Author Archives: Steve Matteo

Graded on a Curve:
VA, You Can Walk
Across It On The Grass: The Boutique Sounds of Swinging London

If a time machine existed, there might be several periods and more importantly places cultural travelers would love to go back and visit. Going way back, a trip to Florence during the Renaissance would be heaven for art lovers. Also appealing would be Paris in the 1920s, an explosion of modern art and literature and an exploration of new modes of living.

More recently, there were many happening places to be during the 1960s, such as the Greenwich Village folk scene and San Francsico for the psychedelic experience, but few would rival England during the Swinging London scene. While this time only lasted a few years, primarily in the mid-’60s, that time-frame is somewhat elastic. Though new modes of living, art, fashion, photography, film, pirate radio, the shops, the clubs and other happenings exploded, perhaps the music of the era was its best feature and has had the most enduring legacy.

This new 3-CD, 63-track box set presents some of the grooviest sounds from that amorphous time, with tracks here from 1963 through 1968, but it also includes music that is part of other scenes, genres and sounds. The tracks here mostly reflect the period just before The Beatles made the A Hard Days’s Night movie and mostly before psychedelic music seemed to be at its peak.

There are many familiar names included here such as Kiki Dee, Manfred Mann, The Yardbirds, Dusty Springfield, The Troggs, The Kinks, Eric Burdon & the Animals, The Who, Tom Jones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, The Spencer Davis Group, The Easybeats, Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, Small Faces, Jack Bruce (including as a member of The Graham Bond Organization with Ginger Baker), The Moody Blues, and Petula Clark (with England Swings). The tracks from these artists are wonderful, some are even fairly well known and certainly Small Faces, The Kinks and The Who were also central to the mod scene.

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Graded on a Curve:
Music Books Roundup

Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History by Bill Janovitz (Hachette Books)

It’s nearly impossible to sum up the extraordinary musical career, diversity of talents and skills, and important place Leon Russell holds, particularly at a key time in rock music. That daunting task is accomplished in spades in this new, breathtakingly complete, accomplished and definitive biography of Russell, written by Bill Janovitz, founding member of the group Buffalo Tom. It is not hyperbole to call this one of the best books on popular music in years.

To just skim the surface, Russell was a lynchpin of the late-’60s and early-’70’s pop and rock scene. Some of the key albums, concerts, and projects he was involved in include Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Concert for Bangladesh, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends with Eric Clapton, and Derek & the Dominos. Not to mention his work as a major player with the famed Wrecking Crew, co-owner of Shelter Records and the composer of the rock standards “Song For You” and “This Masquerade.”

And that thumbnail history doesn’t even begin to do justice to his legacy. Janovitz deftly and painstakingly takes the reader through Russell’s entire life, including his shaky formative years, his breaking into the music business, his studio session years, and the period when he began to gain prominence as a bandleader and producer, as well as when he started commanding the attention of such superstars as George Harrison, Bob Dylan and many others.

Russell was an eccentric, quirky, and sometimes misunderstood figure. His talents were prodigious as a keyboardist, singular vocalist, songwriter, and master chef in mixing a musical gumbo often centered around Tulsa, Oklahoma and its players and converging styles. He was also a man of many appetites who could spend money, party, and eat anyone under the table. Russell came in for some late-career revaluation thanks to Union, the album he did with Elton John.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bill Evans Trio, Everybody Digs Bill Evans

It would be very presumptuous for any musical artist to title an album “everybody digs,” followed by their name. In the case of Bill Evans, it’s nearly a fact, especially if you are a fan of the best jazz pianists of all time.

This 1959 album was his second as a leader and perhaps his best, prior to the four albums he would release as a member of the Bill Evans Trio between 1959 and 1961 with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro. All five of the albums mentioned above were released on Riverside. His debut as leader was also on Riverside, with his third album on Milestone, and then a quartet release on United Artists with Bob Brookmeyer, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay. Other than another album on United Artists, one on Atlantic and one on Verve, he would have three more Riverside releases through 1963.

Between his solo debut in 1956 and this album, in 1958 alone he worked as a sideman on albums for George Russell, Don Elliot, Joe Puma, Jimmy Knepper, Sahib Shihab, Idrees Sulieman, Eddie Costa, Hellen Merrill, Hal McKusick, Michel Legrand, Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, and Charles Mingus, along with three for Tony Scott. He also recorded with Miles Davis, was in his band, and would appear on the legendary Kind Of Blue the following year.

