Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Bill Dixon Orchestra, Intents and Purposes, and the Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet, (s/t)

Musician, composer and educator Bill Dixon is one of the key figures in the history of jazz’s New Thing, not only integral as organizer of the storied October Revolution in Jazz, but also as the catalyst for a defining document from the era, RCA Victor’s 1967 issue of Intents and Purposes by The Bill Dixon Orchestra. Once a highly elusive artifact, it’s become much easier to hear of late and on January 27 gets a vinyl reissue by Superior Viaduct. Coincidentally, Dixon’s recording debut, Savoy’s 1962 release of the sole self-titled album by the Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet is getting a repress by Jeanne Dielman. It serves as an enlightening prologue to Dixon’s later masterworks, while being totally worthy on its own.

The greatest compliment one can pay to the late Bill Dixon is that he was a great teacher, but a complicating side-effect of his dedication to the creative development of numerous first-rate musicians (including cornetist Rob Mazurek, drummer Jackson Krall, and saxophonist Marco Eneidi) is that it diverted him away from the recording studio and for a time diminished his deserved standing as an innovator in the jazz avant-garde; to quote Dixon, from 1970-1976 he existed “in total isolation from the market places of this music.”

Even prior to his long stay at Vermont’s Bennington College, which commenced in 1968 (and lasted until his retirement from teaching in 1996), Dixon’s appearances on record were few; they in fact total four, with the first and last covered in this review. The discographical slimness (especially in jazz terms) meant that many younger ears hungry for free jazz nourishment (such as this writer and surely others) received their introduction to Dixon’s playing via a stone killer in the annals of ’60’s “out” jazz, namely Cecil Taylor’s second masterpiece for the Blue Note label, Conquistador!

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Graded on a Curve: Emptyset, Borders

Spawned from the enduring Bristol, UK scene, electronic duo Emptyset specialize in a process-based techno-descended minimalism. Earlier releases offered an anxious hypnotic throb as one component in an intriguing, somewhat science-fictive sonic milieu, but on their latest release the focus is again tightened, with cyclical harshness abundant; a continued adherence to rules amid constant growth strengthens the record’s concise running-time. Borders is out January 27 on virgin vinyl featuring an artworked inner sleeve and on compact disc tucked into a 4-panel mini-LP style gatefold package via Thrill Jockey of Chicago.

James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas are Emptyset, their partnership beginning in Bristol in 2005, though Ginzburg is now based in Berlin and Purgas in London. These individual moves are ultimately no matter, as their new album once again offers the type of stern yet enticing experimental sort-of-techno for which the city of Bristol is noted. Their 2009 self-titled full-length debut, originally on Caravan Recordings and reissued in 2015 on Ginzburg’s Subtext label, displayed contents underlining the duo’s interest in reliably harsh minimalist techniques over celebratory body movers or songlike motifs.

The above observation isn’t a rigid truth; as Emptyset progresses it utilizes synthetic bass tones frequently employed by club bangers and Dade County car stereos as the disc’s mid-section track “Completely Gone” could easily fit into a DJ set, albeit an edgy one. However, what surrounded it was clearly in the ambient-experimental zone, a fertile tradition that extended to 2011’s Demiurge.

A constant facet in Ginzburg and Purgas’ collaboration is a refusal to remain operationally static. They’ve engaged with performance, the moving image, installation work, and a persistent attention to physical spaces, with the pair exploring the possibilities of sound creation in specific structures on a pair of releases taking them even farther from the techno realm and into industrial territory; “Medium” was recorded in Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire, UK, while “Material” employed the Ambika P3 in London, the Chislehurst Mine in Kent, and the Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station in Snowdonia, Wales.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, January 2017

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for January, 2017. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: OST, Iris (Erased Tapes) Composer Dustin O’Halloran and Stars of the Lid member Adam Wiltzie are A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and their blend of modern classical, ambient, and drone gets its third full-length release via the soundtrack to the 2016 French thriller from director Jalil Lespert. While often tagged as cinematic, this is the duo’s first film score, with the music on prior album Atomos serving as accompaniment to a dance piece by choreographer Wayne McGregor. Iris taps into the above-listed styles and underlines the duo as a major exponent in contemporary post-rock. A-

