Short reviews, mostly jazz, written for the Utne Reader

Scot Hacker

Offbeat -- A Red Hot Sound Trip

Offbeat, the 7th Red Hot audio project fighting AIDS through music, is the distant aural cousin of the co-released CD ROM "The Beat Experience," which explores the history and origins of beat poetry. More than 20 different artists -- including Skylab, Christian McBride, David Byrne, and the Emergency Broadcast Network -- look toward the present and future of beat’s lingering legacy by taking the "fundamental collage nature of beat expression" and presenting it through modern eyes, painting contemporary culture afloat on seas of hip hop and deep dub. Viva la groovy!

WaxTrax Records
23 East 4th St., NY NY 10003

Head and Leg– "In Your Dreams"

When it comes to dream interpretation, the world divides into two camps: those who want to interpet everything they remember, and those who just want to dig on dreams as great surrealist poetry. This collection of dream transcripts, produced as professionally absurd sound collages (or "audiotainment") fall into the latter category, wandering all over the inner map like synaptic drunkards. Bizarre dream transcriptions nestled within extremely well-produced audio environments – these guys manipulate a multi-track sound board as elegantly and as strangely as they dream. "Jesus, I’m late for an appointment. Can I please have my shoes?"

Seeland Records
1920 Monument Boulevard, MF-1
Concord, CA 94520

Excerpts from "In Your Dreams" can be found on the Birdhouse Dreams page.

Splatter Trio -- HiFi Junk Note

The Splatter Trio have evolved full circle from a post-Coltrane free improv acoustic trio to an ensemble concerned as much with the scripted and chance musical perplexities of found sound, spatio-temporal distortion, and taped / digital effects as they are with horns and drums. This is the sound of San Francisco lofts, all alone, late at night, colluded in wax, with haiku. Billowing guitars, drums pattering away on the concrete, a saxophone stuck in a tip jar. This is atmosphere music, but not the wimpy kind. Splatter Trio are real musicians, out on a wordless poetry bender. Curiously strong.

Rastascan Records
P.O. Box 3073
San Leandro, CA 94578

Combustible Edison -- Schizophonic

Nevermind that "lounge music," "exotica," and "space-age bachelor pad music" have assumed the cultural proportions of this year’s big thing. Fact is, it’s about time people stop just thinking "camp" when they think of Les Baxter, and realize that a lot of this stuff is actually Very Good Music. It’s about time the grunge-saturated youth of America had a chance to hear some great instrumentals for a change. Combustible Edison’s second release for Sub Pop Records is even more suave and sophisticated than their first, last year’s "I, Swinger." The lush, laid back jungle tones will go great with your white naugahyde sofa; Mis Lilly Banquette’s get-lucky voice, which is just nerdy enough to be sexy, will send you straight to the edge… of the bar to refill your gimlet glass. If you think the lounge movement consists of little but retroactive irony, you haven’t heard Combustible Edison at their finest hour.

Combustible Edison Information Empire
P.O. Box 381245
Cambridge, MA 02238

Surrender to the Air (Produced by Trey Anastasio)

Seldom have I heard a more eclectic group of musicians assembled, playing music that flows so naturally. Trey Anastasio is the head phish of the slightly wacky Grateful Dead follow-on band Phish. Marshall Allen, Damon Choice, and Michael Ray are all alumni of the long-lived Sun Ra Arkestra. Marc Ribot is the inimitable experimental guitarist known mainly for his work in Tom Waits’ bands. Bob Gullotti drums in Boston’s avant-jazz forum The Fringe. John Medeski is the funky organist in acoustic jazz/funk trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood. What brought this crew together remains an object of puzzlement, but nevermind that – this record surreys eloquently and elegantly from all-out free jams to quirky hip-hop, from traditional bridges to atmospheric rides. Fans of any of these musicians will be disappointed if they expect to hear the familiar, and so will those with low tolerances for dissonance. Each of the players projects a strong voice through the project; their legacies are manifest at turns, but the synergy is constant throughout. A delightful, unexpected enigma from improv’s furthest corners.

