Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Pepper Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio, Live at the Room at the Top

Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams had a long, fruitful career, recording extensively as a leader and appearing on roughly 600 records as a sideman. Along the way, he played gigs all over the world, with the vast majority now lost to time. Live at Room at the Top is an exception. Featuring Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio; that’s Banks on piano, Bobby Cairns on electric bass, and Tom Doran on drums, the contents were captured on the top floor of the University of Alberta student union building in Canada on September 25, 1972. Documenting hard-bop at a high level in an era when it was supposedly in decline, it’s out now on 2LP (for Record Store Day) and 2CD from the Reel to Real label.  

Folks with a casual interest in jazz might not register the name Pepper Adams. The most famed baritone player in jazz probably remains Gerry Mulligan. There’s an good chance that fans of Duke Ellington will be familiar with Harry Carney, while lovers of avant-jazz might know Hamiet Bluiett. If the names Cecil Payne, Serge Chaloff, and Charles Fowlkes ring bells of recognition, it’s safe to say that the individual hearing them is more than a casual jazz fan.

However, anybody familiar with Charles Mingus’ Blues & Roots has heard Adams, as he delivers an amazing spotlight-solo on that album’s “Moanin’.” That record, which makes the list of Mingus’ masterpieces, also serves as a fine introduction to Adams, as does 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot by Adams’ quintet, recorded in 1958, a sorta dry run for the co-led quintet with trumpeter Donald Byrd, who’s in the group on 5 Spot with pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Elvin Jones.

But Adams was such a reliable player that pretty much any record he’s part of shines a positive light on his artistry (this is conjecture, of course; there are 600 of them). And this is indeed the case with Live at Room at the Top, even as it stands more than slightly apart from the norm for live albums, having been recorded as part of a radio broadcast and then essentially lost until tenor saxophonist Cory Weeds tracked down the tapes for release on his Reel to Real archival label (home to albums by Cannonball Adderley, Etta Jones, Roy Brooks, etc.), a side label Weeds’ Cellar Live imprint.

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Graded on a Curve:
Zoh Amba,
O Life, O Light

To say that Zoh Amba is making a sizable splash on the current scene is something of an understatement, as O Life, O Light, which features bassist extraordinaire William Parker and the brilliant drummer Francisco Mela, is one of three recordings coming out in 2022 with her name on the cover. Across three cuts (plus one short vinyl-only bonus) she more than holds her own on O Life, O Light, shining brightly throughout. The CD/ digital are available now and the vinyl arrives later this year.

Although currently based in New York City, tenor saxophonist and flautist Zoh Amba is originally from Kingsport, TN. Having moved up north to study with tenor titan and composer David Murray, along the way she attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for two years and more recently the New England Conservatory in Boston.

I’m eager to hear Amba’s debut recording O Sun, which was released by the Tzadik label on March 18 of this year. Along with Amba on tenor, the band on that CD is comprised of bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Joey Baron, pianist Micah Thomas, and on one track, alto saxophonist and Tzadik head honcho John Zorn.

Did I say eager? Yeah. That’s an attractive lineup to be sure, but the primary reason I’m so amped up to hear O Sun is that Amba plays so exquisitely across O Life, O Light’s appealingly tidy runtime, and in a configuration that effectively emphasizes her music’s similarities to the fiery beauty of the great Albert Ayler. Specifically, both the trio lineup and the instrumentation here is the same as on Ayler’s cornerstone free jazz masterpiece, Spiritual Unity, though there is enough variation in the combined execution to avoid any insinuation of the imitative.

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Graded on a Curve:
V/A, Soul Jazz Records Presents: Studio One Women Vol. 2

As a label based around the musical activities of Jamaican producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Studio One’s output is almost comically immense. By extension, the Soul Jazz label’s extensive reissue dive into the Studio One vaults, which has been underway since the early 2000s, is showing no signs of running thin on quality. The latest offering in the series, Studio One Women Volume 2, is a model of consistency as it offers a variety of island reggae styles. It’s expected May 27 on double vinyl in a gatefold sleeve with a download code, and on a single compact disc.

