Saturday, December 31, 2011

Joe Sample – Rainbow Seeker

Joe Sample is one of jazz pianists and composers who have bounded their creative directions with crossroads between many music genres – soul, fuky, gospel, blues, jazz, classical and even pop music. Great culture of sound, perfect timing and articulation, nice phrasing and dynamics make him number one pianist in smooth jazz. He is best known in USA where he was born and where he is active since 1952. His music is some kind of American culture inner phenomenon, well recognized in USA, also in other countries of both Americas and in Asia but rather weakly known in Europe. It’s only European problem. Some of his compositions have entered the repertoire of non-jazz musicians and are played in various contexts, best known is One Day I’ll Fly Away performed by Randy Crawford in 1980 being the reference do Schubert’s Impromptu G-flat Major. Later it was sung by Nicole Kidman as a part of Moulin Rouge movie and recorded by Keith Jarret with Charlie Haden on their 2010 Jasmine album.
In fact he started very early, he became to learn playing the piano when he was five. As 13-years-old student with his high school friends Wilton Felder playing bass and saxophone and drummer ‘Stix’ Hooper he formed jazz group The Swingsters. He started piano studies in Texas Southern University, but he never ended with academic degree. Instead he expanded the band to Modern Jazz Sextet and later Jazz Crusaders which was by the name referencing to Jazz Messengers. In 1960 with the band he moved from Huston to Los Angeles. In sixties the group played hard bop with elements of soul and R&B which resulted with popularity. In 1971 the name was shortened to The Crusaders and musicians switched to electric jazz-funk style which was probably the best decade in history of the band. The group was active until 1987 when it was disbanded. Fifteen years later it was reunited and recorded again.

Joe Sample – Rainbow Seeker (1978)

Joe Sample is well known as pianist playing various genres from jazz with Miles Davis and George Benson, blues with Jimmy Witherspoon, B. B. King and Eric Clapton to rock with Steely Dan and soul with The Supremes. In 1969 he started recording albums signed by his own name. More than twenty records show the history of changing style and developing creative ideas. Second Sample’s album Rainbow Seeker from 1978 can be seen as perfect realization of smooth jazz idea. To understand it better it is good to remember the special moment this music was played. Ten years after modern and free jazz has dive in fusion music, after late seventies disco and funk burned in straight rhythms and rebellious punk rock took over big part of rock scene, there was not many other possibilities for selling new music. 
Joe Sample like many other jazz musicians came out with his own fusion of jazz, funk, blues and pop elements. Joe Sample who is playing keyboards along with section from The Crusaders – drummer ‘Stix’ Hooper and basist Robert ‘Pops’ Popwell. He was also author of strings orchestrations. Record features long list of special guests, there are Paulinho DaCosta, Garnett Brown, Ernest J. Watts, Fred Jackson, Robert O. Bryant, Jay Daversa, Steven Madaio, Ray Parker, Dean Parks, Billy Rogers and David T. Walker. 
Maybe arrangements are the best part of this record. After more than three decades they still capture the soul of the easy listening. And the result is perfectly smooth. Musicians are improvising fluently and lightly avoiding too much expressive interval jumps, harmonic roughness or rhythmic instability. This makes their easily waving phrases enchant and comfort listener. There can be no misunderstanding. And maybe this is why millions of Americans for decades had listening fragments of Rainbow Seeker album in “Local on the 8s” of Weather Channel. The title piece was featured in 2008 on The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz II compilation. The drive and touch of this piece is unique and consecutive songs show these values are applicable to the whole album. His solo in Melodies of Love is clear and perfect the way reserved for best compositions – it is really hard to believe it was improvised. And how deep he can exploring the sound of grand piano he showed in Together We’ll Find A Way, the solo piece closing B-side. For sure it’s worth to keep in you memory.