There are three solo piano pieces here and Evans is joined on the other tracks by Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Evans wrote a short musical epilogue that clocks in at under a minute and that closes each side, as well as the classic and sprawling “Peace Piece,” with the rest of the songs here covers. The other absolute classic here is also a long, sprawling track: a cover of Cole Poter’s “Night and Day” that Evans moves through with ingenious modulations. The drumming by Jones in spots adds a jaunty kick that elevates this beautiful song to something heart-stopping.

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Graded on a Curve:
VA, Les Cousins: The Soundtrack of Soho’s Legendary Folk &
Blues Club

“Let me take you by the hand/And lead you through the streets of London/I’ll show you something to make you change your mind”“Streets of London” by Ralph McTell

The folk revival that began in the late ’50s and lasted almost into the early ’70s, is often most associated with New York’s Greenwich Village and Cambridge in Massachusetts while other American locales like Philadelphia and Chicago were also part of the scene. The folk revival, or “folk scare” as it was so humorously referred to by one of its key participants, Dave Van Ronk, was however, not just an American phenomenon. While America had a long roots music history, England also did and the folk revival there happened a little later and centered around a basement club in London’s Soho district called Les Cousins. Initially a French restaurant and then a discotheque, the folk club incarnation launched in April of 1965.

Like folk clubs in America, it served many purposes. It revived the songs and artists from folk’s past, which in some cases had been around for centuries. Folk was also a catch-all term that included blues, bluegrass, country, and other forms of roots music, even early forms of jazz, ragtime, and jug music. Maybe most importantly and foremost for many in England, it described an acoustic-based music played by artists who were song interpreters and stylists, and in some cases guitar wizards.

The list of musicians who actually played at the club in one form or another just hung out there, since its founding in 1965 and final year in 1972 is staggering. This comprehensive and widely varied, 72-track, 3-CD box set covering music released between 1963 and 1973 does not include any live performances from the club, but instead features some of the key figures of the British folk scene, American musicians who count Les Cousins as a key stepping stone in their music evolution and artists who may not have been strictly folk, but who are part of the club’s rich musical history.

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Graded on a Curve:
Norah Jones,
Visions

It’s been four years since Norah Jones has released a studio album and new material (Pick Me Up Off the Floor). There was a holiday album and a live album in 2021. Once again, Jones has come up with an album, Visions, that highlights her gorgeous and singular vocal style and ability to write songs that move from the infectiously catchy to varied in the way she seamlessly mixes styles, particularly jazz, country, and soul.

She can add subtle modern touches to her music, as she does on the catchy “Running,” but never panders to current pop trends. The song fits right in with today’s music, but is an instant timeless classic. When Jones first burst on the scene in 2002, she was hailed as breathing new life into piano-jazz styled music. On later albums she has shown her fun side and songwriter chops by making music that has a little of the jazz and country of the earlier sound that is at the core of her music, but now she adds more soul and pop.

She wrote three of the songs here and co-wrote the rest. She is not afraid to try new musical ideas and to mix drums and brass in unique ways, particularly on “I Just Wanna Dance.” There is an almost stripped-down, Philly soul feel on some tracks, like on “All This Time.” Rather than resorting to mostly electronic keyboards like on so many pop music hits these days, Jones relies more on acoustic piano and, on “I’m Aware,” “On My Way,” and “That’s Life” incorporates an organ sound like from an old movie that adds a spooky, atmospheric mood.

Jones is aided here by musicians up for the task of creating music of stylistic breadth and subtle musicianship, including ace jazz drummer Brian Blade, Jesse Murphy of Brazilian Girls, and Homer Steinweiss and Dave Guy of the Dap-Kings. Her main collaborator, Leon Michels, who also serves as the album’s producer and her co-songwriter on eight songs, and who adds his playing on many instruments, is also from the Dap-Kings. With the death of lead Dap-King singer Sharon Jones in 2016, it’s nice to see these extraordinary New York musicians continuing to make great music together and joining forces with fellow New Yorkers Norah Jones and Jesse Murphy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Yusef Lateef,
Eastern Sounds

There are certain jazz albums that transcend the genre and become timeless classics. Eastern Sounds by Yusef Lateef is one of those albums. It is a stirring, meditative musical excursion of sound, that could be considered a precursor of world music, or even a more nuanced, textured, and varied early new age recording, without the negative baggage of that now almost nearly forgotten musical genre.

The closest album that it shares some musical and spiritual sensibilities with is Something Blue from Paul Horn, released the year before this 1961 release. Both albums are almost musical mantras of sound, but are also very accessible releases that don’t stray too far from mellow jazz.

