Ballbreaker Ensemble: Töff

Rating: 7.0/10
Rated as:
Album
Album Status:
for Genre-Enthusiasts
Released: 2011
Recorded: 2010
Specific Genre: Jazz Fusion, Experimental Big Band
Main Genres: Big Band, Jazz
Undertones: Jazz-Rock, Avant-Garde Jazz, Chamber Jazz
Label: Unit Records

1 Angry Angus 2 Rebellion 3 Pagliatelle 4 Phazor One 5 Eintagsfliege 6 Reboot 7 Eruptio 8 Das Begräbnis des Herrn W.

A culmination and synthesis of a lively, bubbling progressive fusion jazz scene

A 13-piece-big band born out of the Jazzwerkstatt Bern, this record features almost an overabundance of Swiss jazz talent. While the Jazzwerkstatt lives off spontaneous one-off projects, this album was recorded by a proper band consisting of regulars. It’s clearly signalled as a collective effort: no ‚band leader‘, no ‚leading instrument‘ taking the spot, each composition by a different mastermind. It’s still a consistent album, as these people worked together in many other circumstances. But the sound is not necessarily what each composer or musician plays in their other projects, making it a unique album within the scene: with their dramatic, cerebral experimental big band mixed with the electric jazz-rock approach of, say, Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo, the Ballbreaker Ensemble delivers a stormy album full of wild horn-section freak-outs, roaring statements of mischief (to compare Colin Vallon’s thunderous „Reboot“ to his out-of-sight-quiet ECM-albums is almost hilarious), academic, skippy ruminations („Rebellion“, „Phazor One“, ) and exuberant, balkan-esque tour de forces like Andreas Schaerer’s „Angry Angus“, whose playfulness is thwarted by a menacing electric guitar tone and funereal slower horn intersections in the middle – and so on, every piece is of note, as the pressing performances are on spot every time.

It remains this particular constellation’s sole effort (although single pieces would appear on some of the Jazzwerkstatt anthologies), probably because it’s hard to get thirteen musicians (who are all busy playing for several other outfits) and composers under one umbrella on a regular basis. The album’s status suffers somewhat from this as it comes across as a side project, presumably worth less attention than the ‚actual‘ other projects each of the participants has. This is a shame, because this can easily be seen in a very different light: A culmination and synthesis of sorts of a lively, bubbling progressive fusion jazz scene whose more prominent talents started to get international recognition right around the time this appeared.

Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi

Rating: 7.4/10
Rated as: Album
Album Status: Genre Contender
Released: 1971
Specific Genre: Jazz Fusion, Avant-Garde Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Jazz-Funk, Spiritual Jazz
Label: Warner Bros.

1 Ostinati (Suite for Angela) 2 You’ll Know When You Get There 3 Wandering Spirit Song

From funkified electric grooves to pure introspective meditations to free form

As the first record on which Hancock consequently combined the electric, free-floating approach taken from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and his already heavy funk leanings, Mwandishi is the essential starting point for what Hancock would be doing the larger part of the remaining decade. While its follow-up Sextant is more manic and spaced-out, and Head Hunters is a lot funkier, Mwandishi holds its own quality against these two. Only the first track cooks heavy in its own relentless groove, while the second and third track (the latter taking up the whole of side B) explore a much looser, more cautious and introspective „inner space“ sound, not unsimilar to what Chick Corea’s Return to Forever would be doing in their quieter, relatively ostinati-free moments.

The sound of these latter two thirds of the record is at times so meditative and relaxing it becomes almost elusive (in a good sense). Just a tingle of the percussion there, some tentative electric keys thrown in there, then the louder riff of the horn section, full stop – and back to searching, echoing keyboard strokes. The „Wandering Spirit Song“ taking up Side B goes from that ‚inner space’ calmness with just a little groove to complete free form halfway through. But even the free jazz section doesn’t sound wild or unrestrained, but rather poised – this isn’t the kind of gloriously chaotic, outrageous free jazz Sun Ra would be doing those years. It’s, so to speak, ‚Apollonian’ free jazz, used for dramaturgical and deliberate reasons. And brilliantly so: The different steps on the whole album, from funkified electric grooves to pure introspective meditations to free form – and right back to calm weather after having stirred the ocean a bit works perfectly, like different acts guiding the listener through the experience.

