Saturday, October 25, 2014

Jack Bruce (1943 - 2014)

When I woke up this morning, I never dreamed I'd be writing the above words today. I just heard that Jack Bruce, one of my favorite musicians, has passed away.  I discovered him through the band Cream in 1970,  about the time I really discovered rock music in general.  I loved his playing and singing on all the Cream albums but then I bought his first solo LP, Songs For A Tailor, and that became my entry point to an entire new world of British jazz-rock through investigating the musicians who backed him there, like Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith of Colosseum and Chris Spedding of Nucleus.

With his lyricist partner, poet Pete Brown, Bruce wrote a number of excellent songs over the years.  The best known, of course, were the Cream hits, "White Room" and "Sunshine Of Your Love" but others like "Rope Ladder To The Moon" and "Theme For An Imaginary Western" have been kept alive by various other musicians.  What I loved most about Bruce is that he was always willing to experiment. He would turn up in all sorts of situations,  usually with musicians who were as eager to explode boundaries as he was.  He was one of the lead vocalists on Carla Bley's epic concept album, Escalator Over The Hill, participated in many of the jazz-Latin-rock-funk stews cooked up by composer Kip Hanrahan, played with Frank Zappa in that brief period when FZ was making Top 10 records, and was one of the members of the pioneering jazz-rock band, The Tony Williams Lifetime.  His own records could explore blues, big band jazz and fusion or just be an excellent collection of rock songs. For all his experiments though, every few years he seemed to go back to the exhilarating format of a guitar, bass and drums trio jamming out alongside guitarists like Leslie West, Vernon Reid, Gary Moore and Robin Trower, which seemed to inevitably lead to getting back together with his Cream mates, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, to play reunion concerts in 2005. Just last year he was joining heavy hitters like Reid, John Medeski and Cindy Blackman-Santana in a Lifetime tribute band, Spectrum Road.

Bruce had an expressive voice that could croon romantically or bark with fury. His music was deep, fiery and magical.  I started looking around for clips of him to post and I was very surprised to see how many different contexts and bands he appeared in.  Then again, I shouldn't have been surprised at all. I apologize in advance for the quality of some of these clips, but a few are so rare I had to include them, no matter what.

First, "There's A Forest" from 1980. Jack's band is Clem Clempson on guitar, David L. Sancious on keyboards and Billy Cobham on drums.

This is Jack with one of Kip Hanrahan's overstuffed, rhythm-heavy ensembles live in 1985 at Washington, DC's 930 club.  I know this show well because, believe it or not, I was there. The other musicians include Andy Gonzalez on acoustic bass, Milton Cardona on percussion, Arto Lindsay and Steve Swallow on guitar and John Stubbefield on tenor sax. This video is in two parts.

Here's Jack on piano doing "Theme From An Imaginary Western".

And for something completely different, this is Jack singing the dark music of trumpeter-composer Michael Mantler, specifically a setting of the Edward Gorey story, "The Hapless Child":

At the 930 concert mentioned above, the band encored with a certain song Jack played many times back in his Cream days. In fact he probably played it thousands of times in his career with almost every group he played with.  Here it is in its most familiar form, performed by Bruce, Clapton and Baker at the 2005 Cream reunion concerts:

Jack Bruce, R.I.P.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ran Blake

It's probably safe to say that there is no other pianist in the jazz world who sounds quite like Ran Blake.  His music is all about atmosphere, a combination of melancholy, uncertainty and shadows that bears only passing resemblance to conventional jazz piano.

Blake was born in Springfield, MA in 1935 and began his musical career in the late 1950's in New York City.  In 1959 he met educator and composer Gunther Schuller who became his mentor and introduced him to the concept of Third Stream Music, a hybrid genre that draws equally from the worlds of jazz and classical music. Schuller helped get Blake a position teaching at the New England Conservatory and he eventually became the Chair of the Third Stream Department, a position he still holds though the school's name has changed to the Contemporary Improvisation Department. Blake has taught and influenced many musicians, like Don Byron and Matthew Shipp, in that capacity.