REISSUE PICK: Pat Thomas & Ebo Taylor, Sweeter Than Honey, Calypso “Mahuno” And High Lifes Celebration (Presch Media GmbH) This reissues an excellent and pricey 1980 LP from a pair of Nigerian Highlife kingpins, Thomas the vocalist and Taylor the composer, arranger and lead guitarist. Those having scooped up Strut’s 3LP/ 2CD Thomas retrospective Coming Home will know this album’s “Ma Huno,” and it delivers Sweeter Than Honey its highpoint. But that’s no indictment of the quality found throughout this superb if succinct album, for in the truth in titling department, this baby rates high. A

Amas, Grill (Presch Media GmbH) Per PMG’s promo blurb, which quotes extensively from Peter Moore via the website African Revolutions, not only is Nigerian vocalist Gbubemi Amas smooth, articulate, cultured, and classy, he also possesses immaculate enunciation on this reish of a big-bucks 1981 boogie funk LP. Indeed, furthering the good-natured vibe is a cover of “Fire and Rain,” with Amas’ version closer to pop crooning than boogie or funk. Lacking the kick of Afro-rock or Highlife, this is solidly in the post-disco pop mold. Exuding hints of Talking Heads and Boz Scaggs, “Slow Down” is a highlight. B

Bash & Pop, Friday Night is Killing Me (Sire/Reprise) Tommy Stinson, with a lengthy cast of notables on hand, has a new record coming out this week under the revived Bash & Pop moniker. It’s titled Anything Could Happen, and I haven’t heard it. Hopefully, what happens will mark an improvement upon this formerly one and done group’s ’93 release, which is hitting vinyl for the first time on 1/24. To be fair, Stinson’s initial post-Replacements effort isn’t terrible; in fact, it’s a little better than the Mats’ final effort All Shook Down. Giving it a fresh spin, it persists as an okay but not terribly exciting listen. B

Black Anvil, As Was (Relapse) Reportedly one of the few black metal acts based in New York City, Black Anvil are now four albums deep, with all but their 2008 debut Time Insults the Mind on Relapse. That sort of label consistency frequently bodes well for overall quality, and so it is here. This is exactly the sort of LP to stoke the demonic fire of the genre’s sticklers the globe over, as it’s got the mauling guitars, the thudding rhythms, and the threatening croak-growl in spades, but there is a musicality to the 8-songs in 50-minutes that helps them to stand out. Familiar moves resist becoming mere tropes. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Pops de Vanguardia

The Paraguayan outfit Jodi sprang to life in the late ’60s through the combined efforts of teenage brothers Joern and Dirk Wenger. In 1971 they cut an extremely rare private press album, and upon the occasion of its recent reissue, Guerssen Records imprint Out-Sider posed this question: is it “the best lo–fi garage album from South America?” That’s frankly a stumper, but after soaking up the dozen tracks on this once impossible to find LP, it’s obvious Pops De Vanguardia belongs in the discussion. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital with five bonus selections.

Born in Paraguay but of German descent, Joern and Dirk Wenger were like countless ’60s teenagers in their catching of the rock ‘n’ roll bug, but a big distinction in their story was life under the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Well, that and the siblings, with Joern in the lead, built their own studio, appropriating a section of the industrial paintings-related factory owned by their family.

Prior to Jodi, the brothers had debuted on record as part of The Rabbits, a high school outfit that cut a 4-song garage/ beat EP for the Guarania label in ’69. Categorized as extremely rare (only 300 units were pressed), the set was recorded in a professional studio, and based on “Buscándote,” the one tune from the EP that’s tacked onto the end of Pops De Vanguardia’s CD and included on the vinyl download card, the contrast is striking.

