Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Monday, September 20, 2010

JOHN McLAUGHLIN: TO THE ONE — Fusion the Way We Used to Like It

At its peak, jazz-rock fusion was better than just fast-and-loud, but fast and loud was part of it.  Hey, I was a teenager during those days, and if I was going to spend a good chunk of my listening time on jazz rather than Led Zeppelin, then I was going to need some crunch and danger.

Guitarist John McLaughlin—he of the Mahavishnu Orchestra—usually satisfied.  The Inner-Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire still sound good to me today.  But, other than his duet album with Carlos Santana and his work with Shakti (his acoustic band, playing a different kind of Indian/fusion), the rest of McLaughlin's work has been hard to love.

2010, however, brings a return to the driving fusion of the early Mahavishnu days.  To the One, featuring a new-ish band called The Fourth Dimension, is the old searing McLaughlin, back with speed and excitement but still some intelligence.  My review is up on PopMatters today.

Other McLaughlin's wonderful guitar, the recording features outstanding keyboard work by Gary Husband.  Using acoustic piano, Rhodes, and synth sounds, he gets everything right.  That Husband is also one of two over-the-top drummers on the date just dazzles all the more.  Not every jazz fan is going to be with me one this—this is a real '70s fusion date, with some of the indulgence associated therewith—but it is the real thing, not some watered-down smooth jazz syrup.  McLaughlin sees the album as a contemporary offshoot of Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and you can hear it in the way the players surge and sing in their playing.  It's exciting, but the playing comes from a well of desire.

I'm not a fan of McLaughlin's use, on To The One, of guitar synthesizer.  This gizmo makes his sound generic and cold.  That he uses the devise on a couple of ballads just makes it worse, as these are tunes where the flesh-on-string sound could have been that much better.

But mostly I like To The One.  I like it better than anything Johnny M has done in decades.  It comes darn close to making me feel 16 again—130 pounds, full head of hair, living in New Jersey and still with a small crush on Barbara Feldon from Get Smart.  The power of music, huh?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Generosity: An Enhancement (a novel by Richard Powers)

My appetite for music and my appetite for books used to be almost equal, but sometimes a book comes along that turns reading into a chore.  I feel as though I've been reading Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers for a year.  (Seriously, I may have been—it is now out in paperback, but I've been reading a hardcover review copy.)

Powers is a great novelist, or at least he has been for me.  Let me recommend Operation Wandering Soul as a strange, brilliant, dreamlike novel about love and children and disease and language itself.

But Generosity is a book about how advances in genetics—specifically our understanding of the genetics of happiness—may be changing our world.  The characters in the book are mere agents for these meditations on science.  My full review is HERE.

Now back to reading less brilliant books that are better, more pulsating, more alive with regularish, dopey folks like us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

LAYMAN ON SOUNDCHECK, 9/7/10: A Miles Davis Debate with Ashley Kahn

I will have the pleasure of taking part in another "Soundcheck Smackdown" this Tuesday at 2pm on WNYC.  This time out, the debate will be about two seminal Miles Davis albums, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.  I will be defending the honor of Miles's great 1970 disc, which plowed the fields of jazz funk and made possible so much of the great music of the last 40 years.  Bitches Brew turns 40 this year.

My "opponent" this time out (previously I have faced off against jazz folk no less esteemed than Branford Marsalis and Howard Mandel) is author and producer Ashley Kahn.  Ashley is the author is a terrific book about the making of Kind of Blue—highly recommended.  That said, I plan to win the smackdown with a combination of hyperbole and playful metaphor.

The host of Soundcheck is John Schaefer, and I want to thank him and the Soundcheck producers for so kindly inviting me back to the show so often.  WNYC is a great public radio station in New York City at 93.9fm and 820am.  The show will broadcast live at 2pm Eastern and will later be available online.

Friday, September 3, 2010


When classical ensemble get mixed up in jazz, the results are mixed, at best.  Or at least that used to be the case.

These days, jazz musicians are more fluent with the power and use of classical forms, and classical musicians probably grew up with a fluency with pop and jazz rhythms.  As a result, these kinds of jazz/classical crossovers have been seeming more natural in recent years.  Esperanza Spalding's latest, Chamber Music Society, has no trouble incorporating a string trio, for example, to choose just the most recent example.

Here is my review of the powerful final album featuring the keyboardist and composer (and Weather Report founder) Joe Zawinul, Absolute Zawinul.

Properly speaking, this is not a Joe Zawinul recording as much as it is the latest project from the classical ensemble, the Absolute Ensemble, led by Kristjan Jarvi.  Jarvi has taken an album's worth of brand new Zawinul composition and arranged them for strings and woodwinds, brass and percussion, then invited Zawinul and members of his "Zawinul Syndicate" to bring their voices, groove, and—'f course—keyboard sounds.

The result is mostly wonderful.  The classical ensemble brings life and the human touch to Zawinul's tunes, where in his own hands they sometimes seemed like over-synthesized puzzles.  This is not so much jazz, at this point, as it is a truly whole blend of world music, American music, and classical music.  The interlocking voices and lines that Zawinul favors fall perfectly into the zone of Absolute's string and flutes—it's a great, pulsing thing.

In too many places, Joe's own vo-coder-laced vocals seem like a lapse in taste, but this is easy to overlook, particularly as you ought to be in the mood to celebrate the man himself.  His work with Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis is timeless and, for me, the first three or four Weather Report albums are still always worth returning to.  If his solo career was not my cup of tea, then Absolute Zawinul makes me realize that I may have been missing something great.