Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Art Pepper,
Art Pepper meets The Rhythm Section

During his career alto saxophonist Art Pepper cut many records, and every jazz-friendly collection should own at least a few. But if the matter boils down to only owning one, the choice is easy; it’s 1957’s off-the-cuff masterpiece Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It features the troubled yet outstanding young horn-man in cahoots with Miles Davis’ unimpeachable rhythm team of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.

Art Pepper lived one hell of a life, with large portions of it unpleasant, largely due to a heroin addiction that resulted in four prison terms. It’s all there in his book Straight Life, which rates with Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog and Hampton Hawes’ Raise Up Off Me as one of the very greatest of jazz autobiographies.

Pepper was also one hell of an alto saxophonist, and additionally something of a rarity; a West Coaster who could make East Coasters happy. That’s to say he was able to play Cool but also wasn’t afraid of the blues. Though he was co-leader on ‘56’s Playboys with trumpeter and Cool-kingpin Chet Baker, Pepper’s often identified with the West Coast more by simple geography than by the moods and textures of his playing. In truth Pepper was versatile enough to be open to numerous settings; he even hit the studio with Lennie Tristano-disciple Warne Marsh (those cuts can be found on the ’72 comp The Way it Was).

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Graded on a Curve: Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals’ Starvation League, Undefeated

Bobby Bare Jr.’s latest effort, his fourth with the Young Criminal’s Starvation League, is titled Undefeated. While the roots of his musical upbringing can still be sporadically detected in his recent stuff, the 10 tracks from this new record continue to present the veteran singer-songwriter-guitarist as his own artistic man.

One of this writer’s earliest memories is of grooving in the living room as the 1974 LP Singin’ in the Kitchen spun on my folks’ wooden hi-fi cabinet stereo system, a long-ago state-of-the-art unit sporting durable tweed material covering its speakers, an appliance truly doubling as a piece of deluxe furniture with the hugeness and functionality leaving this young lad fascinated.

Singin’ in the Kitchen was a country sing-along album credited to Bobby Bare and the Family, its songs deriving almost entirely from the pen of Shel Silverstein. While not a children’s record exactly, the kid-friendly disc’s oft-boisterous intent was plainly to enhance familial camaraderie, and in the household of my youth it chalked-up smashing success.

To this day Singin’ in the Kitchen remains an admirable endeavor, showing off the 1970s country scene’s more progressive leanings, though its usefulness for aging bachelors (like me) or for that matter bachelorettes (perhaps like you) is truthfully pretty limited. I mainly mention the LP because Bobby Bare Jr. was a singing member of the Family; he in fact made his recording debut earlier that same year (age five) on his father’s #2 C&W hit “Daddy What If.”

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Graded on a Curve:
TAANG! Records:
The First 10 Singles

In 1984 a record label was formed in Boston with a focus upon the city’s hardcore punk scene, its name an acronym for Teen Agers Are No Good! Since then its founder Curtis Casella has released music of wildly varying levels of quality, but TAANG! Records: The First Ten Singles provides a surprisingly consistent and highly enjoyable listen. A Record Store Day box-set limited to 2,000 copies and available only at participating brick and mortar shops, it offers 7-inches from Beantown acts Gang Green, Negative FX, Lemonheads, Moving Targets, and more.

Like numerous other ‘80s indies, TAANG! began as an outgrowth of a long-established local scene, with Curtis Casella chronicling the mid-‘80s punk/HC activity of his hometown. Other US imprints of similar beginnings exude more respective glamour (e.g. SST, Touch and Go, and Dischord), largely because they started earlier, but TAANG! stepped-up and captured a transitioning milieu when many of his predecessors were running out of steam, chasing dead-ends, or simply losing interest. And like any worthy label it’s the music that’s paramount, so let’s waste no time in delving into this set’s rewards.

Prior to a long tenure as one of the globe’s leading celebrants of unbridled alcohol intake, metal-tinged skate-punks Gang Green existed as a trad hardcore outfit, with their strongest attribute the exhibition of almost ludicrously blistering speed. That velocity is crucial to “Sold Out,” easily the crown jewel from the original lineup. It alternates parodic yet appealing elements of melody with stabs of breakneck momentum, and “Sold Out” stands as one of the best HC songs (which were frankly at a premium) of its period.

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Graded on a Curve: Grachan Moncur III,
New Africa

The BYG/Actuel experience was, to put it mildly, a dynamic mixture of personalities from across the spectrum of the late-‘60s jazz avant-garde. Well-seasoned vets crossed paths with energetic younger players and exchanged knowledge for enthusiasm in studios and on concert stages, sending free-jazz into the 1970s with a vibrant thrust of regenerative energy. One of the label’s finest efforts, New Africa, belongs to the great trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur III.

A big hunk of the heaviest-hitting Actuel recordings took place due to activities related to The Pan-African Music Festival in Algiers in July of ’69 and the subsequent Actuel Festival in Amougies, Belgium in October of the same year. BYG had been extant since ’67, but it was really this gush of furious collaboration, largely led by Archie Shepp and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, that shaped up sub-label Actuel’s roster and in turn delivered an absolutely vital chapter in jazz history.