The Wenger’s home studio was certainly an achievement, but it’s also undeniable that Jodi’s album is an excursion into lo-fidelity, though don’t misapprehend that descriptor as commentary on competence. Joern’s interest in studio recording eclipsed any desire for live performance, with his indifference to gigs spelling the end of The Rabbits. Part of the reason for the studio focus relates to the widespread influence of LPs, e.g. Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds, that were the byproduct of advanced recording techniques rather than practice space-bandstand synergy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bic Runga,
Close Your Eyes

Singer-songwriter Bic Runga has been active since the mid-’90s. Huge in her native New Zealand, she’s amassed a solid discography including a live collaboration with fellow Kiwis Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn while counting Sir Elton John as a fan. Her early records are noted for being composed entirely of self-penned material, but her latest is a broad landscape made up largely of smartly chosen covers; offering a handful of gems, Close Your Eyes has just received global release on vinyl and compact disc through the new international pop label Wild Combinations.

Having sprang from the ’90s adult alternative zone, Bic Runga’s records are amongst the better examples of the form. Nearer to pop traditionalism than any sort of iconoclastic mode, she’s still tangibly contemporary as her work reveals nothing secondhand, the songs imbued with emotion yet refreshingly direct. While Runga hasn’t equaled her chart accomplishments elsewhere (she does have a following in neighboring Australia and Ireland), listening to ’97’s Drive and ’02’s Beautiful Collision, it’s clear that under different circumstances she could’ve.

Between her initial pair of albums, she toured with Tim Finn (Split Enz/ Crowded House/ Finn Brothers/ solo) and Dave Dobbyn (Th’ Dudes/ DD Smash/ solo), a combo affair that resulted in the 2000 release Together in Concert: Live. Touching upon the work of three intelligent but accessible New Zealand songsmiths (spanning the ’70s to the new millennium), it was a stone cinch for commercial success in their home country (it climbed to #2 on the NZ Album Chart and chalked up 26 weeks on the survey).

Although 2005’s terrific Birds maintained Runga’s streak as the sole author and shaper of her records, after a long break in the schedule Belle appeared in ’11 with Kody Nielson (The Mint Chicks/ Opossum/ Silicon) as producer and sporting a bunch of songs cowritten with Nielson and others. Plus, in a tidbit foreshadowing Close Your Eyes, the set’s title track is a cover of the theme song to the French television series Belle et Sébastien.

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Graded on a Curve: Orkesta Mendoza,
¡Vamos A Guarachar!

Led by multi-instrumentalist Sergio Mendoza, the Tucson, AZ-based outfit Orkesta Mendoza delivers a potent bouillabaisse of traditions, blending assorted Mexican regional styles (including cumbia and mambo) with electronic elements and infusions of pop and rock. Second album ¡Vamos A Guarachar! documents the band’s substantial strides; amid a rising tide of intolerance and a desire for isolationism their example of cultural exchange is more vital than ever. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Glitterbeat.

Springing to life as a one-off project paying tribute to the Cuban mambo king Pérez Prado and releasing their debut Mambo Mexicano as Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta, the more tidily monikered Orkesta Mendoza can be considered as part of the longstanding Arizona roots impulse, with its principal member having toured and recorded with Calexico (whose co-leader Joey Burns co-produced Mambo Mexicano). But in a manner akin to the interwoven cultural fabric symbolized by Calexico’s choice of name, Orkesta Mendoza represents an organic mix of assorted traditions steeped in contempo flair.

Sergio Mendoza was born in Nogales, Arizona and raised in Nogales, Mexico, with his youthful musical interests dominated by cumbia and the associated Mexican styles of mambo, rancheras, and mariachi. However, like many youngsters, Mendoza was eventually seduced by US rock, which he claims to have played exclusively for roughly 15 years.