Ruth Slenczynska – Chopin Four Ballades

In the beginning of her career Ruth Slenczynska has been promoted as first child prodigy since times of Mozart. Her father Joseph Slenczynski who was virtuoso violinist gave her only recipe of the success he knew and „imposed a rigorous and disciplinary practice routine on her beginning at age three”. Forced to learn and practicing from being a child she made rapid progress. When she was four, she begun to study in Europe, taking lessons with Artur Schnabel, Egon Petri, Alfred Cortot, Joseph Hofmann, playing also for Serge Rachmaninoff, who’s music she recorded in sixties – first large project was 1963 CBS television recording of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes but she often played smaller compositions of last Russian romantic as encores and virtuoso pieces. 
She debuted with solo performance in Berlin in the age of six and with full orchestra in Paris when she was only eleven. She instantly made great resonance in European musical world. Series of public performances and discipline practicing was too much stressing for young artist so in the age of fifteen she suspended her public concerts and withdraw from virtuoso career. In 1945 and 1952 she recorded for 78 r.p.m. discs and for radio archives. She resumed her career as performing pianist in 1954 and has been recognized as pianist of perfect technique and clear vision of musical beauty. Her work was associated with University of California and since 1964 with Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville where she was Artist-in-Residence. She published two books Forbidden Childhood (1957) and Music at Your Fingertips: Aspects of Pianoforte Technique (1961). The sample of her artistry are the records.

Ruth Slenczynska – Chopin – Four Ballades (1960)

In late fifties and early sixties she recorded primarily Frederic Chopin’s music. It was natural consequence of her studies. She was in orbit of Chopin’s music since very beginning of her musical career. One of her masters was Alfred Cortot who’s teacher was Emile Decombes, Chopin’s pupil. This gave almost natural transmission of musical ideas. And it is quite reasonable. In mid fifties she recorded for Decca-Belgium Chopin’s 4 Ballades. Then in 1957 Decca published two opuses of Chopin’s Etudes and four Impromptus – in January 12 Etudes op. 10 and first two Impromptus in October 12 Etudes op. 10 plus 3. and 4. Impromptus. Then in February 1958 Deutsche Grammophon released 4 Scherzos. In autumn 1958 Decca published two records showing pianist’s versatility – Encore! and A 25th Anniversary Program. Next year the same label published record with Chopin’s Waltzes.
Next Chopin’s album by Slenczynska was complete of Four Ballades released in October 1960. It was second recording of 4 Ballades by Chopin. Published in Gold Label Series with Ferenc Liszt’s Six Chants Polonais after songs by Chopin, this album didn’t ends the list of Slenczynska’s Chopin recordings. One year later Decca released 24 Preludes op. 28 and Polonaise A-flat Major op. 53. In forthcoming years artist recorded many new renditions of these works and gave series of lectures focused on Chopin’s music and teachings piano virtuoso.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Carlos Santana – 25 Hits

Santana was iconic name for early fusion rock. Thank to bright personality of Carlos Santana and famous group bearing his name from the guitarist, Latin music became one of essential elements in rock fusion style. Great success of the group during Woodstock Festival and phenomenal popularity of first two records were starting point for the history of later albums worrying decline. Older albums were still in the spotlight of record shopping customers but newer were bought more by force of habit. From the other hand music market and specially pop music market in mid-seventies became very unstable. Trying to sustain interest in aging Santana’s records CBS published older and still unbeatable songs on album Greatest Hits in 1974 and four years later, in 1978 the double LP album 25 Hits. In the seventies record industry has still giving a chance to promote valuable phenomena in their marketing policy.
Republishing Santana’s hits was like giving this music the second chance. With generally the same quality of pressing as originals, both compilations have the same sound space as earlier editions. And both became perfect opportunity for renewing the way Santana was perceived. Between late sixties when Santana was a kind of musical and ideological phenomenon and second half of seventies many has changed. First of all there was new generation of disco and punk rock fans who seen Santana as too hermetic. Carlos Santana’s guitar solos were still interesting but for gradually smaller part of audience. No wonder these two albums have place in official artist’s discography. It’s understandable, these compilation was planned as the next success of the group. And this plan worked with almost immediate success – only in US first Santana hits album has been sold in 7 millions of copies.

