This is one of the earliest recordings of the Prestige All-Stars, an ad-hoc collection of stars from Prestige’s roster, featuring the first appearance of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes.” Many years later, when Waldron passed away at the ripe old age (relative to jazz musicians) of 77, the NY Times would remember him as “the last accompanist of Billie Holiday and composer of the jazz classic, Soul Eyes.” Here in its sweetly savored seventeen-minute version, “Soul Eyes” is simply sublime. Waldron wrote the song specifically for John Coltrane and in many ways it’s the quintessential Trane track, unfolding in slow, rich tones with fluttering accompaniment, at once sensual and spiritual. The remaining tracks on Interplay For 2 Trumpets And 2 Tenors are just what the title implies: vehicles for Coltrane, Bobby Jaspar, Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young to strut their stuff. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between Young and Sulieman since I’m not very familiar with their work. Jaspar, though quick, has a reedier tone than Coltrane; you can hear the two of them trade solos on “Anatomy,” although Jaspar fares better in an earlier exchange with one of the horn players. The opening “Interplay” is a swinging number with a strong melody, which makes up for a certain lack of chemistry among the players. An eight-piece with double trumpet/tenor can obviously be unwieldy, especially when you need to find time for everyone to solo. “Anatomy” and “Light Blue” are little more than platforms for that purpose. At some point in your life, you owe it to yourself to hear this version of “Soul Eyes.” You might even find that the melody to “Interplay” rattles around in your head for a while too. But Interplay isn’t the best way to experience these players, each of whom can be heard to better effect on their respective Prestige solo records. [Note: Subsequent reissues of this album included a live version of “C.T.A.” that was recorded on the same day and which originally appeared on Taylor’s Wailers.]
If you ever wondered why the Dead needed two drummers, hear is your answer. Billy Kreutzmann played the straight man, jazz schooled, capable of thrills and fills but never far from the backbeat (for reference, listen to his performance on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album). Mickey Hart is a very different drummer; his is a cosmic journey to explore rhythm in all its various guises, from the natural to the supernatural. Rolling Thunder reveals that journey in its early going, although Dead fans will find plenty of familiar stops along the way, from jam sessions with Jerry Garcia (“The Chase,” “Deep, Wide And Frequent”) to actual rock songs (“Playing In The Band,” “Blind John”). If you have any expectations of what a Mickey Hart album would sound like, of course, you’ll need to leave those antiquated notions at the door. You weren’t expecting it to start with a howl and an Indian invocation. You weren’t expecting the Tower of Power horn section or the demented psychedelic pop of “Fletcher Carnaby.” While there is no such animal as a typical Mickey Hart album, his subsequent efforts have focused mostly on rhythms rather than traditional song structures. Thus, Rolling Thunder is, if not atypical of his later work, not representative of it either. It would seem that Hart was initially double minded as to whether he should make a proper solo album or use the opportunity to explore new musical realms, so he chose both paths. “Playing In The Band” and “Pump Song” will remind listeners of Bob Weir’s Ace, “Blind John” suggests a hippy-trippy Traffic featuring vocals from several key members of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship axis, and “The Chase (Progress)” points forward to future works such as Diga and Yamantaka. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is a mixed bag featuring some famous buds, a few good songs and some interesting experiments interspersed.
John Cale rocks and the results are frighteningly good. Recorded with Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, Fear is absurdly inventive, and Cale is quick to show off the fruit of its collective oddness on the opening “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend,” which quickly morphs from a harmless pop song into mounting, elastic paranoia. From there, all bets are off as Cale and crew careen into rock’s conventions. “Buffalo Ballet” is gilded country pop, “Barracuda” is tickled by an ocean of tiny oddities, “Emily” is sweetness remembered, “Ship Of Fools” is otherwordly pop haunted by the spirit of Christmas. Fear is a plate of succulent oddities until “Gun” arrives. Here, Cale manages to channel the dark energy of Lou Reed (or Patti Smith or The Stooges if you prefer) into eight minutes of bleak fury that move so purposefully it feels like four, and you begin to wonder whether John Cale isn’t some mischievous, mythical god among us, donning different forms to fight away the boredom of a life meted out in flinty minutes. “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy,” the album’s single, is actually the least interesting song on here, a male/female duet that plods along to some hoary country melody and only incites me to want to put The Kinks’ Soap Opera on the turntable. All is forgiven, however, with “You Know More Than I Know;” luminous genius, that. The album closes with another menacing rock/punk experiment, “Momomma Scuba,” featuring what sounds to be an army of guitars. I have enjoyed every John Cale album to date, but Fear is the man’s best album so far. Very fitting for his first on Island, since you wouldn’t want to be caught on one without it.