Having said that, it isn’t a personal favourite as it is ultimately less extreme than other works by Hancock. It is nonetheless essential for anyone interested in Hancock’s musical development as well as in the greater 1970s context of jazz and fusion. Besides paving the way for his future output, it stands as a testimonial witnessing that in those years, there was no one else who could pick up the vanguard sounds of the era quite like Hancock and channel them into something that could serve as the perfect introduction for the uninitiated to exactly that vanguard.

Grant Green: Idle Moments

Rating: 8.2/10
Rated as: Album
Album Status: Genre Classic
Released: 1965
Recorded: 1963
Specific Genre: Hard Bop
Main Genre: Jazz
Secondary Genre: Cool Jazz
Label: Blue Note

1 Idle Moments 2 Jean de Fleur 3 Django 4 Nomad
Bonus Tracks: 5. Jean de Fleur [Alternate Take] 6. Django [Alternate Take]

Awesomely suggestive exercise in good taste

Stellar jazz guitarist Grant Green and stellar vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson join forces for this terrific workout in nocturnal, silky hard bop that avoids being listlessly smooth, but is elegant, soothing and occasionally brooding. The opener „Idle Moments“ is fifteen minutes of low-key barroom depression à la grandeur. Slow, languid and winding, Green, Hutcherson and Joe Henderson take off from the beautiful motif opening and closing the number with inconspicuous but effective solos – perfect for long lonesome cognac nights. The up-tempo „Jean de Fleur“ swings hard and wouldn’t be very interesting if not for the amazing interplay between all the quartet’s members (plus soloists Hutcherson and Henderson) – there’s scarcely another formation playing as democratic, tightly balanced and hypnotising as Green and his colleagues. Green knows that solos are only as interesting as their frame and his quartet is all about this framework. The structure is the same as before, with a catchy riff starting and ending the piece, swinging solos in between.

Green’s down-tempo version on „Django“ takes its time building up and kicks into mid-tempo gear almost two minutes into the track, with another splendidly understated statement by Grant’s guitar on top of the sax-supplied riff. In its strongest moments, Idle Moments sounds like a soft-spoken but confident answer to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. „Nomad“ plays like a mix of the opening track and the faster swing of its followers, a fascinating twelve minutes of gentleman-bop, borrowing and quoting details of „Idle Moments“, creating a feel of careful coherence for the album.

There are no standouts in the traditional sense to speak of, because nothing sticks out of the overall quality. „Idle Moment“ is the deepest and most effective track, but the musicianship creates varieties of similar moods that invite you to rest and dwell in, each like the cool part of a pillow before you have to turn over. I couldn’t say that Hutcherson „shines“ on here for example – he just blends in perfectly, supplying even more subtle nuances to Green’s own subtle nuances. The album is really about letting yourself sink into the incessant swing these guys put down, not about the single tracks. Don’t make the mistake to dismiss this as too smooth or easy-listening – this is an awesomely suggestive exercise in good taste.

Lightnin‘ Hopkins: Goin‘ Back Home

Rating: 1.5/10
Rated as: Anthology
Compilation Status: Useless
Released: 1997
Recorded: 1964–1969
Main Genre: Blues
Specific Genres: Acoustic Blues, Electric Blues, Acoustic Texas Blues, Electric Texas Blues
Label: Comet 43324

1 Shaggy Dog 2 Santa Fe Blues [New Santa Fe] 3 Shinin‘ Moon [Shining Moon] 4 I’ll Be Gone 5 Shake It Baby 6 Goin‘ Back Home 7 Good Times 8 I’m Wit‘ It [What’d I Say] 9 Don’t Wake Me 10 Talk of the Town 11 California Landslide [California Mudslide] 12 Rosie Mae 13 Easy on Your Heals 14 Leave Jike Mary Alone 15 You Treat Po‘ Lightnin‘ Wrong

Good times here, but it’s better down the road

Another European cheapo collection by one of the greatest. A mix of some infectious, driving electric blues numbers in classic jaunty Hopkins-style and his trademark acoustic texas blues. Excellent, if unspectacular fret work, some surprising horn sections (on a Hopkins record!) and overall a more polished sound compared to his earlier stuff from the 1960s.

