Friday, November 25, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/25/11 - Mark Sultan and Miles Davis

For many, the name Mark Sultan is basically synonymous with the moniker BBQ, the deliciously raw and rocking one man band that comprised half of the sadly defunct demolition duo The King Khan & BBQ Show. The pair’s self titled debut was one of the biggest surprises of the aughties, coming out of left field to impress this writer as something quite different then what I expected, which to be candid was something approximating a garage friendly incarnation of Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. Boy was I off the mark and good thing, too. The duo instead were a thrilling improbability, a combination of sincere but thankfully non-Sha-Na-Na-ist doo wop worship, gleefully impolite rockabilly moves and non-reverent Crampsian punk grit. The wondrousness of that sentence’s properties gives me tingles just typing it. Weee! But with the release of 2007’s THE SULTANIC VERSES Sultan dropped the BBQ pseudonym for his solo releases and began doing it under his own good name. That record and 2010’s gnarly and excellent follow up $ solidly defined Sultan’s gush as being deliriously out of time while casually yet defiantly of the true cutting edge. In some ways he’s underestimated in the alt-music media as the grumpy dude that once flanked Khan’s unpredictable and eccentric personality, but thankfully that hasn’t slowed him down one bit. Instead, he’s seemed to use that inaccurate assessment as fuel, for the guy has two new records out, WHATEVER I WANT and WHENEVER I WANT, and the contents are a wicked plunge into the spicy broth of a twisted, rabid mind. While on the surface the ingredients in Sultan’s stew might seem somewhat rote, closer listening reveals his range to be impressively catholic; he’s managed flashes of stripped down non-angst-laden Velvet’s mining, served up moments of J. Richman as a young lad more obsessed with Sun Records than Reed and Co, peddled some loose and raucous Buddy Holly inspired action, crafted some hazy and gloriously doofus teen psyche, and even kicked out hot chunks that almost feel like rugged demos for some unreleased 45 on Bomp Records. Yow. Well, WHENEVER I WANT finds him not only continuing to swim in these strong waters but stepping out even further.  Opener “Keep Em Satisfied, Part 1” immediately ups the ante with swamp blues simplicity and some hints of rural gospel influence. Good gravy. “In Future Worlds” sounds a little bit like if Zager and Evans were hit over the head with a brick by Del Shannon back in ’68 and then coerced into recording a one off 45 with him for ESP Disk. “Pancakes” is just what its title promises, a song about the wholesome goodness of flapjacks, but it’s also about remembrance and yearning for a simpler time of life (aka that tricky bugaboo nostalgia) and it’s fitting that Sultan uses the exalted strains of street corner harmony to carry his somewhat universal message across. I mean, even vegan’s love pancakes, right? “Party Crasher” could’ve been a song from the soundtrack of a lost grade-Z teensploitation drive-in epic where a lovingly knuckleheaded rock group is accidentally shot into outer space and forced to do battle with Martian cavemen. Paging Ray Dennis Steckler! “Not Another Day” is the prettiest shuffle of an anti-work tune that I’ve heard in a long time, and “See Them Wave Goodbye” features some rogue banjo and guitar so fuzzed out that it could’ve been lifted from one of Tim Warren’s BACK FROM THE GRAVE volumes. Side the second opens with “Keep Em Satisfied, Part Two”, a perfectly conceived slow-burn stripped-down garage-soul rave-up that’s like the essence of a Jack White wet-dream concentrated and alchemized into a 4:30 slab of stompin’ shoutin’ testifyin’ aural mania. Hyperbole? Best back up, buster. “Let Me Freeze” is a strong huff of Killed By Death fumes, and “Apophis to the Slaughter” is pure garage goofing, sorta like a cross between the Hombres and prime Seeds. But it’s “For Those Who Don’t Exist” that really hits Saturn’s outer rings. Starting out as some whistle, crunch and strum that’s innocuous enough in a folk-psyche sorta way, after some stun guitar tribalism it slowly builds into a full on free jazz skronk fest. What’s impressive is that it actually sounds like it could’ve been grafted onto WHENEVER I WANT’s second side from some lost Center of the World Records acetate or something. Does Sultan know Alan Silva? Jeepers Creepers. This sort of screwy genre negation is just the kind of thing to drive garage rock purists totally nutzoid. This is cool. Even cooler is that shallow feebs constantly on the trail of the next thing won’t be around to foul up the air. Mark Sultan is a prickly cat, seemingly always in motion and wearing his mouth on his sleeve, unafraid to air unpopular opinions in public. The contents of the WHATEVER and WHENEVER LPs have been cherry picked for CD release, and if you’re merely curious that might be the way to proceed. But his records are a big gangly mess of lovely ideas, and listeners tuned to his frequency (low wattage, static laden, and as far to the left of the dial as it’ll turn) are gonna wanna hear it all. WHENEVER I WANT is a fine half, so jump on in.

