Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2019, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for May, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

BOOK PICK: Rachel Alina, Ashley Smestad Vélez and Birdie Busch, Locals // If You Swim Far Enough (Styles Upon Styles) Locals is a collaborative illustrated chapbook of narratively linked poems; the words are Alina’s, the black & white drawings rendered by Vélez, and it’s a treat of a quick read detailing the author’s youth/ early adulthood in and around her hometown of Ocean City, NJ and her loose apprenticeship as a recording engineer at Scullville Studios (she has subsequently mixed numerous releases on Styles Upon Styles). Alina’s poetry is vivid but direct, effectively relating her experiences, while Vélez’s illustrations, which remind me a bit (but just a bit) of R. Pettibon, enhance the poems (and the storyline of sorts) by expanding upon elements of the text in occasionally unexpected ways.

That is, Vélez is a fine illustrator and a little more. And as said, Locals worked for me as a fast read, but it doesn’t have to be that, and it’s the hope of Alina and the label that buyers will accompany these poems with Birdie Busch’s If You Swim Far Enough, a digital-only release (free with purchase of the book) described as Locals’ companion album (Alina and Busch struck up a friendship through Scullville). I can attest that combining text, drawings and songs is in this case a productive blend, but I’ll add that after a handful of standalone spins, Busch’s nine cuts (totaling a little over 25 minutes) stand up well on their own. Her sound hits the folk target right in the bullseye with no-nonsense verve that should please young and old alike. This strengthens an already sturdy fit with Alina’s words. A-/ A-

NEW RELEASE PICK: Luka Productions, Falaw (Sahel Sounds) Based in Bamako, Mali, Luka Guindo is Luka Productions, and this is his third full-length. Succinctly described as a leading producer in Malian hip-hop, Guindo has employed a highly productive approach in his own work by combining the tech-infused sound of the now with traditional Malian musics. His records feature organic instrumentation including ngoni, djembe, kora, and balafon. Falaw is no different, though it’s distinct in flavor from his prior effort, the “New Age” (Craig Leon-influenced) Fasokan; what’s clear is that Guindo’s creative engine is nowhere close to running low on gas. Falaw is loaded with diversity as it rolls, and if somebody cooked up a 25-minute extended 12-inch remix of “Indienfoli” I’d buy five copies. A-

Spiral Wave Nomads, S/T (Twin Lakes / Feeding Tube) It seems like only yesterday that I made the acquaintance of More Klementines, a psychedelically robust trio featuring drummer and Twin Lakes co-founder Michael Kiefer; that band’s self-titled debut, like this one, was a co-release with Feeding Tube. Spiral Wave Nomads are the duo of Kiefer, who’s also played in Myty Konkeror, Rivener, and No Line North, and Eric Hardiman of Burnt Hills and Century Plants. While Kiefer’s attention remains focused on the drums, Hardiman plays bass, sitar, and double tracks his main instrument, the guitar. This lends the record a full-band feel that’s lacking the unfocused spillage that can result from too many hands. This set is rock-edged but outbound (of course) and not too heavy. It’s never cheesy, not even the sitar. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
G. Calvin Weston &
The Phoenix Orchestra,
Dust and Ash

The Philadelphia-born drummer G. Calvin Weston is probably best-known for his work with James “Blood” Ulmer and as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, though along with releasing numerous records as a leader he’s also played in the Lounge Lizards and with Marc Ribot. His latest and third for 577 Records pairs him with the Phoenix Orchestra, and it’s as jazzy-funky an affair as one might expect, but with some added treats, including dual violins (plus viola and cello), Weston blowing a little pocket trumpet, and even some vocals courtesy of Kayle Brecher. Vinyl lovers with a hankering for robust fusioneering have reason to rejoice; Dust and Ash is out on wax May 24.