Some research: Tracks 1 and 3–10 are from 1967’s Something Blue (recorded 1965), tracks 2 and 11–13 are from 1969’s California Mudslide and the last two acoustic numbers (14–15) are from 1964’s Live at the Bird Lounge. Some track names have been slightly changed, I think intentionally, to cover up that this is probably a borderline illegal compilation just grabbing randomly from different sources (which also explains the indiscriminate mix of electric and acoustic tracks from different sessions).

Anyhow, the album Something Blue is here in its entirety though with scrambled sequencing (and inferior sound quality). So that’s okay if you find this in some one-dollar-trash bin, but any serious collector can skip this and go for the actual albums. There really is no point to any of this.

Eric Clapton: Me and Mr Johnson

Rating: 4.1/10
Rated as:
Album
Album Status:
of Discographical Interest
Released: 2004
Specific Genre: Electric Blues
Main Genre: Blues
Undertones: Chicago Blues
Label: Reprise

1 When You Got a Good Friend 2 Little Queen of Spades 3 They’re Red Hot 4 Me and the Devil Blues 5 Travelling Riverside Blues 6 Last Fair Deal Gone Down 7 Stop Breakin‘ Down Blues 8 Milkcow’s Calf Blues 9 Kind Hearted Woman Blues 10 Come on in My Kitchen 11 If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day 12 Love in Vain 13 32-20 Blues 14 Hell Hound on My Trail

Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine

As the title – a play on Johnson’s „Me and The Devil Blues“ – doesn’t suggest, Eric Clapton reimagines Robert Johnson’s catalogue of haunting, forlorn, sparse blues as a fun, cheerful romp. The good thing about this decision is that there are no ambiguities about it. This is the kind of relaxed, boisterous electric Chicago blues that Clapton went to musical school with, which dominated the output of popular 1970s and -80s blues and which he only partly followed on his only other straight blues album, 1994’s From the Cradle.

Belying the down-home, decidedly ‚acoustic‘ aesthetics of the album cover (which is outdated in an unsuspected way – a third photograph of Johnson has surfaced eversince, but who could’ve known) with his straight electric blues combo, this might make one think of the exhilarating Cream-reinventions of ethereal Skip James-numbers („I’m So Glad“) or the legendary cover of Johnson’s „Crossroads“. But this homage-album is an entirely different affair, with a consoling, good-natured, smotheringly nostalgic approach that in itself isn’t the problem – but nuance and, so to speak, any individual interpretation of a given song get lost in the overall joviality. Unsurprisingly, this works best on bouncier numbers like the ragtime/hokum „They’re Red Hot“, but that one was an oddity at least in Johnson’s recorded catalogue to begin with (for all we know, he could have had dozens of these shuffling folk and dance numbers in his repertoire like every self-respecting ‚blues‘ performer of the time – there was a market to supply with entertainment and most of these guys had a much broader catalogue than what this or that Lomax recorded).

I can see how this would appeal to Clapton-fans, but laidback as it is, there is a cloud of complacency here. This is the easiest way to make such an album: just have fun with those great songs, suppose a sense of ‚modesty‘. On the upside, this is so to speak the ‚back catalogue‘ of Johnson’s songbook – no „Sweet Home Chicago“, no „I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom“, no „Ramblin’ On My Mind“ – good! On the downside, Clapton uses these songs to play them like unimaginative versions of mentioned, absent standards – take every clichéd electric blues rock element, make it comfy and apply. There is not a note on this record that isn’t a hundred percent predictable, be it the rather subdued rhythm section, the functional piano licks, the disciplined lead guitar or even Clapton’s cautious, very epigonal singing (he tries no tricks with his vocals, maybe for the better). Well, well. Be sure to pick this up if that is what you’re looking for – Clapton romping through fun, in the end indistinct blues rock songs – but I’m afraid as a film, it’d be called „Deconstructing Eric“.

