- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 13 March 2013
Duke Ellington "Ellington At Newport" Mobile Fidelity
Perhaps no record is as representative of what Ellington and his Band could do live as Ellington At Newport. Here, a little historical perspective is helpful. This recording was made in 1956, well after the band's initial heyday. In fact, Ellington was working without a recording contract at the time. (It's funny what time will do. Ellington Uptown was recorded in what was considered a down time for the Duke too. To me, there's simply nothing down about it.) Jazz festivals were in their infancy (Newport had begun only two years prior), and it goes without saying that this was not a time of racial unity around these parts. Ellington was paying his band out of his own royalties and taking whatever gigs he could get abroad to keep some checks coming in. Then, Newport '56 happened. And the game changed again.
The most famous aspect of this recording is the sax solo that damn near caused a riot. Aforementioned racial tensions and all, a hot blonde got up and started dancing around like her ass was on fire to this American music born of the Black experience and mixed with a worldview acquired from years traveling the globe. When I say "solo," I mean that Paul Gonsalves played for 27 straight choruses. The blonde got up, started to get a little nuts. This inspired others to do the same. At this point the crowd becomes audible in the recording. The tension builds until you think something's about to burst. And things were bursting. Barricades, cops' patience, festival organizers' eyeballs. It became a situation where the cops wanted Ellington to stop playing, but Ellington thought that would do more harm than good. By this time, 7,000 rich people were writhing around like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. They'd just gotten started and pulling the plug may have pushed them over the edge. Of course, that didn't happen. As the liner notes point out, this was no Rock and Roll crowd. Sanity saved the day and brought everyone back together long enough to enjoy the rest of the show and get out with no further incident. It's almost comical to think of this as a rowdy event when we've had so much raunch and circumstance to point to throughout the intervening years. But it must have been a dicey few minutes for everyone in '56. It must have gotten hot for a second. This performance would garner headlines and revitalize Ellington's career. Permanently. This three song set makes up one of the most celebrated Jazz records ever, and I'd been waiting for someone to do it right for a while. I have an old Columbia "six eye" version that plays well enough, but there's a bit of crackle and surface noise throughout.
It goes without saying that this is not an issue with MoFi's version. This is not one of their "Original Master Recordings." This is from their "Silver Label" series which means that they used the earliest source they could find and put it on a pedestrian weight platter. Right away, I found that the sound was much clearer and much more "up front" than on my Columbia version. Sometimes, MoFi's level of clarity is almost disconcerting for some recordings (Life's Rich Pageant comes to mind). But it works here. It's not too clean at all. Maybe that just wasn't a possibility given the nature of live recordings in the 1950's. The nature of this recording is smoking and, if you're looking to get into Duke Ellington, I think Uptown and Newport make for a fine entry point taken together. Not bad for a "down period" in the Duke's career.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra "Ellington Uptown" Pure Pleasure Records
I'd always suspected that Duke Ellington was the coolest man to ever walk on two legs. I started reading up on him a while back and it turns out that my suspicions were true. To learn about where he came from, where he wound up, and how he got there is a lesson in American history, basically. Of course, the story would have less gravitas if the body of work were just ordinary. It isn't. The problem is, and it's a nice problem to have, that none of my Duke records are "ordinary" Duke records. At least, not the way I think of it. I have his take on The Nutcracker Suite for Christmas listening. Piano In The Foreground is great for studying his playing technique in front of a trio, but it's not really what you think of first when you think of The Duke. Money Jungle is a phenomenal record, but it belongs as much to Max Roach and Mingus as it does Duke Ellington. I have a couple more that are predictably great, but not quite representative of the sound that drew me in to begin with. That's why we have Ellington Uptown. This is the one I've been looking for. I'd had my eye on it for a couple of years, and finally dove in. The fact that it took me so long is a testament to the amount of high-quality Ellington material available on the vinyl market these days. The fact that it's so great is a testament to The Duke and his talent as a player, arranger, and director.