Carlos Santana – 25 Hits (1978)

Success of second album was not so remarkable although it was noted on bestseller charts and sales in France earned a golden record. It’s interesting question, why only first of these two albums have its place in discography on official artist’s page. Almost complete material from first anthology has been moved to double album, the two songs omitted were Hope You’re Feeling Better from Abraxas and Everything’s Coming Our Way from Santana III album – maybe not number one hits, but pretty good music to return to, and maybe to keep in mind. In other words, it’s difficult to adjudicate if publisher choices are kind of testing alternative collection of songs or this is just an attempt to collect some more money out of popularity of previously published pieces or even to earn on artist fame. Especially for critics who are trying to find more rational criterion for a medley than popularity of every song.
The 25 Hits set could has been a great introduction to a young audience into the world of Santana’s music. Various songs from eight previous albums, and not all of them were number one hits, set in new context, gave listeners a great possibility to renew Santana’s creative image. Interesting combination of the program allows to redefine one’s approach to the style of Carlos Santana. It’s interesting producers of 25 Hits album considering Santana’s songs found that the older they are, the better they are. Probably not by accident they used as much as six songs from debut album Santana and from first three Santana albums comes more than half of material published here. A little bit pressure they also applied to the newer songs especially these promising more commercial potential from 1976 albums Festivàl and Amigos. No songs from the most recent album Moonflower (1977) also points to the marketing key of tracks selection.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Canby Singers – O Great Mystery

Renaissance vocal polyphony is great part of Europe’s musical tradition. Blossomed out of mediaeval church traditions and ars nova ideas, gradually liberating and complicating all the way to exceed borders of subordination of religious and external to music meanings, 16th century polyphony remains highest achievement in counterpoint and characteristic element of early music sound. More freedom to perfect counterpoint of renaissance gave baroque when all polyphonic resources has been used in various musical contexts and not always consequently.  
There are hundreds of fantastic choirs and vocal groups interpreting ancient a cappella music. Every year shows new groups not just singing renaissance repertoire but searching for new principles of interpreting early music in most flexible way, in accordance to historic manners and in compatibility with today sensitivity. One of choirs with more than half century lasting tradition is The Canby Singers. Founded in 1957 by Edward Tatnall Canaby choir is known for its perfection and notable achievements in the field of choral music. The repertoire of Canaby Singers covers wide range of styles from medieval songs to works of contemporary composers so the choir is well known for its versatility.

The Canaby Singers – O Great Mystery

One of greates achievements of The Canby Singers was recorded for Nonesuch set of a cappella compositions for Christmas O Great Mystery – Unaccompanied Choral Music of the 16th & 17th centuries (H-1026). The main part of this set is loose presentation of early Christmas hymns. Especially three opening tracks are compositions to the same Latin hymnal text O magnum misterium – set by two Spanish renaissance composers Tomas Luis de Victoria, Cristóbal de Morales and English composer William Byrd. Some more Christmas tunes came from Francisco Guerrero Canite tuba in Sion and old carol Resonet in laudibus in new setting by Edward Tatnall Canby and ancient one by Orlando di Lasso. Archaic sound of this selections gives background to changes depicted in next chapter of European musical culture.
While the A-side has been placed in roman catholic and anti-reformation tradition, the B-side of the record is quite different in ideas and in style. Opposite side presents composers from the protestant and secular music circles and resulting various cultural traditions in compositions set to lyrics in various languages. Protestant church music is represented by Flemish composer Hubert Waelrant’s Musiciens qui chantez à plaisir and three works by German composers of late renaissance and early baroque eras Selig sind die Toten by Heinrich Schütz, Mein Schifflein life im wilden Meer by Johann Herman Schein and Ihr Lieben, wir sind nun Gottes Kinder by Melchior Franck. Here are still in this set two works by Counter-Reformation compositor Jacob Handl – O admirable commercium and Mirabile mysterium.
Selection ends with master of secular polyphony Claudio Monteverdi. His madrigal Sfogava con le stelle gives a chance to see the title subject more in musical than religious context. The ambition of such program was clearly the idea of observing music in context of its cultural background. Half century after creating this album, this conception is still inspiring and gives us one more level for decoding the meaning of mysteries in culture.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Frank Zappa • 200 Motels


