Sunday, 21 August 2016

Dennis Rea Tanabata Ensemble - Black River Transect

Dennis Rea is a guitarist and musical free spirit who resides on the north western edge of the USA up there in Seattle where he is a well known presence in that far-flung city's left field music scene.

In the past I have ventured deep into the densely populated hinterland of Dennis' musical legacy, a never less than interesting journey that has spotlighted some real musical gems, the common thread being a quest for new and innovative ways of expression.

The latest chapter is Black River Transect, an intriguing album of stark contrasts, recorded live in Seattle's Chapel Performance Space on two different dates in 2013, by Dennis' Tanabata Ensemble.

The opening four tracks where recorded on 25th February of that year, and the album opens with the lovely and romantic piece ASJ (septet), named for Dennis' life partner Anne Smith Joiner. The gentle and cosseting opening tune is in full contrast to the guided improvisation of the title track that follows, which opens with the unsettling airs of a didjeridoo, accompanied by odd sounds with a likeness to a barking wild dog, and later something akin to a distressed elephant, and of course Dennis' steely sharp guitar, sustained on scything notes that gradually up the ante to arrive at a rhythmic cacophony deep in the jungle. A transect is "a straight line or narrow section through an object..." and the schism between ASJ (septet) and Black River Transect illustrate that perfectly.

The line is re-crossed for the lilting but edgy Swaylone's Island, Dennis' keening guitar melody leading the ensemble in a slow waltz across glowing embers. We return to improvisation for Harmoniker, a guided piece during which "each improviser played only those scale degrees that occurred within the spelling of their name; e.g., Beth Fleenor = B, E, F." Good job the band were not of Polish origin, eh? Joking aside this is an intriguing piece that is as different from the coruscating improv of title track as can be, slowly revealing a sense in the madness, before becoming loud and righteous in its final section.

The final track was recorded later in 2013, on 6th July, and features Dennis' colleague in the marvellous furious-prog instrumental band Moraine, James DeJoie, who arranges a "trombone choir" in an extended and beautiful "slight return" to the theme of the opening track. 

Unfortunately I cannot find any samples to link to, so this is just like one of those reviews from the pre-internet daze...you'll just have to take my word for it!

Bookending an album of typically single-minded experimentation merged with composition, Dennis Rea has made a musical sandwich with a highly unusual filling that is neither "jazz" nor "avant" nor indeed any convenient post-hole, but stands on its own, just like the rest of his singularly individualistic canon. Most definitely one for the adventurous!

Tracklist:
1. ASJ (septet)
2. Black River Transect (for Princess Angeline)*
3. Swaylone’s Island
4. Harmoniker 
5. ASJ (trombone choir) 

Line up:
Tracks 1-4:
Dennis Rea – guitar
Stuart Dempster – trombone, didgeridu
James DeJoie – bass clarinet
Beth Fleenor – clarinet
Kate Olson – soprano saxophone
John Seman – double bass
Tom Zgonc – drums

Track 5:
Dennis Rea – guitar
Kate Olson – soprano saxophone
John Seman – double bass
Paul Kikuchi – drums
Trombone choir: Sara Mayo (alto trombone); Stuart Dempster, Moc Escobedo, Masa Ohtake, Naomi Siegel (tenor trombones); Steve Harreld, Jen Hinkle, Chad Kirby, Greg Powers (bass trombones); Benn Hansson (contrabass trombone)

Links & Info:

I have scribbled various articles about the works of Dennis Rea in the past, type his name in the search box at the top of the page, and take your pick! Essentially though, you should at least have a gander at his vast discography, my overview of which can be found HERE.


* From Dennis' notes: 

The title invokes the vanished Black River that once drained Lake Washington from its southern end into Elliott Bay in the Salish Sea, before the excavation of the Ship Canal in north Seattle lowered the level of the lake and left this once-vital transportation corridor and its Native villages nothing but a memory. The track’s dedicatee, “Princess Angeline” (Kikisoblu), was the daughter of Chief Sealth; she spent much of her life in a hovel on the tide flats where, like her dispossessed people in general, she was subjected to callous indignities by the fast-growing city’s residents.