Grant Calvin Weston’s connection to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time is undeniably a major feather in the artist’s proverbial cap, though back in the day (i.e. the late ’80s) I’ll admit to being more struck with his work on James “Blood” Ulmer’s first two records, especially 1980’s classic Are You Glad To Be In America? This is partially because Coleman’s two earlier electric band outings, ’76’s Dancing in Your Head and ’78’s Body Meta, had already nailed me but good; the saxophonist’s ’80s albums featuring Weston weren’t just more of the same, but they can be evaluated as something of a refinement.

On the other hand, Ulmer’s second and third albums, both of which I’d heard before his ’78 debut for Artist House Tales of Captain Black (which featured Coleman and Weston’s Philly-based friend and future Prime Time cohort, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma), were upon introduction both striking affairs. Over time the impact hasn’t lessened by much.

Are You Glad To Be In America? offers the selection “Jazz is the Teacher (Funk is the Preacher)”; its title is a decent summation of Weston’s mode of operation across the decades. To expand a bit, he’s drummed with all three members of Medeski Martin & Wood, contributed to the work of techno artist Tricky, and along with Tacuma, taken it far outside in trio with the late Brit avant guitarist Derek Bailey. A fine recent example of his aptitude with improvisational fire and power groove would be his work in the Young Philadelphians alongside guitarist-leader Marc Ribot, Tacuma, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

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Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
Sad About The Times

Described by Anthology Recordings as “an exploration of North American 70s FM covering folk, soft rock, West Coast jangle, power pop and late night jams,” the 2LP compilation Sad About the Times is something of a revelation, going deep into the realms of obscure musical hopefuls while maintaining a higher level of listenability than a mind should reasonably expect. Assembled by Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s Mikey Young and Anthology’s founder and head of A&R Keith Abrahamsson, the set’s 21 cuts blend a melancholic, often singer-songwriter air, regularly touching upon the difficulties of human interaction and amour in particular, with sharp and occasionally excellent playing. It’s out now.

Although it emerged as an alternative, by the 1970s FM radio was pretty firmly ensconced as a rotator of popular music. However, as Anthology’s promotional writing for this release points out, playlists and format constraints were not yet rigid, which meant that songs by unfamiliar artists regularly hit the airwaves; if they stirred-up a strong response in listeners (or maybe just struck the fancy of a DJ) these tunes would likely get a few more spins (at least), but if the opposite proved true the vinyl was destined to be filed away and forgotten.

That is, until wax stack excavators (like Mikey Young and Keith Abrahamsson) put together a well-considered overview of their time spent. Sad About the Times is devoid of chart action but is all the better for it, because the hits of yesteryear aren’t difficult to soak up in the here and now. Much more interesting is this collection’s alternate history of popularity; Anthology’s claim that all these tracks could have been hits isn’t an overstatement, but even better, the results avoid the hackneyed moves or the outright obnoxiousness that can result when musicians are desperately striving for chart success.

The release’s presiding lyrical concerns, when combined with crucial stylistic range, surely assists in helping this stuff to go down so easy. The opening title track from the group West effectively drives home a downtrodden ambience, though the words never falter into the annoyingly sensitive, in part because the thoughts expressed get mingled with a blend of sunshine folk and budding soft rock introspection. Notably, the song is culled from a ’69 LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2019, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for May, 2019. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Aseethe, Throes (Thrill Jockey) Here’s the third full-length from this Iowa-based doom metal trio; they have a relationship with drone that’s sturdy but still strikes me as mostly implicit (the big exception is “Suffocating Burden”); this is just fine to my ear. If an undercurrent rather than a mainstream, the drone works because Aseethe like to stretch out, and their stuff hangs in the air as much as it thuds. Aseethe also have a new member in bassist-vocalist Noah Koester, who’s largely responsible for the record’s anti-fascist and anti-greedmonger lyrical bent. I’ll confess that when vocal cords get this guttural, I essentially engage at the level of pure texture instead of striving to parse what’s actually being said, which is often not really worth the trouble. It’s nice to know this is an exception. A-