Elektra Records
75 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10019

Thelonious Monk, The London Collection

Overflowing with the unmistakeable mystique that is Monk’s trademark – the temporal suspensions, the odd fourths, the complex but unjarring harmonies -- this 3-CD collection was taped on a single day in London, 1971, and represents the last commercial recordings the genius dissident bopper ever made. If there are any cliches that surround his name, Monk has the distinction of being their sole progenitor, so unique was his immediately recognizable style. This collection, equally appropriate for completists and neophytes, captures shadows of Monk’s precarious mental state at this point in his life: the version of "Trinkle, Tinkle," is from take three, right after his devoted wife Nellie trimmed his overgrown fingernails, which had been causing an untraceable clicking sound in the control room. With Al McKibbon (bass), Art Blakey (drums).

Black Lion Records
P.O. 3
Little Silver, NJ

Ritual Trio, Big Cliff

Hip-Hoppers keep trying to stuff jazz loops into their funk -- but it never comes out quite organic-sounding enough. Sans electronics or the burden of a hip agenda, percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s grass-roots trio takes improvised music right down into deep, nourishing loam, where it can breathe. This is all-acoustic funky jazz with lots of Africa, underlined by Malachi Favors’ forthright bass, Ari Brown’s sincere tenor and piano, and intermittenly overlayed with special guest Billy Bang’s songful violin. Some listeners will find a challenge in the unfamiliar atmosphere, but this isn’t "difficult" music.

Delmark Records
4121 N. Rockwell
Chicago, IL 60618

Nathaniel Mackey, Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25

To the Dogon of West Africa, the Andoumboulou are mythological beings symbolizing an earlier, failed form of humanity, a "rough draft" of humankind, as it were. Anthropological poet Mackey traces, accompanied by the Dogon-inspired improv of Royal Hartigan (percussion) and Hafez Modirzadeh (reeds), an impression of our culture, of ancient culture, of all cultures striving for more than what they – or we -- are. The words, rhythms, and melodies are raw, natural, uncut, deeply evocative of time and movement, of striving, of difficulty, and of transformation.

Spoken Engine Co.
P.O. 771739
Memphis, TN 38177-1739

The James Blood Ulmer Experience, Live at Bayerischer Hof

Hard-scrabble harmolodic guitarist James Blood has been in a slump for a couple of years – his recordings seem to have lost a lot of their earlier intensity. But this, his first live recording in 10 years, finds him back in the core of grooves as deep and ornery as the explorations he pioneered on records like 1982’s "Black Rock." Live performances can be like that: ideas congeal in mid-air, and that elusive point just this side of "the one" is met and embraced without hesitation. This recording chronicles one such perfect night, a volatile chemical conjunction of blues, funk, and the avant-garde. With Amin Ali (bass) and Aubrey Dayle (drums).

IN + OUT Records
dist by Rounder Records
One Camp St.
Cambridge, MA

Ornette Coleman and Prime Time: Tone Dialing (Verve)

The grandfather of harmolodics and his electric funk outfit Prime Time’s latest offering is stylistically on close par with 1988’s "Virgin Beauty," but more street savvy. In lieu of a fusion backing, we now get street-level hip hop. Ornette’s angular melodies grow more sophisticated every year, but would sound much more at home in one of his all-acoustic settings of yore. The slick production values are at odds with his raw and instinctive musical ideas.

G. Love and Special Sauce: Coast-to-Coast Motel (Okeh)

Snake pit Delta blues and bottom-heavy funk find their way into one voice via G. Love’s strangely effective hybrid of slide guitar, acoustic bass, and wobbly contrapuntal rhythms. Taking a more serious approach than he used to, Love is coming off with more maturity now, at the expense of some of the slap-happy fun. He somehow still manages to cover about seven decades of musical evolution in four minutes without sounding confused.

Oliver Nelson: The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse)

Impulse’s entire series of beautifully remastered re-issues is a treasure chest, and one of its finest jewels is Nelson’s 1961 masterpiece. The all-star septet included Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, with a rhythm section featuring Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, and Paul Chambers. The compositions are the best kind of bop: fully and complexly composed melodies with lots of long, cut-loose passages for rich improvisation. Blues are the predominant motif, while the slightest hints of swing lurk in the shadows. Dolphy, as usual, spearheads the abstractions, while Nelson takes the truth.

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