**Adendum 4th October 2016
Dennis has informed me that snippets of the tracks from the album can be listened to on Amazon, iTunes, etc.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Courage Of Others

You know me, I don't particularly like Prog, a style of rock music that rather than move on from its roots regularly exhumes the corpse to take it on yet another Bryden Two Step into the dance hall of nostalgia...or summat.

Apart from its musical museum curating, another problem with Prog are its lyrics, which for the most part delight in telling us in oft repeated ways how shit everything is...really? I had no idea..., mixed with a generous helping of "woe is me". There are exceptions to this rule of course, which would seem to apply to prog metal more than anything else. Modern prog lyrics also shy away from anything directly political, preferring to remain in the field of personal politics, or occasionally making vague ironic generalisations along the lines of "We don't need no educashun". Not that Floyd were a Prog band anyway, but that's another discussion.

For a long time now, one of the bands that seem to me to epitomise this ginnel for backward looking navel gazers is The Tangent, a group mysteriously revered by men (and a few ladies) of a certain age. To them, their leader Andy Tillison can do no wrong, and the comment "Tillison is God" has cropped up in many a forum and YouTube thread over the years.

I've had a few run-ins with Tangent fans and indeed Mr Tillison in the past, but as often occurs, the man at the centre of this turns out to be a decent chap, for Andy is a bloke whose worldview is from the heart, and his taste in music is almost as good as mine! When I heard recently that he had unleashed yet another twenty-minute epic on the world, although obviously it was good to see him fully active again after his health problems, I inwardly groaned...o gawd, not another one, I thought.


And there it is, A Few Steps Down The Wrong Road in all its glory.

Mr T's lyrics have often ventured into social commentary in the past, sometimes more successfully than others, but I don't want to drag up that album again. However with this new one he goes for the jugular in the manner of the old punk rocker he really is with an outpouring of justified righteous anger that burns down post-Brexit Britain like an unstoppable flow of molten lava. Yes, some of his arguments are over-simplified, but this is Yorkie plain speaking, telling it straight like Boycott minus the grating irritation factor. What Andy venomously spits out, looking uncannily like an unhinged Arthur Brown in the video all needs saying, and it is 100% spot on. I have not heard a prog rock song this angry since...ever? There was a moment just before Gustav Holst's Thaxted is wrung out of Luke Machin's guitar, when Andy's rising tide of anger and frustration at his fellow Brits' calamitous decision on 23rd June hits an emotive crescendo that made me well up, and sent a shiver down my spine. I never in a million years suspected that anything by The Tangent would be remotely capable of getting that reaction from the cynical old bugger that is yours truly. Knock me dahn wiv a fevver, Clevor Trevor!

The music is almost secondary, painting a fine canvas, with the reed blowing of Theo Travis being a particular highlight. In typical overblown Tangent fashion this epic probably would have worked better as two songs as there is a natural split not long after the Thaxted section. Frankly though, that criticism is irrelevant, as Andy Tillison has written a lyric that will send ripples out across the Progpond for many a week to come. There has already been some averse reaction from conservative-minded fans saying he should leave the overt politics alone, and that they have no place in Prog, or that it makes them feel "uncomfortable", poor lambs. Bollocks say I, all good art, let alone music, takes risks in dark times to expose the heavy manners it was created under, otherwise an anodyne bland Hell awaits.

All good art also requires an open mind to enable its creation, and frankly I have never understood how anyone who purports to be a lover of art, in this case music, can have a closed and conservative (big and/or little "c" optional) mindset, thus leading to the kind of criticism mentioned. You may not agree with the politics (boo to you!) but surely you can only admire the heart-on-sleeve honesty? This song is a courageous move by Andy Tillison, and I salute his bravery, flying in the face of the cosseted outlook of a lot of his own fans. More power to him, I say!

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Pulling Fish Through Grandma's Eyes

Lunch, day two of Inglund's Test Match at the crickball against Paraguay, and Inglund were holding up rather well against the long feared world beaters at the intricate game, as fortunately Paraguay's propensity for conjuring reverse swing in 19/8 time on any surface you care to imagine had yet to rear its maniacally grinning head.