To drive home the enduring vitality of Soul Jazz’s Studio One endeavor, it’s stated by the label that many of the tracks on Vol. 2 are impossibly rare, and in some cases, are being reissued for the first time. This only heightens the set’s thematic focus as the quality and the scarcity of the contents are primed to satisfy reggae newcomers and seasoned fans alike.

Numerous high-profile artists are featured, however. By my count, seven artists are reprised from Volume One, which Soul Jazz released in 2005, also on 2LP and CD. Of the returning singers, Marcia Griffiths is the most prominent, and on two of her three tracks she’s backed by Sound Dimension, Studio One’s house band, led by bassist-vocalist Leroy Sibbles with contributions from such heavyweights as guitarist Ernest Ranglin, keyboardist Jackie Mitoo, and saxophonists “Deadly” Headley Bennett and Cedric Brooks.

Both “Melody Life” and “Shimmering Star” are pop-savvy rocksteady groovers amply spotlighting Griffiths’ vocal prowess. Likewise, the set’s concluding number, the flip side to Griffiths’ recording debut from 1966 (“Wall of Love”), a nifty version of the oft-covered “You’re No Good.” First cut by Dee Dee Warwick and a chart hit shortly thereafter for Betty Everett and the Swinging Blue Jeans (long prior to Linda Ronstadt’s ’74 version hitting #1), Griffiths’ reading of “You’re No Good” is the nearest Vol. 2 comes to straight-up R&B (notably, the style that was Dodd’s primary early inspiration).

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Graded on a Curve: Jeannie C. Riley,
Harper Valley P.T.A.

Those alive and listening to commercial radio in 1968 almost certainly heard Jeannie C. Riley’s crossover smash “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the song’s lambasting of small town hypocrisy resonating far and wide and for long after. Unsurprisingly, the song provides her debut album with its title. Surprisingly, said LP, which has just been reissued by ORG Music for Record Store Day, is something of a concept album. To swing back to the unsurprising side of the spectrum, Harper Valley P.T.A. falls a little short of top tier, but it thrives on ambition and endures as a crucial artifact of its era.   

One could say (and indeed, people have) that Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson, better known as Jeannie C. Riley never repeated the success of her second single, but that’s frankly setting some unrealistic expectations, as only one other woman has managed to do what Riley did. Specifically, she (and Dolly Parton, after) placed the same song at number one at the same time on both the country and pop singles charts.

To understand how monstrously, lingeringly large this song was, please contemplate that they made a movie based on the song…ten years after it was released…and then a TV show in 1981. Barbara Eden played Stella Johnson in both the film and the show, which made it hard for young ears to shake the idea that it was Eden who actually sung the song as it continued to receive airplay on radio stations two decades later.

Recorded by noted producer Shelby Singleton and released on his Plantation label, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was written by Tom T. Hall, with the single’s success surely playing a significant part in that laid back C&W raconteur’s career longevity. It’s a pretty terrific single, with Riley, whose singing is limber and just a notch or two short of husky, handling the narrative with uncommon assurance given her level of experience at the time.

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Graded on a Curve: Gustavo Yashimura, Living Legend of the Ayacucho Guitar

Wonderful are the releases that come out of nowhere to serve as doorways into sounds from distant, often secluded cultures. Living Legend of the Ayacucho Guitar, a new cassette featuring Gustavo Yashimura on the titular instrument in the regional Andean style, is one of those. It features Yashimura solo on nine tracks with accompaniment on four by second guitarist Luis Sulca Galindo and vocalist Greys Berrocal Huaya. Produced by the Sounds of the Andes label under the direction of Hankel Bellido, the set, rich in tradition but infused with contemporary vitality, is out now on cassette and digital through Hive Mind Records.

