Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Academy of Music, March 1972

Charlie Miller has just released his transfer of 3/25/72, the Bo Diddley/GD show, which finally means that every note from the 1972 Academy of Music run is now circulating for our listening pleasure.  Until pretty recently, these shows represented a big hole in what is arguably the greatest year of the band's career.  There were always poor aud recordings of most of these shows, but none of it circulated on sbd at all until a few years ago, and it's only been in the past few months that about half of these sources entered the general public circulation.  Yee haw!  Thanks, Charlie!  I believe most (all?) of these derive from that mysterious third batch of Bettyboards, the ones that are still being held by a guy who bought Betty Cantor's equipment cases at auction and discovered the moldy reels, which were eventually cleaned up by Rob Eaton (correction: not Rob Bertrando).  I think?  There seems to be a lot to that story that remains untold.

Anyway, eat it up, music lovers: (also Dave's Picks 14) (also Dick's Picks 30)

No reviews for now.  If you've forgotten about it, go listen to the very unusual and very beautiful Caution > jam > Uncle John's Band from 3/22.

And, for your reading pleasure, here's a fun contemporary article on the whole crazy week:

Thursday, June 18, 2015

9/11/74 - as natural as breath or speech or thought

I'll be done with my Ornette musings for now, but I did find one more little nugget that segues nicely into something else.  This excellent appreciation by trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum reminds us that Ornette's greatness was in positing "that the infinite improvisational possibilities of a melody could thrive outside of a predetermined structure, that musical ideas could flow and expand in the moment as naturally as breath or speech or thought."

That struck me more than once last night as I listened to a truly amazing yet strangely under-recognized performance from one of the Dead's most heralded years and felt the need to trumpet its greatness.  I'm talking about the last night of the Dead's London run in Sept 1974, released in small part on Dick's Picks which ignored the towering highlight.  This short European tour seems pretty universally dismissed as a poorer run of shows, with one glowing exception (9/18/74), and in my own unscientific observation it seems like the three London shows are overlooked because of their official release status.

Confession: 1974 is seen by many as a high watermark for the Dead, and I agree in theory, but in practice I find a good deal of 74 to be a little too, well, I dunno, too coked out.  It's still one of their best years and has some of their very best moments, but it also has a fair bit of spiky, edgy jamming that makes my gums throb and my cheekbones ache.  Coupled with the flatter feel of many of those 1974 sbd recordings, I find myself gravitating more towards 1972-73 or 1976 these days (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of writing this on the anniversary of 6/18/74, one of the finest shows of the year).  There's extramusical stuff that colors how I hear this year, too: the amazing but cripplingly extravagant Wall of Sound itself, the band's dissatisfaction with playing larger and more impersonal venues, the increasing intensity/insularity of the behind-the-scenes scene, the growing dependence on cocaine to keep the whole train moving.  It all sounds like one hell of a pressure cooker, and I do think the music reflects that to a significant extent, as brilliant as it often was.

I bring this up because, according to various sources, most of these things came to head on this last night of their London stand.  Someone's book (Rock Scully's?) tells a tantalizing and hopefully not too good to be true tale of the organization's collective coke problem getting so out of hand that one of the roadies finally called for everyone to empty all of their stashes onstage that afternoon and sacrificially light the whole pile ablaze.  Ned Lagin picks up the story and relates how the band huddled up and agreed to reset the levels and engage in a little lysergic purification (he explicitly says so in the interview in Gans' book and hints at it here).

So inevitably that may color your listening to this, too.  It certainly colors mine.  There are a number of shows where folklore has it that the band were all tripping -- we seem to festishize some (8/27/72 and 5/11/78 come to mind) and don't make much of others, for whatever reason (I feel like this is rarely brought up about any of the Oct 74 Winterland shows).  9/11/74 seems to fall into the latter category.  You go down a slippery slope once you start trying to identify indicators of pscyhotropic drugs that are evident in music.  I don't know that the Dead sound different when they're suitably dosed vs. relatively sober (or on something else), but I dunno, there's just a different kind of a vibe.  It may be pure conjecture, but this night feels like it has that vibe all over it.