Jonners Agnew is in the talkbox, once more regaling us all with his lifelong post-Gabriel Genesis and Phil Collins obsession, flummoxing his listeners with reams of useless information pertaining to the once all-conquering purveyors of pop-prog for Sunday golfers and upmarket car salesmen. Joining him is Archjook Geff'ry Boycs, ex-crickballist and pugilistic student of cutting edge avant garde progressive music. Back in the 14th century Duke Geff'ry legendarily held onto his wicket throughout the entire course of the Six Week War, scoring a mere 57 rounders in the time, until Sire Iron Broth lost his by then tenuous grip on patience, and had Boycs run over by a groundsman with a roller. No-one cared that this was strictly illegal as Boycs was mightily pissing off everyone, thus laying the ground for a career invoking unreasonable irritation in even the most mild-mannered of peasants up and down the land. As we know to our cost this continued after he retired from the game, with his ongoing and seemingly endless stint in the talkbox. These days Boycs maintains his knack of annoying those of a reasonable dispostion, as his grating natter is now into its 67th season, and shows no signs of stopping. Mind you, he knows his minimalist avant-funk, amongst other wilfully obscure musical ginnels.

Jonners: Good Morning to you Geff'ry, how are are you on this fine sunny day?

Boycs: Ah'm grand. Ma dad used to work six days a week down t'pit tha knows, so ah'm grand. And tha can stop thy blather about Genesis, they split up centuries ago. There's some reet proper music being made by folk who still function, and it's about time tha was educated.

Jonners: Whoever you are referring to are not popular, are they? They have not had megatastic hits of such splendiferousness as Invisible Crutch, or Cheesy Lover, or Ps-ps-pseudio, or...

Boycs: Oh do shut up Jonners. It's our job to put bums on seats, and ah knows you were one of those intolerant johnny-come-lately dolts throwing furniture at Devo at Knobwerth in 1978. Ah recommend the new album by that Colin Robinson fella. He's from ma neck o' t'woods, although ah'm none too sure about all those arty anarcho-hippy types who live up thar in 'Ebden Bridge, 'appen. Jumble Hole Clough is name o' t'band and Bela Lugosi's Dad is name o' t'album.

Jonners: Are they anything like Genesis, then?

Boycs: Aye, well, is David Steele like Viv Richards? They both played crickball. Imagine another band from God's Own County, them Gang of Four chaps, mek 'em stop being gloomy buggers and hide their trenchcoats and well-thumbed copies of Das Kapital, and you'd be absolutely nowhere near, as Jumble Hole Clough also dabble in fragile ambience inspired by their lovely locale.

Jonners: Gang of who?

Boycs: Ah'm sorry, but you av to tell it straight. That is simply not good enough. In ma day the captain would av you up against the lockers for ignorance like that. By 'eck you mek me feel reet old. Now then lad, this is going to take a while, let's start again.

Jonners: (Giggling) Did you know I've just bought a second home by the sea?

Boycs: How old are you? Twelve? Pay attention son, you might learn something. This Robinson chap must be some sort of socialist, he releases all his music for nowt. Not a bean. Now, tha knows me, ah'm no fan them socialist types. Only t'other day ah was moaning about why can't ah get my groceries delivered at two in the morning. If there's a market for it, it should be provided for, ah reckon. Ah'm sure some nice Polish fella'd be up for it. Anyway, this Robinson chap, he's very prolific, ah can't keep up with him. But while we're at lunch ah thought ah'd mention his new album as it's nay bad at all. Ah never realised...or ah forgot, ah'm not as young as thee...but Bela Lugosi's Dad has some proper songs. Aye, that means lyrics, and reet bloody surreal they are too:

"53 men, huddled in the hall 
To all intents and purposes, there’s no-one there at all 
Just a little up the road, that’s where it will end. 
Forgotten men around the bend 

Get the mucus moving"

Tha's from a snappily titled tune called A cardboard box containing my mother's hair.

Jonners: That makes no sense at all...

Boycs: Spot on...'appen that's the point son. It means whatever you want it to. You should see Sailing with me on the Zuider Zee. Insanely catchy and quite nonsensical, it'll get tha singing in the shower.


Jonners: I can't imagine you singing. Shouting, yes, but not singing.

Boycs: Tha cheeky young whippersnapper. I'll have thee know ah was in t'school choir.

Jonners: I'll bet you unintentionally slowed the beat down. Or deliberately, come to think of it.

Boycs: Ah avn't come here to be insulted...