Doomstress, Sleep Among the Dead (Ripple / DHU) This Houston, TX-based four-piece released a 7-inch in 2016 and followed it up the next year with one side of a split LP with the band Sparrowmilk; this is their proper full-length debut, and I’m digging it quite a bit, in large part because they fortify a solid doom foundation with an approach to songwriting that hits my ear as fairly distinctive as it radiates classic vibes (notably, they dished a B-side version of Coven’s “Wicked Woman” on that first 7-inch). The consistently appealing vocals of Doomstress Alexis (who also plays a sturdy bass) initially hooked me, reminding me at times of Heart’s Nancy Wilson but in a thoroughly metallic context (getting a little operatic at times a la Ronnie James), but it was the quality of the songs that sealed the deal. A-

Full of Hell, Weeping Choir (Relapse) Folks who are bonkers over the whole extreme metal scene are likely already hip to Full of Hell, but this is my introduction, in part because I consider Relapse to be a signifier of quality; this is their first for the label. Full of Hell hail from Ocean City, MD, a once and current “tourist destination” where folks in some proximity of adulthood commonly passed out in bathtubs (or yes, on the beach) after too many National Bohemians. As it’s title should make clear, Weeping Choir isn’t music for swimming and suds but grindcore mingled with power electronics; they have prior collabs with Merzbow and The Body. At nearly 25 minutes, this is just the right amount of textured pummel. It looks like I’ll be spending some time investigating Full of Hell’s back catalog. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Joe McPhee, Nation Time (Superior Viaduct) Part of the ’70s jazz corrective was impressing on folks that the urge to get funky didn’t automatically equate to Bob fucking James. This live LP originally released on CjR in ’71 but basically a very well-kept secret until it was reissued as the inaugural CD in Atavistic’s out-jazz-focused Unheard Music Series in 2000, offers a splendid example of what I’ll call groove searching; the label mentions a potent blend of James Brown and Archie Shepp, and that succinctly describes “Shakey Jake.” McPhee remains one of our enduring free-jazz explorers. This was his second record on a label designed specifically to document his artistry (‘twas also initially the case with Hat Hut). It’s a crucial document available on wax for the first time in forever. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Coltrane,
Eternity, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, Transcendence, and Transfiguration

Last September, a serving of ’70s material from the late pianist-harpist-composer Alice Coltrane came out on 2CD through Real Gone as Spiritual Eternal: The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings. That was cool, but the vinyl rights went to another label, namely Superior Viaduct of San Francisco, and their editions of ’75’s Eternity and ’77’s Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, and Transcendence are out now through the label’s ’60s-’70s reissue subsidiary Antarctica Starts Here. But the icing on that three-layer studio cake is the release of ’78’s Transfiguration, an excellent live performance return to the jazz zone and simultaneously (temporarily) her commercial swan song. It’s a wondrously searching gem.

Jump back 30 years and the prevailing opinion on jazz in the ’70s is that it was something of a desolate wasteland brought on by the intermingling of commercial desperation, self-indulgence, and an abandonment of the music’s roots; as the wadded-up pages of yearly calendars amassed in the waste basket, the traditionalists simply bided time until the cultural pendulum swung back toward the conservative.

And then for many, as the ’80s dawned, things were momentarily right in the world; hey, jazzmen (with a renewed emphasis on men) were again wearing suits (often, tuxedos) while appropriately paying their dues through worship at the bebop altar of Charlie Parker. Of course, as the last few decades have helped to clarify, the matter was never so simple; for starters, amid the sometimes-craven attempts to establish a crossover audience in the ’70s, there were pockets of major worthiness within the realms of Fusion (naturally so, as it was the locale of Miles Davis’ last great creative stretch).

Plus, the avant-garde/ free scene, long the bane of the jazz traditionalist, if still recouping from the loss of two key trailblazers (John Coltrane and Albert Ayler) and a growing disinterest on the part of major record labels and club owners, continued to explore the possibilities of collectivity across festival stages, in free spaces, in educational contexts, and notably, in lofts. On the recording front, there was a blossoming of small, often artist-run labels, as a considerable percentage of the players began expanding upon a long-extant aspect of the music; specifically, they were focusing on the spiritual.

