HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

30 November 2010

Jon Appleton and Don Cherry - 'Human Music' (Flying Dutchman)

Thank heavens for this vinyl reissue! Because this is an amazingly out-there classic of electroacoustic whackjobbery, and it just sounds so so great on this nice thick slice o' black polymer (and you know I'd never uncover an original). I try to approach recordings like this somewhat critically these days, as opposed to just enjoying the twisted sonic excursions, etc. So what's so great about this? Well, in some ways, it's exactly like Mu, except replacing Ed Blackwell with Jon Appleton. But the same interest in texture and space is here, as this is a very spacious exploration. The vocals are the most intriguing part - and they are sometimes hard to distinguish from the synthesizers. There's murmurs, gasps, and yelps, and the opening cut 'BOA' slips in some layered glossolalia among the synth's many exaltations. Cherry's small wooden sounds are a natural fit for the clean, line-in ambience of Appleton's tools. It's the definitive statement of the record, even though the two musicians feel like they are not even in the same room, due to the cold headspace. But then 'OBA' brings in some traditional trumpet playing, a brassy, back and forth circus that could have come straight from Mu but with whoknowswhat programming around it. Cherry's improvisational style is punchier here, and the dancing synths really work with it, especially when breaking in analogue glissandos, an ebullient outburst worthy of the finest free jazz heads. The two players integrate much more closely on side 2. 'ABO' is a full interaction that uses Cherry's kalimba for a particularly memorable (and somewhat fierce) middle section. 'BAO' closes it out by retreating underwater. There's a flange effect on Cherry's slow, concentrated breaths and everything feels like it's melting. Dartmouth College Electronic Music Studio (in Hanover, NH) is a hell of a place to produce something like this, and I have to appreciate whoever was forward thinking enough to pluck these two out of their respective orbits and get them working together. History has littered our consciousness with many crazy synth freakout records but I do feel this one has some staying power, though I guess this attempt to address it in a critical manner has failed. Because ultimately I like these types of "outer sounds" when they manage to appeal to something beyond my brainspace, which Cherry's worldthrob outpourings certainly do.

Don Cherry - 'Mu Second Part' (Affinity)

It's hard to find a decent-sized image to steal out there, because most of them are for the alternate white BYG issue. But I have both Mus on Affinity, and these back covers are adorned with great-yet-frightening photos of Mr. Cherry. In this second part, he's cracking a mad/evil smile and his eyes are bulging out of his head, but the effect casts him more as a lunatic than a villain. I guess only a lunatic would create a medley called 'The Mysticism of My Sound', a piano-driven suite that actually isn't nearly as mystical as anything else found on the two Mu slices. As suggested at the end of part 1, the piano noodlings are some sort of bridge into an extended piano workout. This is very slow-paced, and quite simplistic. There are bluesy overtones (particularly in the medley's opening movement, named after Dollar Brand), but none of the weird fidelity found on part 1's 'Terrestrial Beings'. Blackwell is holding things down but letting Cherry ring on, and the space is again a nice element (there are long sections where Cherry is only playing with one hand, clearly intending to highlight the melody over any sort of dazzling technique or freedom). It segues into bamboo night (in a piece titled, yes, 'Bamboo Night'), where said flute comes back to prominence, then drifts into the ether. Blackwell ends the side with a mini-solo, where he does that thing drummers do, you know, where they kinda push on the skins and warp the sounds. 'Peo Peo Can' (or 'Teo-Teo-Can' depending on whether you believe the sleeve or the label) begins side 2 with some real mysticism. Cherry plays the Indian flute, chants, and speaks in tongues all at the same time. Blackwell is on tiny percussion - one part sounds suspiciously like those rainsticks you get at airport gift shops. Things finally erupt in 'Psychodrama', another medley, which starts with the trumpet/drums freakout we've all been waiting for. But even this is strangely regal, and comes in bursts. But by the end (after going through another section named after Dollar Brand, with more piano of course), things wither away, the lifeforce receding into the distance. I haven't really sat down and listened to these records in years, at least not as closely as this -- which is, of course, the real purpose of this project. But I found a much more diverse and lively array of musical ideas than you would think only two people would be capable of. In some ways this is Cherry's masterpiece, even though it's sketchy, impulsive and unfocused -- but it may be the best representation of him as a musician. Perhaps these need to be paired with Brown Rice for a better picture.

