Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Caravan, The Meat Puppets, Zoot Sims and Mingus - a musical Detour

Taking a minor detour away from the King Crimson focus, it's surprising to note how long its been since my last entry here! I've been doing a lot of listening and thinking though not a lot of writing. So I figured before too many more ideas get lost in the shuffle it might be good to get them out in the open. Plus – there's a whole lot of great music I've been discovering or re-discovering that I wanted to pass along. 
First up – Caravan's first album – 1968. I've had this record in my collection for a long time without paying too much attention to it. In fact, I think it was given to me by an old friend I lost touch with (and haven't rediscovered despite the power of social media). At any rate, I remember listening to this back in the 90s and not being impressed (compared to Badfinger, Caravan sounded kind of meandering and tentative). Then, just this past winter I decided to give it another chance and BINGO! I'm eating this record up. In spite of some very funky recording values there are some wonderfully musical ideas presented. And the organ parts make the record. Here's a nifty video of Caravan performing the first track - “A Place of My Own”. 

Now, I have known of the Canterbury Scene groups for a while, yet the appeal of the aesthetic has eluded me for the most part. Finding the Caravan album so compelling gives me hope that I'll enjoy other releases of theirs and from other bands like Soft Machine. In the meantime, I've discovered just how rare (and expensive!) first run copies of this Caravan album are and since I've been playing the daylights out of it, went looking for a CD. Once again, the value of compact discs in terms of what you get for your money just can't be beat these days – you can get Caravan's first on CD with both the mono and the stereo mixes for less than $10 from a variety of sellers. I'd recommend jumping on that deal and keeping it in your collection even if you don't like it initially. I'm happy I never purged the LP years ago – funny how some music takes time to catch an ear for. Caravan was worth the wait for me!

Also worth the wait was finally getting to see the Meat Puppets at a local club! Once again – I'd been aware of the Meat Puppets for years due to my appreciation of the SST bands in general back in the 80s. Yet, I never connected with their music until the early 2000s. I didn't even latch onto them at the peak of their popularity in the 90s when they were featured on the Nirvana Unplugged show and album. Without getting into the whole story now, I never quite got into Nirvana. Let's just say I was surprised at how many people loved Nirvana when they became popular – those same people who must have been listening to Debbie Gibson when Husker Du was at their peak?! Ah, well.......I do remember seeing a lot of advertising of their records in Musician Magazine back in those days. The band certainly looked cool. I just never seemed to hear anything on the local college radio.

 In fact, the same was true of The Minutemen versus fIREHOSE. Never seemed to hear the former – whereas the local play of the latter's first album on the radio caused me to rush out and buy that. And of course, one of the songs on the first fIREHOSE album is called - “Under the Influence of Meat Puppets”! Yet, I still didn't bother with the Pups until I found a cheap copy of “Mirage” on CD and took a chance. 

“Mirage” completely baffled me. I was expecting heavy stuff like Husker Du. Yet, “Mirage” sounded like pastel-flavored, Euro-pop-funk-lite (whatever that means). Over time, I did get into “Mirage” pretty seriously and learned how it was a departure of sorts for the Meat Puppets – yet their whole catalog is a big departure from itself in a way. The Meat Puppets are one of the few bands to experiment with different approaches from one record to the next, yet remaining true to their own sound – that's a familiar tale isn't it? Kind of like The Beatles! Unfortunately when I got into the Meat Puppets, Cris Kirkwood was still estranged from his brother Curt (who had put out the solo album “Snow” which I dutifully snapped up when released). So, it was to my general surprise that the brothers reunited and started putting out new albums and playing live again. There's only one of those releases I don't have yet – the first in the series “Rise to Your Knees”. All the others I have on VINYL and they're great! 
Better still was the band live – I haven't been this thrilled to see a live act locally in a long time (at least at this particular club – one that I played at many years ago myself). Check out this nuclear version of “Lake of Fire” from the show I was at:

Long live The Meat Puppets!!!

