by Safet Bektesevic
Sounds, vain sounds of conversations heard and forgotten. The buzz of elevators and revolving doors that never, never stop, beating irregularly like hurting hearts. The unsteady, strident noises from the other side of the street. Do our lives need some more pleasant rhythms, maybe?
Last Thursday the irregular sound of our footsteps had brought us to the Atrium at Lincoln Center for a date that was like a small wrapped gift. Inside, where at times it seemed primarily to be a place of retreat and relaxation in the midst of city hustle and bustle, we encountered stimulating, dazzling notes of Jazz, a genre that one finds in life like all that which, secretly, one needed, but did not expect to find – an oasis or a lost piece of a dream.
Braxton Cook and Jazze Belle had created a parenthesis of unsuspected notes that widens and widens ever since – which, like heartbeats, immediately took possession of the language of our veins. With the music’s vigorous and vibrant dynamics, these two ensembles made us bid farewell to the hum of indistinct sounds lost in uncomfortable silences, to the the grinding noise of elevators and doors, to the pandemonium of the busy hour, and brought us, if only for awhile, to that place that we all have left, but to which we all want to return. Like inadvertent lovers, they took us on a date only to raise before us a spectacle that made us escape from our own arduous routines, and from the incessant, grueling, even maddening march of the typical New Yorker, the one who does not even sit down to heave a sigh of relief.
Let the strident noises in the street be silent, let the arduous race cease for a moment…these great musicians offered us what we longed for without knowing it: a chair for when we were exhausted, a break from the seemingly unbreakable noise of the city (and of life), and music that spoke squarely to our experiences and to the human condition. With these artists’ warm, liquid notes, the atrium revealed itself for what it truly is: an oasis for the urban traveler, where one can regain strength while drinking water in the form of bright, refreshing melodies before returning to one’s post in the frenetic march that takes place on the streets. The memory of the oasis accompanies us, showing us a rhythm in the veins of our wrist, a rhythm that palpitates, that moves us forward, that pursues new possibilities, and that is stronger than any other. At this point, I can only ask myself, “Where is the next oasis at?”
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #672:
The Dog Show – “Hello, Yes”
Ferociously literate oldschool R&B flavored mod punk rock from this Lower East Side New York supergroup, 2004. Everything the Dog Show – who were sort of New York’s answer to the Jam – put out is worth hearing, if you can find it, including their debut, simply titled “demo,” along with several delicious limited edition ep’s. Frontman Jerome O’Brien and Keith Moon-influenced southpaw drummer Josh Belknap played important roles in legendary kitchen-sink rockers Douce Gimlet; Belknap and melodic bassist Andrew Plonsky were also LJ Murphy’s rhythm section around the time this came out. And explosive lead guitarist Dave Popeck fronted his own “heavy pop” trio, Twin Turbine. O’Brien’s songwriting here runs the gamut from the unrestrained rage of Hold Me Down, the sarcasm of Every Baby Boy, the gorgeous oldschool East Village memoir Halcyon Days – which just sounds better with every passing year – and the tongue-in-cheek, shuffling Everything That You Said. Diamonds and Broken Glass is a snarling, practically epic, bluesy kiss-off; White Continental offers a blistering, early 70s Stonesy let’s-get-out-of-here theme. Too obscure to make it to the sharelockers yet, the whole album is still streaming at myspace.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #713:
Them – The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison
We recently went on record as saying that for a moment in the early 60s, the best rock band in the world wasn’t the Beatles, and it sure as fuck wasn’t the Rolling Stones. And come to think of it, it might not have been the Yardbirds either. How about Them? Although they seem to have been the model for the Lyres – more turnover among band members than you can count – Ireland’s greatest contribution to rock music until the punk era put out one ecstatically good garage rock single after another. Arguably, Van Morrison’s best moments were as a member of this band. And as great as all their original albums with Van the Man are, we got greedy and picked this reissue because it has more songs. You want the best version of Simon & Garfunkel’s Richard Cory? It’s by Them, right down to that snarling bass hook. How about It’s All Over Now Baby Blue? Or Route 66, Turn On Your Lovelight, I Put a Spell on You, or even a MC5 cover? The originals have the same wild, out-of-control intensity: Gloria, Mystic Eyes, Don’t Start Crying Now, Friday’s Child and more. The rest of the fifty tracks on this double cd set include the considerably laid-back, soulful original of Here Comes the Night (with Jimmy Page on guitar) and the epic Story of Them as well as covers by Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. After Morrison split, the band continued but were never the same. Here’s a random torrent.