"Skin Deep" kicks things into high gear from the jump, and it is quite a jumpin' number. The entire record plays like a live performance and you've got to start the show strong. "Skin Deep" is full of rumbling drums and swells and builds and resolutions. You can almost hear Cab Calloway singing over "The Mooche," but this version is vocal free. I'm not sure if there's a connection between this one and Calloway's more famous "Minnie the Moocher," but the two songs share a similar mood and presentation which may have been specific to the time. "Take the 'A' Train" finishes off side one in fine form as one of Ellington's most well known numbers. The liners suggest that this is a later version that is somewhat removed from the original. Again, I'm not familiar enough with the material to make comparisons, but the song on Uptown takes you straight into a subterranean Harlem jazz club complete with smoke, suits, feathers, and sequins. And dancing, naturally. "A Tone Parallel To Harlem" sounds like the soundtrack to a Felix the Cat cartoon. It contains an instrumental narrative that you can almost follow from exposition through to denouement with all of the drama you can handle in between. "Perdido" finishes this set off as quickly as it began. I haven't timed it, but this one feels like it comes in under 35 minutes. The quality exceeds the quantity which is always as it should be.
The folks at Pure Pleasure knocked one out of the park with this one. They couldn't have done better without building a time capsule and taking you straight back to the source. The heavy disc is perfectly silent with the band spread out luxuriously across the soundstage. It feels like listening to old 78's without all the crackle and noise. I can't recommend it enough for both clarity and content.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Father John Misty "Fear Fun" Sub Pop
The music that I'm most interested in is obsolete on a mainstream level. That is Rock and Roll. The "Rock" music that is popular now has no Roll to be found anywhere near it. I was having a discussion with some coworkers recently wherein I mentioned the Beatles. That was met with, "Yeah, but who really listens to the Beatles? When I wanna listen to some music, I'll listen to some House music or Hip-Hop." Had I not been there, the Beatles would have not lost by percentage points, they'd have lost by consensus. No one was on my side. And I wasn't working with middle schoolers. This was an insurance job. Even music that involves real instruments is made with some sort of angle now. Yippy, reverb saturated vocals are en vogue along with affected drum sounds, bells, whistles, and all the rest of it. All of these are in evidence on Father John Misty's Fear Fun. It's been out since last year and it was named to tons of "Best Of" lists. Patterson Hood gave it his nod for Record of the Year. I tend to listen when he speaks because he's one of the more popular purveyors of Rock and Roll out there. Both of them. Together.
And there's some of that on Fear Fun. "I'm Writing A Novel," for instance. It involves a barrelhouse piano and a vox organ, electric guitar, the whole nine yards. Levon would be proud of this one. And Father John (Josh Tillman if you prefer) can sing 'em too. I detect a Jim James influence, but it sounds like he came by it honestly. Maybe it's not so much an influence. Maybe Ol' Jim opened the door for folks to accept what Father John has been doing all along. Maybe we would have anyway. I hope so because this really is a pretty happening record. Ask around. The word is out. Even I'd caught wind of it a while back, but I hesitated because I'd heard that there was some sort of Fleet Foxes affiliation. Turns out Father John signed on as their drummer for a few years, then bailed after a tour of Japan so he shouldn't have to shoulder too much of the blame for... all that. We all won when he decided to do his own thing instead. I'm not one for quoting lyrics, we have Facebook posts for that, but if I were, I might start with Father John's. This man has a gift. Wikipedia told me that he wrote a bunch of this record after a mushroom fueled drive in his van down the West Coast. Sounds about right. Says it helped him find his true narrative voice. He'd released other records under a different name, but changed it up entirely for Fear Fun. Whatever it takes, that's what I say. This one's not for folks in the insurance business, but it's for me. I'm gonna be living with this one for a while. It's worth reviewing. You'll see.
Just like Jim James' latest, this is a single record in a sturdy gatefold package. I like single records. Most are doubles these days, but I still get off on a quick, 40 minute work that states its case, then ends. It comes with a download coupon so you can spread it around. Get started. They're not making them much like this these days. Father John is on to something big. You'll see.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Jim James "Regions Of Light And Sound Of God" ATO/Removador
Ol' Yim Yames is at it again, folks. Except he's not Yim anymore, he's back to being Jim. And he hasn't released Regions Of Light And Sound Of God as a member of My Morning Jacket, he's gone solo. Word is that he's had this record in the can for over a year, but held back the release for whatever reason. Presumably to avoid conflicting with his day job as baddest front man on the planet. That's a gig that'll keep you hoppin', and we all know Ol' Jim has hops. And slides, and spins, and screams. But that's not what's going on right this second. Right now, Ol' Jim is exercising his dreamscape muscle. Ol' Jim is right where he wants to be, I guess.
