Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yes: Symphonic Live (2001/2009)

This is a document of Yes's 2001 tour, in support of Magnification. It was recorded 11/22/01 in Amsterdam. A video of the show was released in 2002, and some of the tracks from the soundtrack were released on various limited edition discs over the years. The full show finally made it into mass release this past spring. I just picked it up.

The reality of this round of Yessing was that they'd cast second guitarist/ keyboardist/ co-songwriter/ unsung hero Billy Sherwood loose early in 2000, and fired main keyboardist Igor Khoroshev late in 2000. This left the ancients Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, and Alan White without a keyboardist, but with a feeling that three and a half studio albums in five years, plus four straight years of touring, had given them some long-needed career momentum that shouldn't be squandered. Since they had already gone through every keyboard player in the known universe, some of them twice, none of whom would speak to them again, they had no choice but to do something else. They hired a film composer to write orchestral arrangements for their new songs, and put out an album, Magnification, where the orchestra (mostly) filled the keyboard slot. Then they took it out on tour.

That, near as I can tell, was the reality. The official story was that Yes fans had been clamoring for decades to see the band play with a symphony orchestra. They actually said this in some press release somewhere - I read it in a number of articles at the time. This, despite the fact that histories of the band had all agreed that the one time they'd done this before, with 1970's Time And A Word, the results had hardly been an unalloyed success. But, no matter. Can't fault the band for trying to sell tickets, can you?

But see: the proof that the band knew full well fans hadn't been waiting for thirty years for a symphonic Yes was that the 2001 tour featured not a single song from Time And A Word. In fact, the tour only featured three or four songs from the new album. Mostly it was the same stuff they'd been playing for the last four years.

More proof: they hired a keyboard player. They found someone willing to work with them, to play a prominent part in the music and then allow his name to be buried in the credits. A young New Jerseyan named Tom Brislin. They used him, then let him go the minute Rick Wakeman woke up.

Do I sound cynical? Well, perhaps I am. But I'll admit to liking Magnification a great deal. The frustrating thing about Yes is that no matter how ugly the circumstances behind one of their studio albums, I almost always find the music sufficient to redeem them.

Tours, live albums, are another matter, and it's Symphonic Live we're here to discuss.

I have limited use for Yes live albums. I have every one of them - I'm a fully paid-up member of Yes fandom - but rarely spin most of them.

Live albums can either offer good listening in their own right, or function as a sort of souvenir, allowing fans to relive a moment in a band's history. Occasionally live albums can do both. So far, most of Yes's live albums do neither very well.

Why? On count one, musical content: I've said it before: Yes have always been a compositional unit, not an improvisational one. They seldom vary their performances from what's on the album, and when they do, it's seldom an improvement. Seldom - but not never. Each of their live albums, each of their tours, seems to have one or two things to recommend it to the serious Yes listener. On Yessongs, it's the great jammed-out "Yours Is No Disgrace," the bruising rhythmic drop-out/drop-in near the end of "Siberian Khatru." On Yesshows it's the glam energy of "Going For The One." I get the live albums to find these moments and extract them like diamonds from a deep, dark mine.

On count two, documentary value: due to membership shifts, label issues, or sheer lack of foresight, Yes has never managed to properly document their live work. It may seem contradictory of me to wish they would, since I just got finished saying most of it's dross; very well, I contradict myself. The fan in me would like to see Yes put out one album to document each of their bouts of touring: either a complete show or a composite, it doesn't matter, but something to commemorate (commit to public memory) each iteration of the Yesshow. Even Yessongs doesn't do this, you know: it covers two tours, by two different lineups.

So how does Symphonic Live stack up?

As a document, it's fair. It's almost a complete show, which makes it more than we have for most Yes tours, but less than it could have been. The minimal packaging (recycled CG from the DVD package, incomplete performance credits) suggests how cheap an affair it is, taken straight from the DVD soundtrack, which is no doubt why we don't get the complete show. No liner notes explaining anything, needless to say. In terms of helping the fan get a (legal) sense of what this tour was about, it's better than nothing. But it could have been more.

As music? I would have been curious to hear the orchestra actually try to replace the keyboards, as was apparently the original plan. Instead, Brislin's there, usually playing a pretty good facsimile of the original keyboard parts. He's a fine keyboardist in fact, acquitting himself quite well on "Starship Trooper," for example. Which leaves the orchestra to do what, exactly? Mostly they're relegated to the background, adding emphasis and frills, but not much actual music.

The band, meanwhile, sound a bit tired. Howe's guitar work...well, it's been years since he had a fire in the belly to match the lightning in his fingers, and he plays it pretty cool here, too. Hits the notes, mostly, but with a sound and an attack that are for the most part doe-eyed, not wild-eyed, not like he used to be. Well, so be it. (But why keep playing the old stuff if he's not that into it anymore?)(Money. Why listen? Hmm.) Squire and White bash it around as energetically as ever, but the orchestra tend to detract from the rhythms, predictably.

