Friday, March 25, 2016

Dawg Day Afternoon

All right, welcome to the Friday Funeral. This one hits close to home: the first person I've had to tribute that's passed away younger than I am right now.
Wednesday one of the founders of maybe one of the ten greatest hip-hop acts ever passed away after a lifelong battle with complications from diabetes. His name was Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg. The group was A Tribe Called Quest, and from 1990-96 they helped to invent the modern genre as we take it for granted today.
There wasn't anything close back then.... I know because I was there. As a part of one of the pre-eminent college radio stations in the US, we got all these records before they came out, and those first and second Tribe jams from 1990/91 were never far from the playlist.
It was pretty magical back in the Golden Age (I call it 1987-92), when the art form was being refined and its edifice was being laid back then. Groups like Public Enemy, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, X-Clan, EPMD and ATCQ took the medium from its beginning years and matured it, and when you put one of those records on you got the impression you were listening to the cutting edge of something new and extremely powerful.
The advent of the Akai S-1000 sampler in around 1988 really changed what was possible and these bands didn't hold back. They took the early-1980s rap cornerstones like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataaa and The Furious Five, filtered it through the breakthrough commercial sounds of the mid-Eighties (Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the like) and massively diversified the possibilities in both subject matter and soundscape.
You'd trip into NYC on a Friday night and DJ Red Alert on WBLX would pump 5 hours of the very finest into the car. There were many nights when you wouldn't make it out of the vehicle and to where you were trying to go, because the music wouldn't let you leave. In many ways, this was and could be the last era of innovation in pop music. Everything since is just not up to the standard those years and times set. Not close.
A Tribe Called Quest may have been the best of them all. This is where the Jazz samples really jumped off in hip-hop -- that's de rigeur now, but it certainly wasn't in 1989. They might be the only hip-hop act ever to have Jazz contrabass legend Ron Carter sit in with them... for an entire record.
But back to Phife, without whom ATCQ's flow would have just been Q-Tip's astrally travelling journeys into esoteric rhymes-n-references. Someone once said that without Phife in there, they would have been on Pluto, but he took them back to the Moon and therefore within Earth's range of hearing. This is impossible to disagree with, and having his Earth contrasted with Tip's space is truly one of the most perfect combinations ever witnessed in the genre.
The guy suffered with diabetes for his whole 45 years, but truth be told if you're only gonna live to be that age you may as well pack it with a great and world-altering life, as the man certainly did. Those records form a kind of basis of something and point in a million different creative directions and they will be played in 1000 years.
To tribute this guy, gone too soon but leaving a huge mark, please paste your eyes and ears to what for all intents and purposes may be the last song ever performed by A Tribe Called Quest, on The Tonight Show alongside The Roots, a week shy of Phife's last birthday last Fall. This is an HD mkv file straight from the NBC site.
A Tribe Called Quest
The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon
NBC Studios
New York City, NY
01 Can I Kick It? (with The Roots)

Total time: 5:11

Ali Shaheed Muhammad - beats
Q-Tip - rhymes
Phife Dawg - life
Jarobi White - additional beats + rhymes + life
The Roots:
Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter - vocals
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson - drums
Kamal Gray - keyboards, vocals
Frank "Knuckles" Walker - percussion, vocals
"Captain" Kirk Douglas - guitar, vocals
Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson - Sousaphone
James Poyser - keyboards, vocals
Mark Kelley - bass, vocals
Ian Hendrickson-Smith - saxophone
David Guy - saxophone

HD 1080p mkv file, straight from NBC-TV stream
A lot of folks of my age bracket are really bummed out that this has happened, so for them and any others I'd say the thing to do is to pull it down and remember what makes this group one of the best to have ever done it. And, of course, Rest In Peace Malik Taylor, the Phife Dawg. Keep it going, and the creators never die... it is in this way that we play the resurrector, and give the dead some life.--J.
11.20.1970 - 3.22.2016