Despite being pegged as one of the 20 New Guitar Gods by a certain corporate music rag a few years back, James seems to have retired that vibe for a minute. Regions is more in line with his contributions to last year's New Multitudes with Jay Farrar and the gang. That is to say, screaming guitar solos are conspicuous by their absence. In fact, the only fuzz toned guitar that I can remember hearing on Regions is during "Actress," and it serves more as a binder than an accessory. But the electronic sounds that My Morning Jacket began incorporating into their sound around Z time are painted all over the Regions record. "State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)" kicks things off in a spooky mood with lots of that Jim James trademark reverb, and full stop trickery towards the end. I love the part about "I really mean it, the power's going out." Then, the whole sound stops hard before the band comes right back in to repeat the motif. Except that it's not really a band at all. James handles all of the instruments on Regions except for drums and percussion and the live strings section. His piano playing, on this record anyway, is not very nuanced. It's serviceable though, and fits well within the context of the songs. Speaking of context: the record is alleged to have been loosely based on a graphic novel from 1929 called God's Man. I'm thinking it must have been very loosely based on it because a little research shows that the book involves a painter who unwittingly sells his soul to El Diablo. Sort of. I did my best to read the handwritten lyrical insert, but couldn't discern much of a narrative thread. Not a very linear one, at least. But I'd expect that from Ol' Jim about like I'd expect the Curtis Mayfield vibe that I get from "Know Til Now." James is touring behind this one and I've already gotten my ticket for the Fillmore show that seems like it's light years away. It'll be fun to see how he recreates the sounds live and who he uses to do it. Will he find a way to incorporate the running knee slides with the Flying V held aloft? We'll find out come May. Until then, I'll study Regions pretty closely. It's a fun listen.
James put this one out as a joint venture between his band's label, ATO, and his own label, Removador. It's a single heavy, quiet disc in a gatefold with a download coupon. Lots of deep bass in these grooves. There's clarity despite the clutter and the water's warm enough for us all. Jump in. This'll get us through to the next rock record. Until then...
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Mike Cooley "The Fool On Every Corner" Cooley Records
I'd been waiting for this one. A long time. It's tough to say which is my favorite Drive-By Trucker because each of their songwriters has always brought such diverse dishes to the table. But Mike Cooley is right up there. I love his songs, his guitar playing, and his humor. That last one is key. I can't stand joke rock or gimmicky stage antics (Phish, I'm looking at you). But I like a clever lyrical turn, and Cooley's full of them. Famous for them, if you will. Which brings us to The Fool On Every Corner. It's comprised mostly of his staples from the DBT catalog along with a new original and a cover for good measure. It was recorded live in Georgia with just Cooley's vocals and banjo/guitar picking to carry the day. Consider the day carried.
The blessing and the curse of Cooley's tunes is that they're so singable. His lyrics stay with you after first listen and they stick with everyone else after first listen too. That means that the drunk guy standing next to you at the show is going to sing along loudly and he's gonna know every word and he's going to put his own slant on the presentation. Well, the drunk guy made it onto the record this time. Mostly, it adds character to the recordings. Occasionally, it adds annoyance ("Marry Me"). I was fortunate enough to catch Cooley live in the Mission earlier this week, before I'd heard the record. He played all of my favorites, lots of which did not make it onto this album. He played fingerstyle the whole night and that certainly did make it onto the record. As a matter of personal preference, I'd like to hear him cut loose and do some strumming on a couple of these. Of course, I'd also like to be able to pick a guitar with Cooley's dexterity, but I can't. I can only strum it. To each his own. Lots of these songs have been completely reworked. You can hardly recognize "3 Dimes Down" or "Where The Devil Don't Stay" at first, but the payoff is large when you do. Dylan would be proud. Some omissions seem glaring here, but that's what happens when you have a catalog of great songs the size of Cooley's. Maybe you just don't get a good take on the night that the tape is rolling. Maybe you're just burnt on some of the songs you've been wrestling with for however long. Maybe you're the one making the solo record and you get to choose whatever songs you damn well please to put on it. Regardless, The Fool On Every Corner is a good time live acoustic record, and I'm excited to have it. If you like Cooley's songs, you'll be excited to have it too. If you don't, I don't know what's wrong with you.
This record wouldn't make it in the audiophile world due to the audience noise, but it's a fun listen and the vinyl presentation is well done. It's a little cloudy visually, but mostly silent where it should be. It comes with a download coupon and the heavy disc is kept in a high quality inner sleeve that won't need replacing. To clarify, the audience noise is not at all overwhelming and is most noticeable where it should be - between songs. And there are tons of tunes left over. With a little luck, we'll get another batch sent our way soon. Until then, I'm a Fool for this one.