Friday night at the Rockwood the Brilliant Mistakes were a blast from the past in more ways than one. New York’s best oldschool R&B revivalists at the turn of the century, they were ten years ahead of their time in looking back to the 60s for soul and groove. Yet this was more of a rock show: the songs, a mix of older and more recent material, were like something you’d hear about at powerpopcriminals. Or, one suspects, if somebody like Bob Lefsetz mentioned them, he’d bring a surprisingly enthusiastic horde out of the woodwork: songs as catchy as theirs, even in this ever-more-balkanized era, are what build a fan base.
Bassist Erik Philbrook – whose nimble, incisively melodic lines amounted to having an extra lead player in the band along with the acoustic and electric guitar – traded off on vocals with keyboardist Alan Walker, who shifted from soulful organ to reverberating Rhodes piano, as well as the house grand piano on a couple of numbers. They opened on a high note with the catchy, distantly Byrds-flavored The Day I Found My Hands, from their most recent album Distant Drumming, following with that cd’s second track, the biting minor-key powerpop gem Monday Morning. A more recent track, possibly titled Carry the Weight of the World motored along on a catchy ascending melody, followed by a fiery version of The Girl You Left Behind and the Elvis Costello-inflected electric piano anthem Feed the Elephant (as in, feed the elephant in the room), both tracks from their 2003 album Dumb Luck.
The energy picked up with the vintage Stax/Volt groove of She’s No Angel, echoed on an even more boisterous oldschool soul stomp (Seaside Moments, maybe? This band’s song titles aren’t always obvious from the lyrics). After a gorgeously country-tinged number sung by Walker, they went back in time for an unselfconsciously joyous romp through the new wave eighth notes of Split Enz’ Six Months in a Leaky Boat. At the end, Walker hinted that he might do Tim Finn’s meandering, plaintive piano outro, but he shut it down after a couple of bars. The era when big record labels signed bands this intelligent was over decades ago; still, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a cool indie film set in the 80s, in some stage of production right now, that would be a perfect fit for a soundtrack from these guys. The Brilliant Mistakes’ next gig is at Rodeo Bar on Feb 8 at around 10 PM.
The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.
Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.
Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #874:
Dorothy Donegan – Live at the 1990 Floating Jazz Festival
Early in her career, pianist Dorothy Donegan was dismissed by critics because she was pretty, she wore what were considered racy outfits for the time and she played everything – and drove her band members nuts onstage, segueing from jazz to R&B to classical, often within the span of a single song. She particularly enjoyed playing Rachmaninoff and excelled at it. Twelve years after her death, she’s gained recognition as one of the most extraordinary jazz pianists ever. By the time she recorded this album, she was as likely to be playing on a boat as at a club and this is one of those gigs. Yet it reveals her to be as blissfully intense and occasionally chaotic as she was at her peak in the 1950s and 60s, matching sizzling chops to frequent repartee with the audience (who seem at times to have no idea what just hit them). And the irony is that she does it with more than just her usual Blackbird Boogie and variations on a million themes. It’s a pretty generic set list for someone so adventurous, at least until you hear it. Most of these songs are standards, but she makes nonstandards out of them, blasting out of Someday My Prince Will Come into Tiger Rag, a bit later leaping from Misty to a rousing version of Ellington’s Caravan. There are also boisterous saloon jazz versions of The Lady Is a Tramp, After Hours and Round Midnight. A lot of her studio albums from the 50s are out of print and worth keeping an eye out for if you’re the kind of person to troll used record stores and the Salvation Army for abandoned treasures. Chiaroscuro still has this one in their catalog; if you’re looking for a torrent, good luck with this.
Jersey City oldschool R&B revivalists the One & Nines have released the first single off their debut cd (very favorably reviewed here earlier this year) – but the single is on 45 RPM vinyl. Of course you can download it from the usual places, but the sonics are sweet and one of the reasons – beyond the fact that both of the songs are bonafide A-sides – is that the album was recorded on analog tape, therefore, a pure, gorgeous analog sound.