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Détournement of Champions

OK, it looks like Blogger has straightened out a bit of yesterday's mayhem which rendered it about as useful as a tin can and a frayed piece of Silly String, so I can attempt this birthday post about one of my favorite musos. The videos don't seem to load anymore, but no one ever watched them anyway. Tomorrow we'll get back to the usual menu of grief and death, but for now let's do this!
Pick up the phone! It's the 78th Earthiversary of the founder of Can, themselves one of the ten most influential rock bands ever to pick up instruments. Way back when (1968 to be exact) he was their prime motivator. His name is Holger Czukay, and he was born this day in 1938, the same year as my dad.
This cat is deeply ingrained in all music, regardless if you know Can or his subsequent solo records or his collaborations with everybody from Jah Wobble to your mom. Wanna know why? The crazy looking dude in the pictures is, as much as any single figure in modern music, responsible for the idea we now know as sampling.
Because as far as I can tell, it was Holger Czukay who first stumbled upon the concept of utilizing existing, recorded musical material, on records, as the basis or jump-off point to new, largely unrelated compositions. The concept of stealing or borrowing elements of one art form to illustrate or enable another was begun in the 1940s and 1950s by Guy Debord's Paris Situationists -- they called it détournement -- but it didn't infect music until folks like Czukay and other mad scientists of the recording studio caused the initial outbreak.
Of course people like John Cage -- now there's a blog post for another time, or maybe he needs his own blog dedicated solely to him -- surely must have started the ball rolling on the airwave sounds, but it was Holger who started tuning it in live during Can's concerts, overlaying the ongoing music with whatever was on East German radio that evening. Really Holger Czukay is as responsible as any one person for the advent of the technique in Rock music, owing in particular to one track.
Because it was one composition in particular, taking up one whole side of an LP, that you could say got the ball rolling on the whole idea that you could take one record and make it into another. This was done in 1968 and overlaid the field-recorded sound -- taken from a Folkways LP, I believe -- of an indigenous folksinger going upriver in Viet Nam, singing her plaintive refrain. Czukay looped this woman's voice and set it to a floating, dreamily rhythmic background that evolved over the course of 17 Ambient-pioneering minutes, and both the remix and the sample loop were born!
Of course, he was just getting started on the whole "blow the minds of every musician and artist on the planet" thing... merely days after Boat-Woman Song was in the can, he had begun to form Can, probably the first group to have their very own recording studio, dubbed Inner Space and located in a disused Köln cinema.
He served as the bass player and main conceptualist of that most seminal, implacably experimental band from 1968-77, gradually integrating the extraneous radio and sampled material into the group's performances until he rotated exclusively to that area and another bassist -- Rosko Gee from British proggers Traffic -- took over the low end of Can.
After one more LP with them he split, and made his own way on a solo career among the most eclectic and visionary of the last 40 years. Outside of one Can reunion -- featuring original, manic American singer Malcolm Mooney -- in 1989, he's been doing that ever since.
This is a rare sort of guy; truly one of the underappreciated heroes of the development of the music we all love, regardless of whether we know Krautrock from crack rock. So to honor the man on his big day I have come up with a truly undercirculated gem from the glory days of the ORTF-TV program POP2, which was the main Rock music show in France at the start of the 1970s. This is a PAL DVD of the station master tape, featuring a half hour of Can -- and towering vocalist Damo Suzuki -- in full flight. This was recorded 43 years ago this week and the full performance is completely unissued and badass.
Paris, France

01 Improvisation 1
02 interview 1
03 Improvisation 2
04 interview 2
05 Sing Swan Song + Improvisation 3

Total time: 26:17

Holger Czukay - bass
Michael Karoli - guitar
Damo Suzuki - vocals
Irmin Schmidt - keyboards
Jaki Leibezeit - drums

PAL DVD from ORTF master tapes
Any of you who are into Can will recognize the clip of Sing Swan Song that closes the set, which always seems to get featured when you watch a documentary on German Rock or whatever. Anyway I will return tomorrow with the weekly obituary, but today you should pull this puppy down and celebrate both Can -- as tremendous a group as ever was -- and birthday boy Holger Czukay, who has spent a lifetime at the bleeding edge of everything so's that you could enjoy -- or even better, create -- that remix all full of sampled sounds.--J.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Blake Babies: Mike Westbrook at 80

All right, welcome to Monday! It's World Poetry Day, and it's also a milestone birthday for a milestone bandleader, notable for his musical settings of legendary poems. So it appears we have ourselves a confluence!
The Silver Fox in the picture is Mike Westbrook. If you're not a British Jazz cultist like I am, you likely have never heard of him. That's too bad, but it's never too late.
He's been at the forefront of UK Jazz since the mid-1960s and this year celebrates his 50th anniversary of recording as a leader. Perhaps his hallmark, signature project, since the early 1970s, has been the setting of the writings of the seminal English romantic poet William Blake to his particular brand of sonorous, sweeping and occasionally extremely funky Big Band Jazz.
He initiated the Blake project in the 1970s and it at first culminated with the 1980 LP Bright As Fire: The Westbrook Blake, one of my all-time favorite recordings by anyone ever. In subsequent years the idea hit such a popular nerve around the world that he expanded and re-recorded it in 1997, touring to sold out houses with it in 1997 and 1998.
There had been a smaller tour around the original LP, but no recording of it had ever circulated until recently, when Kulturradio in Europe rebroadcast, via digital stream, a full performance of the entire suite recorded for WDR radio at the Berliner Jazztage in 1980. In other words, what Blake might have termed A Grail of Albion.
Like I said I adore this record and this idea, and this tape is as gorgeous a rendering of it as surely can exist, so in honor of this impeccable Maestro's 80th birthday today, it is this recording -- slightly cleaned up by me -- that I bring you today.
Mike Westbrook & the Westbrook Blake
Berliner Jazztage
Berlin, Germany

