Chick Corea: The Song of Singing (1970)

The reason they call this free jazz is because no one in their right mind would pay to hear a bunch of notes randomly strung together, no matter how talented the people stringing them along. But, on the off chance you’re one of those people who believe this is actual music, you’re in for a double-treat: a free prose review of The Song of Singing. Black gnats in a cloud of anthrax, tracking dust on rose-petal hearts, caught in the pitch of a wounded pine, shrieking in fear to the blind divine. Are they in pain or part of a game? Small and tentative shapes emerge on the verge of an encroaching and swallowing darkness, legs tails and teeth tumble and cavort, it is the midnight of mother nature’s mistakes. The bustle and jostle of brainboxes creating a conflict of frequencies: is there a god, am I falling out of love, did I pay the cable bill this month, why is that person looking at me, can they read my thoughts? I am middle-aged roadkill on the highway of the mind, eviscerated, my mediocrity exposed, a sacrificial stench to the uncaring wheels of modernity. We dance entwined, intermingled, interspersed, our molecules mixed and recomposed, now a mass of skin hair eyes bones protruding, a shoggoth of shared sentiments, love is an unnatural loss of self. You are a gem with a thousand faces, reflecting, refracting, genuflecting, diffracting, exacting, assuming, retuning, demanding, asking, tsking, basking, pushing, blooming, yes, ever-blooming more faces. And then something about a lonely typographer and Nefertiti’s boobies.

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Lou Reed: Street Hassle (1978)

Kronomyth 10.0: ANTI-HEROES. The infelicities of the forlorn are a Lou Reed specialty. Discussing the best way to ditch a dead body (“Street Hassle”), musing on the advantages of an ethnic change (“I Wanna Be Black”), Reed’s Everyman is blissfully ignorant that he’s out of options and any choice he makes will be the wrong one. At the time of its release, many hailed Street Hassle as a new masterpiece. I’ve always seen it as more of a monsterpiece: a Frankenstein of ambition, confrontation and self-evisceration that one regards with a sense of horror and awe. Recorded in Germany, Street Hassle has a lot in common with David Bowie’s Heroes, although Reed opts for a rougher feel, going so far as to split the record between live and studio performances (the live performances are evident only in a smattering of applause at the beginning/end of the song). The album’s centerpiece is the three-part title track, which some have called an urban triptych (interestingly, an edited version of the song tells a different story). That song and the old VU track “Real Good Time Together” recall Reed’s glory days with his old band. I used to own this album on cassette, and maybe it was the binaural recording technique at work, but it sounded awesome in my car. The headphones seem to bring the album’s ugliness to light. As a result, “Wait” and “Shooting Star” aren’t quite the joyride I remember. Street Hassle doesn’t assuage the gnawing sense that Lou Reed is playing you for a fool on the carnival ride version of Dante’s Inferno, but if it gives you a thrill and makes you hold your sweetheart a little tighter, well, anything worth having is worth a little hassle.

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Pete Townshend/Ronnie Lane: Rough Mix (1977)

Kronomyth 4.0: A PAIR GIFTED. I would tell you that this collaboration between Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend is a happy accident except, of course, there are no accidents. What we see as chance and happenstance is the will of God moving (or choosing not to move) invisibly in our lives. Thus, you could see Rough Mix as a gift from God. I don’t say that lightly. Music is an articulation of spirit. It plays a vital role in our communication with and worship of God. And because God has foreknowledge of everything, he knew the words and lyrics to “Annie” and “Heart To Hang Onto” from the beginning of time. Our familiarity with these songs is considerably shorter but, once heard, the music of Rough Mix isn’t quickly forgotten. What began as a Ronnie Lane solo album became a half album each from Lane and Pete Townshend, who was originally tapped by Lane to produce the album. The material from Lane is some of the best of his career, likeable rockers and acoustic numbers reminiscent of The Faces that include “Annie” (one of the sweetest songs you’ll ever hear), “Nowhere To Run” and “April Fool.” Lane has a gruff voice, but its working-class sensibilities can be disarming in the best way. The material from Townshend is also some of the best of his solo career, which came as a surprise to me. “Heart To Hang Onto,” “My Baby Gives It Away,” “Street In The City” and “Misunderstood” should be considered essential additions to any proper Who collection. Maybe the labels didn’t know what they had with Rough Mix, but the whole thing was packaged and marketed like some incidental side project. Had it been given the herald of Empty Glass, “Annie,” “Heart To Hang Onto” and “My Baby Gives It Away” might have become classics. The radio running in our heads is the only important one, though. If you haven’t tuned into this music yet, now is your (not) chance. In 2006, Hip-O added a few bonus tracks to the mix, including Lane’s old-tymey “Only You,” which is a treat to hear.

