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Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Remembering Joe Maneri and Rashied Ali

You don’t have to be a jazz fan to appreciate that picture. But it helps.


Most people have never heard of Joe Maneri, so not too many folks are mourning the August 24 passing of this great musician. In addition to being a beloved teacher and father of jazz violinist Mat Maneri, he is rightly considered a pioneering figure in music. His inclusion of Turkish and Klezmer music into a more free jazz (think Ornette Coleman playing with one of Sun Ra’s bands covering traditional European music at a Greek orthodox wedding and you begin to get the picture) helped liberate and expand the possibilities of jazz improvisation. Like Coleman and Sun Ra, Maneri was an astute and original composer: his work is not immediately accessible, but patient ears quickly identify a very consistent logic and style.


Anyone who has seen the excellent American Splendor (a film celebrating the life of curmudgeonly comic book artist Harvey Pekar) has heard Maneri: his impossibly cool ”Paniots Nine” accompanies the opening credits. Pekar allegedly insisted that Maneri’s music be used, and this stands to reason as Pekar (himself a jazz critic) championed a largely obscure Maneri back in the ’90s. Indeed, it was John Zorn who helped release Paniots Nine (the title of the first track is also the title of the album), which makes all the sense in the world considering Zorn effectively took up Maneri’s baton in the ’80s and began cleverly integrating traditional Jewish music into his own compositions. It’s fair to say that Maneri, though lamentably overlooked for entirely too long, was the first major composer to actively bring those disparate elements and influences into free (but still swinging) jazz.


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Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Sometimes imitation breeds excellence.

For the longest time, I thought “Oh Sheila” was a Prince song. It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-‘90s that I discovered that it was actually by a group called Ready for the World, an ensemble that consisted of multiple people who emphatically weren’t Mr. Unpronounceable Symbol. Regardless of who actually made it, I always loved the song to death. Even when I forsook R&B and rap in the late ‘90s to delve into the rock genre, I would get unreasonably excited whenever this song aired on the “old school oldies” radio station my mom liked to tune to in the car.


Ready for the World was one of a slew of workmanlike yet indistinguishable mid-level R&B hitmakers that swarmed American radio in the mid-1980s. The six-piece from Flint, Michigan notched several hits on the Billboard R&B Charts, but I dare you to even name a single band member.  There of the band’s singles reached the Billboard Top 40: the aforementioned 1985 number one hit “Oh Sheila”, the oddly Mute Records-esque follow-up single “Digital Display”, and the 1986 slow jam “Love You Down”. But only “Oh Sheila” has the infectious energy and unstoppable hooks to warrant repeated listens. And you can bet like hell I’ve listened to this song constantly ever since finally I bought it on iTunes a few months back.


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Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009
Yoshie Fruchter convincingly distills the essence of jazz improvisation into his rock-meets-klezmer workouts.

Following my ardent endorsement of Rashanim (the great trio who have just released what may well be the best album of the year: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/109489-rashanim-healing-music-for-unrighteous-times/), I would be remiss to not also mention a new name we can hope to hear much more from in the years ahead. Yoshie Fruchter, also a guitarist, released his debut on (John Zorn’s label) Tzadik entitled Pitom in late 2008, and it is as indispensable as any of the Rashanim releases (”Pitom”, incidentally, means “suddenly” in Hebrew). It is similar in that it’s (mostly) rocking jazz with an explicitly Jewish sensibility, but where Madof’s traditional roots are always discernible, Fruchter sounds somewhat like a precocious younger brother who found the stash of ’70s prog rock albums and never put them down. In a (very) good way. Indeed, the kinship with the great King Crimson outfit of the early-to-mid ’70s is undeniable, not merely because both bands feature the same instrumentation (drums, bass, guitar and viola): there are songs on Pitom that recall some of the more adventurous tracks from Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.


Check it out:



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Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Where Does the Time Go?” - the innocence mission
Written by Karen Peris
From Birds of My Neighborhood (Kneeling Elephant/RCA, 1999, a remaster was reissued by Badman Recording Co., 2006)


Whether entranced by the intricately-balanced poetics of Leonard Cohen, the artful turns-of-phrase of Smokey Robinson, or the PhD-in-lonesome of Hank Williams, I always seem to fall in love the hardest with songwriters who carve out their own distinctive place in the tower of song (to cop a Cohen phrase). If one counts their 1986 limited-edition debut EP, the innocence mission, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based group, has been making singularly lovely records for over 20 years. It’s a damn shame that their primary songwriter, Karen Peris, although well-loved by a loyal fan base and countless musician/songwriter peers, is not yet heralded far and wide as one of the most gifted pop/rock lyricists ever, because she most undeniably is. A poet at heart, Karen Peris’ lyrics are achingly beautiful, and she delivers them in a sweet and wise voice that is somehow both familiar and otherworldly at the same time.


“Where Does the Time Go?” is the opening track from the group’s fourth album, Birds of My Neighborhood, which introduced the stripped-down acoustic-folk sound the group has thoroughly explored for the past 10 years. The instrumentation is a delicate calibration of shimmering guitars, acoustic bass, and quiet-in-the-mix churchy organ, which lends the song a hymn-like quality. This musical framework is set in a lilting light-waltz tempo, a perfect pocket for the first few lines of Peris’ first verse: “We will walk on a hill / Red hats and blue coats / And everything still / Snow will cover until / We can’t tell the sky from the ground.” The chorus creeps up soon after, mantra-like in its insistent simplicity and repetition: “Waiting for you to arrive / Where does the time go? / Where Does the time go? / Where does the time go? / Where does the time go?”


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Friday, Sep 4, 2009
In the summer of 1986, Timex Social Club ruled radio with "Rumors".


Looking at Billboard’s Hot R&B chart for July 19, 1986, brings back a flood of memories for me.


I remember dancing to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent”, Jermaine Jackson’s “Do You Remember Me?” and Klymaxx’s “Man Size Love” (one of my all-time favorites). It was the summer Janet first got “Nasty”, El DeBarge asked who Johnny was, and Anita Baker praised the rapture of “Sweet Love”. Some of the best broken-hearted love songs ever recorded are ranked, from Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s “On My Own” and Atlantic Starr’s “If Your Heart Isn’t In It” to the epic “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force.


And the number one song on the chart for the first of two weeks was “Rumors” by Timex Social Club. Sung by the impossibly cute Mike Marshall, “Rumors” had an irresistible dance beat and a rawness to its funk that made it sound different from anything else out there. The song, written by Marcus Thompson, Alex Hill, and Marshall, became a mainstream hit too, spending five months on Billboard’s Hot 100 and peaking at #8.


Granted, the lyrics seem somewhat hypocritical. The singer complains about rumors while spreading them at the same time. The song specifically name checks Tina Jackson, a student that went to Berkley High School with Thompson (“some say she’s much too loose”), Michael Jackson (“some say he must be gay”), and Susan Moonsie from Vanity 6 (“some say she’s just a tease”). Then again, it makes sense to provide examples to back up your argument.


Timex Social Club would have two more hits on the R&B chart, “Thinkin’ About Ya” and “Mixed Up World”, both of which peaked at #15, but they would never again appear on the Hot 100, making them a one-hit wonder. Still, “Rumors” holds up surprisingly well more than 20 years later, and Timex Social Club still performs regularly (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).


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