Archive for November, 2005

Good books on avant-jazz or avant-rock?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

Does anyone know of any good books on the modern avant-jazz scene, say, from the mid-1980s on, or even from the 1990s on? I can’t really find any. Hell, it’s hard to even find anything on the free jazz scene from the 1960s on. Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, as close to a canonical text in terms of recent jazz histories as there is, has a nice section on what he calls “postmodern” jazz, touching respectfully on various folks such as John Zorn, but only in a fairly abbreviated fashion.

I’d love to read a full-fledged text about the “downtown” NYC free-jazz scene, or even better, a broader history that also touches on possibilities for “avant-jazz” in the future, given the proliferation of cross-genre pollination in recent years — ranging from the Blue Series hip-hoppy stuff to more oddball, unclassifiable material on labels like Cryptogramophone or Nine Winds. There’s a rich history here, with plenty of fascinating biographies and musical trends to draw on (just based on the scattered interviews with various prominent figures that I’ve read), and I’m sure there’s plenty of interest. I guess it’s only a matter of time before something shows up on the shelves. It seems like this is too self-conscious a scene for something not to turn up.

On the other hand, a good book on avant-rock seems like a total pipe dream, unless Chris Cutler ever feels like writing another book. I did just order Bill Martin’s Avant Rock, but I don’t have very high hopes for it, and it doesn’t seem like he really talks much about RIO or the contemporary avant-rock scene, instead focusing on the more well-known likes of King Crimson, and um, Yes. Well, I guess that shouldn’t be surprising… we already know he’s a Yes fanboy.

I’d love to write such an avant-rock history myself, but as of now I certainly lack the large-scale perspective and experience to tackle such an effort, to say nothing of the fact that I am musicologically illiterate (perhaps irrelevant, but probably not).

What’s spinning, November 13 edition

Sunday, November 13th, 2005

For some reason, September and October were two of the most prolific CD-purchasing months I’ve ever had. I’m still struggling to keep pace in terms of listening to and digesting all the new stuff I’ve gotten in the past couple months — and I’m failing, and thus trying to cut back on new purchases in the near future. (This is aided by the fact that my purchase rate for the past couple months has been entirely unsustainable.) But, here are a few quick thoughts on some of the things that I’ve been hooked on. Most of these are new acquisitions I got in the past couple months, but some are older things that just happened to catch my ear recently.

