Saturday, September 24, 2011

Roland Kirk: Talkin' Verve (1996)

Sometimes I'm not sure if I like something or just "like" it.  That's not an original thought, either.

This whole series is a case in point, and no-sword-san's recent comment reminded me of that.

The music here - recorded for Verve and Mercury between 1961 and 1967 - can't be argued with.  Can't be mistaken.  Among the artists that this series features, Roland Kirk (he added the "Rahsaan" in 1970, so it would be anachronistic to use it here) is one of the more unassailable, and he's in his prime here.  He plays with the wild passion of Coltrane but with a bluesiness that Coltrane usually sacrificed for churchiness, and to that he added an almost garage-band kind of sensibility.  Play whatever instrument you can get your hands on, play it rough and ready, and sing like something out of Jack Kerouac's fondest dream (insert link to nonexistent youtube of "Berkshire Blues" here).  Verve has a Kirk installment in most of their series, and they all draw from the same albums;  what distinguishes this one is a gonzo take on "Peter Gunn" with Quincy Jones's orchestra, and a duet with Sonny Boy Williamson called "Untitled Blues."  It's that kind of series:  it walks on the pop side of the street.

Musically, I like this.  I say that with no scare quotes.  That is, I'd characterize that take on "Peter Gunn" as pop, calculated, certainly too slick to have much heart, but played with swing, and with a wicked flute solo.  What's not to like?  It's hardly the most affecting, the most musically challenging or rewarding, song on the disc, but it's a nice complement to them.  I'm glad I have it (and part of the reason I still buy CDs is to discover things that I wouldn't have thought to look for on my own).

What about the package, though?  I've averred that I'm kinda fond of the graphics conception of this series, but that's too simple a statement.  Because the series (and how silly is it to devote this much time - any time at all, really - to analyzing it?) went on for about five years, and encompassed at least two distinct (but related) phases in late-'90s graphic design.

As I've noted, musically the series is actually split between an early spate of repackagings meant to cash in on the acid jazz trend and a late grouping trying to hook onto the lounge-music craze.  The graphics reflect this:  the early releases echo the kind of rave-culture-influenced techno-psychedelic graphics that could be seen on acid jazz releases of the time (such as this Courtney Pine album from 1995 that I loved a lot when it was new) (otoh that was from Verve too, but from their French division - does that mean different graphics people or not?).  Youthfully overenthusiastic, but fundamentally sincere.  Jejune, even.

[Edited to add:  I misremembered the label of that Pine album. It's on Verve Antilles, which is evidently what happened when Verve bought out Island's Antilles jazz subsidiary. I have a few other discs that I bought at the same time on Verve Gitanes - which I've always assumed, from the name, was Verve's French subsidiary, but come to think of it I'm not sure.  And my google-fu doesn't seem to be up to the task of finding out.  Anyway, that's what I was getting this confused with.]

The late releases, meanwhile, reflect where that aesthetic was five years later, when the earnest aspirational (occasional) musicianship of acid jazz had given way (in some quarters) to the lounge thing, with its muy-ironical fetishizing of ideas such as the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and Las Vegas.  This was largely about the quotation marks, and the graphics reflect this:  Verve doesn't quite go so far as to employ tiki-bar imagery on the Buddy Greco disc, but almost.  And they do much worse with the Walter Wanderley disc.  Predictably, I'm less than thrilled with the graphics there - but less for their intrinsic visual qualities (whatever those may be) than because of what they seem to be trying to say.

What about those intrinsic visual qualities?  One of the painful things about growing old is the realization that the cliché "you can't fight fashion" is actually one of the eternal verities.  That is, you can't prevent a look you like one year from looking hopelessly dated the next:  that's something beyond your control.  And as you get older it dawns on you that this is a species of ephemerality, transience, 無常But, there are fashions that are so egregiously overstated that it's possible to know, even in the moment, that they're going to look risible in ten years.

The late '90s were one such moment.  It helped that I spent most of the '90s in Tokyo, observing the denizens of Harajuku and Roppongi with a rapt fascination (I say that because I gather that what I'm talking about was more of a European and Japanese phenomenon, that concurrent US fashions were more about the gangsta rap, which is not at all what I'm talking about), but it was clear that the way early '70s glam and pimp fashions were being revived, shot full of steroids and amphetamines, and set loose under strobes was making for an aesthetic so outré that it was simply impossible to believe it would be looked back on fondly by kids of a later time.  I mean, I can remember what we said in high school when we saw photos of our teachers in the actual '70s:  why wouldn't our kids laugh when they saw photos of us in our virtual '70s?

But God help me I loved late '90s fashions (while never being cool enough to actually dress in any).  They entertained me, and at best they connected with past awesomenesses in creative, liberating, and moving ways.  Pizzicato 5 and United Future Organization were my gurus for a while there.  (Guru himself wasn't bad either.)

That probably explains a lot of my inappropriate enthusiasm for the graphics on these Verve releases.  They are shameless attempts to appropriate contemporary youth culture for the purpose of moving old product.  (The series title is a worse offender than it might even initially appear:  it's not only trying to appropriate hip street lingo, it's trying to piggyback on this very respectable and influential indie label.)  But some of them work as graphic ideas anyway.