29 November 2010

Don Cherry - 'Mu First Part' (Affinity)

Cherry and Blackwell bashed out these two records in 1969, showcasing their interactions without Henry Grimes or anyone else in the way. Obviously there's a lot more space here, and some parts are quite mellow. But there's also a lot of ferociousness. Cherry doesn't stick to his pocket trumpet, though it opens things with the Eastern-tinged (and modestly named) 'Brilliant Action'. The bamboo flute and Indian flute are both credited, and I'm not sure which one is on 'Amejelo', a long, flowing meditation that occasionally breaks into patient Ed Blackwell solos. Blackwell likewise expands his palette, using a lot of little instruments and overall choosing steady breathing over manic jazz hands. I guess it's Cherry who is responsible for the chanting, singing and moaning that occasionally pops up, but that's only because it happens where there isn't anything else he could be doing. It feels like these are completely improvised, though it's sometimes hard to tell in a free duo format. 'Total Vibration' is split over both sides and picks up the pace a bit after 'Amejelo's restraint. The trumpet, particularly after hearing so much flute, sounds positively acidic - the total vibrations are within every note, and Blackwell's puttering about only serves to enhance it. It drifts out on a boom-chik beat, all quiet energy emphasised through simplicity. The closing track, 'Terrestrial Beings', finds Cherry on the piano, an instrument which he approaches from a far more grounded approach than when he's blowing. There are moments of pure Sun Ra, especially at the end as it wiggles into the run-out groove, also due in part to the strange fidelity and texture of the recording. But there are also traces of honky-tonk and middle Eastern music as well. Maybe this is just a filler track, or maybe it's supposed to indicate a bridge to part 2 -- it's hard to know what Cherry's motivation is. But it's actually one of the highlights of the record, because it really conveys the otherworldly feel that the title Mu suggests.

28 November 2010

Don Cherry - 'Where is Brooklyn?' (Blue Note)

Into stereo we march; Gato's out, and Pharoah's in. Things starts off with 'Awake Nu', an unstoppably fluid juggernaut, with Grimes hitting soft tonalities over Blackwell's nervous pulse. Pharoah's really shining here cause Cherry actually holds back a lot, like he's introducing his band. The sax tones are somewhat thin, yet heavy, like they are being set in plasticene. Cherry's own bleats are much more playful compared to what he did with Gato. But that record was called Complete Communion so obviously it was about harmony. Here, a question mark in the title sets an interrogative nature, and occasionally some probing questions do come out, like at the end of 'Awake Nu'. This leads into 'Taste Maker', where we get a more ferocious cornucopia of brass, occasionally erupting. Henry Grimes takes a great bass solo, appearing like a rabid woodchuck shrouded in mist. He solos again, on 'The Thing', which closes out side 1 with a jaunty, Cherry-driven exploration that shrouded in darkness yet upbeat. The melodies aren't obvious and there's no hummable hooks, but there's a continual ebb and flow of musical ideas. When Cherry goes textural, Pharoah turns on the sweet stuff; the rhythm section is continually adjusting. One thing I didn't realise about Where is Brooklyn? until halfway through side 2 is the amount of space here. There's very few points where everyone is "all in", instead with many duo and trio moments to establish a pace and preserve continuity. Side 2 ends in an 18 minute jam called 'Unite' which is the most flowing and open piece yet in the Cherry solo repertoire, no surprise since the duration allows more exploration and space. It never stops pulsing, but also avoids severe dissonance. In short, it swings, despite variously oppositional tactics and a constantly elusive tonal centre. I love when Grimes gets simple with it -- there are brief segments where he just taps one note, letting things settle down, only to have them flare up again, bathed in cornet and sax. Overall, Where is Brooklyn? is exploratory, yet genteel; it's cover drawing is marvellously appropriate.

Don Cherry - 'Complete Communion' (Blue Note)

If you've ever needed evidence of why record geeks often prefer mono pressings of things, listen here. This record sounds so unbelieveably good, that I have trouble believing it's almost 45 years old. This particular pressing is in mint fuckin' condition as well, so I'm always a bit hesitant to actually, y'know, play the thing. But just like I one day learned to accept that it's okay to lose brain cells, I learned to enjoy Complete Communion -- completely! This is Cherry's first solo LP for Blue Note, one of a trilogy (of which I am missing the middle entry, my fave, Symphony for Improvisers). The band is Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Henry Grimes and Ed Blackwell, and it's divided into two four-piece suites, 'Complete Communion' and 'Elephantasy', all penned by Cherry. 'Complete Communion' is an incredibly advanced subversion of jazz melodies. It's an iconic tune, one of the few from the avant canon that I can actually hum unprompted; yet throughout all four of its segments, whenever you feel the harmony about to hit, either Cherry or Gato ducks away from it, and goes to some weird minor second interval, just for a second. It's a series of marginal disruptions, but Grimes and Blackwell roll through everything with such a peppy momentum that you never really settle in it. The tune is a great one too, sprinkled with vaguely Iberian spice (perhaps this was written specifically for Gato?) and a lot of range in its monaural glory. We don't need separate channels for the cornet and sax, because these guys have a great way of responding to each other and establishing a complementary relationship, even though they mirror melody lines more than a few times. I can really hear how influential Cherry was on Don Ayler, because he has this way of playing a line that feels like he's mumbling it, out of the side of his mouth (yet through the cornet mouthpiece). It's those casual gestures that keep me coming back to music. Blue Note's high quality studio no doubt contributes to the 'classic' status of these records, because some of the 70s records don't have the same clarity that this does. Blackwell's cymbals in particular manage to sit just perfectly in the mix. Grimes is maybe the least obvious element, though halfway through 'Elephantasy' he gets a nice bowed string solo which folds back into the group before outstaying its welcome. 'Elephantasy' in general is a more fluid, exploratory piece. It's tempo shifts sometimes suggests the space of the lounge, and at other times, a menagerie. I actually find it a bit less exotic than 'Complete Communion' though maybe the title is supposed to suggest adventures in India. Of course. we're still a few albums away from Cherry's complete communion with the pulse of the earth, if such a thing is to be believed -- there's still a solid footing in post-bop free-jazz, which is a nice anchor. Total righteousness all around.