As Living Legend of the Ayacucho Guitar begins, Gustavo Yashimura’s mastery of the guitar quickly comes into focus. Furthermore, it’s easy for a non-expert to ascertain that his command of the numerous styles of his homeland, that’s specifically the Ayacucho region of the Peruvian Andes, reaches far above the competent.

Info on the artist isn’t exactly free flowing, but Hive Mind does offer that Yashimura began playing guitar in 1987 and two years later was studying music at La Casa de la Guitarra in Montevideo, Uruguay. At some point after that, he ended up in Japan, where he played classical guitar for a few years before returning to Peru in 2004 to commence a deep-dive into the music of his home region.

This included receiving tutelage from the 80 year old guitarist Don Alberto Juscamaita Gastelú, who is also known under the more succinct sobriquet of Rahtako, and whose knowledge of various Andean songs and styles is immense, if not unparalleled. Of course, this is something of a well-grounded supposition on my part, since background info on Rahtako is even less prevalent than it is for Yashimura.

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Graded on a Curve:
Taj Mahal,
Taj Mahal

Celebrating Taj Mahal on his 80th birthday.Ed.

Taj Mahal’s been at it for longer than some of us (myself included) have been alive, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. He’s got an extensive rack of recordings under his belt, with his self-titled ’68 debut being the most sensible place to begin. Whether a person chooses to scoop up one or more of his albums, elects to soak up what he’s putting down in the live setting, or lets it all hang out and does both, the result will certainly be a highly enlightening good time.

There isn’t really another musician quite like Henry St. Clair Fredericks, the man known to the world by his stage and recording moniker Taj Mahal. While an almost ludicrous number of players have explored the bottomless well of inspiration that is the blues, few have engaged with the form in such a complex, multifaceted manner while remaining so naturally accessible to listeners from different generations and varied backgrounds.

As a farmer and graduate of the University of Massachusetts, where he majored in agriculture and also studied ethnomusicology, he’s emblematic of the once common but increasingly rare phenomenon of individuals well-versed in both the fruits of physical, land-based toil and the rewards of intellectual pursuit. And as a musician, it could perhaps be summed up that Taj Mahal was just substantially more curious than the majority of those touched by the blues impulse, recognizing in the music a connection to a much wider global experience.

While most of his cohorts tapped into one or two streams of the blues; say the early acoustic “country” style and the later electric form it directly inspired, or the grit and fire of ‘50s R&B and the attempts at sophisticating it for a wider audience that developed afterward, Taj interacted with a much broader spectrum and fused it all with distinct but stylistically compatible genres. As his career has progressed he’s incorporated the music of Africa, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific into his vast thing; in fact, after moving to Hawaii in the ‘80s he began hanging socially with local players, a circumstance that resulted in the formation of The Hula Blues Band.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jon Porras,

On his latest solo record, multi-instrumentalist Jon Porras offers four tranquil, contemplative pieces that fall solidly, but gently, into the wide-open and increasingly crowded category of ambient. Featuring guitar, piano, Hammond organ, and Yamaha DX7, the music is warm and organic as it avoids the insubstantial, its atmospheres relaxing without ever succumbing to mere background fluff. A trim, rewarding excursion, Arroyo releases May 20 on crystal clear vinyl and digital through Thrill Jockey.

Of groups, Jon Porras has been in a few, but by far the highest profile of the bunch is Barn Owl, which put out a slew of records from roughly 2007–2013, largely by the duo of Porras and fellow multi-instrumentalist Evan Caminiti, the music released by a handful of labels including Not Not Fun, Blackest Rainbow, Important, Root Strata, and Thrill Jockey.

Porras and Caminiti have both been busy as solo artists, so one shouldn’t assume that Barn Owl is a done deal. Possibly, it’s just a back-burner situation. And it’s worth noting that Barn Owl is best described as a psychedelic-drone-experimental endeavor, a style that contrasts pretty significantly from the sound(scape)s heard across Arroyo.

