Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Residents,
Residue of the Residents

Those of us requiring a dose of daily weirdness will always reserve a special place in our twisted little hearts for San Francisco via Shreveport, Louisiana outfit the Residents. Lifelong oddballs dressed up like tuxedoed eyeballs, this marvelously bent bunch has been an active concern since way back when the FBI took their orders from the jowls of Nixon; decades later their stuff still hangs way out there on the edge. Require proof? Well, get thee to a copy of Superior Viaduct’s outstanding 2LP extension of the 1983 compilation Residue of the Residents and prepare to be enveloped with beaucoup unusualness.

While I do love them like a mother, over their long existence the Residents have released so much music that attempting to think about its entirety can at times deliver a substantial burden upon the consciousness. To elaborate, the handy website Discogs gathers up 78 separate items under the heading of Albums, with that tally excluding 39 that are designated as Compilations. There’s also 41 entries listed as Singles & EPs.

In Residential terms, I’ve found the easiest way to counteract any nagging discographical fatigue is to simply refocus upon the absolutely essential documents from inside that vast oeuvre. And I’m surely not alone in holding a deep affection for their early material; ‘74’s Meet the Residents, ‘76’s masterful The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, ‘77’s Fingerprince, ‘78’s double kick of Duck Stab/Buster & Glen and Not Available, ‘79’s Eskimo, and ‘80’s amazing collection of 40 one-minute songs Commercial Album, the LP that served as this writer’s introduction to the group’s warped brilliance.

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Graded on a Curve: Medeski, Martin & Wood + Nels Cline, Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2

It was through a two-night summer 2012 live stand at the NYC nightclub The Blue Note that Medeski, Martin & Wood inaugurated their performance association with the prolific guitarist Nels Cline. Those with only cursory knowledge of the participants’ musical productivity might view the match as an odd one, but their new live in the studio collaboration The Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2 illuminates their ability to function as a cohesive unit and serves up a generous helping of forward thinking yet approachable 21st century jazz-rock.

Some surely consider keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood to be little more than purveyors of edgy groove-fusion for the jam-band scene while others will no doubt shortchange Nels Cline as basically just a member of Wilco. The reality is that both the guitarist and MMW have worked extensively in cahoots with a numerous and diverse roster of artists.

A look into their backgrounds will reveal Cline’s massive number of credits, a list that spans all the way back to Openhearted, the 1979 LP from Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. But if less productive in terms of sheer volume, MMW’s ties to the concepts of jazz-informed collaboration are ultimately just as strong.

This is mainly because they persist as a band in the truest sense of the word. Shaping up as a trio lacking a clearly defined leader, or maybe better said with three crack musicians constantly alternating the leadership role, MMW’s 20-plus years of activity has effectively been a long and fertile expression of collaborative equality. It’s a circumstance that allows them to engage in dialogue with additional players with relative ease and comfort.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jackie McLean,
Lights Out!

Since 1991, the Analogue Productions label has been doing a dandy job in reissuing music from a variety of genres in editions designed to surpass the quality of their often elusive originals. They are currently offering a superb slate of releases from the vaults of Prestige, the storied jazz imprint that captured so many of the form’s most important names. One such figure was the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and if his reputation deservedly rests upon his copious recordings for Blue Note, by no means should the ins and outs of his early work be ignored. Lights Out!, available in a 180gm edition, would make a fine introduction to the rewarding apprenticeship of this true giant.

Spending time investigating the selections in a second hand record shop’s well stocked jazz stacks can result in a vinyl-loving aficionado of improvisation-based song-form commiserating, sometimes even cursing aloud (I’ve seen it) that they’ve been dealt a cruel hand by time’s tough circumstances. Oh, to be born too late. High-dollar values abound, and when combined with the deluge of choices, the tide can certainly prove more than a bit disconcerting. Yes, the digital age has made it so much easier to at least hear the music (indeed, the most important part) that resides in those very expensive grooves, but for those of us who value the full experience, great jazz and a well-made LP go together like rich, thick peanut butter and lovingly made homemade jam.

The music of Jackie McLean has landed on a formidable number of records over the years. He cut over twenty albums for Blue Note alone, most of them in the ‘60s, and if I had to own only one it would surely be from that period. But thankfully the prospect of only owning one is something I don’t have to consider. And if the ‘60s stuff brings McLean his biggest accolades, his youthful work both as a sideman and in the leadership role not only provides valuable insight into his later studies in advanced bop (which frequently sought a productive dialogue with free jazz), they also stand up as highly enjoyable sessions in their own right.

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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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