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Joe Zawinul: Money In The Pocket (1966)

Kronomyth 3.0: DIME A DOZEN. If this album were simply bad, I could live with that. But it’s boring, and for a Zawinul record that’s unpardonable. Looking over my notes as I listened to this album, they’re pretty snarky: “Money in the Pocket” (“I would literally pay money for this song to end right now”), “If” (“The bass player should release his own album and call it Pussyfootin’”), “My One And Only Love” (“Who did they hire to tune their piano, Archie Bunker?”). The sentimental tracks are all right (“Sharon’s Waltz,” “Midnight Mood”), although here again they’re nothing that the hard bop era didn’t produce in better quality in barrels. It’s not a question of talent—Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell and Pepper Adams are strictly top-shelf—but of wasted talent, as the players never rise above the role of hired horns. Zawinul, of course, got better (maybe they should have called this Newt’s Time), which is likely little consolation to anyone who bought this album hoping to hear the music of Weather Report in its earliest stages. Ordinarily, you could dismiss an album like this to youthful inexperience, but Zawinul was already an established player in his 30s. Listen to Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off (it’s a near certainty that Zawinul did) and you’d never guess that the pair would soon be comfortably mentioned in the same breath. If you’re a Weather Report fan, curiosity will eventually get the better of you—this despite the album’s generating universal ennui among critics—so all I can do is add my two cents and hope that it’ll encourage you to keep your money in your pocket.

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Al Di Meola: Land of The Midnight Sun (1976)

Kronomyth 1.0: A WIZARD ARRIVES PRECISELY WHEN HE MEANS TO. If you want to know what made Return To Forever the greatest fusion group of its time, don’t listen to their records. Listen to the solo albums they made in between those records: My Spanish Heart, School Days, Venusian Summer, Land of the Midnight Sun. They’re breathtakingly inventive albums that stand with the best progressive fusion of their day, which is to say, Return To Forever. DiMeola was only 22 years old when he released his debut album, but 40 years later it still stands as one of the more amazing guitar fusion albums of all time. In a sense, DiMeola burst into the music scene with RTF, and he certainly bursts out on the opening track, “The Wizard.” Written by Mingo Lewis, who provides the propulsive percussion behind the music, DiMeola unleashes a fiery performance that mixes tango, rock and fusion and throws it at the listener at the speed of thought. The title track, featuring Lenny White on drums, is slower but equally flawless in execution; DiMeola’s mastery of his instrument at such a young age is one of those musical paradoxes. His technical proficiency is only part of the story, though. Equally baffling is his ability to balance his technical proficiency with constantly inventive arrangements. There are no missteps on Land of the Midnight Sun; even when DiMeola takes to singing on “Love Theme,” the results are excellent. The second side of music is split between the multipart “Suite – Golden Dawn,” which shifts from tempest to calm to cool funk/rock and features (fittingly) Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius and Alphonse Mouzon, and a duet with Chick Corea on “Short Tales of the Black Forest.” Land of the Midnight Sun is designed to be a showcase for DiMeola, and it is, both in terms of technical ability and the maturity of DiMeola’s compositional skills. His next few albums would follow much the same pattern with slightly more or less success, but it’s here that the genius of Al DiMeola is truly unleashed for the first time, and it remains a fan favorite for that reason.

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Lou Reed: Berlin (1973)

Kronomyth 3.0: LOVE IT TO DEATH. If Lou Reed’s earlier songs were a slap in the face, Berlin was a punch in the stomach. Produced and arranged by the conceptual/ theatrical Bob Ezrin, Reed’s third album is a concept album that chronicles an abusive relationship between Jim and Caroline that ends, um, badly. There are no heroes here, no winners, only losers. Reed had given us many glimpses into troubled lives over the years, but Berlin is one long, unblinking stare at a tragedy that unfolds before our eyes and ears. Transformer smoothed out Reed’s rough edges. Berlin elevates them into spires on a great black cathedral for lost souls, resulting in his darkest work to date. The genius of Berlin is that it’s compiled largely from leftover pieces. “Berlin” had appeared in a brighter version on Lou Reed’s first album. “Oh, Jim,” “Caroline Says II” and “Men of Good Fortune” have their origins in the Velvet Underground. And yet Berlin moves seamlessly from honeymoon to hell and back again, as if it were stitched to a pattern. Ezrin has since stated his attraction to “heavy” themes, and the second side of Berlin is unbearably heavy. But Berlin is also one of Reed’s most musical albums, featuring strings, choirs and complex arrangements. The idea of staging Reed’s bleak narratives would seem crazy at first glance; crazy like a wolf and foxy, it turns out. Over the years, Reed’s tale of doomed lovers has grown in stature as new generations scale its formidable wall of pain. In 2006, Reed performed the album in its entirety for a handful of shows in New York, which became the basis for a film directed by Julian Schnabel. A nice bit of recycling, that; Andy would have been proud.