Lateef had been exploring these kinds of sounds on previous albums as a leader, most notably on Prayer to the East from 1957, but Eastern Sounds galvanizes all of the elements that make Lateef’s take on this sacred jazz sound work so well. While the album starts off with the subtle swing of “The Plum Bossom” and readings of the love themes of the epic films Spartacus (Alex North) and The Robe (Alfred Newman), it’s the other six tracks that reflect more of the contemplative side of this groundbreaking album.

Lateef is supported by the rhythm section of Barry Harris on piano, Lex Humphries on drums, and Ernie Farrow on bass. Farrow also plays rabat (spelled various other ways through history), a lute-like instrument that blends perfectly with Lateef’s work here on tenor saxophone, oboe, and especially flute, the Chinese globular xun.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Leventhal,
Rumble Strip

The pop music world can sometimes be a din of noise and homogenized pop, with artists from the key trends having careers that often don’t last as long as a major league baseball season. A musical artist who has had a long, acclaimed career, but only now is releasing a solo album is John Leventhal.

He has worked primarily as a record producer but also as an engineer, a songwriter, and an instrumentalist for decades, working on countless albums that are critically acclaimed, but also recordings that win prestigious awards and sell well. He is probably most known for his work with Marc Cohn and Rosanne Cash, (to whom Leventhal is married), and for producing Shawn Colvin’s album Steady On which won the Grammy for album of the year in 1988.

His solo debut reflects the place where he has lived and also produced many of the albums he helmed; New York. But rather than, a brash, in-your-face sound, he has made a mostly guitar instrumental album that could be called urban acoustic. This is the sound of the city at night, when the streets are not filled with people and activity. One can almost fill in the missing sounds of random car horns, the rumble of trucks, and even the echo of the bark of a stray dog.

There are some tracks with vocals, including two by Cash on “That’s All I Know About Arkansas,” a song Leventhal wrote with Cash and “If You Only Knew” and one by Leventhal himself, “The Only Ghost,” which he co-wrote with Marc Cohn, that was to be a part of Dr. John’s final album. There are also some more pronounced country flavorings on “Meteor.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul McCartney & Wings, Band On The Run 50th Anniversary Edition

Band On The Run, the 1973 album from Wings (but billed here as a Paul McCartney album), would not only be considered his best post-Beatles solo album, but vies with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums as the best solo album from any Beatle.

The album was also a defining work of the first half of the 1970s and easily one of the best albums of that decade. It has been reissued many times over the years, including as a McCartney archival release in 2010. This new double-album, vinyl reissue, to mark the 50th anniversary of the album’s release offers a unique package but more importantly may be one of the best sounding Abbey Road Studios vinyl remasters to date.

The album came after two McCartney solo albums and two albums from Wings, the group that centered around McCartney, his wife Linda, and Denny Laine. The tortured history of the album included challenging living and recording experiences in Lagos in Africa and seismic personnel changes in Wings that effectively became the end of the original Wings lineup.

Oddly, the tone of the album is a buoyant, energetic tour-de-force of great playing amid some of McCartney’s best solo songs and a loose thematic structure that ties the album together into a cohesive work, yet which eschews any heavy, grand conceptual statement. Songs like the title track and “Jet” were ubiquitous staples of AM and FM radio at the time.

This new package features two 180-gram vinyl albums in custom sleeves, two posters, and a certificate of authenticity housed in a sturdy bespoke slipcase box with a modified cover from the original that is white instead of black and uses raised lettering and photos to great effect. The original poster of various polaroids of the sessions from the photography of Linda McCartney is included.

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Graded on a Curve:
VA, We Can Work It Out: Covers of The Beatles 1962–1966

When examining the enormous influence of The Beatles, one factor stands out and that’s the peerless songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney. The greatness of their partnership also extends to the covers of their music over the years. This three-CD, 75-track compilation offers an exhaustive, comprehensive, and fun collection of covers of the music of The Beatles, which also includes the songs of George Harrison.

The set is housed in a clam-shell box and spans covers of songs written between 1964 and 1966, suggesting that a second volume is a very real possibility. All the recordings here are from the 1960s, except for one from 1970 and one from 1974.

The set includes some covers we’ve heard before by the likes of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas, Cilla Black, Peter & Gordon, Joe Cocker, and The Mamas & the Papas. The Billy J. Kramer track included here is “Do You Want to Know A Secret.” He also had a big hit with “Bad To Me,” but the cover of that song included here is by Mike Redway.