One show I ended up missing by a mere few days was seeing Ryley Walker. He'd played a few towns north of me a handful of days prior to me buying his album. I wish I hadn't delayed as long as I had with that purchase – otherwise I probably would have gone to that show. And the new record in question is a corker!

Primrose Green is a fantastic blend of folk and jazz in the mold of John Martyn – yet Ryley has a great sounding voice – better than Martyn's in my opinion.
 I have to be honest – I can't comment about Ryley Walker outside of what my ears tell me about his music. I have no idea about his back story, where he comes from or how long he's been active. Just based on how much I've enjoyed Primrose Green I hope he has a long and profitable career. I have to say I am really enjoying this whole “new release on vinyl with download code included” thing. Primrose Green is a beautifully recorded album which translates well to the vinyl medium. If all new music sounded this good there could be a sonic revolution at hand beyond Neil Young's wildest Pono dreams. Ryley Walker is great artist to keep an ear out for in the future. Check him out!!

With so much great music coming out on vinyl again, the platters have been stacking up. Taking into account my varied tastes (including classical and world music) I've got records piled all over the place. Keeping things organized has continued to be a challenge. I ended up separating by general genres – Classical, Rock / Pop and even Jazz. As much as I disagree on an aesthetic level with putting music into pre-conceived “bags” I've had to confront how tough it can be to find what you're looking for when all records are thrown in the same pile. It gets worse when records end up in different rooms of the house – oy! So I was surprised to find a jazz record lurking in the “rock” section that I must have missed when setting up the jazz section: Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers
 Here's another record given to me a long time ago which I gained a new appreciation for recently. Zoot Sims was a tenor sax player in the straight-ahead tradition. Once again, I know next to nothing about his life. By the time he recorded this album for Pablo Records in the mid-70s he was a well-established name in jazz. The title of the album is a bit misleading, however since the Gershwin Brothers do not appear on the record – they were the composers of all the tunes. Without getting into a whole Gershwin deal – if you are reading this and don't know about the impact of Ira and George Gershwin on modern music I'd be shocked to say the least. Plenty of artists continue to record entire albums of Gershwin material – Brian Wilson being a recent example. What caught my attention on this record was, besides the great music (Grady Tate on drums again!!), the general presentation of the album. Pablo Records was a Norman Granz designed label that put out quality jazz music with a no-frills image. This is such a 70s thing. No disrespect to Zoot Sims, but that cover photo is not the most flattering image in the world. Nobody would mistake this label with Blue Note (arguably the hippest looking jazz album covers of all time). This is PEOPLE'S JAZZ. Man, what a lost aesthetic if there ever was one. Well, don't be fooled by the stark cover image – the music is swinging and fantastic (as is most of the music featured on these Pablo albums – they put out a lot of stuff). But image can carry a lot of influence, of course. This is stating the obvious, yet some innovators were more savvy than others. 

I was recently reading about Charles Mingus again and I found myself re-watching this intense film showing Mingus at the apex of his paranoia in the 60s. As scattered and frustrated as Mingus is in this film, I couldn't help thinking how some of his insights continue to have a relevance and resonance right down to the current times. It is curious to note that the world of music was changing pretty rapidly at the time this film was made. The jazz world was poised to take a plunge into jazz-rock-fusion (the more commercial extension beyond the free-jazz innovation of the early 60s). Mingus would not make that transition along with many others – his own health demanded his time and attention. And perhaps the frantic fire we see in the film settled down for his own benefit (how long can any person sustain that level of intensity without consequences?). Yet, many of the injustices remain from Mingus's time to our own. Images can be powerful – as Mingus knew too well as he demonstrates how easy it is to operate a firearm – it seems that the JFK assassination was especially in the forefront of his mind as one can hear in the film. There are no easy answers to the question of how to make the world a better place. I think Mingus's music will continue to illustrate that beauty can emerge from the most trying of circumstances. I think that is ultimately what the film maker gives us here – in the turmoil of the times, music can still express the human qualities of joy, hope and exuberance. Keep those vibrations flowing................