi Johnson – which is actually not a bad thing at all.

Reducing Fela’s endless, often interminable vamps down to a manageable essence of sometimes as little as three minutes minimizes their original intent – to keep a bunch of stoned dancers on their feet for hours at a time – but the added focus is actually welcome, especially as the musical plays up their importance as revolutionary anthems. The longest number, BID (Breaking It Down) clocks in at just under seven minutes. It’s awfully nice to see the scathing, richly lyrical, double entendre-laden Expensive Shit included here, poop jokes and all, in just under four. Most of the arrangements hew closely to the originals, although a few, notably Zombie and a tense, suspenseful Coffin for Head of State, are somewhat stripped down. The backup singers’ harmonies, most impressive during a lushly arranged and ecstatically delivered Trouble Sleep, are spot-on. Unfortunately, most of the women in the cast come across as dancers who can sing a little rather than singers who can also dance – they share the cookie-cutter, over-the-top, fussily melismatic corporate vocal style that’s been de rigeur since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis destroyed what was left of black pop in the 1980s. Which is only a problem because the supporting cast get more time out in front of the band than they ever would have if the real Fela was running the show.

But when the group is cooking, Ngaujah is intoning “o-rig-in-al,” wagging his finger at the corrupt bourgeoisie or railing against their thugs, it is a historic occasion: both in terms of Fela’s role as a freedom fighter, and the somewhat improbable success of his music as mass-marketed theatre product. May the triumph of Fela on Broadway be an inspiration and a lesson to producers everywhere: the audience that has embraced this musical, and similarly edgy music, has been vastly underestimated for decades.

Advertisements

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tito Gonzalez – Al Doblar La Esquina

For those who love oldschool latin music, this is a straight shot of rum. For those who discovered it via the Buena Vista Social Club, it’s…hmm…a good mojito. Cuban expat tres (Cuban guitar) player and singer Tito Gonzalez is a feel-good story: he got to see the world as a commercial fisherman, drove a cab, studied under Papi Oviedo of the Buena Vista Social Club and then with Cuban guitar legend Octavio Sanchez Cotán. Courtesy of the other musicians in his taxicab union, Gonzalea made his pro debut at 40 and finally made it to the US in 2000 where he became a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area latin music scene. Backed by an absolutely dynamite, horn-heavy band, Gonzalez takes you back to the future not in a DeLorean but in a 1955 Nash Ambassador, to a time when Guantanamo meant gambling and girls rather than Geneva Convention violations.

Because that era wasn’t so far removed from a previous one without electricity, many of these songs show their folksong roots. Cuba being an island nation, a whole lot of diverse styles washed up onshore, many of them represented here. Traditional Cuban son is the framework for all the songs here, but there are also elements of rhumba, tango and especially bolero on the slower numbers. A vibrant call-and-response vibe is everywhere, whether between lead vocals and backing chorus, piano and horns, or, in too few places actually, Gonzalez’ spiky tres and the piano. The songs are a mix of party anthems and aching ballads, notably La Despedida (The Goodbye), a big, intense Machito-style three-minute masterpiece with a strikingly haunting horn chart. The slinky bolero-inflected ballad Aquel Viejo Amor (That Old Love), written for Gonzalez’ former wife, subtly works a bittersweet piano riff all the way through to a gorgeous, horn-driven crescendo at the end. The wistful Cancion Por Bonnie, another bolero-based tune is another standout track with some clever baton-passing among the horns. The album’s final track, Evocation is straight-up oldschool son with intense, percussive piano, Gonzalez finally wailing on his frets and joining the fun. It all makes for great summertime music – maybe it’s just as well we’re so far behind the eightball getting around to giving this delightful album a spin.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Very Devious News: The Microscopic Septet Is Back in Print!

There has never been a more devious band than the Microscopic Septet. You may consider yourself a bon vivant, but until you have danced – or at least wiggled in your chair – to the Micros at 2 in the morning, you are only a pretender. These two double cds comprise their complete recorded work through 2007: reportedly, there is also an album of all-new material on the way. You may know these guys from the theme to NPR’s Fresh Air, which their pianist Joel Forrester wrote in the early 90s. As purveyors of good times, exuberant wit and extremely subtle satire, their only real competition is genre-blending baritone sax-driven instrumentalists Moisturizer. Like that band, many of the Micros’ songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – have a narrative feel. They could have been the Spinal Tap of jazz – and in a sense they are – but they’re so much more. A typical number could start out as a slow blues, go doublespeed with a swing beat, morph into dixieland for a minute or two, build to a latin breakdown and then go out on a suspense film motif. When they first appeared on the New York scene in 1980, audiences didn’t know what to make of them. Were they fake jazz? A spoof? A straight-up swing band that couldn’t resist a good joke? All of the above is more like it. By comparison, the early Lounge Lizards were conservative.

In a terrific stroke of good fortune, Cuneiform Records has reissued the Micros’ complete recorded works on two double cd’s, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing. The first comprises their first album, 1983’s Take the Z Train, along with their lone ep, Let’s Flip! from 1986, in addition to with several outtakes from that session. The second includes their 1986 album Offbeat Glory and their lone cd, 1988’s Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) plus several bonus tracks.

Take the Z Train was recorded live in analog to two-track tape in a Chinatown studio chosen because it housed a piano that reputedly once belonged to Eubie Blake. The digital remastering here is brilliant: it sounds pretty much like the collectible album that the original has become. It’s the band’s defining statement. Influenced by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson’s ornate arrangements, founder and sax player Phillip Johnston added megadoses of his signature wit, and the band followed along, Forrester (who also writes a lot of their material) on piano, Dave Hofstra on bass, Richard Dworkin on drums (both of whom served as Rachelle Garniez’ rhythm section back in 90s), Dave Sewelson (later of the Sewelsonics) on baritone sax, Don Davis on alto and John Hagen on tenor. The album has what’s possibly their prototypical song, Chinese Twilight Zone; the spy theme Mr. Bradley, Mr. Martin; the fast, bustling Pack the Ermines, Mary; the latin swing number Kelly Grows Up and the absolutely brilliant True, a previously unreleased outtake that sounds something akin to Sun Ra covering a horror movie theme.

Let’s Flip! and the outtakes that follow it were recorded in concert in Europe. It’s the Micros at their most serious, although their energy is undiminished. In addition to Offbeat Glory, Surrealistic Swing includes two bonus tracks featuring John Zorn, who was their original alto player. Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) was originally released on Stash Records, who also did the Reefer Madness album; noted jazz critic Will Friedwald hooked them up with the label. Forrester’s latin and tango inflections come to the forefront here, particularly on the delightful Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys, Dill Pickle Tango and Fool’s Errand. Over the course of these four cds, the band steals licks from the Mission Impossible, Peter Gunn and Summer Place themes, rearranges the Ellington classic Harlem Nocturne as a tango, and quotes from everyone from Louis Jordan to the Skatalites to George Michael. In all seriousness, as amusing as all this is, it’s also virtuosic and absolutely brilliant. Although the Micros didn’t go unnoticed by the mainstream jazz world during their 80s heyday, these two rediscoveries ought to vault them to the prominence they so richly deserve.

February 2, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment