Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Memo from Planet Jazz.........

Yes, just when you think you've seen it all - here comes "Empire Jazz". Well, this is a side of Chewbaca I just never knew! Watch out McCoy Tyner! And just dig R2D2 rockin' those beats! C'mon - you know you would have picked this up if you saw it. The cover alone was worth the $3 I paid for this thing. But what also got my attention was the list of musicians involved on the back cover:
Wow! The cream of jazz royalty paying tribute to Star Wars (or cashing in - who can tell)? One thing I was certain of - there must be some good playing happening on this record. So I bought it, brought it home and................was pleasantly surprised! Side One was a little iffy - "The Asteroid Field" is a bossa-nova of all things. But Side Two has some really tasteful playing going on. I really enjoyed hearing more from trumpeter Jon Faddis. He was a young guy when he joined Charles Mingus in the 70s - just about anybody that spent time playing in Mingus's band is worth hearing and Faddis is no exception. Apparently this has never made an official appearance on CD, but I made sure I made a "needle-drop" since I'm going to find an LP cover frame and give the record to my stepson who loves all things Star Wars. It was so funny I had to get it for him, but I wanted to hear the music first. And the music is not anywhere near as cheesy as the cover might convince you otherwise. Figures that Robert Stigwood would see the value in releasing this kind of project - did it make more money for him than the Sgt. Pepper movie with Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees?
From the blatantly commercial to the blatantly mystical................
Here's a record released ten years prior to "Empire Jazz" - also featuring Billy Cobham on drums. This album has been re-released many times over the years. The copy I have was issued by Rykodisc in the late 1980s on clear vinyl (in its analog incarnation).
Side One is mainly solo acoustic guitar workouts by McLaughlin (starting with a very nice rendition of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"). There's some overdubbing going on here, but the end result is tasteful and quite expressive. I have to say this kind of playing sounds pretty singular to my ears. Thoughtful, meditative and expressive. I always enjoyed John McLaughlin - electric or otherwise. Maybe he's a bit more "cerebral" in his aesthetic, but there is a real fire to his approach that is uplifting to hear. Side Two features two ensemble pieces with some great soprano sax work from Dave Liebman. I wonder if this is where Miles Davis heard of him - Liebman would be a steady fixture of Miles' early to mid 70s bands - before the late 70s "retirement" phase.

I've had this record since forever, but the past few nights I've been spinning it quite a few times. The vinyl pressing is really nice - and it's sure fun to look at and handle. Some folks will claim that records pressed on anything but black vinyl are somehow inferior to standard black, but this record proves otherwise (as do some other clear vinyl LPs I have in the collection). It still all comes down to mastering and cutting practices. Colored vinyl can be as pleasing sonically as black vinyl. The only advantage to black vinyl is it does tend to show scratches (when present) moreso than other colors - buying used colored vinyl can be a real crap-shoot for that reason. But if the record is new there should be no wear and as long as you take care of it there should be no problem. And these suckers sure can look cool........
Whether it runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime - jazz is jazz is jazz or is that to say - just improvised-upon music from whatever dimension you like so long as its rooted in the blues - but that could be the American Blues or Eastern European Blues or Brazillian Blues or Japanese Blues..............its all music. Townes Van Zandt broke music down to two categories: "Zippidy Doo Dah" and THE BLUES. So there you go. I don't care what you call it, just don't call me late for dinner. Bright Moments!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Insects n’wax waffles……or how the Beatles and Iron Butterfly pushed the boundaries of the vinyl LP.

In my last post here, I eulogized “the album” as an entertainment object. Oh, those plastic platters can still be found if you know where to look. But the “glory days” of mass-consumption are pretty much kaput when it comes to the 33 & 1/3 Long Playing vinyl album. When you think about it, there was a pretty small window where LP records ruled the marketplace. Though in existence from 1948 or so, most people didn’t really bother with them until about 1964 when the Beatles first Capitol album “Meet the Beatles” redefined the potential of the format.

Prior to “Meet the Beatles”, teenagers mainly bought singles – 45 RPM discs. Hit on one side, filler on the B-side. LP records prior to “Meet the Beatles” were usually laden with filler with a few of the hits sprinkled in to generate interest. Not that “Meet the Beatles” was all hits, but the publicity machine that cranked up the Beatlemania hysteria made it seem like EVERY song was a hit. Beatlemania was a marketing device – the image was the real driving force behind the campaign, the music was merely the background noise to the fad of long hair and English accents. Trouble was, the Beatles took their music seriously. The fans also started taking the music seriously and kept buying the records as the fad slowly turned into a revolution. All of this activity pushed sales of LP records into hitherto-unknown regions as baby boomers with disposable income cranked up the demand for long-haired singing groups.

“Meet the Beatles” came along at a time in the industry when sales units of 500,000 would certify a record for “Gold” status. This was the pinnacle of bragging rights I suppose. In reality, “Meet the Beatles” and other LPs did in fact sell beyond that number, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the status ceiling was raised to “Platinum” status – one million units sold. Now, supposedly the first record to qualify for this new status was this one:

That’s right – Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-gadda-da-Vida” was apparently the first record to be awarded for “Platinum” sales. Now, who knows if this distinction is as accurate as it claims to be? After all, I seem to remember how Slim Whitman sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles COMBINED, but hey……why should the Beatles run away with all the accomplishments? As far as I’m concerned I think it’s mighty cool that Iron Butterfly gets the nod for “first Platinum-selling act”. I’m especially pleased that, absurd as it sounds, I was able to see this edition of Iron Butterfly play live in a small club. Now, I’m not fortunate enough to be able to say “I officially don’t remember the sixties for all the cool reasons not to remember them.” Fact was, I wasn’t yet on the planet to experience the sixties. How did I get to see the “In-a-gadda-da-Vida”-era Iron Butterfly then? 1988. This year marked the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records. A big blowout bash of a concert was planned to happen at Madison Square Garden that year and all the important acts that helped put the company on the map were invited to perform – including IRON BUTTERFLY! Well, they did sell over one million units, right?

Sad reality was – although different versions of Iron Butterfly came and went over time, the most famous version of the band hadn’t worked as a unit in nearly 20 years! To get in shape, those members got together and played some “warm up” gigs. I got to witness one of these at The Chance in Poughkeepsie. And, sad to say, the audience turnout was pitifully small, but brother did these guys ROCK! And they seemed so happy to be playing together again. Before the show proper, guitarist Erik Braunn came onstage alone and played a new song solo – I think he called it “Albatross”, I could be wrong. But he introduced the song as a comment about how old friendships can be healed and renewed over time…….y’know, that kind of thing. It sure was a heartfelt performance that remains with me today. An especially treasured memory since Erik Braunn passed away far too young back in the early 2000s.

Anyway, Iron Butterfly took the stage and blasted their way through “Are You Happy” – Doug Ingle looked utterly bemused at the small but enthusiastic group of neo-hippies jumping up and down in the pit area in front of the stage! I’ll also never forget the smell of the incense sticks the band stuck into the cracks of their gear onstage – it smelled like spicy peanut butter! I’ve never smelled anything like it before or since. Wild! The tunes came from the first three albums (my good friend Carl kept yelling for them to do “Shady Lady” from the Metamorphosis album, but they avoided stuff from that record – Erik Braunn wasn’t on it anyway…..oh well!). The “Iron Butterfly Theme” was a standout along with a full-length version of the seminal classic “In-a-gadda-da-Vida”.

As it happens, I never got to see them again. I never even saw footage of their performance at the Madison Square Garden show. Nor anything else of that reunion tour save for this brief clip I dug up on youtube. This is exactly what they looked like at the show I saw:
I can’t decide if having a 17-minute song as your band’s biggest hit is a blessing or a curse. Well, thank God they never stooped to doing a “disco” version, eh? But it’s pretty sad that the band never got even close to that kind of peak again despite some really solid records (although Erik Braunn left before the “Metamorphosis” album – that is one really ROCKIN’ record, man - well worth tracking down if you’re up for some deep-cut freedom rock vibage!). And, for the record – I really think Doug Ingle’s voice is sadly under-appreciated in rock history. Not even the big hit was his best vocal moment – the guy could really sing! And the band did push the boundaries of what a hit song could be. Maybe “Ina-gadda-da-Vida” became kind of a cliché, but I’d be proud to have made an extended piece of music into a runaway smash hit! That’s about as unlikely as the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s hit song “Take Five” being one of the most recognizable jazz compositions in spite of the fact that the song’s in an odd time-signature (5/4). Though I reckon having to replicate a 17-minute opus night after night could get, well, kinda tiresome to say the least.

“In-a-gadda-da-Vida” somehow resonated with the public in its time and has had the good fortune to be one of those “evergreen” songs that will always conjure up the emotions and sentiments of the era it came from. Even if the lyrics hadn’t been slurred – the real, non-inebriated lyrics were supposedly “In the garden of Eden….” – it would have qualified as a hippie classic. For the casual fan I’d also recommend the “Best Of” LP from 1971 as a teaser for some (but not all) of the better cuts off their main four Atlantic / Atco LPs. This thing, along with the “In-a-gadda-da-Vida” album, was kept in print well into the 1980s and shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Other groups, like YES, would come along and put long songs on a single LP side of a record, but none would reach the commercial peak that Iron Butterfly did in the summer of 1968. If The Beatles helped to push more LP records out to consumers in 1964, Iron Butterfly helped to push the boundaries of what a hit song could be – even something impossible to contain except on a whole side of a 33 and 1/3 LP record!

If you’re vinyl-ready and don’t yet have this classic album – I’d bet there are plenty of used copies floating around out in the shops for RECORD STORE DAY. In the meantime, here's a neat clip of Iron Butterfly from back in the day - enjoy!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The rise and fall of THE ALBUM........

I wish I could say this record contained some great lost psychedelic masterpiece, but in fact - it's a spoken-word recording that is little more than a pre-historic "infomercial" designed to teach you how to perform facial exercises in order to rid yourself of unseemly wrinkles and make your face look younger and more vibrant! Such was the power and ubiquity of the long-playing vinyl record in 20th Century culture - it was at one time a viable method of advertising and persuasion in areas of life that had NOTHING to do with music. Before "workout videos" there were "workout records" - even for your face!

For reasons I don't entirely understand I found myself meditating on the concept of THE ALBUM today. While this concept might seem old hat now, the idea of the “self-contained collection of relevant music in one place” – The ALBUM – is really a kinda new concept, in terms of music consumption and appreciation. If we harken back to the era of the 78 RPM disc – the album was the cardboard container which held several 78 discs together, either as a set of, say, classical music – like all the 78 discs that comprised the entire Beethoven 9th. There were also blank holders you could slip your favorite hits into. Awright – you don’t know what I mean – here’s one:
See how the discs are stored in this thing? Well, when 45 RPM discs were invented, they came out with holders for those too. Storage and organization tools. Funny how these things were manufactured to look like books sitting on a shelf with their spines facing outward. How analog! A tribute to Gutenberg maybe? Now, I could be wrong, but it would seem likely that when 45 RPM discs hit the market, it must have been around the same time as when 33 & 1/3 RPM “Long Playing” discs arrived. Let’s call it 1948. The difference? The material of the disc itself – vinyl compound used for the new LPs was more durable than the shellac of the 78s, which could shatter easily. Also – the resulting grooves from the new cutting process known as “microgroove” could reproduce a more sophisticated frequency response – potentially better sound (though I will concede that there are 78s that sound shockingly hi-fi).

The long-playing discs, using microgrooves, could contain longer musical passages so whereas that Beethoven symphony took up several 78 RPM discs that had to be changed one to another to hear the whole deal – the same performance would easily fit on one LP record flipped only once. Niiiiiice. The typical running time of an LP could be between 40 to 50 minutes. Sometimes less, occasionally more. For popular music releases, an industry standard of 30 minutes of music was the minimum to be considered “album length”. Some sneaky artists would get away with 27-minute long albums once in awhile. Rarely would the program last beyond 50 minutes. The main reason, aside from basic economic concerns (always leave the audience wanting more than less!) was the fact that the fidelity of the music would suffer if too much information was squeezed on one side of an LP (witness several of Todd Rundgren’s solo albums from the 70s – great music, squashed sonics – at least on LP!).

The long-playing format was reserved mainly for classical music and hits collections until the 1960s. As the baby boom had access to disposable income and better record playing gear, popular groups met the demand for more sophisticated music product with quality material not just reserved for 45 hit singles, but transferring better quality songs to LP records. Thus began the idea of using the LP format length of 30 – 45 minutes as a framework within which to create a singular piece of art that hangs together beyond just a collection of hit or miss tracks. The ALBUM as a potential artistic platform was born. Pet Sounds. Sgt. Pepper. A Love Supreme. Hot Rats. The GREAT ALBUM had arrived.
This notion kinda faded from view once black-light posters and lava lamps fell off the hipness radar. And by that time, the new physical music format – the compact disc – was ready to replace the LP as the preferred physical music product. Now, to tell the truth, although the analog versus digital debate rages on, there were and (still) are a lot of benefits to CDs – find one that has been mastered well (and there are plenty!) and you’re going to be satisfied for life. Unless you really abuse of compact discs, they will keep providing the same fidelity from the point of purchase. Plus – many titles that went out of print on LP came roaring back to life on compact disc. I’m no purist – CDs were a blessing in many ways, even though they get short shrift now.

The effect on popular music, however, was another issue. Popular artists had gotten pretty good at putting programs of 40 to 45 minutes worth of music together in a way that could hold the average modern person’s attention and entertain. But even that was a struggle at times. How many great artists put out “duff” albums in a career? PLENTY. It seems that as CDs came onto the market, there had already been a sense of “giving up” among major artists to put together great ALBUMS full of quality tunes. The old standby of using an LP to prop up a couple of hits with a bunch of second-rate "filler" was making a comeback by the late-70s. Some artists continued to take the album format seriously as in days of old, but for the most part – the industry and the public had moved on. Times change – it’s really no big deal. LP records can be a lot of fun and I wouldn’t want to be without my vinyl albums, but deep down I know that LP records were merely another MYTH VEHICLE of the modern age. The myths those plastic waffles spread were pretty potent though! Entire careers and industries revolved around those things. Wild times!

Vinyl records have made a comeback of sorts, but they remain the least convenient medium through which music enjoyment can be experienced by a LONG STRETCH. Analog music devices will likely continue to thrive for the hobbyists, but not for the masses. The Album has officially given way to “The Playlist”. Convenience has won over the public, as well it should I suppose. New myths will replace the old. Not even the vinyl record was a suitable container for talents like Frank Zappa who insisted that all his albums were really just “one big album” he identified as the “Project / Object”. Yet, Zappa was a master at using the medium to his advantage. He understood the power of the vinyl record as a conduit for musical knowledge as a young lad himself – from the discovery of Edgard Varese on a crusty old LP to the doo-wop and R&B hits he loved so much on 45s. As much as Zappa predicted the downfall of vinyl record culture with the emergence of digital recording techniques, he was a product of that analog culture himself.

For those who still crave the analog experience (or even the physical music product experience) this month is host to a new phenomenon : Record Store Day. This quasi-holiday has turned into a minor-movement to bring awareness to the smaller record shops that continue to serve and fascinate music lovers all over the country. Here's a link about how to find out more:

The basic gist is - if you value a local record dealer - get out and buy something on that day or any day. Times may be changing, but it would be a sad day indeed if there were no more places to browse discs. In November we get to vote with our political consciences - this month we can vote with our purchasing power whether or not we still value our local record haunts. But don't take it from me, here's Mel Blanc:
                    HAPPY RECORD STORE DAY EVERYONE!!!  APRIL 21, 2012 - NO FOOLIN'!!!!