Cocker’s track, “I’ll Cry Instead,” is from 1964, long before he broke big and had hits with more well-known covers of songs from The Beatles, and features Jimmy Page on guitar. Along with Kramer, Black, and Peter & Gordon, others that were part of The Beatles’ inner circle, such as Alma Cogan and Glyn Johns, also contribute.

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The Continuing Stories of The Beatles

This is a follow-up to our previous round-up of recently released books on The Beatles.

The Beatles Fab But True (Schiffer) By Doug Wolfberg

Wolfberg offers sixteen, chapter-length, individual stories about The Beatles that may be known to some fans of the group, but here receives an in-depth sort of retelling. Wolfberg digs deep and the stories reflect his richly detailed research and keen insights. The stories unfold in chronological order and collectively provide an almost alternative short-hand history of the singularity of The Beatles phenomenon. He also offers a postscript for every chapter that brings the stories up to date.

Wolfberg thankfully doesn’t just merely retell these stories, but through fresh analysis, brings into focus what really happened, and in some cases debunks some of the myths and incomplete narratives that can get preserved for posterity in some articles and books on the group. The book is a beautiful hardcover tome, with glossy pages and a dust-jacket and is fully illustrated. It is another book that makes for great reading straight through or by cherry-picking certain chapters or just paging through it.

Paul McCartney: The Lyrics (Liveright) By Paul McCartney

Originally released in November of 2021 as a two-volume hardback set in a slipcase, covering 154 songs, presented alphabetically, that McCartney has written, this new paperback edition includes seven additional songs: “Bluebird,” “Day Tripper,” “English Tea,” “Every Night,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Step Inside Love.”

The book includes lyrics and annotations by McCartney and is beautifully illustrated. The original volume was nearly 900 pages and this new paperback edition is closer to 600. The size of the new edition is smaller and everything has been condensed into one paperback edition. For those who couldn’t afford the $100 original set, this new one is much more affordable at only $30 list price.

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A Festival of
Beatles Books

The first Fest for Beatles Fans of 2024 will be a very special event. The Metro Fest will mark the 60th anniversary of the Beatles landing in America in February, 1964. The group’s arrival was at JFK Airport and that is where the Fest will be held, at the retro-themed TWA Hotel. The weekend-long celebration, occurring from February 9–11, will also include festivities to honor the 50th anniversary of the Fest itself.

Some of the guests who will be on board for the weekend include British Invasion legend Billy J. Kramer, who will premiere music from his upcoming album recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees, Ringo Starr’s co-drummer in his All-Star Band Greg Bissonette, former All-Star band member and current member of Billy Joel’s band Mark Rivera, and former members of Wings Laurence Juber and Steve Holley. Juber is the producer of the new Billy J. Kramer album.

Other Beatles luminaries attending include Freda Kelly and Chris O’Dell, who worked for The Beatles, and Jenny Boyd, sister of Pattie Boyd and one of the members of The Beatles’ entourage who accompanied the band on their historic trip to India in 1968. There will be many other musicians, artists, and chroniclers of The Beatles, including many authors. The following recently released books are by authors who will be attending the Fest.

Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans (Dey St.) by Kenneth Womack

Those who know the history of The Beatles are likely aware of the exalted place Mal Evans holds in the group’s story. While Brian Epstein and especially George Martin could be viewed as that elusive fifth Beatle, Evans, along with Neil Aspinall, was about as close as anyone was to the group in the 1960s as well as in the early 1970s, after the group broke up. There were others, but Evans, by sheer dint of his oversized, yet understated and hardworking personality was a beloved figure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dhani Harrison,
Innerstanding

Innerstanding is only Dhani Harrison’s second solo album. His first was In Parallel released in 2017. He was also involved in the one-off album As I Call You Down in 2010 as part of Fistful of Mercy, a group that included Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur. Additionally, he recorded three albums and two EPs as part of the group Thenewno2. He is very involved as well with his mother Olivia in curating his father George’s estate, which has recently included the revival of the Dark Horse record label.

This new album is definitely in step musically with his previous solo album and some of the music he recorded as part of Thenewno2. While those group albums had a bit more guitar and his first solo album had more psychedelic moments, this album focuses more on the electronic side of his music. While this release only has slight tinges of psychedelia on some tracks, there are lots of spacey moments such as “Ahoy There,” “La Sirena,” and “Right Side of History.”

Some of the folks who contributed to Dhani’s first solo album return, including Mereki on vocals on “The Dancing Tree” and “Wolves Around the City,” and another guest is Graham Coxson of Blur on “New Religion.” For anyone looking for a little Beatle-esque influence, “Damn That Frequency” has some brief moments of the kind of psychedelic strings heard on the Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles albums.

Other more discernible musical influences are during the spacier moments when slight touches of Radiohead and maybe even Pink Floyd sounds are heard, bringing to mind Roger Waters’ recent music or The Orb and David Gilmour. Much like his father, Dhani is not just exploring music here, but is on some sort of spiritual quest that deepens the music.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks,
The Journey Part 2

As indicated in our review of the first volume of The Journey by The Kinks released earlier this year, many compilation albums of the music of The Kinks have been released since the 1960s. The most loved of these was the double-album set The Kinks Kronicles, released in 1972. That set included one previously unreleased track and 13 non-album B-sides. 

This second volume, like its predecessor, is a two-album, gatefold, 180-gram vinyl set, with paper and polyvinyl sleeves and includes music released between 1965 and 1975 (with the previous set including one track from 1964), covering the group’s Pye years in the UK and Reprise and RCA years in the US. Also, like the previous one, there is an eight-page color booklet that includes photos, album covers, detailed liner notes and annotated notes by Ray Davies, Dave Davies, and Mick Avory.

And, in keeping with the format of the previous release, rather than tracks being arranged chronologically, the four sides of the two albums are arranged in four very distinct themes, making the tracks here subdivided over song collections that are grouped together, regardless of the date or musical similarities. This approach worked well on the first volume, but works even better here, until the final side of the set.

The other more dramatic difference here is that the first volume contained seven B-sides and this set only has one. Both sets include one single. While the first set had 22 mono tracks, this set only has 12. The first set also had only eight selections from the ’70s and this one has 11. There was one Dave Davies track on the first one and there are two here. There were no tracks on the first with new mixes, but this one includes one 2020 studio remix, one 2023 studio remix, and three 2023 live remixes.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard & Wes Montgomery,
The Complete Full House Recordings

Sunday at the Village Vanguard from the Bill Evans Trio is part of the newly revived Original Jazz Classics reissue series. Easily one of the most important and continually reissued albums in jazz history, it features pianist Evans and was released in 1961. But it’s the entire trio here that makes this album such a gem.

In fact, for many, it is Scott LaFaro’s inspired bass work and his untimely and horrific death at such a young age, which happened just 10 days after this concert, that mark this album as an historic recording. LaFaro also wrote the only originals here, “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions,” the two tracks that bookend the album.

Drummer Paul Motian had worked with Evans on his Riverside debut, New Jazz Conceptions released in 1957, and he and LaFaro had appeared on the previous two studio albums by Evans; Portraits In Jazz, released in 1959 and Explorations, released in 1961. Waltz for Debby, released in 1962, would be the last album from the trio and features live recordings also from the Vanguard shows.

Three of the tracks, “Solar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “All of You,” are each more than eight minutes and provide these legends the opportunity to improvise, interact, and stretch out. It’s hard to imagine what it was like to be in Greenwich Village on that late June night. To hear just how laid back the whole affair was though, listen to the very audible chatter on the first track on side two, “Alice in Wonderland.”

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Graded on a Curve: Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from My Fair Lady & While You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce!

Here are two more releases, both in stereo, in the Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds Series from Craft Recordings.

Led by drummer Shelley Manne, Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from My Fair Lady, a trio recording also features Andre Previn on piano and Leroy Vinnegar on bass. Interpreting and/or re-working in some way songs from the classic period of Broadway musicals by modern jazz artists in the post-war era, right up until the 1960s, is nothing new, but these three pros made a classic album with this 1956 release.

When musical artists render classic songs almost unrecognizable, or dramatically rework them in some way, it can detract from their worth as covers, but in this case, the pure, unfettered simplicity of these re-imaginings of the historic Lerner and Lowe songs is modern jazz at its best. Manne and to a lesser degree Vinnegar bring a cool, laid-back West-Coast vibe to the proceedings, but Previn is the true star. Known more as a leader, conductor, composer, and film soundtrack score maven, to hear him joyfully swing in this bare-bones setting shows just what a brilliant and inventive jazz pianist he was in this period.

Craft Recordings jazz reissues are always bespoke packages with impeccable sound, but this one shines like few others. It’s hard to believe these recordings are getting close to being 70 years old. Pressed on 180-gram vinyl at QRP and mastered from the original tapes by Bernie Grundman, this could be a go-to reissue for testing one’s sound system for a natural sound.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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