All: Oh yes you have, that's why we pay you!

....

Tracklist:
1. I reached into the chimney and pulled out a sewing machine (25th October 1415) (5:03)
2. A cardboard box containing my mother's hair (3:20)
3. Abandoned Lunch Invokes State Of Nirvana (3:21)
4. Twilight of The Mods (3:23)
5. En prélude à une entorse au poignet (6:34)
6. Henry is still missing (4:21)
7. Ikarus preparing to leave the Great Synagogue (4:10)
8. Mother surrounded by silence (2:22)
9. Neglected Crazy Golf Course (3:51)
10. Rain / train / aeroplane (2:05)
11. Wedding car outside a chip shop in Halifax (3:04)
12. Sailing with me on the Zuider Zee (2:33)

Line up:
All songs written, played, recorded and produced by Colin Robinson, with:
Richard Knutson - microKorg (track 1)
Liam Robinson - electric double bass and bass guitar (tracks 2,4 and 12)

Links:
Jumble Hole Clough Bandcamp


Monday, 1 August 2016

BBC Proms 2016 - David Bowie

Opening with Warszawa was a smart move, as it is probably Bowie's most symphonic piece, and segueing into the atonal chug of Station To Station seemed only natural. The vocals were led by Neil Hannon who was giving it his best Thin White Duke impression, ably abetted by Amanda Palmer.
Bowie was one for never doing the obvious,  and looking down on the increasingly surreal world he has left behind, can only have approved of the scope and daring of this secular celebration of his musical legacy.

A percussive arrangement of Life On Mars was fronted by a typically full on Marc Almond, the drama of song and singer being a perfect fit. Anna Calvi put Lady Grinning Soul firmly in the Berlin cabaret with a portentous arrangement from the orchestra that was my favourite interpretation of the concert. She ended it with some cacophonous slide work on her Telecaster. Marvellous stuff!

Other successes were Conor O'Brien giving a heartfelt and soulful performance of The Man Who Sold The World, Paul Buchanan's querulous AshesTo Ashes, and John Cale's suitably avant Valentine's Day. Cale and Calvi got together for Sorrow, but it was more like a rock band backed by some strings and seemed rather out of place, even though Calvi in particular made a marvellous racket!

The expansive and anthemic pop of Heroes perhaps did not work so well, although ultimately the strength of Amanda Palmer's delivery won the day. A lot has been said about Marc Almond's delivery of Starman. Let's just say it was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting given some of the more barbed comments I have seen. He might have got a bit carried away, but he never has been quite on the note, has he? Bless him.

The only way to take on songs as recognisable as these is to reinvent, and of course the chamber orchestra takes it halfway there, it then becomes the task of the singer to complete the remodeling. Most of the time that was the approach taken, but conversely Laura Mvula's take on Fame stayed faithful and the sound of a chamber orchestra getting funky was a delight.

Laura stayed for the moving Blackstar trilogy, joined by Paul Buchanan and Anna Calvi. These songs are still fresh, so radical reinterpretations are no real shock, more than maintaining the raw emotions of the originals. Amanda Palmer and Anna Calvi channeling Blackstar while both wearing black and crowns of thorns was particularly moving, with a superb arrangement from the orchestra to top it off.

The most adventurous reinterpretation has to be David Lang's complete restructuring of Always Crashing In The Same Car, led by an electric harp and sung in the upper register by classical countertenor Phillipe Jarousky. Quite enthralling I must say.

The large cast assembled for Space Oddity, led by John Cale's iconic baritone, backed by the House Gospel Choir. Despite the numbers on stage it was a tastefully restrained, unhurried, and unusual rearrangement that worked a treat. The entire cast plus the RAH organ assembled for the grand finale of After All, started off by the slightly wayward Marc Almond. A typically unobvious song to end an evening out of left field, just as David Bowie would have liked. The celebration ended with a crowd singalong to Let's Dance, proving it wasn't all high art.

Overall the concert was an undoubted artistic success, as long as it was approached with an open mind, which is exactly what is needed where any format of progressive music is concerned, as this Proms certainly was. Mr Jones would have approved...now, please can we have some of the reality back that you seemed to have taken with you when you left our beleaguered planet?

2017 - A Year In Review

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