Billie Holiday: The Silver Collection

Rating: 6.0/10
Rated as:
Anthology
Compilation Status: Obsolete
Released: 1985
Recorded: 1956–1957
Specific Genre: Vocal Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Swing
Label: Verve

1 I Wished on the Moon 2 Moonlight in Vermont 3 Say It Isn’t So 4 Our Love Is Here to Stay 5 Darn That Dream 6 But Not for Me 7 Body and Soul 8 Comes Love 9 They Can’t Take That Away From Me 10 Embraceable You 11 Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off 12 Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You 13 All or Nothing at All 14 We’ll Be Together Again

Half a love, never appealed to me

This compilation combines songs from the 1957 studio album Body and Soul and 1958’s All or Nothing at All. Many of the late 1950s recordings by Holiday which were issued as albums between 1957 and 1959 come from these same sessions (from 1956/57). No surprise then that nowadays, you can buy a double disc compilation also called All or Nothing at All (as part of the Billie Holiday Story, Part 7) which contains all the songs of the two mentioned albums as well as the whole Songs for Distingué Lovers album from 1957 (same session as for Body and Soul) – that’s all of the 1956/57 session recordings that were seperately issued on said three albums.

Anyhow, as an early single-disc-compilation compiling the alleged highlights of two late 1950s albums, this does a respectable job. Late night vocal jazz with subtly swinging arrangements and, compared to the 1930s takes, a much more foregrounded, if subdued, horn section showing up now and then. Many nice standards, but Holiday had a softer and more professional tone at this stage of her career – personally, I prefer her more emotionally aggressive tone from earlier on.

Of course it’s about the vocals from start to finish, but I don’t see anything specific about the compilation: either you already have the original albums, or you should buy the mentioned reissue of All or Nothing at All which gives you the complete picture. But actually, you should get the box set The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve: 1945-1959 which gives the total overview. Or you haphazardly got a hold of this, like me.

1, 3, 4, 6, 13, 14: All or Nothing at All (1958)
2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12: Body and Soul (1957)

Trivia: Note the compilation cover: „Over 60 Minutes of Music“. Can you remember a time when this was a selling point? Anyway, all the more reason to get the double disc with all the sessions.

Bloomfield, Hammond, Dr. John: Triumvirate

Rating: 6.2/10
Rated as:
Album
Album Status: of Discographical Interest
Released: 1973
Main Genre: Blues
Specific Genres: Rhythm&Blues, New Orleans Jazz, Funk, Electric Blues
Label: Columbia

1 Cha-Dooky-Doo 2 Last Night 3 I Yi Yi 4 Just to Be With You 5 Baby Let Me Kiss You 6 Sho Bout to Drive Me Wild 7 It Hurts Me Too 8 Rock Me Baby 9 Ground Hog Blues 10 Pretty Thing

Uh-huh! Cha-Dooky-Do! Uh-huh…

Well, apart from Dr. John who had just issued In the Right Place neither John Hammond, having recorded a row of lackluster albums, nor Mike Bloomfield, coming from interesting, draining jam-experiments like The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, were exactly on a hot streak at this point in time. Of course the rootsy music here is rock solid: these guys learned from the masters and had their respective blues idioms down pat. Hammond sings all the songs, making me question if this was supposed to be the start of a supergroup with a „frontman proper“ instead of a one-off project, and while he’s technically the most skilled singer, I’m not sure his mannered style really fits the mood better here than Bloomfield’s comparatively unrefined vocals or Dr. John’s infamous croak.