...When it comes to aesthetics and philosophy, I'm not sure I've encountered a jazz reissue/anthology program I really like.  The Blue Note catalog seems to have gone from lame reissues to mostly absence from the marketplace.  The Prestige catalog (I've been getting into early-'50s Miles lately) as handled by Original Jazz Classics seems mostly aimed at people old enough to remember the original issue of this material on vinyl.  Columbia's jazz catalog (including Miles) seems to be handled with some of the feather-boa tease mentality that guides their handling of their rock artists.  Verve at least goes all out...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Les McCann: Talkin' Verve (1998)

The Tanuki lived in St. Louis for a couple of years around the turn of the century.  He lived a few blocks from the barely-remarked-upon (at the time) ruins of Gaslight Square.  I don't get out much, don't go to many shows, but I was aware of St. Louis's respectable, honorable traditions in jazz, blues, r&b;  I used to walk to Gaslight Square and imagine.  I went to the Scott Joplin house and wondered why it seemed so deserted, when it should be a mecca of American music. 

It was the only time in my adult life when I've listened to radio on a regular basis.  I can't stand commercial radio, and I can't stand too much talk, so NPR is out.  But St. Louis had two excellent music-oriented public stations.  One was the inestimable KDHX, with blues, bluegrass, Sunday morning gospel, obscure psychedelia, Eastern European ethnic musics, and all sorts of other tasty stuff.

The other was WSIE, beamed in from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.  This was jazz, all the time, and while sometimes it leaned to the easy-listening, I found myself listening to it in the car a lot.  And I fell in love with one of their DJs:  LaVerne Holliday, whose name suggests a cross between LaVerne Baker and Billie Holliday, of course, and whose voice and on-air persona were just as silky, sexy, and soulful as the name promised.  Holy moly. 

She used to play this one Les McCann tune all the time.  An up-tempo thing with a stomping, bounding beat, honking horns, stomping piano - I used to crank it up every time I heard it.  But I only ever heard it while I was driving, and so I never got the chance to write down the title.  For ten years now I've been trying to figure out what it was and what album it's on - I've listened to samples of every likely Les McCann tune on iTunes, on youtube, and never found it.  Shit.

It's not on this album.  But that's alright, because it's good Les McCann anyway.  It draws from records he made for Limelight between 1964 and 1967.  It does have "Compared To What?" on it, although evidently this isn't the most famous version.  The one on here is an up-tempo, poppy-but-gritty studio version from 1966.

Speaking of crosses-between, McCann is what you'd get if you added McCoy Tyner to Ramsey Lewis and divided by two.  He can play r&b pop-jazz piano as funky as you please, but then he'll throw in hints of abstraction, of too-lush-to-be-believed moodiness, of advanced jazz.  Plus, he sings beautifully.  The formula may not be an improvement on Tyner, but it sure is on Lewis, and so there you go:  listen to some Les McCann.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

George Benson: Talkin' Verve (1997)

Like the Buddy Greco, this disc represents an exceedingly small, and commercially relatively minor, slice of the artist's oeuvre;  in this case the two albums George Benson recorded under his own name for Verve in 1968, plus one track from his guest shot on a Jimmy Smith album that year.  This isn't quite Benson's earliest stuff, but it's several years before he became the pop superstar some of us remember from the '70s.

Also, and this doesn't show up in the liner notes, but this music represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of Verve Records;  Benson seems to have been brought to Verve to replace Wes Montgomery, who had followed Creed Taylor to A&M;  after Montgomery's death, Taylor would sign Benson to his new label, CTI.  What's on this disc, then, represents Verve's attempts to extend the Wes Montgomery pop-jazz vision into the late '60s without Wes, and Benson's establishment as the kind of pop-oriented jazzer that the CTI empire would be built on, in Wes's wake.

All of which might lead one to expect this disc to be nothing but imitations of Montgomery.  It's not.  There are unmistakeable similarities in sound - both in Benson's stringwork and the arrangements.  But fundamentally Benson is a bluesier player, more comfortable with contemporary soul and r&b, even rock.  As the cover photo suggests, some of the more down-home moments here ("Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues," the meeting with Smith;  Benson's vocal showcase "That Lucky Old Sun";  "Giblet Gravy") are greasier and more viscerally satisfying than Wes's work usually was. 

On the other hand:  some of this stuff is straight-up Easy Listening.  The kind of music that brings back memories of riding with your grandma in her avocado-green Pontiac boat, frosty inside from the a/c while the August sun bleaches the streets outside, you twelve and restless on nylon seats that make you shiver if you scratch them with a fingernail, astonished that the radio, this magic machine that you only just discovered, can play queasy squishy music like this as well as AC/DC and Led Zep - like, it's weird to think that the same air that carries that can conceal this as well, music as comfortable as a pair of Haggar stretch-slacks, and just as surrenderful...

That is, Verve gave Benson arrangements that built on Wes's lime-cool vibe, but in a less tasteful way.  With even more strings, with Nashville harmonica, with the Sweet Inspirations cooing their way through "Natural Woman."  I'm 41 now, not twelve, but I still don't know if I'm ready for this.