In addition to all this he has enjoyed a long performing and recording career playing music that draws from inspirations like European folk music, gospel, classical and film noir as well as classic jazz sources.  His playing is measured and deliberate, single, icy notes alternating with dissonant chords and rich bursts of melody.  This creates a musical universe of woozy darkness that creeps along with the dread of an Edgar Allan Poe short story.  Here is he working his magic on "Over The Rainbow".

Blake has always worked in small configurations, mostly solo or duo with saxophonists or vocalists though of late he has been working with a guitarist, David "Knife" Fabris.  In the sax world, he has worked with melodic, big-toned players who contrasted well with his sparse frameworks such as Clifford Jordan, Houston Person, Ricky Ford, Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton. The vocalists though have been his most memorable foils.  The sound of a haunting female voice singing against Blake's dissonant chords is mesmerizing.  Over the years he has worked with singers like Christine Correa, Dominique Eade, Sara Serpa and Chris Connor but his landmark statement came in 1962 when he recorded the album The Newest Sound Around with socialist Jeanne Lee.  Lee's husky, powerful voice was the perfect compliment to Blake and their work together still sounds like nothing else even after all these years.

This is a rare 1963 clip from French television of Lee and Blake performing "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.

And this is a more recent piano-voice pairing with the Portuguese-born Sara Serpa. The song is Blake's composition, "Vanguard".

Blake's repertoire over the years has come from everywhere, film themes, traditional gospel, folk songs and the Great American Songboook.  He has recorded full-length ttributes to George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Horace Silver and select compositions of jazz legends like George Russell, Stan Kenton and Ornette Coleman. He's also recorded many of his own pieces over the years, none more haunting than "The Short Life Of Barbara Monk".  During his early days in New York Blake hung around Thelonious Monk quite a bit to the point where he actually baby sat for his two children, Barbara and T.S.  Barbara died of breast cancer in 1983 aand afterwards, Blake wrote a composition based on a dream he had of her ice skating  as a child.  That piece sounds like a theme from a lost film noir, sweet and childlike but filled with an uncertain dread.  This version is from an album on the Soul Note label named after the piece. It's the only record I've ever seen where Blake recorded with a full quartet. Ricky Ford is the hard-nosed tenor saxophonist.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Julie (Driscoll) Tippetts

Julie Tippetts, jazz vocalist

A lot of musicians shift their approaches over their careers but Julie Tippetts changed her music far more than most.  In the 60's she was one of Britain's leading pop singers. In the decades since she's been one of the pillars of the British avant-jazz community.


Julie Driscoll, pop singer
Tippetts, one of my all-time favorite singers, started her musical career in 1963 under her maiden name, Julie Driscoll, and by 1965 she had joined Steampacket, an r'n'b band that included Long John Baldry and some guy named Rod Stewart as her co-vocalists and Brian Auger on organ.  When that group broke up she joined Auger's new trio, Brian Auger and the Trinity.  From the period 1967-1969 this group was very popular with Driscoll also working as a model and actress.  Driscoll was blessed with a voice unlike any other female pop singer of the period, a forceful siren wail indebted to Nina Simone and Bessie Smith.  Matched to Auger's wild, expressive organ the group had several big hits covering songs by major rock musicians of the time like Donovan ("Season of The Witch"), Bob Dylan, ("This Wheel's On Fire") and Richie Havens ("Indian Rope Man").  Here is a live TV performance from the band of David Ackles' "Road To Cairo" including a German host doing his best Dick Clark imitation.

In 1969 she left Auger to pursue a solo career but on her own she went in a different direction, leaving the pop songs behind for self-written material that merged folk with progressive jazz as shown on her solo records, 1971's 1969 and 1974's Sunset Glow. This is "Those That We Love" from 1969.