The album’s most interesting aspects therefore derive from the mix of Chicago- and New Orleans-styles – Dr. John’s presence sort of forces some funky, Orleans-ian piano rhythm&blues into the affair, adding a heavily syncopated base to the more conventional blues patterns. He never really dominates with a solo though, often drowned out by a quite loud horn section – well well. But apart from the album closers (the swampy „Ground Hog Blues“ and the playful, flute-driven „Pretty Thing“), this is mostly solid, not super. I remember being really excited getting this as an American import – I’m still glad I have it, and I’d still recommend it as a historical trophy object, but it’s one of those „obvious“ team-ups that didn’t create additional magic.

Luther Allison: Life Is a Bitch

Rating: 4.2/10
Rated as: Album
Album Status: for Fans
Released: 1984
Specific Genres: Soul Blues, Electric Blues
Main Genre: Blues
Undertones: Blues Rock, Chicago Blues
Label: Encore !

1 Backtrack 2 Life Is a Bitch 3 Reaching Out 4 Parking Lot 5 Serious 6 Just Memories 7 Should I Wait 8 Let’s Try it Again 9 We’re on the Road

Same old nightclub, same old show

I tend to rate blues records in answer to the question: Why should I listen to this specific record now, as opposed to any given other one by that (or a similar) artist? Are the vocals especially expressive? Is the guitar more stunning/subtle/powerful/soulful than elsewhere? Does it have just that one fabulous song? Is it historically comprehensive (compilations)? Is it a turning point (good or bad) for the artist? And so on.

While the material here is a well-done mix of blues, rock and soul (check out the Redding-esque „Just Memories“, thoroughly screwed up by a lounge saxophone solo) with the echo-y clean touches of a 1980s production (never good for blues in my opinion, but be my guest), I find no answer to any of the questions above. Allison here is most convincing when he leaves the goofy „band-on-the-road“-concept permeating the album as well as the period-pleasing boogie blues rock behind and leans heavily into his trademark soulful blues guitar – this easily makes the slow blues burner „Let’s Try It Again“ the best track but of course can’t save the whole affair.

P.S. This was originally recorded and issued in France (Encore!Mélodie) and many later issues come with „Show Me a Reason“ as additional track B3 (8), which is also on the otherwise identical US-re-issue called Serious. The CD usually comes with yet another additional ending track called „Funky T-Shirt“.

Texas Alexander: Complete Recordings in Chronological Order, Volume 1 (1927–1928)

Rating: 7.8/10
Rated as: Collection
Compilation Status: Essential
Released: 1995
Recorded: 1927–1928
Specific Genre: Acoustic Texas Blues
Main Genres: Acoustic Blues, Blues
Undertones: Work Songs, Field Holler
Label: Document Records

1 Range in My Kitchen Blues 2 Long Lonesome Day Blues 3 Corn-Bread Blues 4 Section Gang Blues 5 Levee Camp Moan Blues 6 Mama, I Heard You Brought It Right Back Home 7 Farm Hand Blues 8 Evil Women Blues 9 Sabine River Blues 10 Death Bed Blues 11 Yellow Girl Blues 12 West Texas Blues 13 Bantam Rooster Blues (Take A) 14 Bantam Rooster Blues (Take B) 15 Deep Blue Sea Blues 16 No More Women Blues 17 Don’t You Wish Your Baby Was Built Up Like Mine? 18 Bell Cow Blues 19 Sittin‘ on a Log 20 Mama’s Bad Luck Child 21 Boe Hog Blues 22 Work Ox Blues 23 The Risin‘ Sun

Don’t get mad at me, woman, because I stays by myself

With a soaring holler, a vocal presence that is imposing even when he seems to murmur rather than belt something, blind Alger „Texas“ Alexander is one of the more fascinating obscure blues masters. He was so early in the game, in fact, that these recordings hardly can contain the field-holler and work song environment he was dragged from into the studios. Alexander barely follows predictable patterns in his singing, skipping bars and always preferring winding, tempo-shifting delivery of his stanzas and interjections over what the instrumentalists are anticipating – often, he just resorts to powerful, vibrating humming to end a song or glide through the mid-section.