Granted, another contributing factor may be the recording.  I listened to this fine new matrix blending the meh sbd with an impressive audience recording.  Let's hope these good people are able to put one together for the night before as well!

There are folks who don't get much out of 73-74 era first sets, and I get that, but this one seems to me like it shimmers a little more than usual.  The matrix helps to really highlight some of the dyanmics that are usually missing many 1974 sbds, so that's certainly a contributing factor -- Sugaree is an example of a tune from this period that rarely jumps out at me, but the dynamic contrasts that are highlighed by the roomy ambiance here really bring it to life.  Little details kept jumping out at me throughout: Donna's little patch of scatting (as opposed to oooh'ing glossolalia) in the crackling Scarlet jam, Jerry's daredevil little fills under Bob's vocals in Jack Straw, Phil's divebombing runs in Big River... all this stuff gives a very well-played set a little extra sparkle.  Only Bobby McGee seems to wobble and struggle to stay upright.  The closing Playing in the Band seems to deviate slightly but significantly from many other Playin's that characterize the year for me: the first half seems content to revel in its own environment rather than charge forward, but it never feels stagnant or dull to me.  The second half builds a little more purposefully, but without the single-minded, teeth-clenched determination of many Playin' jams of this vintage.  They push and pull at it, never too forcefully, gradually building a delicious kind of tension, which Jerry finally resolves with a little mini-Tiger rush at the end, although here it feels less like a harried, hard-won peak and more like finally letting steam out of a valve.  Phew!  Some ride.

The second set, though, is what puts this in the upper tier of 1974 jams, and, if pressed, I would probably say, of 1971-74 jams in my book.  It could have been included on the Dick's Picks release (the sbd is under 74 minutes), but I guess I can see why it wasn't.  I suspect most heads would prefer to pass on Phil & Ned's sets, and even if you're one of them, don't automatically pass on this one: many of them could be ear-splittingly jagged (like the next one on 9/14/74), but some could be softer, developing more organically and gently, and I would put this one with that bunch.  The first few minutes seem like Ned alone, patiently sending synth waves spiraling and twisting slowly out into the void, almost curiously probing.  It's not all smooth sailing, of course, but it never gets abrasive.  Billy appears, then Jerry, then eventually Bob, and Ned seems to mostly abandon the synthesizers and moves to his Rhodes piano.  This is pure Brain Moss Music, difficult to describe, palpably psychedelic, and deeply, deeply in a groove of its own.  They never played like this after 1976.  Eventually Eyes of the World appears on the horizon, and I love how it takes them seven more minutes to fully their get space together and begin it for real -- you don't often hear them find their way into a new song, cue it up, then back away so completely.  In one of the rare instances that his contributions to a full-band jam is audible, Ned adds some acrobatic keyboard lines as Keith comps behind him, and while this Eyes doesn't quite take flight and soar like others from the year, it doesn't have to.  They're already deep under the sea, so why bother to surface?  Eyes works through its changes brilliantly, finds its way to another nameless jam for another full ten minutes, and winding down with Wharf Rat.  Monstrous, leviathan, beautifully strange music, flowing and expanding in the moment as naturally as breath or speech or thought, up there with some of the best that the Dead created.  And from the looks of it, it was a beautiful old brokedown palace in which to have this experience:

the Alexandra Palace in 1974 (at an international darts championship!)

Phil announces a break to break down Ned's equipment and adds a spacey little comment, "Everybody turn around, look at your neighbor, and smile or something, like naaaah..."  Like whaaa?  It definitely sounds like everyone could use a little break.  The boys return for a perfunctory final mini-set, another half hour or so of reentry music to get everyone back on their feet and back in their minds.  The first few tunes are actually pretty hot and energetic, but by the time they get to Sugar Magnolia, it's clear that they're absolutely spent.  Phil takes the mic again, "Thanks a lot folks.  We couldn't have done it without you."

Friday, June 12, 2015

the gospel of unlimited possibilities

Worth a read:
"Ornette Coleman's Time," Rolling Stone 547, Mar 9, 1989.

