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From the Inside Out

One Big Soul Party: Baltics & Beyond

By Published: May 14, 2010
Rhett Frazier, Inc.
Escape from Dee-Troyt
Digi-Soul Records
2010

At first, singer-songwriter Rhett Frazier and producer-drummer Donny Gruender "incorporated" this joint retro-futuristic soul side project just to play around, nothing more than a diversion from their Los Angeles studio session work (Gruender, for example, rocks beats for the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers). But their Escape quickly evolved into its own full-blown monster: Two modernists using hip-hop cut and paste methods to recombine the stylistic DNA of rhythm and rock.

The Motor City gave jazz Yusef Lateef

Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef
1920 - 2013
reeds
, Barry Harris
Barry Harris
Barry Harris
b.1929
piano
, Betty Carter
Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
and Donald Byrd
Donald Byrd
Donald Byrd
1932 - 2013
trumpet
, and, like these resolute visionaries, Detroit and can be a damn tough yet deeply soulful town: Similarly, every preening Kid Rock stomp that comes screaming out to Escape from Dee-Troyt seems counterbalanced by a ballad that nimbly floats with Marvin Gaye's subtle jazz sophistication.

Escape was produced to sound better played loud, with crackling drums and beats on several tunes that threaten to explode. "Nuthin'" is a riveting declaration of independence framed in a monstrous backbeat stomp, carved out with funky hot rhythm guitar, then signed sealed and delivered by Frazier's treacherous lead vocal. "Heaven" and the concluding "BeLong" swirl hard guitar hooks and bone-crunching drums into boiling cauldrons of hot, thick sound.

Even so, right after "Nuthin'" comes "Faultline," an acoustic guitar slow dive into the deep romanticism of Isley Brothers ballads like "Voyage to Atlantis," a genuinely pretty and surprisingly grown-up pop song; later, the plush strings and gorgeous acoustic piano of "If I Said" seem to honor Earth Wind & Fire.

Sometimes Frazier and Gruender work out these different if not quite competing perspectives in the same tune: In the opening "U Can't Stop," Motown's dance beat thumps beneath rock'n'roll guitars that cut as shiny and hard as assembly line steel, while Frazier's vocal climbs the soulful heights of Eddie Kendricks' classic Temptations' falsetto. The verses to "Is That OK?" glide more slippery hip-hop rails, as its lusty guitar solo and Frazier's double-tracked falsetto introduce the hedonistic funk-rock sound of past master Prince.

Iron Kim Style
Iron Kim Style
MoonJune Records
2010

Iron Kim Style is quite humorous but serious too—The eponymous debut of an improvisational jazz-rock quintet that is: Built around two guitars, with no keyboards, plus trumpet and bass clarinet as the other solo voices; named for both the North Korean dictator and the martial arts style instructed by Grandmaster "Iron" Kim; and, creative home for some of Seattle's most exploratory jazz-rock instrumentalists, including drummer Jay Jaskot and guitarist Dennis Rea, both of whom perform in another progressive jazz-rock instrumental band, Moraine.

No polite introduction: You begin right in the middle of frantic tumult on the "Mean Streets of Pyongyang," ten spacious minutes that leap and bounce through wild-eyed echoes of Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' electric fusion explorations, with trumpet blasts that struggle in between chaotic guitars and drums which burn to tear the whole town down. This dissolves into the spasmodic guitar funk "Gibberish Falter," which sets the stage for "Po' Brief," an electric guitar trio improvisation called to full stop by the closing clarion trumpet.

"Adrift" shifts the improvisational architecture from electric Miles to Discipline-era King Crimson; guitar harmonics frame its opening, releasing bass clarinet and trumpet, and then gradually darken its sheltering sky. These same guitars chime like bells and groan like monsters washing over "Amber Waves of Migraine."

After the misty reverie "Dreams from Our Dear Leader," Iron Kim Style concludes with its two best musical puns. "Jack Out the Kims" honors two of Michigan's hardest hard rock legends, the classic MC5 rave-up "Kick Out the Jams" and the gloriously messy, rampaging bull elephant sound of the Stooges (but, again, with trumpet). "Slouchin' at the Savoy" ends this tale of Iron Kim by removing the guitars and bass, leaving trumpet to sing a quicksilver New Orleans blues duet with drums.