This makes the guitar-accompanied songs here much more enjoyable, as the always superior Lonnie Johnson can work around Alexander’s rhythmic idiosyncrasies to a much better degree (using free form lick clusters, really, especially on „Levee Camp Moan Blues“) than pianist Eddie Heywood, who mostly sticks to vaudevillian barrelhouse patterns on track A6–B1 (6–9). Texas Alexander presents some astonishingly moaning, soaring blues, and while these recordings are less polished and accomplished than the not unsimilar Blind Willie Johnson, as the first third of his complete recordings, this Document Records LP is just that: a document to the blues and its power.

Various Artists: Warming by the Devil’s Fire [Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues]

Various Artists - Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: Warming by the Devil's Fire

Rating: 8.0/10
Rated as: Genre-Sampler, Soundtrack
Compilation Status: Historically Informative
Released: 2003
Recorded:1924–1966
Main Genre: Blues
Specific Genres: Electric Blues, Acoustic Blues, Vaudeville Blues, Gospel Blues, Spirituals
Label: Columbia / Legacy

1 Jelly Roll Morton – Turtle Twist 2 Ma Rainey – See See Rider 3 Son House – Death Letter 4 Billie Holiday – I’m a Fool to Want You 5 Mississippi John Hurt – Big Leg Blues 6 Memphis Jug Band – K.C. Moan 7 Robert Johnson – Sweet Home Chicago 8 Tommy McClennan – Deep Blue Sea Blues 9 Bessie Smith – Muddy Water 10 Sonny Boy Williamson II – Cross My Heart 11 Elmore James – Dust My Broom 12 Muddy Waters – You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had 13 W. C. Handy – Beale Street Blues 14 Charley Patton – Hang It on the Wall 15 Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air) 16 Stephen James Taylor – Give Me Freedom 17 Mildred Jones – Mr. Thrill 18 John Lee Hooker – I’ll Never Get Out of These Blues Alive

Headed homebound just once more, to my Mississippi Delta home

Even among his largely very good Martin Scorsese presents the Blues series, Warming by the Devil’s Fire is a standout blues compilation. Some hidden classics, some shining obscurities, great sequencing. This puts you right in the Mississippi Delta. The compilation isn’t exclusively about the big guys and girls of blues, although besides some unadventurous standards (from Elmore James, Ma Rainey or Son House), director Charles Burnett (no relation to T-Bone Burnett) picks some not too obvious tracks by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker etc. – and the stunning, earthy, non-vaudeville Bessie Smith-track „Muddy Water“, one of her most stellar numbers. While these evergreens help to form a historically informed sort of listening canon, for the blues aficionado, the stress is on the less overly exposed tracks: check out Tommy McClennan howling to the deep blue sea, the completely obscure Stephen James Taylor conjuring an ominous, mesmerizing gospel blues, the legendary Charley Patton crashing the party with his cragged guitar and Sister Rosetta Tharpe forcing the whole congregation into crazed dancing right around that devil’s fire with a hollering gospel-blues duet.

In this almost binary choice between standards and obscurities lies the competence of the compilation: It’s like a broad summyary over blues history with occasional swoops into the weird forgotten details. The music goes from swinging New Orleans pieces in the ragtime channel to rural acoustic delta blues to the great female vaudeville blues/jazz vocalists that emerged in the 1920s, features some urban electric blues examples to conclude the development, and also presents some excellent gospel-flavoured blues, mostly from the 1930s to 1940s, yet stretching into the urban 1950s and -60s. The sequencing is chronologically accurate enough to teach you a little implicit lesson of music history, but it never feels stubborn. The diversity is just right for repeated listening while rowing up the Mississippi.

As even the most common blues fan will know most or all of these artists already, it’s nonetheless a great introduction disc for your niece or nephew.