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Graded on a Curve:
Craig Leon,
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon

You may not know him by name, but as a producer on the crucial first-wave NYC punk albums Ramones, Blondie, & Suicide, Craig Leon’s impact on modern music has been incalculable. But hey, that’s old news; the new scoop is that his Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon is fresh out through the RVNG Intl. label, and it’s a terrific follow-up to the initial installment, which compiled, to Leon’s long-delayed satisfaction, his groundbreaking and underheard electronic proto-New Age records Nommos and Visiting, originally released in 1981 and ’83 respectively. ‘Twas one of 2014’s stronger reissues, but even more impressive is how this fresh volume unfurls with hardly a letdown.

I’m not generally in the habit of giving producers too much credit, particularly as a substantial chunk of music history is devoted to how creators have struggled and suffered at the hands of these often cocaine-addled corporate liaisons and supposed experts, but Craig Leon’s oversight connection with three defining, wildly different, and enduringly worthwhile punk documents is surely deserving of a modicum of praise.

Not to speculate too much into the reasons behind this triple crown of success (there are additional worthy pop-rock production credits in his background, plus a long, more recent career in the same capacity in the classical field), but, as the title and intro to this review make obvious, Leon is an artist himself. This reality surely didn’t guarantee that the man would be more understanding in regard to the desires and open to the core sounds of three groups making their debuts from inside an emerging rock subculture, but it couldn’t have hurt.

And I’m guessing that maybe by now Leon is tiring of how those production jobs, which occurred nearly a half-century ago, reliably serve as a lead-in when articles and reviews outline his own musical thing, and especially now that he and his partner, the vocalist Cassell Webb, are following-up the collected reissue of his first two LPs with new music. That the results here maintain such a high level of quality is certainly worth dwelling upon, particularly due to the significant passage of time.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2019, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for May, 2019. Part one is here.

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Wes Montgomery, Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings (Resonance) This and the Evans set below are the latest gems from this indefatigable reissue/archival enterprise; both were offered as 2LP sets in April for Record Store Day, and I’m guessing copies are still around, though the 2CD editions are also available now, so if you can’t locate (or don’t want to pay an inflated price) for the wax, the high quality digipaks with booklets are a sensible alternative. And this Montgomery collection, the recordings of which derive from the guitarist’s hometown of Indianapolis sometime in the second half of the ’50s (predating his stellar debut for Riverside), is described as a find with no hyperbole; anyone interested in post-bop jazz guitar will want to check it out.

The emergence of these privately taped studio recordings is directly related to Resonance’s earlier Echoes of Indiana Avenue collection; when that set came out in 2012 the recordings’ origins were a mystery. Now, through the “jazz detective” work of Zev Feldman, we know the answer. Don’t expect Van Gelder-levels of audio richness, but it all sounds fine, offering Wes in a variety of ensemble settings, my faves being the piano quartet that opens disc one and the Nat Cole-styled trio (meaning no drums) featured on disc two. The organ trio grabs me the least, though it’s still quite appealing and leads into a nifty sextet with sax and ‘bone. Knowledgeable ears suggest the additional musicians include organist Melvin Rhyne, pianists John Bunch and Carl Perkins, Wes’ brothers and more. A consistent treat. A

Bill Evans, Evans in England (Resonance) Resonance’s release history with Montgomery is considerable, with Back on Indiana Avenue the fourth collection the label has devoted to the artist. With Evans in England, there is now an equal number of releases in the catalog featuring this pivotal modern jazz pianist, all of them spotlighting his work in the trio format. The first, Bill Evans Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate, came out in 2012 and featured live work from ’68 by the threesome of Evans, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Marty Morell. The next two, 2016’s Some Other Time and the following year’s Another Time, shifted to uncover material from Evans’ short-lived group from earlier in ’68 featuring Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Short-lived and essentially unheard, so it might seem that this return to Gomez and Morell, a lineup which lasted for seven years and became Evans’ most enduring group, is a comparatively less alluring proposition. But as this two-disc set offers performance material from December of 1969 at the club Ronnie Scott’s, the trio’s rapport by this point well-established and allowing for the flights of individual expression that Evans’ required, any assumptions that Evans in England is somehow second-rate are ill-founded. Although captured surreptitiously on a small portable machine by an avid fan, the sound is clean and vibrant (helping matters is that by this point audiences clearly came to Evans gigs for the music) and the sequencing (lacking in any repeat versions) supports maximum listenability. Splendid. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Popol Vuh,
The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1