"[It's music for] people who can dig that there is more than one possibility. That's what Ornette always represented to me. No matter what direction you go in, there's always going to be other possibilities."  -Jerry Garcia

"I started going to church and taking the horn.  Have you ever gone to church and heard somebody who don't know how to sing at all?  Yet it sounds so beautiful.  The church was singing, and sometimes they would be singing in the key of Z!  Meanwhile, I'm playing with them.  And I thought, 'If I'm able to do this now, why can't I play like this outside?'"  -Ornette Coleman

Thursday, June 11, 2015

RIP Ornette Coleman

Many jazz and music writers will write about Ornette Coleman more knowledgeably and eloquently than I can, so I will just share a few thoughts.  Coleman belonged to the "first name is enough" echelon of jazz giants, so I will refer to him as countless others have: Ornette.

Ornette was a true maverick genius of American music, and I'm fully conscious of the overuse of the word genius.  If a genius is someone who does something genuinely innovative yet wholly obvious and necessary in hindsight, then Ornette fits the bill.  From the start he had a clear vision: make music that sounds sounds beautiful and honest, regardless of whatever convention or pattern you may break in the process.  It's not exactly rocket science, yet at the time the idea was absolutely radical and divisive -- it still is.  Unlike other pioneers of "free jazz" (Cecil Taylor comes to mind), Ornette's music was also wholly inclusive: maybe it wasn't always approachable to those who preferred the conventional way, but Ornette's jazz never felt completely out of reach, never exclusive or closed off to non-believers.  It felt too real.  It wasn't confrontational and it wasn't explicitly reactionary: it was "folk art" in the most sophisticated sense.  Miles Davis was a contemporary who also warrants the "maverick genius" tag, but Miles' thing was always to push relentlessly, unapologetically forward, refusing to look back at what he left in his wake.  Ornette's music grew and changed over the course of his 50+ years, but it never felt like he was trying to leave anything behind.  It defied that narrative of "progress" and "development" that jazz critics love to map onto long careers like his, but it also never felt like he was being nostalgic or locked in the past either.  And it's no exaggeration to say that he completely changed the course of jazz in a way that almost no one else did: he rearranged the priorities, and folks like Miles, Coltrane, and Mingus on down changed what they were doing after Ornette's music hit.  Yet, for all of his maverick and revolutionary spirit, he was no isolationist: his music has always been about communication and community, always an ensemble music where the ensemble always remains just as much in focus as any soloist (I even chose the pic above with this in mind).

I didn't get it at first.  My father had the landmark Shape of Jazz to Come record and I listened to it as a kid and wondered what was going on.  So like much other "challenging" music, it wasn't until I got to see Ornette in person that it suddenly made sense.  This must have been around 1997 or so, and it was a reunion of Ornette with his original bandmates Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins at Lincoln Center in New York -- sadly, all have left us now.  I'm not being hyperbolic: it really was life-changing in a musical sense.  All of a sudden, "free" improvisation made sense.  It just seemed perfectly natural: three cats playing the music as it changes, grows, and moves around before us.  I had never heard anyone outside of the Dead play music in that way before.

The influence of Ornette shouldn't come as a surprise, though it wasn't talked about as often as influences like Coltrane or Charles Ives.   Weir said that the Dead were listening hard to Ornette in the 60's, and Miles Davis himself even reported that Garcia liked Ornette.  But just listen: every Dead jam that took it outside of the normal bounds owes a little something to Ornette's conception of music.

Blair Jackson's got the story of how Garcia hooked up with Ornette for 1988's Virgin Beauty album, with some extensive quotes by Garcia.  Some more pertinent background info is at deaddiscs as well.

And, of course, Ornette actually performed with them, too.  Twice!
(this one has one track from Ornette's opening set with Garcia sitting in)

But tonight, I'm breaking out the Atlantic box set, the Golden Circle trios, the amazing Science Fiction album, Dancing In Your Head and Of Human Feelings by the Prime Time band, all the way up to his final "official" album Sound Grammar that coincided with his Pulitzer Prize.  Long live Ornette!

Friday, June 5, 2015

11/28/80 - Florida man ponders new box set

I've got a weird relationship with Florida.  All my life, I've had some family there (almost none of them native), so I'm there a couple of times a year.  This isn't the place to get into it in depth, but I'll say this: it's got a weird vibe.  I like it, because like any truly weird place, it's got its own unique brand of weirdness.  And, like any little pocket of weirdness, it's not surprising that the Dead tended to play better than average shows there.  So, with all the @FloridaMenandWomen in mind, it's always a good time to listen to a Florida Dead show.