There are a few gems. The orchestral backing on "Long Distance Runaround" adds a lot more than color: some really nice countermelodies, a great introduction, and a nice excuse to end the thing rather than go into "The Fish." "Don't Go," a forgettable pop gesture on the record, is surprisingly convincing in this context. "The Gates Of Delirium" provides perhaps the best glimpse of what things could have been, with the strings adding a real grandeur and texture to the band's sound, while they Brislin goads Howe, Squire, and White into kicking out something resembling the jams.

(Tanuki's condensation: Side One is "Long Distance Runaround," "Don't Go," and "Starship Trooper"; Side Two is "The Gates Of Delirium." Slap on a Roger Dean cover and there's yer vinyl Yesshow 2001.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Duke Ellington: Ellington Uptown (1952)

It really was my next acquisition after this. It just took me a while to write about it.

The music currently available as Ellingtown Uptown is: versions of "Skin Deep," "The Mooche," "Take The 'A' Train," "A Tone Parallel To Harlem (Harlem Suite)," "Perdido," and "The Controversial Suite," all recorded between December 1951 and July 1952, plus "The Liberian Suite," recorded in May/December 1947. All of this is happening in the early days of the lp record. "Liberian Suite" was released as a 10-inch lp in 1948, while "Skin Deep," "Mooche," "'A' Train," "Harlem Suite," and "Perdido" were released as a 10-inch lp in 1952. The latter was also issued in a 12-inch version that substituted "Controversial" for "Harlem Suite," if I understand it right.

So this is really music from two different periods, with considerable differences in the lineups. The Uptown material is mostly rerecordings of classic material, and it benefits from the new format. Ellington and his orchestra can stretch out and develop solos and themes more than they could on a 78. "Mooche" is six and a half minutes of hypnotic groove, while "A Train" nearly becomes a suite in its own right, with the addition of a vocal section courtesy of Betty Roche. "Skin Deep," meanwhile, gets to devote three minutes to one of the most explosive drum solos this side of Keith Moon. Really, nobody needs me to tell them how great Duke Ellington is. And this is great Duke Ellington. And it sounds great: still mono, but compare it to the prewar versions of these songs. Night and day.

"Liberian Suite" even lacks a little in the fidelity department compared to the later material. It's brilliant stuff, though. I guess I have to say I prefer the longer tympani solo in the LCJO version, and it's a sheer toss-up on the vocalists (Al Hibbler's creamy croon or Milt Grayson's stately recitation? they're both awesome). But listen to the violin-trumpet tango in "Dance No. 3." The little drum fills behind the vibraphone solo in "Dance No. 2." The way the horns blend everywhere.

Life is richer with Duke Ellington's music in it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


So this might be worth mentioning.

Finished watching The Sopranos this afternoon on DVD. I never watched it while it was running: a combination of revulsion against the hype (was it the New York Times that called it the greatest work of popular culture ever? please) and being too cheap ever to have HBO. But once it was all out on DVD I finally gave it a shot. That was about a year and a half ago, and I finally finished this afternoon.

Obviously, I don't think it was the greatest work of popular culture evah. How could you even make a case for that kind of claim? I was pretty damn impressed, though, particularly with the first season. But for me it went pretty much consistently downhill from there. Mrs. Sgt. T lost interest somewhere in Season 3; sometime in Season 4 I conceded she was probably right.

I won't bother to say what I liked about it: when I thought it was good, it was for the same reasons everybody else did. Writing, characters, texture, sense of place, detail, subtext, etc., all more complex than anything TV had seen before (although not since: I'm one season into The Wire and one season into Mad Men, too).

Where it fell down for me is a more interesting question (to me, at least). I get, I think, the show's central critique of contemporary America: that our screwed-up past and our present self-indulgence are destroying us, but we're too screwed up, self-indulgent, and self-deluded to do anything about it. It's a cogent critique, and I largely agree with it.

But it poses a problem for a show that runs for six seasons. The whole point of Tony Soprano is that he'll never change. And this makes for kind of a static show. That wasn't a problem in the first season, because we're not sure he can't change. I mean, he's in therapy, right? And he actually seems to be making progress for a while. But somewhere in the middle seasons I got the point, that he'll never change, and after that...nothing really mattered.

I think if I'd been able to follow the intricacies of the mob stories, the stagnant subtext wouldn't have bothered me. But surprisingly (because I thought I loved mob movies), I got bored with the plot fairly quickly. Just too damn many characters to keep straight, especially since the show very pointedly didn't give most of them proper establishing scenes - artistically a nice move, of course, but inconvenient for the viewer, to say the least. Plus, I didn't really like any of the characters - again, not a strict necessity, but it would've helped, over the long run.

So that's that.

Can't rag on it too much, though. It got Dylan to record "Return To Me." Here's a live version.