Founded by the late Florian Fricke in 1969, Popol Vuh became one of the more enduringly interesting acts associated with the whole Krautrock shebang, especially after they began an extended collaboration with their countryman director Werner Herzog. BMG has recently reissued five of their ’70s LPs as expanded CD digipacks, but vinyl aficionados need not fret, as those titles have gotten the 180gm treatment and are packaged together as The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1. The set includes 1970 debut Affenstunde, ’72’s Hosianna Mantra, ’74’s Einsjager & Siebenjager, ’75’s Aguirre, and ’78’s Nosferatu. It’s not all of the worthwhile stuff, but it is a substantive hunk of expansive, spiritual glide.

By the late ’80s, I’m sure a fair portion of young and curious US listeners received their initial taste of Popol Vuh not on vinyl or even CD, but cassette; the VHS kind, courtesy of the films by that stalwart auteur of the New German Cinema Werner Herzog. My introduction came through 1982’s Fitzcarraldo; I was suitably impressed with that movie and its score so that it was only a matter of days before I borrowed a copy of Aguirre, the Wrath of God from an old hippie pal who ran a local used bookstore.

And for a good while hence, Popol Vuh sorta remained on my radar as the Krautrock soundtrack unit not named Tangerine Dream, basically because in my neck of the woods their early stuff was essentially scarce. If I recall correctly, the easiest record to special order around that point was ’87’s Cobra Verde, another soundtrack to another Herzog film. In the early ’90s, during the inaugural boom of affordable VHS, Nosferatu was released alongside Fitzcarraldo (by I believe, the Anchor Bay imprint). I picked up both.

The ’90s were nearly over before I heard Affenstunde, Popol Vuh’s first album from 1970, and similar to the early work of Tangerine Dream, it was a markedly different affair than I expected, foremost due to the presence of a 4-module Moog Series III synthesizer. With the release of the group’s third record, Fricke would abandon electronic music for acoustic instruments (eventually either selling or giving his Moog, accounts vary, to Klaus Schulze), but Affenstunde is a wholeheartedly electro affair, much closer to space music than the outward-bound tranquility of Popol Vuh’s later material.

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Graded on a Curve: Daniel Norgren,
Wooh Dang

Daniel Norgren’s home is in Southwest Sweden, but his music resonates like he grew up and gained experience in the Southeast region of the United States. It’s very much a rootsy, bluesy, Americana-tinged thing, and yet partly due to a recording aesthetic that’s deliberately if not overly self-consciously lo-fi, it’s difficult to compare his body of work to anybody else’s. He’s cut a slew of records since the mid-’00s, but his latest, Wooh Dang, is the first to really receive an international push. Through maturing songwriting and appealing instrumental atmospheres, it’s certain to widen his fanbase. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital via the artist’s own Superpuma Records.

As we’re nearly two decades into the 21st century, it’s perhaps silly to put too much stock in musical regionalism, but still; the depth of Daniel Norgren’s Southern US-impacted singer-songwriter roots action is rather striking. It’s also smart to not overstate his originality, with 2008’s sophomore effort Outskirt, which seems to be the earliest Norgren release that’s easily accessible for listening, offering sustained portions reminiscent of post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits crossed with early M. Ward and enhanced with strains of Calexico (taking us further out west) and Dylan in a gospel-blues frame of mind.

But over time, the individual moments on Norgren’s albums have gotten harder to peg to precedent as the home-recorded ambience has intensified. Another way of saying it; his songs have simply gotten better as he’s become adept with scaled-down studio atmospheres that are conducive to varying levels of audio experimentation (it’s this aspect that lends him solid ties to lo-fi as an enduring movement).