There are of course exceptions. For instance, Paul Bley’s Ramblin’ was the result of a licensing deal, having been cut in Rome in ’66 (released in ’69), and while it is surely an important document, its relevance to the overall Actuel story is qualitative and not representative. The label’s lasting identity is based upon that roughly five month period demarked above, with Grachan Moncur III playing a key role as one of the scenario’s veterans, a trombonist as rich in his playing as he was compositionally brilliant.

Moncur is one of the few Actuel alums to have also recorded for Blue Note and Impulse. His work for those labels is persistently worthwhile, including his fruitful alliance with sax giant Jackie McLean and a pair of LPs as a leader (‘63’s Evolution and the next year’s Some Other Stuff) for Blue Note plus his long associations with Shepp and Marion Brown for Impulse.

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Graded on a Curve: American Jazz Quintet,
Gulf Coast Jazz, Vol. 1

New Orleans is a locale rarely discussed in Modern Jazz terms. In the second half of the 1950s however, tenor saxophonist Harold Battiste, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, drummer Ed Blackwell and numerous bassists, Crescent City residents all, comprised the American Jazz Quintet. The moniker might seem nondescript, but it actually reflects their collective artistry quite well. The music found on Gulf Coast Jazz, Volume 1 makes a strong case for that name deserving a much higher profile.

When folks get together to gab about post-bop they often lump the vast majority of the music into the designations of East Coast Hot and West Coast Cool. In so doing, East essentially means New York City and West basically encompasses the state of California. While the Chicago scene gets its due as does Philadelphia and Boston, the rest of the country is almost entirely left out of the discussion.

In 1956 the American Jazz Quintet made their first recordings at Cosimo’s Studio in that cradle of Dixieland, zydeco, and rhythm & blues. 1996 saw those initial sessions compiled on the CD In the Beginning by the musician’s cooperative label All for One. Previously, ten of those tracks filled the first two sides of the Opus 43 imprint’s 4LP box set from ‘76, the very scarce and extremely pricey (as in 850 bucks used) New Orleans Heritage – Jazz: 1956-1966 (on which the American Jazz Quintet got coupled with the A.F.O. Executives and the Ellis Marsalis Quartet).

In the Beginning holds the recording debuts of Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, and Ellis Marsalis, though as the music clearly shows, the group (which along with Harold Battiste also included alternating bassists Richard Payne and William Swanson and on one cut the alto sax of Warren Bell) benefited from the substantial playing experience of the individual members. For one obvious example, while living in Los Angeles Blackwell had already hooked up with his most famous associate Ornette Coleman (Blackwell temporarily moved back to New Orleans in ’56).

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Graded on a Curve:
Doug Gillard,
Parade On

It’s safe to say that Doug Gillard has played in some bands, with the most notable of them being Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, Gem, Guided by Voices, and Nada Surf. Over the years he’s also released a few records under his own name, and his new one is titled Parade On. Like his two prior solo full-lengths, this latest LP offers pleasurable consistency born from experience, and the album’s succinctness further emphasizes Gillard’s best qualities.

Though he started committing his songs to tape back when he was five freaking years old, with those ditties later documented on the 1990 cassette It’ll Be such a Thrill, the substantive recording career of Doug Gillard begins in the mid-‘80s. Commencing in ’83, the multi-instrumentalist-vocalist-tunesmith was an original member of Death of Samantha, lending them an oft raucous, unfailingly savvy guitar sound as they helped to establish Cleveland’s underground scene as one of enduring importance.

Since then he’s played a key role in a considerable number of rewarding scenarios, more than doubling his credits from the list above, and the near-constant factor in the whole bunch is Gillard’s love of catchy guitar-based settings. Indeed, the projects that bear his name are reliably hook-filled affairs, but they also deliver rock-derived punch.

As evidence, he and Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot are part of Bambi Kino, an outfit devoted to playing all the covers from the ’60-’63 Hamburg/Cavern period of The Beatles. That reads like a blast no doubt, but please don’t form a notion of Gillard as being a retro-minded artist best suited for the atmospheres of the party.

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Graded on a Curve:
Art Farmer,
The Art Farmer Quintet featuring Gigi Gryce

Art Farmer’s career was a long and distinguished one, but his most celebrated recordings were cut during the post-bop heyday of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. While he’s arguably best known for being the co-leader of the Jazztet with Benny Golson, his first batch of discs for Prestige offer much joy for the hearing. This is especially the case with his second quintet outing, the masterful ’55 LP The Art Farmer Quintet featuring Gigi Gryce.

I guess my favorite stuff from trumpeter/flugelhornist Art Farmer is his quartet outings from the first half of the ‘60s, specifically a group that featured the unfaltering guitarist Jim Hall and the tandem of Steve Swallow on bass and either Pete La Roca or Walter Perkins on drums, but nearly any entry in the guy’s early work will provide a fine study in post-bop theorizing. Particularly enjoyable are his Prestige dates with the undersung alto-man and songwriter Gigi Gryce.