Unsurprisingly, Mendoza gravitated back to his early loves but without sacrificing his interest in rock as he chose pop relevance over folkish antiquity. For the new album, the lineup consists of Mendoza (vocals, keyboards, guitars, drums, percussion, programming, and horns), Sean Rogers (bass, lead vocals on “Shadows of the Mind”), Marco Rosano (sax, clarinet, trombone, keyboards, and guitar), Raul Marques (backing vocals) and Joe Novelli (lap steel). Additionally, Salvador Duran’s vocals enlarge three of ¡Vamos A Guarachar!’s tracks including opener “Cumbia Volcadora.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Half Japanese,
Hear the Lions Roar

Half Japanese shines like a beacon to those looking beyond rock’s accepted molds. Emerging around 1975 as a brotherly duo, the gradually expanding and shifting outfit has amassed one of modern music’s more unusual yet dependably comforting discographies. After a long hiatus, leader and sole constant member Jad Fair snapped the group back to action in 2014 and they’ve been busy ever since; Hear the Lions Roar is their latest and it’s out January 13 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Fire Records.

Initially the project of siblings Jad and David Fair, across four decades Half Japanese has moved from the subterranean oddball fringe into a prime spot in the underground’s Hall of Fame. Prolific through a series of distinct eras, over the last few years Fire Records has done a bang-up job of corralling those periods into a series of box sets. They started with an expanded 4LP/ 3CD edition of Half Gentlemen Not Beasts, initially issued in 1980 as perhaps recorded music’s first triple album debut.

Raw, emotionally nude and gloriously untethered to notions of traditional musicianship, the Brothers Fair stripped-down the proto-punk mojo of the Velvets and especially the uninhibited awkwardness of Jonathan Richman to its rudiments, injected a hearty strain of bedroom/ basement experimentalism, and on Half Gentlemen’s live material augmented the lineup with another set of brothers, namely John and Rick Dreyfuss. The exploration of a full-band conception blossomed on Loud, Our Solar System, and Sing No Evil, the three LPs that comprise Volume 1: 1981-1985.

Early Half Japanese proved gripping to converts but perplexing to those not swayed by the Fair’s outsider charms, but by Sing No Evil they were making sounds generally recognizable as rock. This would’ve normally either resulted in a schism between old fans and new audience or spelled disaster all around, but with David exiting the picture Jad broadened his base of support, honed his songwriting and came up with two classics of the ’80s underground in Music to Strip By and The Band That Would Be King, plus one flat-out masterpiece in Charmed Life, the three shaping Volume 2: 1987-1989.

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Graded on a Curve: Dennis Coffey,
Hot Coffey in the D

As a guitarist, Dennis Coffey was a member of the storied Funk Brothers’ studio band and the architect of the million-selling instrumental groove monster “Scorpio,” while as a producer his credits include the initial LPs by Sixto Rodriguez of Searching for Sugar Man fame; the recent emergence of a 1968 live set spotlights Coffey’s talents as part of a trio perched at the intersection of soul, funk, jazz, and rock. Housed in a swank cover featuring artwork by Simpsons/ Futurama animator Bill Morrison, Resonance Records’ 180gm pressing of Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge is currently available, and on January 13 it’s joined by digipak CD and digital options.

The vast studio-based brilliance that helps to shape the musical prestige of the 1960s is by now well established. Alongside the Wrecking Crew, the Nashville A-Team, and the assorted members of the Stax and FAME studio bands, the group of Detroit musicians known as the Funk Brothers stands tall, their talent lent largely (but not entirely) to the immortal product of Barry Gordy’s Motown enterprise.

Dennis Coffey was part of that band, and his work with producer Norman Whitfield on a slew of Temptations recordings, including the classic hits “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away from Me),” and “Psychedelic Shack” are enough to secure the guitarist’s place in the narrative of Motown and in the story of Detroit’s musical heyday overall.

However, Coffey’s input is integral to numerous other gems, both as part of the Funk Brothers and as a free agent for other Detroit labels; amongst the highlights are The Volumes’ “Monkey Hop,” The Reflections’ “Just Like Romeo and Juliet,” Darrell Banks’ “Open the Door to Your Heart,” Al Kent’s “You’ve Got to Pay the Price,” The Parliaments’ “(I Wanna) Testify,” Edwin Starr’s “S.O.S. (Stop Her on Sight)” and “War,” The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame,” and Marvin Gaye’s “That’s the Way Love Is.”