Entirely improvised, Iron Kim Style features absolutely no verse/chorus structures and very few repeating melodies or phrases, so it can sometimes feel like a long series of introductions that reach very few conclusions. But move beyond this, and Iron Kim Style provides a challenging, complex, and ultimately rewarding listen—just not an easy one.

Gabriel Johnson
Fra_ctured
Electrofone Music
2009

Gabriel Johnson seemed anointed for jazz greatness: A New England Conservatory prodigy who served as musical director for Blood Sweat & Tears when he was merely 24, and was personally recruited by Clint Eastwood to serve as trumpet soloist for Eastwood's films Changeling (2008) and Invictus (2009).

Then a friend hipped Johnson to electronic music and music software, and all musical hell broke loose. "For so many years now, the trumpet has been confined to a specific spot in music: jazz," Johnson explains. "One of the goals that I set for myself when I started this album was to destroy those preconceptions."

"This is about breaking free from that jazz status quo, where you put out an album with ten standards and hope Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
notices."

Which makes Fra_ctured a trumpet album but not a jazz album, or at least not a jazz album in any standard sense. This also makes it difficult to compare Johnson's trumpet style to others' because those comparators (mostly) play in the jazz tradition while he does not.

"No Words" opens this set in surging, grandiose electronic chords and thunderous beats, with the melody of Johnson's trumpet shifting these crests of sound. A simple series of piano chords builds the similar but sadder mood for "And Then It Was Over"; Johnson samples, cuts up, then reinserts only pieces of this trumpet solo so that it "skips some beats" while it dashes through these thick chords.

In other tunes, Johnson warps the sound of his trumpet with twisted glee. His production on "Be Serious," which he calls "tweaked-out dance music," makes his trumpet sound like computer blips and beeps sampled, cut up, and re-sequenced in disjointed pieces. His trumpet in the midst of "Confusion" sounds like a raw, frantic squeal bouncing inside a pinball machine stuck on "tilt."

Even so, Fra_ctured's last two tunes return to a more traditional trumpet sound. "V.F.T.O." spreads a murky sonic carpet like thick damp moss which cushions Johnson's beautiful ballad style, the "let's get lost" sound of deep inner space, and then just drifts away. "Lullabye" ends these Fra_ctured tunes in a surprisingly and profoundly tranquil place, with solitary guitar strumming acoustic chords like a banjo behind Johnson's soft and sweet trumpet melody, as if to demonstrate that he can play even when not walking his conceptual tightrope.

Johnson has even made raw elements of Fra_ctured available to DJs and remixers through free downloads on his own website.

Lokesh
Utopia
BasStar/BasStar/Geomagnetic.tv
2010

Lokesh embodies the sprawling global village that the age of internet music has ushered in. He was born and grew up studying computer science in New Delhi, but now lives and works as a DJ and producer in San Francisco, where he also contributes to the pan-global electronic musical co-ops Vishnu Operative and Ultraviolet Carnival. "I was into electronic music when I was in India," he explains, "I kind of moved on from the stereotypical genres to the more experimental and innovative drum'n'bass to figure out my own sound."

The opening track "Maya" encapsulates Utopia's synthesis of global electronic styles and subgenres: Stringed instruments and chanted vocals from his native India are looped to trace and multiply with each other, while its rhythmic pulse beats deeper and deeper into a trance. Lokesh similarly cuts and pastes traditional Indian instruments and vocals into the techno house-driven "PsySwarg."

Lokesh's description of "Oscillations" as "shennai-driven drum'n'bass" proves prophetic; as the ancient shennai voice groans and shrieks, it becomes encapsulated and then trapped in its shiny, sleek accompaniment, an ancient scarab slowly captured and finally suffocated and entombed in amber.

"Quantum Chant Machine," a less frantic acoustic guitar and percussion hypno-groove interlooped with kalimba passages and chants that sound like prayers, breaks the techno and house beat—Lokesh's uniquely global take on "laid back Latin rock."

"Utopia (Here and Now)" couldn't be more synthetic and yet seems to organically grow from one percussionist, joined by one chanting vocalist, while its flickering electric jungle pulse grows strong, then stronger, and then strong enough to overtake the other instruments and hijack the entire tune into futuristic, interstellar overdrive.