In fact, the scoop is that Porras’ latest is a bit of a departure from his prior solo work, a claim I was intending to verify, except that I just kept playing Arroyo over and over. Obviously, this should be considered a mark in the music’s favor; at just short of 34 minutes, the record is built for repeat spins, but that’s also the sorta scenario that can quickly amplify a record’s shortcomings and flaws.

But listening to Arroyo, I’ve yet to perceive any glaring missteps or deficiencies, which isn’t to suggest that Porras has made a perfect record. But a remarkably assured one? Yes. And more to the point, Porras’ strong suits are just consistently in the foreground. It’s all doubly impressive given the substantial prettiness that’s on display in opener “Flower in Hand.”

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Graded on a Curve: Stevie Wonder, Live at the Regal Theater, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Hotter Than July

Celebrating Stevie Wonder, born on this day in 1950.Ed.

The racks are loaded with reissues from key Motown singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stevie Wonder, the contents covering three phases in his long career. Live at the Regal Theater, Chicago, June 1962 offers his breakout third album under a new title; it’s out now on vinyl through the Jambalaya label. Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which landed amid his improbably fertile ’70s run, and Hotter Than July, a transitional 1980 album cut before Wonder maxed out his creative console’s commercial dial, are available on LP via Motown.

Stevie Wonder’s biography makes a good case for the rewards of patience in artist development, though that’s also a complicated situation; signed to Motown’s Tamla imprint at age 11, Barry Gordy’s company had to take basic human development into consideration. That Wonder wasn’t cast aside as an also-ran after the commercially tepid performance of his first two LPs is credit to the value Motown placed on the people as well as profits.

Wonder has been blind since shortly after birth, a fact making the label’s deliberate attempts to connect him to the sightless soul powerhouse Ray Charles seem more than a little brazen in retrospect; his first recording, the startlingly average Tribute to Uncle Ray, and the much better all-instrumental follow-up The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie were both released in 1962 but in reverse order; both inform his commercial breakthrough, ’63’s Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, renamed by Jambalaya as Live at the Regal Theater with the “Little” removed from Wonder’s moniker.

The LP begins with the Motortown Revue’s MC hyperbolically stating that Wonder is “considered as being the genius of our time.” The boldness of the claim’s not really a surprise in the context of the era; what’s more unusual is the energy and flair on display in “Fingertips,” this concert performance of The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie’s opener delivering a smash hit (simultaneous pop and R&B #1s) when split into two parts on 45.

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Graded on a Curve: Disturbing the Peace:
415 Records and the
Rise of New Wave
Bill Kopp

What do The Nuns, The Offs, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Romeo Void, The Units, Translator, and Wire Train all have in common? If you said they all shared San Francisco as homebase, you’d be right. Additionally, they all released music on 415 Records, a label founded in 1978 by show booker and deejay Howie Klein and fellow disc jockey and Aquarius Records owner Chris Knab. Over the course of a decade, their enterprise traversed a surprising amount of territory and exceeded expectations for a punk-aligned indie, including a restless association with the major label. It’s all covered in detail in Bill Kopp’s excellent book Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave, out now through HoZac Books.

For a state that’s suffered its share of derision over the years in relation to its artistic output, California’s punk and new wave scenes were substantial. And in terms of labels, quite a few great ones emerged starting in the 1970s, including Bomp!, Dangerhouse, Slash, Posh Boy, Frontier, SST and another San Fran label, Subterranean.

Before reading Bill Kopp’s book, which is exhaustive in a manner that lifelong music obsessives should wholeheartedly relish, I wouldn’t have necessarily added 415 Records to the above list, even though I was cognizant of the label and nearly all of the acts on its roster. However, after absorbing its contents and spending time with numerous 415 releases, I’m was impressed anew by Howie Klein’s and Chris Knab’s endeavor, which, like so many other indies of the early punk era, sprang to life to release music that no already established record label was interested in putting out.

