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Wednesday, Feb 24, 2010
It's only February, but 2010 has already yielded a fistful of significant jazz releases.

My 2009 was largely devoted to music-making (and the drinking of copious amounts of lagers) with too little time spent checking out new music. As a result, one of the big resolutions I made for 2010 was to hear more new works—at least a handful each week. It was ambitious, but, through the first month and change of 2010, so far so good. Certainly it takes time to fully digest some music in order to form an educated opinion and make any weighty decisions. But, well, weighty decisions are overrated anyway! So, I present to you my personal favorite jazz of 2010: a highly uneducated—and frequently irritable—compendium. (Note to readers:  Keep an eye out for an upcoming piece on my least favorite jazz of 2010, which is much funnier.)


Favorite Piano Album:
Orrin Evans—Faith in Action (Posi-Tone)
I’ll be one of the first jazz fans to admit it:  the jazz piano trio format usually bores me to tears and makes me value my Nation of Ulysses albums as if they were the last drops of Alagash Curieux in the universe (though, I usually do anyway). While there are certainly some phenomenal piano trio albums in the history of jazz—Oscar Peterson, Brad Mehldau, Bill Evans, to name a few—most of the trio albums I’ve heard in recent years were self-indulgent exercises in musical masturbation. They essentially served as demo recordings, creating a relatively inexpensive means for the pianist to obtain gigs and earn coveted positions in the bands of larger fish. That being said, young jazz tuna (the term “lion” is so overused!) Orrin Evans’ latest effort, Faith in Action, is one of the best trio recordings I’ve heard in recent time. I’ll cut to the chase: it’s accessible, filled with bluesy solos, swinging rhythms, and playful harmonies. Most importantly, this music is overflowing with emotion, passion, soul, and humor—and all from a trio! Drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Luques Curtis kill.


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Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010
Nico Muhly-protoge and acclaimed avant-garde composer Ben Frost discusses the works of Futurama, Groundhog Day, and his ability to wear through clothes at alarming speeds ...

In a short amount of time, composer Ben Frost has gathered up a powerful arsenal of friends, ranging from (his mentor and The Reader score composer) Nico Muhly to Icelandic string quartet Amiina to Swedish metal band Crowpath to Bjork & Bonnie “Prince” Billy producer Valgeir Sigurðsson.  Then, he invited them all to play on his album. 


By the Throat is Frost’s third major full-length album, and it’s been bathing in ecstatic (and well-deserved) praise, mixing minimalist melodies with an eclectic mix of beats, vocal samples, and sheets of distortion, making for a powerful, cutting, and emotional disc that sounds like nothing like it on the avant-classical front today. 


Yet as film scores beckon and a long-awaited US tour is rumored to be in the works, the Australian-born Frost takes some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the paintings of Mark Rothko, the appreciation he holds for Looney Tunes, and why it’s best to carry a big stick with you when time traveling ...


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Monday, Feb 22, 2010
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Have a Little Faith in Me” - Bill Frisell, Kermit Driscoll, and Joey Baron
Written by John Hiatt
From Live, Gramavision/Rykodisc, 1995


An earlier edit of this post first appeared on pcmunoz.com on February 14, 2006


Since its initial appearance in 1987 on writer John Hiatt‘s popular Bring the Family album, “Have a Little Faith in Me” has become something of a modern classic. The song has been covered numerous times, by wildly different artists, but my favorite version is this live instrumental arrangement by guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drummer Joey Baron.


Though Frisell, Driscoll, and Baron are quite capable of radical song-reconstruction, madcap rhythmic shifts, and rollercoaster twists of form, here they wisely allow their arrangement of “Have a Little Faith in Me” to unfold gently, within a fairly accessible structure. The often-angular and surprising Baron even breaks into a straight-out pop backbeat for a few measures.


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Friday, Feb 19, 2010
Sure, the best way to discover an artist is to buy their most-revered works, but there's something to be said for going after the not-so-great releases first.

A fellow music geek from another music review website gave a favorable review to Pearl Jam’s Backspacer and named it one of the best albums of last year. This isn’t particularly news—Backspacer may not have wooed critics, but it received mostly positive reviews. What was news, at least to me, was that this was the first Pearl Jam album this guy had listened to from start to finish. This may have been one reason why he gave Backspacer such a glowing review.


A lot of critics (myself included), judged Backspacer in the lexicon of Pearl Jam albums. The general consensus was the album had a solid bunch of rockers. Not much risk-taking, but no out-and-out failures. Pretty much what the band has been doing since its post-Yield output. A Pearl Jam album. While this may be true, like many other artists that opt to continue doing what they do best, this can prevent people from judging an album on its own merits and not as part of an artist’s legacy.