Lokesh's vision for his music and his world seems one and the same: "Music without boundaries in a world without borders—that is Utopia," he says.

Mushroom
Naked, Stoned & Stabbed
4Zero Records
2010

Mushroom's first new set in three years, twelve new originals culminating in a cover of "Singing a Song in the Morning," co-written by Kevin Ayers of the Soft Machine and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd in heady 1969, is an acoustic guitarist's dream—every song strums and hums with its psychedelic, folksy sound. Mushroom's careening, psychedelic collective guitar approach sounds somewhat unaffected by the last four musical decades, and yet Naked, Stoned & Stabbed feels like a milestone for modern progressive guitar bands.

Naked, Stoned & Stabbed plays so cohesively from beginning to end that it might have been conceived and performed as one single piece, divided by its natural movements into tracks, and then each track arbitrarily given some whimsical title ("Celebration at Big Sur (The Sound of the Gulls Outside of Room 124)," for example). And while we're at it, we might wonder, with no disrespect intended, if Naked, Stoned & Stabbed is the psychological diary of a hallucinogenic experience.

In its current incarnation, Mushroom's cast of characters have played with such a wide variety of progressive musicians—Gongzilla

, John Cale, Crazy Horse—that it's almost hilarious. Naked casts Mushroom's stylistic net out even further with good bait. "Though You're Where You Want to Be, You're Not Where You Belong" shape-shifts into a country-jazz vamp that ebbs and flows into a hypnotic, vaguely menacing Velvet Underground drone. "All the Guitar Players Around Sean Smith Say He's Got It Coming, But He Gets It While He Can" echoes classic '70s acoustic sides by Hot Tuna, and rings out crystalline and pure. Hand percussion and bells twirl with guitars and other strings while "Tariq Ali" explores the spirituous world ethnomusicology of Oregon.

Laced with wah-wah and electric rhythm guitar spikes, swelling in and out of focus, "Take Off Your Face and Recover from That Trip You've Been On" seems the most obvious post in Naked's hallucinogenic diary. But it's hardly the only entry: Cycling riffs of bass and marimba form the wriggly spine of "Indulgence," which transports you deeply "Under the Spell." After "Walking Barefoot in Babylon" through a weird, brilliantly colored jungle of sound, "I'll Give You Everything I've Got for a Little Piece of Mind" scrambles your brains back into their proper omelet.

Slavic Soul Party
Taketron
Barbes Records
2009

The massive Baltic brass band Slavic Soul Party (SSP) has played in Istanbul and Carnegie Hall, Macedonia and the Kennedy Center, Serbia and the Knitting Factory, and currently resides Tuesday nights at Club Barbes in Brooklyn, which released this fifth SSP album on its own label. "I think Taketron really shows our original style, more so than any of our other records," says Taketron's leader, percussionist Matt Moran. "We get something electrifying: it sounds kind of Balkan and kinda not; kinda American and kinda funk and soul." Barbes label head Olivier Conan concurs: "SSP's music is like 'surf music' for the 21st century: instrumental music for this generation with the same bite, insane energy, and exotic flavors."

SSP features some of NYC's most accomplished horn players, a drummer from Japan, a drummer with roots in Cuba, a Balkan gypsy accordion player, and no fewer than FOUR trombonists! This writer is generally not one to trumpet musicianship (forgive the horrid pun), but SSP's trumpet, saxophone, and trombone players play about as well as any group of horn players you will ever hear. In the title track, their pace and staccato rhythms are absolutely blistering—Eastern European melody and harmony played at punk-rock warp-speed. Military snare drums drive "Baltika" into a Crescent City brass band march, but then its melody twists back toward the Eastern Europe and suddenly the Balkans are leading a parade through New Orleans!

This gumbo boils over into the next tune, "Get It How You Live," a hurricane of collective brass blowing which spasms into wails of joy. The trombonist kicks up a funky ruckus while the drummer smacks around the off beats just enough to keep the rhythm churning and hot—a crackerjack marching brass band ripping into a serious New Orleans bender.

"Sancti Petri" was originally a flamenco guitar piece, here transposed across accordion and trombone. American listeners may smile at the sound of the Moldavian traditional "Sarba," played in double- if not triple-time, from their associated memories of Carl Stalling and his frantic music for classic Warner Bros. cartoons.