  • Cos - Viva Boma
    Canterbury-styled fusion has never really done much for me; something about the light, breezy nature of things and the wispy keyboard tones has always turned me off a bit. But Viva Boma gets it right: it’s breezy Canterbury-esque fusion all right, but the band isn’t afraid to rock out at times, and a really strong, almost funky electric bass presence and some rather seductive female vocals definitely help. Definitely need to explore these guys further — conveniently, Musea appears to be reissuing a lot of their albums that were previously out of print.
  • Grits - Rare Birds
    And here we go again: if not quite as clearly Canterbury-influenced, Grits’ jams on this live album are definitely “breezy fusion.” The heavy Rhodes presence makes it palatable to me, along with the fact that the melodies are just really tasty. I remember Steve Feigenbaum griping on rec.music.progressive years ago about how the Grits albums were going out of print. I sure wish I’d picked them up way back then; I’m definitely happy I got my hands on this now. Fantastic stuff aside from a couple really embarrassing poppy vocal tunes, and now a feverish search for As the World Grits is about to start.
  • Ensemble Nimbus - Key Figures
    Another brand of prog/RIO that is kind of hit-or-miss with me is the sort of fusionish avant-rock of the sort practiced by Zamla Mammas Manna, Miriodor, The Muffins and so on. Key Figures falls into that category, but like Viva Boma I am lovin’ this shit. Not implying it’s as good as the Cos album, but this is fun stuff, and I even like the programmed drums. Glad I have this one, as it’s on the long-defunct APM label and, like everything else on APM, has disappeared without a trace in recent years.
  • Heldon - Stand By
    Would you believe that this is the first Heldon album I’ve ever heard? As a serious King Crimson fan it’s always been evident to me that I need to hear this band. And especially after hearing Richard Pinhas’ work in other contexts (such as Fossil Culture with Peter Frohmader), I knew I’d like this stuff. Yet somehow I’ve just never gotten around to buying any Heldon, until now. And now, I know I need all their albums, because this is great stuff.
  • Cecil Taylor - Conquistador!
    And another “would you believe?!” This is the first Cecil Taylor I’ve heard! And while this is a bit mind-bending and challenging to digest, especially consisting as it does of two 20-minute tracks (but hell, if I can handle Tim Berne’s sprawling compositions, I can handle this, or so I tell myself), Taylor’s playing is phenomenal and I can enjoy it even when all I’m doing is just letting the sheer intensity of it wash over me. Must get more… I seem to be writing that a lot, which bodes poorly for my wallet…
  • Enslaved - Isa
    If you like what Opeth is doing but kind of think they’re a bunch of proggy pansies who need to toughen up their metal cred a bit, maybe this is the band to turn to. Accessible, melodic black metal that caught my ear from the first listen, unlike much extreme metal which tends to take a while to sink in with me. And yet another band whose back catalog I still need to explore!
  • The Beta Band - The Best of the Beta Band
    Considering that I have all of this band’s releases, it might seem at first that purchasing their new greatest-hits album is a bit perverse. But it has a bonus CD with a full live performance on it, and I always thought these guys were much better live than on record. Still, it seems like a very odd marketing strategy to pair a greatest hits collection and a live album on one release. Presumably greatest hits albums appeal to casual or new fans, while live albums appeal only to die-hard fans and completists. Maybe they were hoping to snare both audiences. Well, it worked on me, at least. (By the way, the live album is excellent. I haven’t bothered to listen to the greatest hits disc yet, and don’t really expect to.)
  • Nil - Nil Novo Sub Sole
    I’ll be reviewing this one in the near future. I got this a few months ago and was really surprised when it kept finding its way back into my CD player. As a rule, I’m pretty jaded when it comes to symphonic rock, but something about the moodiness and dark edginess of this album has been keeping me not just interested, but even enthralled. I’m not really taken with all of the album, but a couple of the songs are just tremendous. Always a pleasant (and rare) surprise to find new symphonic prog that can push my buttons.
  • Zs - Zs
    I wrote about this one a couple months ago, but it never really sunk in until now. Dual saxes, dual guitars, and dual drums sure sounds like a helluva fun lineup, but what these guys do often seems like it’s as annoying as it is fun. But once I started paying more attention, my jaw basically dropped to the floor at the tightness of this ensemble and the complexity of their compositions. I would love to see these guys live, I can’t imagine how visceral it must be. On record they come off as pretty much entirely academic.
  • Tim Hodgkinson - Each in Our Own Thoughts
    Here’s one that I keep expecting to floor me, but it just never has. I bought it for “Hold to the Zero Burn” (aka “Erk Gah”), which was originally a Henry Cow piece and has been described as the missing link between “Living in the Heart of the Beast” (for the me absolute definitive Henry Cow composition) and Western Culture (my favorite Henry Cow album, overall). So far, though, I haven’t found the visceral appeal of the former or the intellectual delight of the latter in “Hold to the Zero Burn,” and in fact the whole album seems a tad bit anemic to me. It’s so highly-rated by people whose tastes correspond to mine, though, that I keep trying and I don’t intend to give up anytime soon.

I am officially a Dimeadozen junkie

Friday, November 11th, 2005

Having moved about six weeks ago (locally in Washington, DC), I only just — two days ago — got a broadband connection set up at my new house. And I’m relieved to have it again, not so I can check e-mail or the weather or the news or music sites, no… but so I can get back to my Dimeadozen addiction. For those of you who haven’t gotten with the program, Dimeadozen (hereafter just “Dime”) is a carefully-controlled bittorrent site on which users post live recordings — but any hint of any commercially-released material, or material from bands who publicly condemn live recordings, is immediately removed, so theoretically it’s all legit. Further, only lossless formats are allowed (ie mostly FLAC files — MP3s are allowed only if there is no lossless original recording).

In just a couple months on Dime, I’ve discovered recordings of bands I honestly never expected to ever, ever hear live recordings of. To wit: Art Bears, Weidorje, Aksak Maboul, Happy Family, Shub Niggurath, Änglagård, even some zeuhl band so obscure no one has ever heard of them (and they never released any recordings), Evohé. It’s amazing how these unlikely, decades-old recordings of unbelievably obscure bands come out of the woodwork. There have also been plenty of recent recordings of equally-obscure modern prog bands, including a bunch from NEARfest 2005, as well as from various avant-rock festivals in Europe.

Probably my favorite finds, though, are a couple of immaculate soundboard recordings of Belgian avant-jazzers Aka Moon with guests: one from 1997 with African percussionist Doudou N’diaye Rose (who also collaborated, decades earlier, with Toubabou), and one from 2002 with a turntablist who just rips. Great stuff!

In fact there’s so much great music to be found on Dime that I have been having a hard time balancing my listening between new CDs and new live recordings. I’ve never been a huge fan of live recordings simply because there’s so much music out there to discover that I always kind of thought it a waste of time to listen to 20 different versions of the same songs; but when you get recordings of such obscure bands who are supposedly great live, it’s tough to resist. And I’m not regretting my time spent with most of this stuff!