Wednesday, April 30, 2014


April 30 - INTERNATIONAL JAZZ DAY celebrated under the auspices of UNESCO since 2012

   In the history of fusion jazz the band called Mahavishnu was the legend. In fact the brand was shared by two different bands, even though both were closely related to English guitarist John McLaughlin. First Mahavishnu was performing in period 1971-1976 and it was the band playing blend of different styles from progressive rock to modern jazz and funky. Mahavishnu in seventies was the band establishing jazz-rock sound with violin, synthesizers and electrified guitar. Eight years after first Mahavishnu was disbanded, John McLaughlin back to the idea of fusion. In 1984 he reestablished under the name Mahavishnu whole new band with Mitchell Forman on keyboards, Jonas Hellborg on bass, Bill Evans on saxophones and drummer Billy Cobham, a pillar of first lineup and second member of both incarnations. New band was active to 1987 and recorded two studio albums – Mahavishnu (1984) and Adventures in Radioland (1986).
   Although both Mahavishnu bands were playing fusion by the assumption, and both were artistic projects by John McLaughlin, their sound and style characteristics were essentially different. Most clearly it was change of lineup. Tenor and soprano saxophones played by Bill Evans with deep sound and full-blooded jazz phrases gave whole band strong expressive character. Thickness of jazz structures founded on perfectly established bass phrases by Jonas Hellborg and dense keyboard progressions by Mitchell Forman are building quite new idea of fusion. Opening composition Radio-Activity is perfect sample of this new style, it’s more radical and far more electrified. There’s more of power jazz playing here than trying to reestablish any connections with rock or popular music. In fact 1984 was the moment when under pressure of disco and pop music, the best part of rock scene was declining into dark. And this paradoxically loosed the bounds with rock, giving new fusion band more space for clear jazz and sound experiments.

Mahavishnu (1984)

   And experiments with the sound became the basis of 1984 album John McLaughlin recorded with new lineup of Mahavishnu. Changes of instrumental setting, additional musicians and instruments Danny Gottlieb on percussion instruments, Katia Labeque on synthesizers and piano in When Blue Turns Gold, where played also Hari Prasad Chaurasia on flute and Zakir Hussain on table – all these artists gave the sound w the band their stigma. But what has changed most was guitar. Its sound became essentially new factor in Mahavishnu style. And not only the sound but whole performance is different. After series of great recordings with Shakti and various significant experiences with world music, John McLaughlin had powerful and potential for creating wide spectrum of improvising ideas. The sound spectrum of leader’s guitar is a beyond imagination. Guitar synthesizer Synclavier II, digital guitar and Les Paul Special he used were just state of the art equipment, giving much more possibilities than any artist really needed. Imagination and sound developments gave this record free feeling and noble stability. It’s one of best record of this strange year. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Joshua Rifkin – Piano Rags by Scott Joplin

   Amidst different elements building many currents of popular music in the last decades of the nineteenth century, piano music was particularly notable trend. It was present in many public places, mainly for wide range of sound possibilities, by also for economic reasons, since there was cheaper to pay for one musician than four or more. So in 19th century's public places piano music had started replacing various ensembles. Repertoire for such performances was taken mainly from popular songs, opera and even symphonic melodies, but a noticeable part was composed by pianists themselves. Some compositions of such kind were published for sale. Artistic level of this production was varied, wages were just discreditable but it was always a chance to earn a little bit more than just by live performances.
   Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was one of the greatest ragtime players and composer of most famous rags. He was playing ragtime in honky tonk bars in St. Louis and its outskirts. In 1899 this 31 year old pianist achieved great success composing Maple Leaf Rag, and this single composition gave him place in history. There was even a legend about 1 million copies sold in 3 months, but according to research by Joplin’s biographer Edward A. Berlin, first print of 400 copies needed a year to be sold. After his death most of his works were almost forgotten even if Maple Leaf Rag was recorded few times as a standard in 1930’s and later. The Great War dramatically changed the popular culture and ragtime was abruptly out of fashion as well as many other dances and forms of 19th century popular music.

Joshua Rifkin - Piano Rags by Scott Joplin (1970)

   In 1970 Nonesuch published first collection of Scott Joplin’s Rags. Eight carefully chosen rags were mostly Joplin’s best sellers on A side, from opening Maple Leaf Rag, through The Entertainer and The Ragtime Dance, to Gladiolus Rag. Second side opens with Fig Leaf Rag, then shows some examples of composer’s harmonic advancements in Scott Joplin’s New Rag and Euphonic Sound, and is crowned by Joplin’s latest composition Magnetic Rag, which Joshua Rifkin in linear notes called „valedictory work”. Pianist and musicologist pointing development of this last composition, sees it as the synthesis of various influences and Joplin’s imagination driven both by Afro-American culture and Middle-European dance music, which can be read as tribute to his teacher Julius Weiss. These eight ragtimes recorded by young pianist Joshua Rifkin perfectly fitted the revival of traditional jazz and popular music in early seventies. It is the publication that in fact changed the history.