Walked Alone is the upbeat number. A good 1960s comparison would be Bettye Swan, or Tammi Terrell backed by a Memphis band – it’s a catchy, fast shuffle anchored by fat baritone sax. An educated guess is that the fetching ballad Something on Your Mind is probably the B-side, with a tasty horn chart, organ and frontwoman Vera Sousa’s achingly beautiful vocal. Both songs were penned by the band’s guitarist Jeff Marino, a player who’s obviously immersed himself in oldschool soul of the Stax/Volt variety. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings are the obvious comparison, but the One & Nines go for a smoother, more romantic, less funky vibe. A recent show at Spike Hill in Williamsburg unsurprisingly revealed the band to be a killer live act: when she sings, Sousa closes her eyes and goes off to an alternate universe called Soul Land, a place where she isn’t about to take any grief from anyone, guitar and keys pulsing behind her, organ and horns rising out of the mix to drive the songs home. Watch this space for upcoming NYC shows.
Iconic R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass, frontman of seventies soul hitmakers Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century, died of cancer Wednesday night in a hospital outside Philadelphia. According to his publicist, he was 59.
Originally a drummer, Pendergrass joined Melvin’s group in 1969. Producer Leon Huff, of Gamble and Huff – inventors of the Philly soul sound – takes credit for moving him out from behind the kit and in front of the mic, having ostensibly heard him singing along during a break in the studio. Beginning in 1973, Pendergrass would lead the band on numerous Gamble and Huff-produced, lushly symphonic hits including Wake Up Everybody, The Love I Lost and If You Don’t Know Me By Now. With his fervent, world-weary rasp, Pendergrass conveyed a wisdom and a depth well beyond his years and became a magnet for women fans around the world.
In 1982, Pendergrass was injured in a near-fatal car accident which rendered him a paraplegic. Nonetheless, he continued to record and release numerous urban radio hits and solo albums, many of which reached gold record status, although his voice was never the same. As the years went by, he earned similar acclaim as an advocate for the disabled.
Anguila expat Jahmings Maccow, formerly of New York roots legends Catch-A-Fire and the Enforcers, writes catchy, Bob Marley-influenced roots reggae songs that would have been right at home on Jamaican radio back in the late 70s. Fans of golden-era reggae singers like Gregory Isaacs, Johnny Clarke, Sugar Minott or Jacob Miller will love this album: if Rockers TV was still in syndication, you would no doubt see “The Rootsman” interviewing Maccow with much enthusiasm. The production here is far more oldschool than most anything coming out of Jamaica right now, a fat riddim with real keyboards and layers of guitar. Maccow is not only a good songwriter, he’s also a good guitarist, spicing his songs with an incisive yet tersely soulful, pensive edge. The Marley inspiration extends especially to the vocals, Maccow reaching up to the high registers with the same kind of inspired half-yelp. The tunes mix slow anthems in with the upbeat, hitworthy stuff. In keeping with the classic roots vibe, the lyrics address both spiritual and contemporary issues, hence the album title, Man Redemption – a bunch of uplifting tunes that frequently address some pretty heavy issues.
The big, slow, soulful title track – a prayer of sorts – contrasts with the upbeat, obviously Marley-inspired Let Them Grow, like something off the Kaya album with tasteful acoustic guitar accents and a clever, distorted electric guitar solo low in the mix. Set Me Free is more upbeat, late period Marley-style songwriting with a nice, long, thoughtfully doubletracked guitar passage.
How Ya Gwaan Crucify is predictably a lot darker, with a Rastaman Vibration edge. The album’s fifth track, Free the Pain has a playful phased guitar solo – the tune reminds a bit of the late great Lucky Dube. After that, Put You Down/I Didn’t Come has more of a vintage 70s Manhattans/Stylistics style smooth R&B feel. The rest of the album includes the rather apprehensive Dread; Didn’t You Hear, which manages to be both pro-peace and a cautionary tale; the Israel Vibration-inflected See Them Fighting/Ghetto Walls; the gloriously bouncy Jah Jah Say, and the vivid yet understated Cry for Tomorrow. If you’re a fan of classic roots reggae, this is a welcome throwback to a time when artists basically had to at least pay lip service to spirituality and be conscious of the world around them even if they didn’t embrace it. It’s obvious that Maccow is sincere about what he has to say.