Trombone leads the company of mourners who wail and moan the "Canaan Land" blues. Its mood and tempo brighten as their exodus begins, and dancing soon follows as these joyous "saints go marching in." Vibrant and spirited, Taketron is sheer instrumental joy.

Escape from Dee-Troyt track listing: U Can't Stop; Mirrors; Nuthin; Faultline; Heaven; Am I Grooving U?; Is that OK?; If I Said; Addie; BeLong.

Escape from Dee-Troyt personnel: Rhett Frazier: vocals; Donny Gruendler: drums, synthesizers, mangled beats; Christian Lundberg: guitar; Derek Jones: loops; Mike Thompson: keyboards, piano; Denny Freeman: guitar; Mark Goldberg: bass; Jessie Stern: bass; Antoine Salem: acoustic guitar; Dale Jennings: bass, twelve-string guitar.

Iron Kim Style track listing: Mean Streets of Pyongyang; Gibberish Falter; Po' Brief; Don Quixotic; Adrift; Amber Waves of Migraine; Pachinko Malice; Dreams from Our Dear Leader; Jack Out the Kims; Slouchin' at the Savoy.

Iron Kim Style personnel: Dennis Rea: six string electric guitar; Ryan Berg: bass guitar; Bill Jones: trumpet; Thaddaeus Brophy: twelve string electric guitar; Jay Jaskot: drums; Izaak Mills: bass clarinet.

Fra_ctured track listing: No Words; Be Serious; And Then It Was Over; Charisma Machine; You Get What You Deserve; Confusion; V.F.T.O.; Lullabye.

Fra_ctured personnel: Gabriel Johnson: digital, electronic, and acoustic instruments.

Utopia track listing: Maya; Ohm Tripper; Paradox; Oscillations; Quantum Chant Machine; Utopia (Here and Now); Traastoned; PsySwarg; Infinite Love; Tantra Mantra.

Utopiapersonnel: Lokesh: digital, electronic, and acoustic instruments.

Naked, Stoned & Stabbed track listing: Infatuation; Celebration at Big Sur (The Sound of the Gulls Outside of Room 124); Jerry Rubin: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother; All the Guitar Players Around Sean Smith Say He's Got It Coming, But He Gets It While He Can; Take Off Your Face and Recover From That Trip You've Been On; The Freak Folk Walk By Dressed Up for Each Other; Tariq Ali; Though You're Where You Want to Be, You're Not Where You Belong; Indulgence; Under the Spell; Walking Barefoot in Babylon; I'll Give You Everything I've Got for a Little Piece of Mind; Singing a Song in the Morning.

Naked, Stoned & Stabbed personnel: Josh Pollock: acoustic guitar, ukulele, vocals and megaphone, production; Matt Cunitz: piano, organ, mini-moog, vako orchestron, pump organ, celesta, keyboards; Erik Pearson: flute, violin and effects, acoustic guitar, wah guitar, electric sitar, electric guitar, vocals; Ned Doherty: bass; Pat Thomas: drums, congas, percussion, bongos, cymbals, shakers; David Brandt: percussion, congas, bongos, vibes, kalimba, gongs, tambourine; Alec Palao: bass, dulcimer; Emery Dorgan: Farfisa organ; Tim Plowman: guitar; Sonya Hunter: vocals; Dan Olmstead: guitar; Wilson Whipple: acoustic guitar.

Taketron track listing: Welcome; Taketron; Baltika; Get It How You Live; Sviraj Srecko; Pavketov Stakato; Tatiana; Real Simple; Sarba (Moldavian traditional); Canaan Land; Laughter Club; Sancti Petri; Hymn.

Taketron personnel: John Carlson: trumpet; Shane Endsley: trumpet; Ben Holmes: trumpet; Peter Hess: alto saxophone, clarinet; Oscar Noriega: alto saxophone, clarinet; Peter Stan: accordion; Roland Barber: trombone; Brian Drye: trombone; Jacob Garchik: trombone; Tim Vaughn: trombone; Ron Caswell: tuba; Chris Stromquist: snare drum, percussion; Brook Martinez: snare drum, percussion; Take Toriyama: snare drums, percussion; Matt Moran: bubanj, bass drum.



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