More to the point, I was thinking about Florida because of a list that's going around of the 30 shows selected for the Dead's enormous 50th anniversary boxed set (now confirmed at  Unusually for picky deadheads, general consensus (and I use the word lightly) in my neck of the woods is that they picked some real winners and some surprisingly cool sleepers.  Inevitably, a couple of choices are going to jump out as being a little too left-field, and one was the 1980's representative: 11/28/80 in Lakeland, FL.  It's smack in the middle of a quick 4-show swing through Florida and Georgia, on the heels of the much more famous (but not as exciting) run of acoustic/electric run of shows, and it's not a show that probably springs to anyone's mind as belonging in the top tier of the year.  11/30/80 was a cult favorite, a punchline in Nick Paumgarten's fine 2012 New Yorker article that was finally (and deservedly) enshrined for posterity as a Dave's Picks release.  11/29/80 seems to be a pretty popular favorite, at least for fans of the early 80's, with an eye-popping setlist and fine playing to match.  But 11/28?  Misguided choice, or a well-kept secret?

Giving it a close listen, I'd have to say neither.  I think it's a very good show, but not a great show, which probably means that I'm not hearing the ephemeral x-factor that's apparently obvious to someone else.  By this point, warts-and-all is the name of the game, but there are still some stumbles and slips in this one that do make this seem like a strange choice: Jerry's solo in Jack Straw starts in the wrong key, there are some pretty big vocal clunkers in Tennessee Jed, that sort of thing.  But there are some pockets of really inspired, raunchy playing, too: a demonic and demented Little Red Rooster (seriously), a powerful Looks Like Rain, some downright nasty jamming at the end of Deal, and the debut of the rare electric Deep Elem Blues (fresh from the acoustic sets from the prior months).   The second set has the same inconsistent highs/lows: a nice Stranger opener has some more stumbles, and the highlight is most definitely the unique To Lay Me Down > Let it Grow > Terrapin, all of which are wonderful but not quiiiite at that next level of magic, to my ears at least.  There's not much happening in drums>space, then the post-drumz is energetic but, for the most part, pretty run of the mill.

There's some really fiery stuff in there, no doubt, but 11/29's second set embodies the magic in much more sustained, consistent way.  It's not all spotless -- the transition into Franklin's from Shakedown (again, one of a kind) is a total clunker, but the whole set glistens and sparkles: Jerry eases back while Brent comes to the fore in a great, airy Shakedown jam, sparks fly everywhere in Estimated, and they really make the most of the usually negligible post-Truckin jam with some seriously hot Other One jamming.  Space has some much heavier, creepier, involved jousting between Jerry, Brent, and the drummers (always a good sign when they stick around), and when the Other One itself finally materializes (complete with the crowd egging Phil into his intro roll), Jerry goes off like fireworks.  He pulls out all the stops with a gorgeous Stella Blue, and despite usual shakiness of Casey Jones, it still feels like something special and out of the ordinary.

Why didn't they pick 11/29 over 11/28?  I have no idea.  What drives official release selections is probably far more mundane than picky heads ever take into consideration: the tapes are missing, the tapes are of poor quality, the tapes have some technical limitation that I'm not hearing, the tapes have a giant cut that can't be patched.  To be honest, there are a handful of 1980 shows that I would've picked over 11/28 -- 1980 hasn't exactly been overlooked, but there are still a number of other shows I would have pulled for.  True, griping about official releases is a guilty pleasure that nevertheless feels like biting the hand that feeds, but a $700 box set touting itself as a representation of the "narrative of the Grateful Dead's live legacy" does add a little more weight to the selections than usual: rather than simply being released on their own merits, these shows now stand as a kind of representative of their year.  

In all fairness, by the way, I love most of the choices they made.  There are some really inspired and non-obvious selections in there, almost outnumbering the picks that are already widely acknowledged classics.  I'm really excited that we're getting major upgrades of 9/24/72, 9/18/74, 10/3/76, and 4/25/77!  Really excited.