Due to the prominent use of hovering organ, Alabursy, the first of two LPs Norgren released in 2015, reminded me a bit of later Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized blended with a singer-songwriting approach maybe a tad evocative of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It’s follow-up The Green Stone lessened the former while maintaining the latter to no less-satisfying result.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2019, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for May, 2019. 

BOOK PICKS: Gillian G. Gaar, World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story (BMG) This item and its counterpart below came out late last year as the initial two entries in the BMG imprint’s RPM series, which in a nutshell is shooting to do for notable record labels what Continuum’s 33 1/3 series has done for individual albums. The comparison isn’t a tidy as all that, as these books are bigger and info-loaded as well as perspective-driven; it’s unlikely folks will be finishing either in a day or two. I obviously didn’t. Gaar’s volume tackles a tale that I witnessed unwind, at least partially as an indie rock fan from my vantage point on the east coast, and I was a little worried that it was going to handle the subject unsatisfactorily, either through a lack of new info or by overemphasizing certain aspects of the saga.

I needn’t have worried. Gaar takes a good long time setting up the underground background of the label and she does a nice job illuminating the differing personalities of Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that they nearly imploded the label before Nirvana broke big; ‘twas Grunge that yanked them from the jaws of bankruptcy. In a sense, the heroes of this story are Rich Jensen (whose accounting and basic discipline served as an anchor after the Kurt & co. cash came rolling in) and Megan Jasper (who righted the ship after the inevitable grunge backlash and Pavitt’s exit). Sub Pop’s ultimate success story (tapping into ’00s indie) isn’t exactly a mystery, so Gaar expands the tale to include how the label smartly navigated the sweeping changes in the industry from the ’90s forward. A-

Randy Fox, Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story (BMG) Fox does something similar with his spotlight on one of the great mid-20th century indie labels (which includes the persevering Nashboro gospel label), detailing its extensive long-term success in the mail order business through label owner Ernie Young’s “Ernie’s Record Mart.” Many sensibly think of Excello in relation to the swamp blues of Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, and of course Slim Harpo, but the label cut a ton of R&B throughout the ’50s, and when they didn’t score hits, those records reliably “sold through” via placement in package deals that customers could purchase through the mail. The records reached all the way to the UK, which is part of the reason why Slim Harpo had such an impact on the burgeoning Brit blues-rock and Beat scene.

As the story progresses, Ernie Young is depicted as a businessman and a record producer by necessity, but also as something of a rarity in the music biz, a fundamentally decent guy (in marked contrast to his New Orleans connection Jay Miller, who is revealed as sort of a shithead and definitely a bigot); really, the worst you could say about Young was that he drove a hard bargain (maybe sometimes a little too hard), but here’s the thing; EVERYBODY GOT PAID. This includes royalties. I’m going to guess that as the RPM series (hopefully) continues, unpaid royalties will be a not-uncommon thread in the individual stories. Another part of Fox’s scheme that’s such a treat is how much time he gives to specific recordings in a way that had me stopping to listen, even to tracks I already knew well. This is a special thing. A

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Graded on a Curve: Teodross Avery,
After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane

Dr. Teodross Avery hit the scene on saxophone way back in the mid-’90s in a decidedly post-bop way, but in the intervening years much of his energy not devoted to academics found him working as a sideman in settings ranging from jazz to neo-soul to hip-hop. A couple of years ago he released an out-of-nowhere duo CD with Marvin “Bugalu” Smith that loosened things up considerably, and now he’s back with the live quartet recording After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane. Digging into a multifaced array of tunes from John Coltrane’s discography (four originals and two covers), the group dive into the sound of the Classic Quartet in expansive mode. It’s out May 10 on LP and CD through Tompkins Square.