   Writing about historic works, music critics have the privilege to judge phenomena that have been sentenced before by most crude referees – the generations of listeners and the time. When addressing to contemporary work they try to determine its value and chances to remain in the history of music. Just like they don’t learn any lesson from the past. Reading contemporary opinions about Zappa’s works, sometimes it’s difficult to keep a straight face. He was so much creative composer, musician and personality, even professionals had lots of problems with denomination and qualifying his ideas. Crowning example of such critics’ mistake is the album 200 Motels, which was described as full of cheap humor, bombastic and worst Zappa’s record. Yet it sold very good reaching 59th position on Billboard 1971 pop albums chart. 
   After double album Uncle Meat which in fact was musical setting for unfinished movie project, 200 Motels still didn’t give a clear picture of composer’s aim. And in context of previous concept albums, Freak Out! or We’re In It Only For The Money these narrations still were too much open and loose. Both for movie and for rock opera the story of 200 Motels was not enough consequent and had no climax. Surprising by originality was major goal and even sharp characters are disappearing in unfinished sequences. Discontinuity and surreal associations in movie narration were completed by songs and these fragments with illustrative music bind together the story. Music occurred to be the main hero and the basic layer of 200 Motels. And just like in real life it is something what makes this low budget film works.

Frank Zappa  – 200 Motels (1971)

   In its core theme 200 Motels is the movie about music, about musicians and about touring with the group – sometimes not exact the touring because clue of the story is quitting the group by bassist Jeff Simmons. And the group is the key factor in this narration. Simmons has really quit the group during the session and he was replaced by Jim Pons who was playing bass in The Turtles. From the same band came also Howard Keylan and Mark Volman great duo appearing also as The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie or  Flo & Eddie. The line-up of 200 Motels band was premiered on Chunga’s Revenge and then published on Fillmore East – June 1971. One of many stars in 200 Motels crew was singer and the legendary Mothers of Invention personality Jimmy Carl Black. Together with Flo & Eddie they created characteristic sound of the vocal parts. Playing keyboard instruments George Duke and drummer Aynsley Dunbar also were members of the band who press clear sign on musical image of this movie.

   Featured actors of this movie are Theodore Bikel, Ringo Star and Keith Moon. Theodore Bikel in the role of demonic narrator is unrivaled. Of course it’s also worth to see Ringo Star acting Frank Zappa. Zappa himself has only few episodic presences, for example as a musician seen in the background, but in fact he is present almost constantly in Ringo Star role of Larry, who „likes to dress up funny. Tonight he's dressed up like Frank Zappa”. For finishing the work the co-directors Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer used some improvised scenes and incidental material. For example natural behavior of musicians surprised with acting actors, sometimes they were expressively shocked. During short period of time between members of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and rock musicians came to disagreements, what Frank Zappa two decades later put into The Real Frank Zappa Book.
   Surrealistic documentary of the band disintegration and individual musician’s lost was perfectly brought in decadent mood of musical setup of this movie. In early seventies this can be seen as prophetic vision of the falling regime. Today is more or less precise diagnosis for decaying utopia of sixties movements. Maybe it was still in top condition but leading straightforward to paranoia. Like in opening B-Side pair of two pieces – orchestral Touring Can Make You Crazy and very next song Would You Like a Snack? make contrast of depressive gravity in orchestral chords and shockingly naïve text and melody – both giving strong esthetic and intellectual dissonance. For many artists satirical and critical attitude was the strategy to survive but Frank Zappa made it his own trademark.