John Cale was the most unconventional member in one of the world’s most unconventional rock bands, Velvet Underground. While Lou Reed was the leader and Nico (at least initially) the beacon, Cale’s droning, dissonant violin/keyboards and classical training gave their music an artistic credibility that elevated it above nearly anything else being made at the time. One had the sense that Cale was a deliberately placed wrench, an intellectual counterpoint that gave Reed’s visceral songs about strung-out antiheroes an air of madness. Yet VU never seemed like the proper outlet for Cale’s peculiar genius, a point his solo career has since confirmed.
The musical career of John Cale is a story of surprises. His first album, Vintage Violence, was a relatively normal collection of pop songs that showed Cale had both a serviceable voice and a sense of humor. It was a calculated departure from the music of VU, however, that likely bewildered listeners with its low-key charm. Bewilderment turned to chaos on the Terry Riley collaboration, Church of Anthrax, which featured groundbreaking proto-ambient jazz/rock. While challenging, Anthrax was at least more in line with the avant-garde music that fans expected from Cale, and has since been accepted as a minor classic in the musical canon.
On The Academy In Peril, Cale showcased his classical side with the help of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, while still sneaking his subversive sense of humor into the mix. Together, Anthrax and Academy confirmed the long-held suspicion that Cale was a musical iconoclast of the highest order. Subsequent albums have alternated between the genteel pop of Violence (e.g., Paris 1919), rock (Fear) and classical, the latter often in the form of film scores.
Although Cale has never enjoyed the commercial success of Lou Reed, his career has had an impact on artists as varied as Brian Eno, Penguin Café Orchestra and Camper Van Beethoven. Cale has also produced notable acts including Patti Smith, Nico, Squeeze and The Stooges. At some point in the (hopefully) not too distant future, a John Cale renaissance would be welcome and warranted.
Kronomyth 2.0: Close Encounters of the Tired Kind. You knew that Adrian Gurvitz had a brother, Paul, but who knew he had a clone? How else to explain the release of two Baker Gurvitz Army albums in one year and two Adrian Gurvitz albums (Elysian Encounter, Kick Your Muddy Boots Off) in one month? For their second album, Baker Gurvitz Army conscripted a keyboard player (Peter Lemer) and a new lead vocalist (Steve Parsons, a.k.a. Mr. Snips), although the results weren’t appreciably richer than their first. In fact, I’m less enamored of their followup, as the prog label has clearly worn off and what remains is a ‘70s hard rock act with slight sci-fi/fantasy undertones and a great drummer. Prog fans will enjoy “The Artist,” which sounds like it could have stepped right from Steve Howe’s Beginnings, but the scent of prog is otherwise undetectable on here. Also, while I’m whining, I prefer Adrian’s voice to Mr. Snips. I’m not sure what the band felt they gained with the change, although maybe they were trying to lighten the load on the overburdened Adrian. Lemer is a good addition, but underused; a few more solos like the one featured on “Remember” would have been welcome. Elysian Encounter does showcase the drumming of Ginger Baker and the guitar playing of Adrian Gurvitz which, at this stage, are the band’s main draws. The material is good enough, but the answer to life’s mysteries do not await on “The Gambler,” “The Hustler” or “The Key.” Too bad, since their debut was promising and this album comes charging out of the gates, but it’s unrealistic to expect anyone, even Adrian Gurvitz, to have three great albums in them in one year. [The Esoteric reissue includes live versions of “People,” which gets an extended jam section in the middle that should appeal to proggers, and Jimi Hendrix’ “Freedom.”]
Listening to her first two records, you had the sense that Joan Armatrading was someone special, but you didn’t know how special until you heard this album. Produced by Glyn Johns (The Who, etc.), Joan Armatrading is a quantum leap from her last. “Down To Zero,” “Love And Affection” and “Save Me” captured the peculiar beauty of her music in perfect detail. All of the songs on Joan Armatrading come from a place of strength, bolstered by a backing band that added the right amount of familiar rock, country and blues to Joan’s unconventional rhythms and unexpected melodies. The strings are also handled well here, which is always a delicate balance to strike. But the real star is Joan, from beginning to end. Her voice shimmers like a candle flame in the softer settings, a sense of humor emerges (“Water With The Wine,” “Tall In The Saddle”) and throughout Joan upends the traditional idea of the female songwriter with her unorthodox guitar playing (e.g., “Like Fire”) and musical muscle flexing (“Join The Boys,” “People”). Armatrading herself must have liked the results (I’m sure her label did), as Johns produced her next three albums as well (although, to be honest, only Show Some Emotion returned to the same plateau). If I were compiling a list of the greatest albums from the 70s (and I’m not), Joan Armatrading would make my Top 100 along with Court And Spark and Tea For The Tillerman. Joan has made albums that rock harder (Me Myself I) and include more high points (Walk Under Ladders), but I don’t believe she’s made a more powerful record. Here, subtle inflections and well-turned words are arrows, and Armatrading is a skilled archer who can find the human heart, even in the darkness.
Kronomyth 1.0: DUKE SKELETON. I first heard this music on Inner Space, a compilation that was easier to find than the original elpee, and it blew my mind. I was already a fan of Chick’s fusion phase at the time, but hadn’t been exposed to the post bop and avant-garde recordings of his early years. Hearing “Litha” and “Straight Up And Down” for the first time added a new dimension to my appreciation of Chick Corea. The lineup aligns with the contemporary quintets of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter: trumpet (Woody Shaw, Jr.), tenor sax (Joe Farrell), bass (Steve Swallow), drums (Joe Chambers) and piano (Corea). The opening “Litha” comes out swinging with Shaw and Farrell sharing the melody, then shifts gears for short runs before returning to the loping opening melody, while Chambers propels the piece with perfectly timed crashes and tumbles and Corea spars with the melody from a distance. “This Is New” almost completely eschews melody for form, Corea again (surprisingly) avoids throwing any big punches, and it’s Farrell who lands the big blow with a well-placed solo. Corea finally emerges from the background for the title track, a sentimental ballad with a lovely melody, featuring only a trio of piano, drums and bass. The closing “Straight Up And Down” comes spilling out in a rhythm that recalls Herbie Hancock at first, but quickly turns into a spirited chase with everyone joining in; hearing Swallow keep pace with Corea on this song is a hoot. As I said, having been exposed only to his later recordings, hearing Corea adopt a “less is more” aesthetic was a shock to me (albeit a pleasant one). Compositionally, Tones For Joan’s Bones is remarkably strong for a debut record, although Corea was in his mid 20s and already an established session player. Honestly, the elpee is worth hearing for the playing of Joe Chambers alone, but hearing Corea in a “normal” jazz setting is also worthwhile as it reveals just how unusual he was.
Another bass tour de force from Stanley Clarke, this time featuring an all-star lineup that looks like a jazz readers’ poll for the year’s best artists: Jeff Beck, Chick Corea, George Duke, Steve Gadd, John McLaughlin, David Sancious, Lenny White. Journey To Love basically returns to the same approach as his last album: throw down some contagious funk, slip in a smooth-as-satin vocal song, add some old school jazz and class things up with a modern classical composition. The new wrinkle here is the addition of Duke and Beck. Clarke found a sympathetic partner in Duke, the two meshing like finely tuned and funky gears on the opening “Silly Putty” and “Hello Jeff,” the latter turbocharged with the electric guitar of Jeff Beck. David Sancious and Steve Gadd are also inspired choices, with Sancious playing lead and rhythm with equal aplomb. Maybe it was the presence of Duke, but Clarke takes on more complex arrangements on this album. “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra,” for example, features a full brass section that recalls Frank Zappa’s horny exploits (e.g., The Grand Wazoo) and stiches together several different parts with precision and skill. Compared to the concerto, the Corea-Clarke collaboration, “Song to John” (dedicated to John Coltrane), is a snooze. I get where the first part sounds like the shimmering and slowly unfolding sound of John’s later music, but the second part just sounds like Chick noodling around, and John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar is a wet match that never lights. Still, it’s a minor complaint against a major work. Journey To Love continues to fill a special need for bass-driven jazz/rock. So few musicians were making (or were capable of making) music like this, and it’s easy to hear why many considered Clarke the instrument’s greatest champion. Together with his last and next albums, this represents a triumphant trio of jazz/rock that every bass aficionado (and plenty of pure music lovers) should own.
Kronomyth 1.0: WHEEL GOOD. If you enjoy the Garcia/Hunter compositions from this period, you’re in for a wheel treat. His first album (casually called The Wheel to distinguish it from his other eponymous album) features a handful of classic songs that have comfortably insinuated themselves into the Deadshow over the years: “Deal,” “Loser,” “Sugaree,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Bird Song.” Together with the complete contents of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they rank with some of the best songs to come from the Dead. Despite its strong resemblance to the Dead, this is a true solo project: Garcia plays everything but drums (provided by the brilliant, underrated Billy Kreutzmann). The Wheel is also notable for the extended sound collage on side two, which suggests a psychedelic amalgam of The Beatles (“Revolution No. 9”), Hooteroll? and Pink Floyd. The brief instrumental, “An Odd Little Place,” is just a postlude to the previous song, while the mellow, tuneful title track showcases Jerry’s pedal steel to good effect. Fans of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which I’m pretty sure is everyone) will find plenty of the same magic here. As songwriting partners, Garcia and Hunter had few peers. “Deal” and “Loser” use cards as a metaphor for life, “Bird Song” finds Hunter again beguiled by beauty, “To Lay Me Down” is a worthy candidate for the last-song-before-I-die list. Playing everything himself, Garcia doesn’t strike upon the same clever interplay as his bandmates (e.g., the bass guitar is pretty basic), but he does a remarkable job of approximating the feel of the Dead on his lonesome. In fact, The Wheel makes a compelling case that Garcia’s most sympathetic collaborator is himself.
Kronomyth 5.5: LAYERS OF AYERS. This album had been the source of speculation on my part for years as it represented such an unusual axis of talent. And no less a luminary than Dave Thompson has found in June 1, 1974 the nexus of art-rock royalty, or at least enough inspiration to write an entire book around it. On a superficial level, this is a live album featuring Kevin Ayers and his touring band at the time (The Soporifics) plus a constellation of stars who scored extremely high on the absurdity/profundity scale: Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Nico. (As if that weren’t enough, Mike Oldfield drops by for a lovely guitar solo on “Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Time Blues.”) Add to that a little bit of history (a rare and early glimpse of Eno on stage as a solo artist) and an unhealthy dose of drama (Cale had discovered Ayers sleeping with his wife the night before this performance), and you have the makings of a memorable evening. As to whether this represents a divinely orchestrated alignment of stars, well, not to me. Just the previous year, The Rainbow had hosted Eric Clapton’s return alongside members of The Who, Blind Faith, Traffic and The Faces. To your mainstream musical consumer, Ayers and his ad hoc freakshow must have seemed like amateur night by comparison. Of course, the two revues are worlds apart. The Clapton concert sought to recapture lost ground, while Ayers and his allies were writing a new rock manifesto. Eno handles the role of opening act surprisingly well; “Driving Me Backwards” comes off without a hitch and, though overdone, “Baby’s On Fire” does contain a scorching solo in the middle. Cale contributes what is handily the oddest version of “Heartbreak Hotel” you’ll ever hear, made all the richer by the personal context behind it. The first side ends, how else?, with a version of The Doors’ “The End” by Nico that delivers the goods as only Nico can. The second side of the elpee features a handful of tracks from Ayers that move adroitly from one to the other. The breezy “May I?” is a highlight; the performances suggest a cross between Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Bryan Ferry, with the caveat that Ayers is the prototype, not the copy. If June 1, 1974 isn’t as good as I expected, I expected a lot. My main knock on the album is that there isn’t more of it, and what there is of it (mostly Ayers) is what I was least interested in. A suitable appreciation of Ayers may come with time, however, so I reserve the right to gripe about too little Ayers layter.