In Other Words by the Teodross Avery Quartet was released in 1994 on Impulse, though it didn’t dent my consciousness back then, mainly because my jazz fandom was leading me into more avant-garde areas. In Other Words is a thoroughly post-bop affair (I’ve since checked it out); one could even call it a neo-trad thing, with Avery very much in Young Lion-mode (this designation is a nod to the all-star Vee-Jay LP of 1961, which itself was riffing on the title to the WWII novel of Irwin Shaw, that is considered a highpoint in post-bop/ hard-bop jazz, a style highly valued by the neo-trad movement).

As said, in 1994 my jazz interest was taking me into areas somewhat afield from the neo-trad experience, like trying to locate a copy of the Charles Gayle William Parker Rashied Ali recording Touchin’ on Trane, which came out in ’93 via the FMP label. I mention this record because it ties in nicely with the thematic thrust of Avery’s latest, though the depth of Coltrane’s influence on the saxophonist spans back to the very beginning; his bio relates that a hearing of Giant Steps at age 13 was pivotal to his musical development.

Indeed, the impact of Coltrane on In Other Words is easy to discern. The same is true of Avery’s second album, My Generation from 1996, though that one introduced a connection to hip-hop, with Black Thought from The Roots guesting. As its title makes clear, hip-hop also impacts 2017’s Post Modern Trap Music, though it’s a more subtle ingredient than one might expect.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Coltrane,
Coltrane ’58: The
Prestige Recordings

When diving into the work of John Coltrane, many begin with a canonical record, likely from his tenure with the Atlantic or Impulse labels. There’s certainly no mistake in that, but anybody building a shelf of the saxophonist’s vital stuff will end up procuring a significant percentage of the material he cut for Bob Weinstock’s New Jersey-based Prestige company. Right now, via Craft Recordings’ attractively designed and thoughtfully assembled 5CD or 8LP Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings, a substantial hunk of it is easy to obtain. Chronologically sequencing the man’s leader or co-leader sessions from January to December of the titular year, it coheres into a powerful statement of budding greatness.

Make no mistake; nothing about Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings suggests that it is a purchase one would make on a whim. A hefty clothbound release with an ample LP-sized booklet of photos, production notes, and excellent words from Ashley Khan, plus the meat of the matter, eight LPs tucked into manila sleeves (the 5CD set is the same with scaled-down dimensions), it’s a package clearly made for both longtime lovers of John Coltrane and Modern Jazz in general and for folks whose recently developed interest in these subjects is unquestionably keen.

As its full title makes plain, Coltrane ’58 documents the saxophonist’s time with the Prestige label, though only partially so; none of the extensive sideman work is here, and neither are his earlier leader sessions (his first album under his own name, Coltrane, was released through Prestige late in ’57). And so, not a completist thing, which would be unwieldly, as the man’s complete recordings for Prestige required 16 CDs, but instead, something better; a digestible and enlightening portrait of a year’s work in the driver’s seat under the supervision of Weinstock and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder.

Prestige didn’t keep alternate takes, so there’s nothing unreleased here. That means those longtime fans who already own all of the original LPs (or picked up either the complete Prestige 16CD box from ’91 or the leader-date truncation Fearless Leader from ’06) will need to calculate whether dropping cash for Coltrane ’58 is in their interest.

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Graded on a Curve: Contortions, Buy

Like any visionary artistic movement, the late-‘70s explosion known as No Wave was both ahead of its time and intrinsically related to its era. This is no more apparent than in the work of James Chance. As leader of the Contortions he debuted on the ’78 Brian Eno-produced compilation that essentially provided No Wave with its name, but Chance and his crew’s long-playing shining moment remains Buy. Initially released in ’79 on the ZE label, a 180gm gatefold edition with bonus cuts is currently available from Futurismo.

AAs the decades have piled up, the whole No Wave shebang has grown in stature from a dissonant and divisive intersection of punk and art into one of the 20th century’s more striking outbursts of indigenous creativity. It couldn’t have occurred anywhere other than the old, cheap, dangerous New York City, its geographical location but one of the factors causing many to disregard its emissions; hey, it’s just a bunch of arrogant Gothamites peddling pretentiousness.