That 415 (spoken not as four-fifteen but four one five, the Cali penal code number for disturbing the peace, don’tcha know) largely documented the San Francisco scene worked to the label’s advantage, as there was no shortage of weirdness in the city. And while it’s true that some of the best Bay Area punk acts either predated 415 (Chrome, Crime, Avengers) or emerged alongside the label to never release music on the imprint (Flipper, Negative Trend), 415 did put out crucial records by The Nuns, The Offs, The Mutants, The Imposters, Vktms, The Renegades, oddballs Pop-O-Pies, and synth-punks The Units.

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Graded on a Curve: Afghan Whigs,
Up in It, Congregation, “Uptown Avondale”

Celebrating Greg Dulli, born on this day in 1965.Ed.

From humble beginnings, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs grew into one of 1990s more appealing Alternative success stories. Featuring guitarist Rick McCollum, bassist John Curley, drummer Steve Earle, and vocalist-guitarist-songwriting powerhouse Greg Dulli, they came on strong with 1990’s Up in It and sharpened their sound with ‘92’s Congregation; covers EP “Uptown Avondale” signaled the departure of Sub Pop for the majors. 

Up in It emerged in 1990 and was an immediate breath of fresh air. A whole lot of loud and heavy stuff was steamrolling toward a point of detonation, but the Afghan Whigs essentially came out of nowhere and infused the template with better than average songwriting right out of the gate. The LP’s best song is its opener, “Retarded” an almost ridiculously catchy hard rocker reinforcing that Dulli and company weren’t just hitched to a trend on the upswing. It’s sort of cut that can get stuck in one’s head for days, as this writer can attest, and reinvestigation has proved this capability undiminished.

Had Up in It been the only record the Whigs released…but wait. They do in fact have a prior record under their belt, 1988’s Big Top Halloween, issued on their own Ultrasuede label in an edition of 1,000 copies, one of which landed in the hands of Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman. Except for three tracks tacked onto the end of the Up in It CD (“Big Top Halloween,” Sammy,” and “In My Town”), nothing from the record has been legitimately reissued. Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990–2006 chronologically cuts it out of the band’s history.

This is understandable. Although not terrible, Big Top Halloween (notably engineered by Wayne Hartman, who did the same for another Ohioan debut, the “Forever Since Breakfast” EP from Guided by Voices) is somewhat schizophrenic. Initially tapping into a Replacements vibe, across the disc there’re numerous structural nods to hardcore, doses of college jangle, a rather bogue country-ish number (“Life in a Day”), and the earliest nod to R&B-soul in the group’s discography (“But Listen”).

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Graded on a Curve:
Chet Baker Trio,
Live in Paris

Although he is not universally beloved, the trumpeter and occasional vocalist Chet Baker is one of the truly iconic artists in the history of jazz. Frequently spoken of as a tragic figure, and as a man who squandered his talent, his early career highs tend to dominate the discussion of his work. This isn’t an unusual circumstance in jazz terms, but it’s especially the case with Baker’s discography, making the release of Live in Paris by the Chet Baker Trio an event worth celebrating. Consisting of live radio broadcasts from 1983-’84 recorded in stereo, the high quality of the performances gets matched with Elemental Records’ detailed presentation. The 3LP/2CD is out now.

Chet Baker’s iconic stature derives in part from his movie star good looks, a feature that record labels in the 1950s, namely Pacific Jazz, Riverside, and Prestige, showed no hesitation in exploiting, though to be fair, not every album with Baker’s name on it from back then sought to tap into his pinup-heartthrob allure. But the LP sleeves that chose to spotlight the suaveness did so unashamedly (please scope out (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You from ’58 on Riverside for evidence), so that he became a target of disdain for many hardcore jazz aficionados.

It wasn’t just the shameless commercialism. That Baker was a Caucasian who embodied (indeed, was integral to establishing) the Cool West Coast style was already something of a strike against him (no matter that Baker could play bop; that he largely chose not was the problem). Throw in a drug habit (the trumpeter’s undoing, at least until he started getting his life back on track in the 1970s) and that he had the audacity to sing, and did so idiosyncratically, resulted in an unconscionable creative trajectory.