Travelling in these circles she met up with jazz pianist Keith Tippett and began to contribute both vocals and lyrics to his groups like the improvising quartet, Ovary Lodge, and the 50-piece jazz-rock orchestra, Centipede.

Eventually Driscoll and Tippett were married and as Julie Tippetts, the singer has continued to work in the jazz/improv field for the last 40 years, performing with her husband in various small and large groups as well as working with others like pianist-composer Carla Bley, saxophonist Martin Archer, fellow free vocalists Maggie Nicols and Phil Minton and the free improvisation group, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.  She's also made occasional returns to the rock world, a reunion album with Brian Auger in 1978 and a collaboration with Working Week, a politically progressive rock-soul-jazz band in 1984.  In 1992, she even re-recorded her old hit, "This Wheel's On Fire" as the theme song for the TV show Absolutely Fabulous.
Today she is recognized as a major figure in the European jazz world, her slinky, elastic voice immediately distinctive whether chirping over her husband's tinkling piano or blasting over a roaring big band.

This is a clip of the Tippetts performing in 2007 with saxophonist Paul Dunmall.  I apologize for the fuzzy visuals but this was the best clip I found to display the range and expressiveness of Julie's voice.

And this presents the Tippetts along with South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and an Italian big band, Canto General, performing an excerpt from the Centipede magnum opus, "Septober Energy".  Keith wrote the music and Julie wrote the lyrics. The soprano sax player duetting with Julie is Roberto Ottaviano.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Time Enough At Last

I've been keeping this blog going since 2007 and frankly, I've done a pretty half-hearted job of it to this point.  My major problem has been that my job sucked up the majority of my energy and time to the point where I was only sporadically focused enough to write anything of substance here.  The few times I was ambitious enough to try a series of posts I could never get it together to get very far.
At the end of August that excuse went away.  I retired from my job back then and now, as Rod Serling once put it, I have "time enough at last" (and hopefully my glasses won't break).

So what now? I've been thinking over the past few weeks about just what I want to do with this blog.  I want to continue what I've been trying to do in various forums for a long time,  tell the world about all the cool and fascinating artistic things out there that fly under most people's radar.  I plan to keep writing about whatever interesting music, films, and TV shows I come across but more regularly and in depth than I've been doing,  no more just throwing up YouTube videos like I was doing a few years ago.

My main love is music so that's what I plan to concentrate on.  I want to write about people from every genre I know, not just jazz and deal with what I know and love about their work.  There will be the occasional movie and TV show mentioned but I won't be trying to write about every one I see. I honestly don't have that strong an opinion about some of them.  For the record though here are all the significant ones I've seen in theaters, on Netflix and from other sources since Nymphomaniac Part 1 back in April:  Under The Skin, Locke, The Romantic Englishwoman, The Past, I Want To Go Home, The Hurt Locker, Make Way For Tomorrow, Juan Of The Dead, Scarlet Street, Snowpiercer, Barry Lyndon, The Hunt, Raw Deal (1948), Tokyo Decadence, Proof (1991),  Wish Me Away, Concussion, A Most Wanted Man, The King's Speech, Glenda (AKA Snake Dancer), Calvary, The Tall Target, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, The Big Combo, Heat Lightning, Sexual Chronicles Of A French Family, On Approval, The Drop, Frances Ha, Compulsion (2013).

To go along with the rebirth of this blog, I've decided to give the look a major overhaul.  You should now be seeing a complete redecoration with new colors, pictures and even a new title.  Since I'm now going to explain everything I talk about I'll start there. "The Real Folk Blues" is the closing title theme to the celebrated Japanese anime series, Cowboy Bebop, a noir-science fiction-comedy-drama blend with an amazing and varied Miami Vice like rock and jazz score by composer Yoko Kanno.  The phrase "real folk blues" actually comes from a series of albums Chess Records did in the 60's that repackaged the early recordings of their top blues artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf for a white college audience clamoring for authentic folk music.  Beyond all that, the Bebop song is a stone killer.  Here it is...