For those less sensitive to matters of attitude in presentation, No Wave’s haughty stridency is inherent to its appeal. Amongst the scene’s most surly was James Chance; as detailed in his notes for Futurismo’s reissue, he left his hometown of Milwaukee after three years of conservatory study, saxophone in hand with an intention to play jazz. Sensibly he landed in NYC, but things didn’t go as planned.

It became clear that Chance, who’d gained experience playing the music of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground back in Wisconsin, was an ill fit for the burg’s loft-jazz milieu; in turn he gravitated toward CBGBs/Max’s Kansas City. Of course, he wasn’t quick to find belonging there either, and Chance and his pocket of cohorts shaped an alternative to creeping commercialism.

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Graded on a Curve: Marvin Gaye,
Volume One 1961–1965

Marvin Gaye is rightly evaluated as a crucial chapter in the story of Motown, but the relationship’s peaks weren’t immediate. Marvin had his goals while Barry Gordy and company had theirs, and across his first batch of releases the results only fitfully align with the vocalist’s popular image. The seven 180gm LPs contained in USM’s Marvin Gaye Volume One: 1961-1965 are still very much of interest however, offering a portrait of the soon to be great artist as a confident young man profoundly concerned with classicist pop objectives.

A recurring theme in the history of 20th century Pop finds record labels big small and in between striving purely in the name of profits to mold and modify a developing talent into a contemporary setting. In the process these actions frequently limited, damaged, or even downright quashed creative promise. In such instances the label’s miscalculations were reliably due to the reactive nature of the whole endeavor, the attempts seeking to capitalize on trends in place of shaping organic wrinkles in musical progress.

The seven albums included here complicate the above scenario considerably, detailing Motown as determined to travel a fertile trail as the young and undeniably skilled Gaye sought not to set trends but instead to examine a Pop/Jazz zone a la Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra just as this tradition was on the wane.

Rather trying to strong-arm him into a mode he didn’t wish to inhabit, Motown displayed a tremendous amount of patience with the singer’s ambitions, though this might not be as commendable as it sounds; Gaye was fully capable of pulling-off (if not truly excelling at) the crooner role, making commercial success in this capacity a possibility. Had that transpired, Motown surely would’ve primed the pump until it gushed. On the other hand, none of the non-R&B focused LPs assembled in 1961-1965 charted, and Motown was unambiguously in the business of hits.

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Graded on a Curve: A Crate Digger’s Collection of Rare Soul

There has been no shortage of single and various artist Soul anthologizes over the years, but most came encoded on compact disc and ranged in worth from outstanding to moderate to shoddy. Vinyl sets became few and far between, but recently that circumstance has begun to change. Behold A Crate Diggers’ Collection of Rare Soul, a compilation of three 180gm LPs assembled by Rhino Custom in an edition of 1,000 copies and currently available only through Popmarket.

The purported scarcity of the originals corralled here, everything initially issued on 45s from ’64-’75 either by Atlantic and its subsidiaries Atco and Cotillion or Warner Brothers and its sub-label Loma, offers a fine angle of presentation. However, the secret to any various-artist comp, and especially one devoted to a genre so deeply tied to the emotional, is not rarity but listenablity, though the opportunity to hear these selections on vinyl is an unequivocal plus.

A Crate Diggers’ Collection of Rare Soul smartly drafts a smattering of ringers and immediately taps into a cornerstone of the style. Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” was issued posthumously by Atco in ’68 both as a single and on The Immortal Otis Redding. Oft covered and sampled as it features the confidence, precision, and verve of Otis, Booker T & the MGs, and the Memphis Horns, there’s simply no substitute for the original.

Another stone beast is ’66’s deep and slow groover “You Put Something on Me” by Don Covay & the Goodtimers. A somewhat slept-on soul figure both at the time and hence, akin to the majority of the artists on this set Covay was recorded by Atlantic, but like “Sookie Sookie” before and “Somebody’s Got to Love You” after it, “You Put Something on Me” failed to chart, which is difficult to fathom since it pairs with “Hard to Handle” as the best track on this set’s first side.

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