Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Andreas Vollenweider - White Winds (1984)

Another trip into the mid-80s New Age zone, when it was really coming into its own as a commercial force.  White Winds, subtitled Seeker's Journey, was the third major-label release by Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, and his fourth album overall.  There's a Spin magazine review online from the time of White Winds' release that likens it to "bathing in club soda", and finds the album's production "as exciting as a shopping mall full of rice pudding" [Was it just on the shelves, or all over the floors/walls?  Can't get that image out of my head], but I happen to find it's aged fairly well.

Vollenweider's electroacoustic setup of the harp allowed for a fascinating range of sounds, as well as a great dynamic range; he proudly notes in the liners here that the bass sounds were played by him simultaneously with the rhythm, harmony and melody.  On these mostly mid-tempo tracks, the sound is filled out by billowy synth beds and bits of ethnic instrumentation and percussion, with occasional wordless vocals.  The folky and jazzy melodies are nice and uplifting, and there's the occasional switching of the overall tempo with the fun groove of Flight Feet & Root Hands, or the swirling ambience of The Stone (Close-Up).  The percussive interlude of Brothership is an ear-bender too.  Nice little record all round.

mega / zippy

Monday, 13 August 2018

Galina Ustvolskaya - Compositions I - III (composed 1970-75, rec. '93, rel. '95)

We've had a lot of nice, sunny melodic music wafting through these pages of late; nothing wrong with that, and perfectly in tune with my general summer listening.  Don't want to lose sight of the harsher, more abrasive sounds that I love though, and that have always formed a core column of this blog - so here's something I've had hanging around for a while.

Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) spent her life in Petrograd/Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, and channeled all of the upheaval that went with those name changes into powerful, cathartic music.  I've still to take the plunge with her notorious Piano Sonatas, apparently physically painful to play; this is where I started, with the three 'Compositions' written during the early-mid 70s.  Each has a subtitle taken from traditional Mass liturgy, but unlike Sofia Gubaidulina Ustvolskaya never professed any faith, and her use of religious tropes was purely for artistic style.

As with much of Ustvolskaya's output, the Composition cycle uses odd instrumentation, with the three-part Composition I (Dona Nobis Pacem) being an ominous cat-and-mouse game for piano, tuba and piccolo.  Following this is the ten part, 21-minute Composition II (Dies Irae), which is the most dramatic demonstration of Ustvolskaya's 'blocks of sound' style, with its attendant extreme dynamics.  Heavily featured here is the "Ustvolskaya cube", a wooden chipboard box played with beaters, as well as piano and eight double basses.  After this exhausting listen, Composition III (Benedictus Qui Venit) for four flutes, four bassoons and piano is positively relaxing by comparison.  A hugely recommended listening experience - make sure you're sitting comfortably.

mega / zippy

Friday, 10 August 2018

Ray Lynch - Deep Breakfast (1984)

Spied this the other week lurking in a 99p bin, and the album title and all that delightful salmon pink background made me grin and grab it.  On first glance looked either a bit jazzy or a bit synthy.  Turns out it's only one of the most successful electronic New Age albums ever produced, having initially been a private release, then reissued a couple of times including by Windham Hill, who kept it in print resulting in a platinum certification by 1994.

Ray Lynch was born in Utah in 1943, and after classical training and playing in a baroque group as a lutist, wound up in California in 1980 to switch to electronic music.  Deep Breakfast was his third album, and contrary to my thoughts of a bottomless bowl of Shreddies, the title and in fact many of Lynch's track titles came from a book by his spiritual teacher (and alleged dirty old letch) Adi Da Samraj, aka Da Love Ananda, Bubba Free John etc etc.  Anyway, the music here is all instrumental, and the titles could really be anything.  Let's listen.

Deep Breakfast is a really nice mix of analogue synth and early DX7, and the composition and arrangements definitely reflect the skill of one classically trained with a baroque affinity.  There's a good balance of sunny, poppy and upbeat tracks with more mellow, reflective material.  The first half of the album is purely electronic, and the second adds guitar, piano, flute and viola in places.  Lynch apparently disliked the New Age tag, considering his music a cut above much of the dross being produced, and he's not wrong - this is top-drawer stuff in its era.  My favourites are the gorgeous, Roedelius-like miniature Falling In The Garden and its neighbour Your Feeling Shoulders, which shows a definite Vangelis influence.  Some nice TD-esque sequencing here too, in the second and the last tracks.  Superior sounds for getting the muesli crumbs out of your futon.

mega / zippy

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

David Fanshawe - African Sanctus / Salaams (1989 compi, rec. 1973/77)

Nice little oddity today that very much reflects its late 60s-early 70s spirit of freewheeling experimentation.  African Sanctus is the most successful work by David Fanshawe (1942-2010), Devon-born ethnomusicologist and composer who was responsible for over thousands of recordings of indigenous music from around the world.  When I found this CD in a charity shop some time ago, I assumed it was another kind of Missa Luba - a gorgeous piece of music I must post some time - an African choral work.  Turns out African Sanctus is way much more eclectic and pleasingly strange than that.

Fanshawe's raw material for the work was the tapes he'd been accumulating in North and East Africa, as well as Arabia, in the late 60s.  He hit upon the idea of using these vocal, instrumental and percussive recordings as backing tapes to use in a Western-style Mass setting, and completed African Sanctus in 1972.  The work would undergo revisions over the years, but this June 1973 recording captures the original 54-minute version that was released as an LP that year.

Along with the indigenous recordings, African Sanctus uses bits of traditional choir and rock instrumentation of piano, electric guitar & bass and organ.  And frankly, it's all over the shop to listen to, in the most enjoyable way possible.  Far from watering down his source tapes into an insipid kind of world music, Fanshawe just let them burst into life in a kitchen sink approach of wildly varying tempi and dynamics.  It's an initially bewildering listen, but just about hangs together on its own internal logic, and not quite knowing what's coming next becomes part of the fun: whether that's African drumming, singing from both Christian and Islamic traditions, pop/rock music or environmental sounds (yep, there's frogs).  This multi-genre collage becomes something very likeable in its intention, and enduringly listenable.

Added on to this CD reissue is a 1977 recording of Fanshawe's 1970 piece Salaams, which again uses tapes (largely of pearl divers in Bahrain) against live instrumentation and singing.  It's a worthwhile inclusion, showing the development of the African Sanctus style on a smaller scale.

mega / zippy

Monday, 6 August 2018

Miles Davis - Sketches Of Spain (1960)

This album always jumps to the front of my August playlist - languid, lazy dog days never quite feel complete without its legendary Gil Evans orchestration and Miles' muted, melancholy tones being so perfectly suited to the Spanish melodies.  IIRC from a Mojo interview back in the 90s, this is Robert Wyatt's favourite album of all time, and what a great choice; Sketches Of Spain isn't just a high watermark in the careers of Davis & Evans, but a hugely influential and enduring classic of 20th century music full stop.

With the passage of time, and with so many recordings of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjeuz available to us now, it's weird to think that it was only 20 years old at the time Miles Davis heard the CBS recording fronted by Renata Tarragó and became obsessed with it.  He got Gil Evans hooked on it too, and the arranger took the gorgeous melody of the Adagio and extended it into 16 minutes of stunning third-stream writing to form the centrepiece of a new album.  Next to receive the Evans treatment was Will O' The Wisp from Manuel Falla's El Amor Brujo, and a folk tune called The Pan Piper.

Reaching even further into Spanish tradition, the album was rounded out by the melancholy march of Saeta, inspired by an Andalusian Easter procession, and Solea, another more upbeat piece in which Miles discovers the links between flamenco and the blues and turns another legendary performance.  The recording sessions for Sketches Of Spain might not have always run smoothly, and the Davis/Evans relationship would soon run out of steam (although the studio backchat between them quoted in the record's liner notes can be hilarious), but the album that resulted here is arguably the best that they made together.

mega / zippy

Friday, 3 August 2018

Milton Nascimento - Minas (1975) & Geraes (1976)

One more Milton Nascimento post for now, with a pair of albums from '75 and '76 that were briefly reissued as a double-album in '77, so makes sense to post them together.  The titles taken together are of course an alternate spelling of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state of Nascimento's upbringing, and the albums are further linked by an organ, woodwind & guitar swell that closes Minas and opens Geraes, so it would seem that the two records were very much intended to be regarded as a pair.

Minas opens with a 'na-na-na' children's chorus that will reappear as a thread throughout the album, before we get straight into some of Nasicmento's classic mid-70s songwriting with Fé Cega, Faca Amolada.  The post-Native Dancer sound of Minas dispenses with much of the rawness of Milagre Dos Peixes in favour of a more sophisticated, 70s jazz production, and there's spare orchestration in places - all supporting the strength of the songs well.  The absolute highlight for me is the re-recording of Native Dancer's opener Ponta De Areia, given a slow-swinging, assured dignity bookended with more children's choir.
Geraes, as mentioned in the intro above, starts where its predecessor left off, but as soon as that initial flourish fades the sound changes.  The jazz fusion of Minas has been replaced by a mostly stripped-back, folkier mode, but retaining the orchestration where called for.  Nascimento has only three songwriting credits out of the 12 tracks, and vocally shares more duets, making Geraes a more collaborative record that highlights his ability to mastermind a conceptual work drawing on the musical traditions of Minas Gerais.  In this way Geraes could be viewed as a precursor to Nasicmento's international breakthrough period on Warner Bros in the 90s.  The album ends with the gorgeous 5 minute ballad Minas Geraes, acting as the perfect thematic closer to these two great records.

Minas: mega / zippy
Geraes: mega / zippy

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet - Wisława (2013)

R.I.P. Tomasz Stańko, 11 July 1942 - 29 July 2018

A sad farewell to Tomasz Stańko, following his passing from cancer at the weekend.  Following the release of December Avenue a year ago, I remember wondering if the septugenarian trumpeter might have another album, or more, in him; sadly now it's a bookend to an amazing 50+ year career.  And IMHO, the absolute highlight of that career was the 100 minutes of music recorded by Stańko and his newly-formed New York Quartet in the summer of 2012, and released the following February.

The 'Wisława' of the album title was Szymborska (1923-2012), the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet who Stańko had collaborated with in 2009, with a limited edition release of the concert appearing in 2012, in which he played solo responses to her poems (from the short excerpt I've heard).  Some of the same poem titles appear here - Tutaj, Mikrokosmos, Metafizyka, Assassins - now recast as quartet pieces in which Stańko swapped out his long-standing Polish backing group for pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

The results were nothing short of magical, and well worthy of the extended running time which is bookended by takes of a 13-minute requiem for Wisława herself.  This title piece unfolds its melody at a languid, dignified pace (like much of the album) before reaching the gorgeous five-note theme that Virelles has hinted at in the intro.  Throughout the slower-paced material, like the title track, Dernier Cri and April Story, the spot-on production lets every breath from Stańko fill out the ambient atmosphere, and the upbeat tracks - Assassins, Faces, A Shaggy Vandal - show how much fire there was in this band.  Żegnaj Tomasz, dziękuję.

Previously posted at SGTG:
Jazzmessage From Poland (1972)
Purple Sun (1973)
Freelectronic in Montreux (1987)
Bluish (1991)
Polin (2014)

Monday, 30 July 2018

Steve Hillage - Green (1978)

In early 1977, Steve & Miquette had two albums planned: one was to be The Red Album, the other The Green Album.  The former became Motivation Radio, from last Friday's post, but the latter kept to the original theme in its final title.  Whether it was the original intention or a later evolution, the distinction is clear - where Motivation Radio was rockier and more song-based, with only one instrumental, Green is over 50% instrumental, and points the way forward to Hillage & Giraudy's future direction.

Nick Mason was an apt choice for producer, as you can definitely draw more obvious parallels between Green and the classic Floyd sound.  Again, though, the lyrics are much more upbeat than Roger Waters' glass-half-empty world, and although very much of their time are accessible and heartfelt rather than just stoned ramblings (which I think is where I struggle with Gong, only really warming to them when Pierre Moerlen takes over.  But anyway, back to Hillage and Green.)

As mentioned above, with the exception of Unidentified Flying Being, which feels like more of a Motivation Radio track, this album is much spacier and atmospheric.  Most of the tracks flow into each other, and UFB segues into a stunning instrumental suite that will only be broken by one more minute of singing for the rest of the album.  Miquette and Steve really come into their own here as masters of ambient sequencing and other synth wonders, and this is also uniquely the album where Hillage favours guitar synth over regular guitar, further broadening the electronic palette.  Ending with a reworked Gong theme, Green really is space rock par excellence, and certainly my most enduring favourite in its genre.

mega / zippy

Tomasz Stańko 1942-2018

Aw, crap.

Tomasz Stańko, one of my favourite jazz artists, has died after a lung cancer diagnosis earlier this year.

Will post an album in tribute in the next couple of days, in between the scheduled posts for this week.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Steve Hillage - Motivation Radio (1977)

Back to Steve Hillage, with his third solo album.  Appearing after two solid slabs of psychedelic prog, this is where Hillage reshaped his sound around the funk and proto-disco music he was unashamedly enjoying at the time (despite fans who spoke to him carping about it, which only spurred him on).  The result was a massively fun record of eight tightly arranged shorter songs, and a cute little cover of Not Fade Away to finish.

Motivation Radio's lyrics can seem a bit dated (however, is it just me that finds Radio quite prescient, given the rise of the internet/social media as an admittedly imperfect counter to mainstream media?) and hippy-dippy, but at their heart just boil down to self-confidence/self-discovery platitudes and other messages of positivity.  Which is kind of nice; there's a great line in the AMG review of the album, although I suspect they won't have been the first to use it, about Motivation Radio being "the light side of the moon" in comparison to the largely downbeat Pink Floyd MO of the era.

Floyd are a vaguely useful musical comparison too; the album has a great 70s rock production with a generous dose of synth, both courtesy of Malcom Cecil of Tonto's Exploding Head Band, and there's also lingering traces of Hillage's time in Gong (see Octave Doctors).  Miquette Giraudy's synth talent, pointing the way to the future, is worth mentioning too.  What really elevates Motivation Radio, though, are Hillage's great guitars, energising the whole record with driving riffs and blistering leads.  When this coincides with the more purple lyrics, the result is a nice balancing act that stops the songs seeming too twee - Light In The Sky and Saucer Surfing are perfect examples.  With a tight rhythm section wrapping all this up, the result is just a wonderful album.

More to come on Monday! ;)

mega / zippy