1959 remains, arguably, the most important year in the history of jazz music. Among all-time classic efforts from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus released his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of this seminal session, we were blessed with Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition (which includes a remaster of the original, along with bonus tracks and the entirety of the other album Mingus cut for Columbia in 1959, Mingus Dynasty). 1959 signified the year that Mingus, after considerable dues paying, fully matured as a musician and composer. Mingus Ah Um is a virtual encyclopedia of the jazz music made at that point in the 20th century, which means it celebrates the sounds and feelings of America. This is the one Mingus release that has a little bit of everything, from ebullient statements of purpose (“Better Git It in Your Soul”) to soulful tributes (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, “Jelly Roll”) to Mingus’s inimitable sociopolitical smackdowns (“Fables of Faubus”). This reissue is at once an essential reminder for fans and an imperative introduction for novices; it is the ultimate testament to the miracle that was Charles Mingus, one of the immortal voices in American music.
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For the past decade, Swervedriver seemed destined to be one of the Bands That History Left Behind. The hard-hitting, melodic, often thrilling music the band produced in the early-to-mid 1990s would forever be lost in a wash of bad record deals and bad timing. Anyway, what to make of a British band that sang about Ford Mustangs? Swervedriver were pigeonholed into the short-lived UK “shoegazer” scene because they had an indifferent image and made music that was as pretty as it was loud. Here, though, was driving music that was neither as obtuse as metal nor as bleak as Nirvana. 1991 debut “Raise was a strong enough feet-finding effort built around a trio of outstanding singles. 1993 follow-up, Mezcal Head, however, was a bona-fide masterpiece, with a devastating combination of great tunes, great playing, and great production. Thankfully, these thoughtful, rich-sounding reissues gave fans and curious music lovers in general a chance to catch up with a band that shouldn’t have been left behind in the first place.
For all the praise that Terius Nash received for penning decade-defining hits like “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, the dirty little secret amongst R&B fans was that Nash’s most adventurous and rewarding songs were on his first solo album, Love/Hate. But with Love vs. Money, Nash—better known as The-Dream— finally got his due both critically and commercially. In tandem with frequent collaborators Tricky Stewart and L.O.S. Da Maestro, he doubled down on his signature formula of classicist R&B song structures and themes fused with production influenced as much by Southern rap as Prince. And with the album’s four-song centerpiece, Nash fleshes out the album’s central conceit (the push/pull between love and money) with a jaw-droppingly operatic suite that blazes a trail from industrial beats to jazz pianos to beatboxing. It’s sandwiched in between sex jams that are both goofy and futuristic, adding up to an album equally suited for the bedroom, the car, and the stage.
The Very Best could have been just another dance-pop collaboration, springing off the back of the recent uptick in Google alerts for “African traditional music”. With a Fader cover and that pat back-story about the Frenchmen buying a bicycle from the Malawian store owner, things seemed perfectly set up for a familiar internet hype/quick disappointment cycle. But The Very Best Mixtape, an astounding collection of exuberance and, yes, warm heart, bested even M.I.A. at her own game. Remarkably, the group returned with even stronger material on the group’s proper debut. From its opening fanfare, the spreading cymbals and toms herald bright sunshine, which doesn’t let up for almost an hour. Singing in a mixture of Chichewa and English, Mwamwaya’s smooth, gospel inflections and Radioclit’s treble-heavy synths buoy up songs that seem to pull melody after addictive melody out of the air. It’s some heady electro dream, but a dream in which only good things happen, all the time.
The sophomore record from Germany’s Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble did not receive much press stateside on its release, but its ominously toned, slow-burning post-jazz indelibly burrowed itself into the psyche of the few brave North Americans willing to venture its uncertain shores. The title of Here Be Dragons literally means dangerous or unexplored territories, in reference to the placing of mythological creatures in blank areas of medieval maps. Certainly, the record captures that sense of taking bold chances in the name of progress and discovery, albeit in the realm of music. From its roots as the duo of electronic manipulator Jason “Bong-Ra” Köhnen and drummer Gideon Kiers, TKDE has since expanded to a seven-piece collective. Naturally, their recordings have come to reflect this, as the comparatively obvious sound of their 2005 debut has developed into a supremely textured, vividly cinematic tour de force. Here Be Dragons is an intelligent and nuanced record, full of swells and sighs, utterly epic yet incalculably subtle, existing somewhere between keen, intuitive live improvisation and the best-laid plans of mad scientists. Experimental music is rarely this consistently captivating.