The second of those records, once labeled as Evening in Casablanca but originally and currently sporting the far more informative though less picturesque title The Art Farmer Quintet featuring Gigi Gryce, is by far the greater, and it endures as a vivid portrait of mid-‘50s mainstream jazz sensibilities. While Farmer hit the studio a lot during this period including as a sideman for some classic Blue Note dates, he now seems to be fairly underrated, his name lacking the posthumous recognition given to his contemporaries Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard.

I really have no idea why this is. Perhaps it’s the lack of leadership sessions for Blue Note. More likely it’s because Farmer is a more cool-toned guy (he started out on the West Coast), lacking the muscular and funky hard-bop fringes that helped pave the way for soul jazz. Instead, he was far more interested in teaming up with talented composer-arrangers and examining the continuing possibilities of elevated song-form.

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Graded on a Curve: Chicago Underground Duo, Locus

17 years of existence finds the Chicago Underground Duo offering up their new record Locus. Never a pairing to sooth the savage purist, the partnership of Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor continues to explore wide-ranging sonic territory across this album’s nine succinct tracks. Along with a solid jazz foundation, Locus features their familiar use of electronics mingled with a welcome if fleeting Afropop influence. If not the Duo’s strongest release, it’s still a rewarding LP.

Trumpeter Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor’s oeuvre under the moniker Chicago Underground Duo is but one manifestation of a larger entity, namely the Chicago Underground Collective. Formed in 1996 by Mazurek, Taylor and guitarist Jeff Parker, the Collective has served as the springboard for a substantial body of jazz-derived but stylistically restless and highly progressive sound creation.

The aspect that informs all of the Chicago Underground material, whether it’s the Duo’s seven records, the Trio’s four (three of them on the Windy City’s long-serving Delmark imprint), the Quartet’s solitary self-titled release or the ’98 album by the Orchestra (actually an augmented core quintet) Playground (also on Delmark), is forward-thinking experimentation born from the age-old discipline of extended practice and study.

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Graded on a Curve: Terry Waldo,
The Soul of Ragtime

It’s been said that without the blues there would be no jazz, and while that’s a solid statement, just as important to the scenario is ragtime. The creators of this turn of the 20th century popular music are all long departed, but through the talents of veteran pianist Terry Waldo ragtime endures as a living art form. As the leader of assorted groups he’s been in the record business since the dawn of the 1970s, and his latest for the Tompkins Square label is an outstanding solo effort appropriately titled The Soul of Ragtime.

“I wanted some of that old, basic ragtime feeling…”
—Andrew Hill, on his composition “New Monastery”

By the early 1920s ragtime’s popularity had largely subsided. And to this day some simply consider it to be an early manifestation of the consistently developing music that overtook it, namely jazz, but it was in fact a unique entity. Along with blues and spirituals, ragtime’s impact upon the subsequent flowering of jazz is indisputable.

To “rag” a tune was to syncopate it and make it more vibrant and suitable for dancing, an African-American trend that by the end of the 1800s had developed into its own genre. Even after its commercial fortunes had declined, rags remained a part of any well-rounded songster’s repertoire. Far into the 1930s, numerous guitarists later lumped into the category of country blues (Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller are two examples) employed the form as part of larger creative arsenals.

The retrospective renown of sophisticated ragtime dates back to World War II. However, its deepest appreciation came in the 1970s and mainly around the resurgence of interest in easily the genre’s most famous practitioner Scott Joplin. If ragtime was a popular music of its period, Joplin was ahead of it; his prominence while alive was based almost entirely on the 1899 publication of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” a steadily selling piece that more importantly proved influential upon the writing of many subsequent rags.

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(Re)Graded on a Curve:
Jobriath, s/t

In terms of popularity, America never produced an equivalent to David Bowie. But there was Jobriath, an unfortunate victim of record label hype and consumer indifference who produced what’s easily the USA’s purest expression of glam sensibilities.

Jobriath Boone, né Bruce Wayne Campbell is one of the more fascinating casualties in rock’s colorful history. Starting out in the ultra-obscure pop-folk-psyche group Pigeon (who recorded an LP and a single for Decca in ’69) after defecting from a Los Angeles production of Hair, his demo tape was stumbled upon by ‘70s mover-and-shaker Jerry Brandt, who managed to get him signed to Elektra Records for the reported sum of $500,000.

A barrage of publicity followed, including a billboard in Times Square and an appearance on the late night TV variety program The Midnight Special. Problem was, his ’73 debut tanked commercially, setting off a media backlash that left his follow-up Creatures of the Street to wither without promotion. His relationship with Brandt severed, Jobriath was held in the clutches of a ten year contract that kept him from recording any further material. Instead, he worked as a cabaret singer under the name Cole Berlin and lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where he died of AIDS in 1983.

Jobriath’s status as an openly gay musician sets him apart from his glam contemporaries. Where Bowie and others flirted with the perception of bi-sexuality, Jobriath made no bones about his sexual orientation. He described himself to the press as a “true fairy,” displaying frankness and flamboyance that surely damaged his chances with many observers hiding a closed mind in the closet, and in fact this defiant boldness situates Jobriath as an exponent of the camp theatricality that’s long been an aspect of gay culture.

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