01 announcement by Michael Naura
02 Glad Day
03 London Song
04 Let the Slave
05 Poison Tree
06 Cradle Song
07 Holy Thursday
08 The Fields
09 I See the Form
10 9 July 1979

Total time: 1:09:21

Mike Westbrook - piano, tuba
Phil Minton - trumpet, vocals
Malcolm Griffiths - trombone
Kate Westbrook - tenor-horn, piccolo, vocals
Alan Wakeman - tenor & soprano saxophones, flute
Chris Biscoe - alto & soprano saxophones, alto clarinet
Brian Godding - guitar
Georgie Born - cello
Steve Cook - bass
Dave Barry - drums
lyrics by William Blake

digital capture of Kulturradio stream, cleaned up slightly by me
This will fill your Monday mind with mellifluousness, trust me.... it also funks hard for a good deal of the time. Pull it down and familiarize, if you're not already, with what makes Mike Westbrook one of my favorite musicians ever, and puts these William Blake-themed records among my Desert Island Discs. And of course we wish him another 80 years of life as musically generous and exploratory as the first 80 have been. Happy Birthday to him, and Happy Poetry Day!--J.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Keith Boards

Welcome to the weekend! Or should I say the wake? Another post, another tribute.
I admit it, this one is a real bumtastic one. Anyone who's read this page more than once knows I am a Prog enthusiast, who watches TV in 14/8 and cooks dinner in 21/4 time. Yesterday we lost one of the cornerstones of that universe and I can't say it feels good to have to write about it.
It was all so very different in 1970, wasn't it? Today, no one would dare. To take arrangements of classical pieces and turn them into galloping Rock workouts is not something anyone would dare even think of doing now. It might be the least likely thing possible these days, that someone would metamorphose Tchaikovsky or Bernstein into backbeat driven dance numbers. Back then, it was the cutting edge.
Back then, the synthesizers were monophonic too, so to get them happening in a live setting to be able to play the material wasn't exactly the easiest, most straightforward project either. One look at all of those wires tells you it wasn't as simple as plug, play and autotune away the mistakes later whilst smoking the good stuff.
You can say whatever you want about Progressive Rock; let me see you get up on a stage and play it, big mouth. Someone was practicing their craft whilst you were trifling about trying to look cool, I'm afraid. They just don't make 'em like Keith Emerson anymore, who died at 71 of a single gunshot wound to the head on Thursday morning because a degenerative nerve condition rendered him unable to play the piano and he'd become deeply depressed. It's amazing that they ever did.
People laugh at ELP, and believe me I understand why. Perhaps no other group of the time earned the dreaded P word for what they did more than those three dudes. But it's easy to throw around "pretentious" and "overblown," and ol' Lester Bangs made sure he put those words in your mouth just before drinking himself to death.
It's far closer to the truth to say that Emerson, Lake & Palmer entertained tens of millions of people the world over, and doubtlessly introduced tremendous composers like Alberto Ginastera and Aaron Copland to a mass, non-Classical audience. What did Sid Vicious introduce? A nihilistic pose of sneering, dismissive idiocy? Spitting on the audience like a pig? I think the world already had plenty of that before he came along.
Of course I can appreciate the Punk vs. Prog thing, and you've seen several Clash posts from me before this, the first ELP one. But that's irrelevant as of these last decades, where the classic '70s Prog has been rehabilitated and appreciated by many of its former detractors as one of the most creatively fertile periods in human music history. Heck, even Bob Geldof is on record as having Dark Side of the Moon as one of his five greatest records ever made. 
In 1000 years, the section of Karn Evil 9 where Greg Lake welcomes back his friends to the show that never ends will be marveled at by people wondering precisely what kind of substances folks had to have been on to produce bizarre, sidelong suites about future dystopic entertainment environments, with accompanying artwork by H.R. Giger.
Did I mention Keith had a Moog chainsaw device? Everyone needs one of those. He also scored a whole passel of awesome films like Nighthawks with Sly Stallone. Say farewell to one of the most fun and technologically innovative keyboard wizards of our lifetimes, folks. Anytime you hear an EDM track with an arpeggiated sequencer or a choir of sampled voices (or chainsaws) coming out of a piano-looking device, you have people like Keith Emerson -- who got the ball rolling when the shit was first jumping off -- to thank.
To honor this Maestro of the 88s in all their forms and manifestations electronic and otherwise, let's put up an hour of pristine footage of the mighty ELP, when they were beginning to take over the world at the time of their very first record. Here comes a PAL DVD, sourced from a bootleg of the Swiss TV masters, of the lads performing most of it on the tube in Zurich at the end of 1970.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Zurich, Switzerland