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, January 2017

The TVD Record Store Club’s look at the brand new wax presently in stores for January, 2017. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS, Three from OSR: Having amassed 80+ releases, this Vermont-based label run by Zack Phillips is winding down operations as we enter 2017. Most OSR releases have seen physical manifestation via cassette and CD, but the discography’s final triptych arrives on wax, a circumstance helping to slightly assuage the sadness brought on by the imprint’s demise. As all are quite worthy, let’s cast the spotlight on the whole bunch…

Ruth Garbus & Friends, “Hello Everybody” Garbus’ 2014 “Joule” EP, issued on vinyl by OSR, stands as a concise psych-folk gem. A song shorter, a minute longer, and ultimately not quite as strong, this follow-up finds Garbus cussing more as she continues to radiate a decidedly late ’80s-early ’90s feel. To elaborate, the opening title track puts me in a Shimmy Disc frame of mind, perhaps a bit like Lida Husik under the influence of early King Missile, but maybe the disc’s vinyl mastering by Kramer at Noise Miami has triggered this association. Folks into Beck’s early folky stuff should give this one a whirl. A-

Black Bananas, “Spydr Brain” b/w “Frozen Margaritaz,” Having spun out of Jennifer Herrema’s post-Royal Trux outfit RTX, Black Bananas have been at it for a while now. “Spydr Brain” connects like an attempt by Kim Gordon to stitch the humid expansiveness of electric Miles to the boom-box ready qualities of early ’80s electro, which is a sweet ride. The flip is a bit nearer to Sly and G. Clinton, though Herrema’s addled vocals and zesty xaphoon blowing maintain the warped atmosphere. The byproduct of an established four-piece lineup, both tracks thrive on cohesion amongst the strangeness. A-

Hartley C. White, Something Better, Born in Kingston Jamaica and a resident of Corona Queens, NY since the ’80s, White had conceived and refined his sui generis Who-pa-zoo-tic Music (a concept described as stemming from the “broken rhythm” of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do) on a bunch of self-released albums, songs from which comprised OSR’s previous This Is Not What You Expect comp. If this strikes one as an “outsider” proposition, that’s not exactly true; Something Better is on the fringe but it’s also remarkably organized, its brokenness intentional. “Blues for Roy Buchanan” is a highlight. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Carol Liebowitz/Nick Lyons, First Set

In the mainstream, jazz is too often shouldered with retrogressive attempts to capture and recalibrate the syncopation and swing of bygone ages, but a sure sign of the form’s continued health lies in its persistent looking ahead. On their new release First Set, pianist Carol Liebowitz and alto saxophonist Nick Lyons offer eight consistently forward moving improvisations as the duo engage with the past but never fetishize it. It’s out now on CD and digital through Line Art.

There is no shortage of high quality jazz duo recordings, although it also seems true that the intimacy of these dialogues, whether firmly conventional or more outward-bound, tend to be valued primarily by aficionados of the style. As evidence, consider that Interstellar Space, the sublime pairing of saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali, remains one of the lauded saxophonist’s less celebrated recordings, and that many listeners amass a considerable shelf of Max Roach before getting to Birth and Rebirth, the drummer’s terrific meeting with saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

Some will counter that the above albums belong to jazz’s fertile fringe, but then what about Undercurrent and Intermodulation, two magnificent LPs which if rightly assessed as masterful are infrequently celebrated as highpoints in the careers of pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall? No, in eluding the common attributes of ensemble jazz, the art of the improvising duo regularly acquires increased abstraction and depth of feeling that results in intensely personal affairs, effectively making them the antithesis of casual listening.

This is true of First Set, though if abstract and demanding the rapport of Liebowitz and Lyons lacks a forbidding nature and is ultimately quite rewarding. The pianist is the veteran half of the team, having regularly performed solo in addition to extensive collaborating with a wide range of players including multi-reed man Daniel Carter, drummer Andrew Drury, guitarist Adam Caine, and prolific bassist Ken Filiano.

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