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Chick Corea/Herbie Hancock/Keith Jarrett/McCoy Tyner (1976)

This elpee was a source of speculation for years, as I wondered what such a serendipitous summit of ivory merchants might sound like together. Apparently, I am a rube. This is simply a compilation of old and, in most cases, previously released material cobbled together to make a buck off of inexperienced jazz-tasters like, well, me. The selections are culled from Atlantic’s vaults: a pair each from the debuts of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, two selections from Ron Carter’s Uptown Conversation (Atlantic didn’t have the rights to any of Hancock’s solo material) and two unreleased tracks featuring three-quarters of John Coltrane’s band that date from the My Favorite Things sessions. The goal here, I guess, is to sample and compare the pianists’ different styles, but you’d really want a different platter to pick from. The album seems to get progressively difficult as it moves along. Jarrett is fluid and gentle, Corea plays in terse bursts of sound, Tyner is a torrent of notes and Hancock plays the willing accomplice to Carter’s artier explorations. I was only familiar with the Corea songs going into this, and they did sound different to me; the liner notes allude to a remix by Lew Hahn, so I’ll have to do a little more digging into that some day. Except for “This Is New,” everything here features the bass/drums/piano trio format, which always gives the piano plenty of room to breathe. You can hear that each pianist has their own distinctive style, but these styles would change over time, so comparing them here is pointless. Surprisingly, Atlantic re-issued this compilation on compact disc so a new generation can now experience the magic of being suckered into a star-studded compilation of stale treats.

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Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun (1968)

Like the Airplane before them, the Dead abandoned short-form songs after one album and began making more experimental, trippy music. Anthem of the Sun is the first album that attempts to bring the band’s extended, improvisational approach of their stageshow into the studio. Although the band still had a few kinks to work out as they sought to blend everything together, they were clearly on the right path; the golden road, it turned out, had been a shortcut to nowhere. Here you’ll find the sneaky, minor-key melodies wrapped in deep, mystical packages (“That’s It For The Other One,” “Alligator”), psychedelic sound collages and double drum solos that would become synonymous with the Dead. Like the acid tests of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead (and the Airplane) were going further into their own cosmic consciousness through music, ignoring boundaries, embracing everything in complete non-judgment. They would get better at filtering the accidental from the experimental with time, but Anthem of the Sun is in many ways a new dawning of the Dead. The album is experienced in three large sections: the first side of music, featuring songs encased in their own self-contained universe, and two extended songs/jams on side two. The effect is listener immersion; time becomes relative, it passes too quickly and as the last traces of “Caution” disappear we find ourselves back in a cold and empty world. The Dead were beginning to bend time and space with their music, which is something very unique to them. While Anthem does represent the beginning of the “classic” Dead period, it is a different chapter than American Beauty and beyond. The keyboards never really find a home in the arrangements, and the polyrhythmic explorations of Mickey Hart had yet to blossom. Their next album, Aoxomoxoa, would distill the songs and experiments, which made for a more accessible album but also a less cohesive experience. In many ways, Anthem of the Sun is as close as the band has come to making a live studio album, which makes it a fan favorite even 50 years on.

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Lou Reed: “Walk On The Wild Side” (1972)

I’ve always seen this as a bisexual bookend to “All The Young Dudes,” maybe because I like books and (despite that, apparently) have a limited number of analogies. In the US, the single version edited out the verse about “giving head,” as that was deemed offensive. (Oddly, calling the backup singers “colored girls” wasn’t, although I’m not offended by either. I was offended when the song was used in car commercials. If the cars in the ads were trolling for transvestite hookers, I’d have given the advertisers a free pass, but they weren’t.) The flip side is “Perfect Day,” one of my favorite tracks from Transformer. This track would have turned out a lot darker without Bowie’s glam gilding; here, it reminds me of “Life On Mars” with its pleasant piano accompaniment. The last line, “You’re going to reap just what you sow,” is pure magic. Sends chills down my spine every time, just like Radiohead’s “For a moment there…” Coincidence? Maybe that or karma.

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Lou Reed: Transformer (1972)

Whether or not you bought into the idea of Lou Reed the bisexual glam rocker, the transformation from underground hero to solo superstar was now complete. It wasn’t that the songs of Transformer were radically different from the last two Velvet Underground albums, but that fans could finally focus all their attention and adulation on Reed as author, creator and icon. Between Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, it must have seemed that David Bowie was conscripting all the old punks into his new dude army. It is an unusual alliance; Reed was never a glammer, although if the title came with Mick Ronson I’d take it too. Of course, Reed didn’t need the reflected glory of David Bowie to shine, and Transformer isn’t that much different from what he was doing before. He would have written “Vicious” and “Perfect Day” without Bowie being on the same continent, let alone in the control room, but “Satellite of Love” (a brilliant approximation of Ziggy-era Bowie), “Make Up” and “Walk On The Wild Side” would have turned out much differently (if they turned up at all) with a different producer. What’s interesting here is that Lou Reed seems to inhabit the same debauched, burned-out beau monde as Iggy. Listening to “Andy’s Chest” or “Wagon Wheel,” you have the sense that Reed might be the one sane person in a crazy world. Reed tore up his dude card soon enough and people stopped talking about whether he liked boys or girls, but we’ve never really stopped talking about Transformer. It helped cement his status as a star, healed the hurt over the Underground’s demise and introduced a new hero for people who desperately needed one. It also provides about forty minutes of intense listening pleasure, in case you care about those things.

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