01 Start/Intro
02 The Barbarian
03 Rondo/Bach Improvisations
04 drum solo
05 Nutrocker
06 Take a Pebble
07 Knife Edge

Total time: 57:40

Keith Emerson - keyboards
Greg Lake - guitars, bass & vocals
Carl Palmer - drums & percussion

unofficial PAL DVD "Rare Broadcasts," likely of Swiss TV master tapes
Don't worry, this hour contains all the organ-knifing, rig-flipping mayhem Keith was famous for, all up close and personal. They even take a stab (yes, a stab) at Rondo from the repertoire of Keith's previous and beloved band, The Nice. Anyway this is a good way to remember the man, at the prime and peak of his powers, busting out the classics on an unsuspecting Swiss audience back in the day. Pull it down, fire it up, and I'll be right here with the Second Line Procession when the next shoe drops on a lifetime well spent delivering us humans the vibrational goods.--J.
11.2.1944 - 3.10.2016

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Fifth, Taken

Hey there, it's me again, The Grim Blogger. My scythe is a keyboard and I have come to take you away from all of.... this.
Ninety is a nice, round number for a lifetime, you know? Especially when that lifetime was you showing the whole world what it means to be the very best at something. When that "something" happens to be being the mastermind behind the desk for when the Beatles recorded Something -- and every one of their other tunes on all but one LP -- well, that's when my mighty scythe comes out from its sheath to writ large upon the land your accomplishments.
He almost didn't bother with them, you know. Legend has it that when Brian Epstein brought them to him, the estimable producer thought they'd be a one-and-done flop act. Only when the younger George started heartily making fun of the elder George's tie did he decide he liked their cheeky humor enough to give them a look. He thought the two singers had a nice style, but he certainly did not foresee what happened subsequently. Who could have? It doesn't matter, because once he connected to them, the Vibrational Frequency of Earth was shifted for the better.
Another, less exploratory guy might have told them "Don't touch that!" when they put their hands on the knobs. He didn't. He encouraged them and provided them the guidance without which we might never have known their names. The truth is, every time you hear a studio-manipulated track, you hear George Martin. Every time you hear all the technological innovations that have come to the recording studio in the 54 years since Love Me Do -- yes, even Autotune -- you hear George Martin. When he took the risk on those four young men, he opened the Pandora's Box that became a great deal, culturally speaking, of the world we live in today.
And it wasn't just his most famous protégés, either.... he wasn't just your standard-issue Fifth Beatle. This man produced a hundred zillion classic records from The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Apocalypse to Jeff Beck to Jimmy Webb to Cheap Trick to the Say Say Say and Ebony & Ivory duets Paul McCartney did with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, respectively. 
Were I to list every hit record and seminal, groundbreaking LP he worked on across a career spanning the better part of seven decades, I'd be writing this post long into tonight. Maybe even tomorrow. He wrote the theme for BBC's Radio One ("Theme One," covered most egregiously by Prog nutbags Van Der Graaf Generator), presumably because they figured every record we play came from him anyway, so why not give him the theme too?
Speaking of giving, how's about a weird share to mark the passing of this Maestro of the Mixing Desk? This LP has never once been reissued since 1970, but I have a tasty transfer of it lurking just a few pixels south for your absorption and edification. George made several records with his Orchestra in the 1960s, featuring heavily arranged and studio-tweaked versions of the radio tunes of the day like Whiter Shade of Pale. This is the foremost of those LPs, which first hit the racks in 1968 and, like I said, hasn't been seen or heard of much since.
George Martin and His Orchestra
London, By George 
(aka British Maid)

01 Winchester Cathedral    
02 Whiter Shade of Pale    
03 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band    
04 To Sir, with Love    
05 Alfie    
06 Theme One    
07 Hole In My Shoe    
08 I Am the Walrus    
09 Itchycoo Park    
10 Elephants and Castles    
11 King's Road Raspberry Parade    
12 Frost Over London

Total time: 34:33

original 1968 vinyl, transferred by its owner under pristine conditions
I just got word that another of my favorite musicians has passed away, so it looks like The Grim Blogger's work is never done. I shall return shortly with yet more tributes to the fallen, but for now please remember to remember Sir George Martin, the man a whole lotta folks refer to as the single most important record producer in the history of the human species.--J.
1.3.1926 - 3.8.2016