In the hard-bop worshipping neo-trad 1980s, Baker’s rep was at something of a low point, even as he was still capable of playing at a high level. The trumpeters du jour were Dizzy Gillespie (of course), pre-fusion Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd, etc. By comparison, Baker was sometimes denigrated as a has-been, or as a man who wasted his advantages by striving to achieve the jazz junky cliché, evaluations harsh but not necessarily unfair; it’s when he was dismissed as nothing more than a jazz Fabian that the derision went overboard.

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Graded on a Curve: Savage Republic, Meteora & Tragic Figures

The underground rock scene of the 1980s has been given due spotlight and celebration since its unruly heyday, but one of the more undersung (if not necessarily criminally overlooked) bands of the era is Savage Republic of Los Angeles, one of the few US outfits that can legitimately be described as post-punk in orientation. Released in 1982, Tragic Figures is their debut full length, freshly reissued and expanded on 2LP/2CD by Real Gone Music and available now. And on May 20, Meteora, a brand spanking new Savage Republic album emerges on LP/ CD through the Mobilization label. If Tragic Figures has held up spectacularly well, Meteora thrillingly exceeds expectations.

Hearing Tragic Figures back in the 1980s was a striking experience, and I venture ‘twas the case even for those deeply immersed in the period’s u-ground happenings. In short, they could hit the ear like a cross between Keith Levene-era Public Image Ltd and early Sonic Youth at their most strung out and textural, but with a substantial influx of industrial whack-clatter-general abrasion, and on top of that, a whole lot of tribal drumming.

Theirs was a potent sound intensified by a sparse attention to lyrics; that is, some songs have words and some don’t. But as track titles “Attempted Coup : Madagascar” and “Kill the Fascists!” should make clear, Savage Republic weren’t disdaining the ideological. Rather, when they had something to say, they made it count. And it’s not like they could just be conveniently tucked under the blanket of “political band,” as “Next to Nothing” is textbook post-punk alienation and “Perfect Day” is prime rainy day old school punk rock ranting.

Vocals are more prominent on side two of Tragic Figures, with the music attaining an apex of political theorizing in its closing track “Procession.” However, the stylistic spectrum is wide throughout (and especially so in “Procession,” which is quite multifaceted). If the record is audibly a byproduct of its time, that’s not a limiting factor, as the band’s restlessness, ambition and disdain of commercial sheen are a welcome combination. When combined with such a high degree of musical curiosity, the record hasn’t lost a thing.

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Graded on a Curve: Hater, Sincere

Featuring vocalist-guitarist Caroline Landahl, guitarist Måns Leonartsson, bassist Frederick Rundquist, and drummer Rasmus Andersson, Malmö, Sweden’s Hater have been blending shoegaze and indie pop for roughly half a decade, cutting a handful of EPs, and with the release of Sincere on May 6 through Fire Records of the UK, three full-lengths. Across the nine tracks heard on their latest, the band’s attack remains cohesive and vibrant, avoiding both genericism and overly slick textures. While they are unlikely to win (m)any accolades for originality, Hater do an admirable job of reinforcing their worthiness in relation to their chosen styles.

Sincere gets off to a strong start with “Something,” which delivers a fine balance of heft, hazy edge, and melodicism further enhanced with the singing of Landahl, who strikes her own equilibrium between prettiness and the forceful. To describe it as brandishing a particularly late-’80s-’90s kinda sound is hitting some nails squarely on their heads, but it’s necessary to note that Hater maintain a sense of energy and involvement throughout, their urgency elevating the record and helping to counteract the occasional flirtation with a Clinton-era Alt-rock sensibility.

Second track “I’m Yours Baby” is one such example, though said similarity is fairly restrained, and to the point where it’s ambiguous just how deliberately cultivated a maneuver it is on the band’s part. The bottom line: if the song had come out in the ’90s, I would’ve dug it, especially the burst of guitar racket as the end nears.