25 November 2010

Rhys Chatham - 'Factor X' (Moers Music)

We have reached post #200, this early LP by Rhys Chatham which I've always enjoyed for it's bleak walls of seamless surfaces. Side one is the real monster, 'For Brass', written for 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, a tuba and a percussionist. We get Anton Fier banging the skins, and because of this it feels like a product of the early 80's New York new/no-wave scene. Despite the dissonant layers of the brass instruments it could pass for a nihilistic, bleak rock group. Olu Dara and George Lewis play on this, and it's a way I've never heard them before. Trumpets have the tonal range to cut through all of the dark layers (which seem to be built from the 'bones) so you get these moments of hurtling through a giant sheet of waxed paper, only to be caught in another net for awhile. It's mesmerising. Side two starts with 'Guitar Ring', which has echoes of 'All World Cowboy Romance' and the obvious Branca comparisons. Moers Music did a nice job on the mastering so this does ring really well. I can't decide if it would be more enjoyable without James Lo (of Live Skull fame) drumming throughout it. That would be certainly create a wider plane to stretch out on, but then the nervous pulse would be absent. And it's that pulse that really pulls this away from other minimalist explorers like Niblock, et al. Clean channel electric guitars always sound good to me, and the way that these sheets of glass crash around is enough mystery for me. Near the end a little riff peeks out, and y'know it wouldn't be out of place on a Burma record or even something more pop-oriented ... but it sinks back in before establishing any sort of anthemic tendency, and it's a nice detail. 'The Out of Tune Guitar #2' and 'Cadenza' fill out the LP. The former is a two minute rave-up that scatters sparks all over the place before fizzling out - it's pretty damn impressive, but it also sorta sounds like Polvo. 'Cadenza' draws out a long long single note pathway, allowing ghosting overtones to build up, with James Lo doing what rock drummers do in these situations. It's the other side of Chatham, one that is more open and gracious, but it's deceiving cause there's actually five guitars the slowly add to the pile until it cascades over the dusk. I don't think to pull this record out very much, cause the images and sensations I get from it (similar, I think, to Birdsongs of the Mesozoic) aren't something I think I'm in the mood for. But this doesn't disappoint on any level, and it's a nice contrast to the ten Don Cherry LPs that lie ahead.

20 November 2010

Charalambides - 'IN CR EA SE' (Eclipse)

Time has been kind to IN CR EA SE, which I remembered as being brutal, stark and difficult when I originally bought it. I probably played it once and shelved it, which is funny because it's the only record I have by this band, whom I actually like a lot. Well, it is brutal, stark and difficult, but that doesn't mean it isn't great too. Christina Carter is relegated to chord organ and vocal duty, which is a bit of a shame because her guitar playing is usually brilliant, even visionary at times. But Tom Carter is amazing too and his tonal bends, reverb-laden explorations and perfect scrapes get spotlighted here. Side one, 'IN', is a dense, dark storm, but it's slow as a worm, like everything on this record. It's the sunrise of the album, with plenty of references to 'that Charalambides sound' that they do in their live shows. His guitar is frantic and ragged, but it never is in excess -- every gestures is carefully calculated. 'CR' opens things up a bit, a more broad landscape bathed in bright white light. There's difficulties in navigation - though the instrumentation is very minimal, its well-explored. It's the second LP where things get much more unpleasant. 'EA' starts the wall of sound - of dissonant chord organ intervals and hazy, uncertain guitar twangs. Christina's voice soars at the end of both tracks, sounding possibly multi-tracked, yet thin - it's all part of the clouds. These four pieces are obviously improvised, though I don't think completely free -- there is a focus that is overwhelming, expressed as tension that never lets up. IN CR EA SE is a long, long listen -- I didn't time it but it feels like each side is over 20 minutes -- and it's hard to tune out or allow to become an ambient blanket because it's such an unsettling vibe. The title is pretty accurate as to how the record progresses, as 'IN' feels like a gentle, pastoral memory by the time you reach 'SE'. I love how Charalambides are so aggressively experimental, yet throb on a familiar pulse. They have a mastery of subtlety and technique, and maybe this is displayed more here than on their more familiar releases. There's clearly an appreciation of tradition - of psych, folk, and minimal precedents -- I see Charalambides as mining the drift between the notes of 13th Floor Elevators' 'Dust' , another Texas dark star.