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Thursday, Feb 18, 2010

Little Steven Van Zandt may look like a buffoon, but he knows what he’s talking about. Witness what he had to say last year about Primal Scream, one of music’s great lost causes of the past few decades:


Primal Scream could be the biggest band in the world. They are fantastic when they make rock records—once every 10 years. But they can’t tour because of drug problems, or whatever. I don’t have patience for it. I’m like, all right, you want to be a drug addict, go be a drug addict. Don’t waste my time. (“Steven Van Zandt v Bobby Gillespie”, Guardian.co.uk, 25 March 2009)


Okay, so I really only agree with the first bit. The rest, like Little Steven’s standard gypsy wardrobe, is a bit shaky. Their rock records—assuming we’re talking about Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994) and Riot City Blues (2006)—are certainly not without their charms, though the quasi-Stones riffage and faux boogie is only ever convincing enough to make maybe half of each collection worth an addition to one’s iPod.


But even when they shift aesthetic gears from release to release, their success ratio isn’t terribly encouraging. Whether on the dub-noise excursions of Vanishing Point (1997) or the technopocalypse of Evil Heat (2002), there’s enough brilliance to make one crumple to the floor in wanton lust, and there’s just as much absolute balderdash to leave the same listener questioning if all they ever loved in the world was nothing more than a glorious but fleeting mirage.


What makes Primal Scream so infuriating is the simple fact that in their back catalogue are two of the greatest albums of the latter 20th century: The ecstasy-fueled highs and lows of Screamadelica (1991) and the crushing electro-fury of XTRMNTR (2000). On these two efforts, Primal Scream is firing on all cylinders, something they’ve certainly managed elsewhere during their career, but primarily on individual tracks (“Kowalski” and “Miss Lucifer”).


Some bands change simply for the sake of change, and perhaps this is part of the Primal Scream’s DNA. In following their whims, they often sacrifice passion for fashion, even when the latter is likely based on how frontman and head Scream Bobby Gillespie is feeling in the weeks leading up to the recording process.


Gillespie is regarded in many indie nerd circles as something of a living legend, and it’s hard to deny his pedigree backs that up. The lanky Scotsman was the Moe Tucker-inspired drummer of the Jesus and Mary Chain, back when that band was melding Beach Boys songcrafting, Phil Spector beats, and tinnitus-causing feedback on their seminal debut, Psychocandy. If you believe the legend is true, the Brothers Reid gave Gillespie an ultimatum: Stop working on the fledgling Primal Scream and focus on the Mary Chain, or hit the bricks. It can’t have seemed like a sure thing at the time, but Gillespie laid down his sticks and set a course for somewhat modest stardom.


It didn’t exactly happen overnight. Before tapping into the rave-and-Madchester culture with Screamadelica, Primal Scream released a pair of largely ignored albums—the Byrds-drenched Sonic Flower Groove (1987) and the band’s first forays into balls-out retro rock, Primal Scream (1989). It was on the latter that Gillespie developed a taste for his role as a frontman, even if legitimate aptitude didn’t follow for another year or two. Like many great pasty frontmen before him (Mick Jagger, Ian Brown), Gillespie couldn’t really sing, but looked fantastic enough to make it work. Also like his predecessors, Gillespie knew how to give the kids what they wanted.


Gillespie’s co-conspirators have largely been unsung heroes in the Primal Scream saga, though the addition of former Stone Roses bass guitarist Mani in the mid-‘90s was an inspired choice, as was the year or two spent working with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who yielded his greatest influence on the band around the time of XTRMNTR.


Yet as a journey through the years with Primal Scream proves, the band’s hits (meaning artistic successes rather than commercial) have been far outweighed (at least in volume) by their misses. Still a dangerous live band, Gillespie and Co. are regrouping after releasing and touring what is quite possibly their worst album yet, the flaccid pop of 2008’s Beautiful Future. As on prior missteps, the record isn’t a total wash—“Necro Hex Blues” (recorded with Josh Homme) and the undeniably catchy title track are among the standouts, but it’s those moments when the band really shines that one begins to long for something a bit more consistent. If Primal Scream were to ever release a complete turd from start to finish, it would be so much easier to forgive.


Perhaps the real tragedy with Primal Scream is their collective ability to still be great. Despite the quality of the Homme-guested track, the band is rarely successful when inviting a celebrity guest on board, whether that interloper be Kate Moss or Lovefoxxx or Linda Thompson. Unlike the Beatles, who found inspiration prior to imploding with Billy Preston and Eric Clapton, Primal Scream’s collaborations feel cheap and gimmicky. Other times, Primal Scream’s presumed best efforts are outshined by throwaway compilation tracks, such as the glorious glam-rock cover of Suicide’s “Diamonds, Furcoat, Champagne” recorded in tribute around the same time as the antiseptic sheen of Beautiful Future.


Primal Scream will have to find its soul within the group itself. History hasn’t proven that to be a reliable prospect, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable. I still love Primal Scream, I just can’t depend upon them anymore.


Tagged as: primal scream
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