The echo-laden chime-pop of “Bad Luck” is a nice shift, but with the drums hitting hard and strengthening a unified approach. To elaborate, the crisp throb of the rhythm section in the following track “Proven Wrong” is one of the album’s overall highlights. Another plus is how the choruses soar with Landahl’s voice leading the way.

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Graded on a Curve: The Sam Phillips Years: Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day: Vol. 9

Sun Records, that Memphis, TN institution and essential building block of 20th century music, turns 70 years old this year. To mark the anniversary, The Sam Phillips Years: Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day: Vol. 9, focuses on a diverse slate of material recorded by the man who made it all possible. Straight blues, R&B, C&W, and rockabilly (of course) are well represented as the sequence rolls forth, and as the latest installment in ORG Music’s annual series of limited edition vinyl issued in alignment with Record Store Day (which is celebrating 15 years of existence in 2022), it holds up just dandy.

For those drawn to raw sounds like moths fluttering around an uncovered bulb, it’s easy to spend hours delving into the early years of Sun Records. And so, for folks assuming that after nine volumes, ORG Music’s worthy endeavor might be running on fumes, I’m chuffed to relate that it’s not that way. And there’s also an appealing sense of wrapping around to the beginning of the series (not to infer that the undertaking is winding down): Vol. 9 shares five artists with Vol. 1 and eight with Vol. 2.

This set gathers a dozen cuts all picked by record store employees, with six on each side and the ceaselessly stomping rockabilly of Sonny Burgess’ “We Wanna Boogie” kicking off the mania. As the track hurdles forth it’s difficult to decide what’s sweeter, Richard Nance’s trumpet splatter or the caustic guitar solo courtesy of either Burgess or Joe Lewis.

Issued in 1956, “We Wanna Boogie” is the undiluted essence of foundational rockabilly, with Burgess and the band going for it so hard they’re barely able to keep it together (Kern Kennedy’s unwavering piano thunder serves as the anchor), while the addition of that trumpet undermines the codified rules set forth by the retro-‘billy brigades over what the stuff is “supposed” to sound like. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ches Smith,
Interpret It Well

Interpret It Well is the new compact disc from drummer and vibraphonist Ches Smith. It features the return of his trio with violist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn, but now pleasingly expanded to a four-piece with guitarist Bill Frisell. The sounds range from spaciously quiet to angular to pretty to downright heavy, at moments abstract, at other points melodic and occasionally bordering on grooving, but with unifying tension and flashes of unease. Fittingly, a stark and ambiguously ominous painting by Raymond Pettibon provides the CD with both its cover art and its title. The disc is tucked inside a six panel gatefold sleeve available May 6 through Pyroclastic Records.

Ches Smith has played on a formidable amount of records, spanning from groups and sessions organized by Tim Berne, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, David Torn, Trevor Dunn and others to numerous leaderless encounters and even handful of collective units, e.g. Secret Chiefs 3 and Good for Cows. Additionally, Smith has a (still manageable) batch of releases solo and as leader, with Interpret It Well his second in dialogue with Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn; the first, The Bell, came out on CD in 2016 through ECM.

The Bell is a pretty terrific record and obviously Smith felt that way too as he attempted, in his words, to make the creative triangle his “road” band” from 2016-’18. Bill Frisell caught a show late in that stretch and was so impressed that he wrote to Smith about what he’d heard. And long story short: as everybody in this scenario held everybody else in high regard, Frisell was invited to join them on the bandstand for a performance.

The show went down rather swimmingly, but then Covid reared its ugly viral mug, and with all the parties masked up in the same city, the decision was made to record with Frisell. That Interpret It Well delivers an advance on The Bell’s already substantial worthiness might be seen as unsurprising and maybe even as an inevitability, but just as there is “addition by subtraction” in musical situations, the opposite is also a possibility.

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