Like many a kid, I went through a period where I was heavily into comic books. For a few years on weekly family trips to the supermarket I’d spend the entire duration eagerly rotating and scanning the contents stuffed into the spindly comics rack, absorbing as much info as I could before being forced by time constraints to decide upon which issue to buy with the meager pieces of my own stray silver, or if hard up for coin (which was often) hopefully procured through the benevolent auspices of my Mother’s purse strings. As someone unable to buy more than one title every week or two, I was a stone sucker for those very occasional issues with covers that advertised a surfeit of heroes and villains coming together under one banner to engage in all sorts of collective creative mayhem. An imagination-addled preteen might describe it as more bang for the buck. In retrospect, some of those issues were cool, but just as many featured a jumble of bluster and lack of cohesiveness that could leave a young mind feeling simultaneously overstimulated and underfed. As an adult, I encountered a similar situation while in the throes of jazz consumption. Ogling the personnel on the backs of record jackets and CD covers and taking home copies of releases with the most star-studded rosters was revealed with due quickness as a not particularly savvy way of getting to the big crux of the improvisational matter. For every JAZZ AT MASSEY HALL or BLUES AND THE ABSTRACT TRUTH there accumulated a stack of records chock full of major names, that while in no way shameful or even average, simply had to take a back seat to certain releases with one clear star (or none) and a bunch of lesser known names giving amazing performances. Part of this is what I like to call “personal canon-building”, that process of sifting through the small avalanche of established classics to get at what feels individually resonant, and the other part is gaining the invaluable insight that star hierarchy in jazz can be as faulty as it is in pop music or in Hollywood. To put it another way; in my personal estimation the smaller outputs of pianists like Dodo Marmarosa, Elmo Hope or Carl Perkins individually outweigh the mammoth discography of an overrated figure like Oscar Peterson. It’s with all this in mind that I grew leery of the rep of certain star-studded albums, BAG’S GROOVE by Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants in particular. Featuring a list of players that’s loaded top to bottom with established jazz masters, I felt it was impossible for the record to live up to its potential, as if stacking these names on top of each other was somehow supposed to translate into a skyscraper of greatness. Plus, I’d already heard a bit about the problems Davis and Monk had while recording together, the leader asking the pianist to not play (to “lay out” in jazz-speak) during his solos, and having already been exposed to the recorded incompatibility between another inside trumpeter (Kenny Dorham) and outside pianist (Cecil Taylor) on STEREO DRIVE aka COLTRANE TIME, this worried me even further. But upon finally sitting down with BAG’S GROOVE all preconceived notions quickly fell by the wayside, with the only thing that ultimately mattered being the vast quality of the music. Simply put, this LP, compiled and released three years after the initial sessions, is as essential as anything produced in the jazz genre during the 1950s. Now for some back-story: BAG’S GROOVE compiles work from two separate ’54 recording dates by a pair of somewhat different lineups. The first session was taped on the 29th of June, and while it makes up the record’s second side, it warrants being discussed first. Featuring Miles with Sonny Rollins on tenor, Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny “Klook” Clarke on drums, it’s something of a clinic in post-bop affairs; consisting of three Rollins’ originals and two takes of a Gershwin standard, the five tracks find all the contributors in essentially flawless form, and the music really sits at a vibrant midway point between the still fresh progressions of the original bebop impulse and the vast sea of the soon to be entrenched post-bop and/or hard-bop sensibility that dominated the East Coast jazz scene in the second half of the ‘50s. For instance, the rhythm team of Heath and Clarke were both members of the still young Modern Jazz Quartet, but more importantly they’d each served under the formidable jowls of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. While tangibly more flowing, relaxed and crisp than the wilder rhythmic expression of early bop, the bass and drums on BAG’S side 2 still feel closely connected to the root of Modern Jazz, particularly in Clarke’s bass drum. On the other side of the equation, Horace Silver was not only the co-founder of the Jazz Messengers, perhaps the quintessential hard-bop group, but also the leader on a slew of classic Blue Note albums that helped define the qualitative brilliance of mainstream jazz in its heyday, the ’55-’65 period. Between these two polls sits Davis and Rollins. While Miles is the leader, Sonny in some ways steals his thunder. As mentioned, three tunes belong to Rollins’ penmanship and the choice of Gershwin fits the tenor’s modus operandi like a ballerina slipper on a lean and muscular foot (though to be fair it’s also right up Davis’s old chestnut loving alley). But also, Rollins’ playing, while not quite at the levels of largeness to be found on ‘56’s TENOR MADNESS (for just one example), is still quite booming (if lithe) for the period, though also detectably in the thrall of twin tenor titans Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. BAG’S GROOVE can accurately be described as a landmark recording in the career of Sonny Rollins, and for that reason alone ranks as an indispensible jazz acquisition. And yet there is Miles, his playing simply superb, if not quite at the recognizable crossroads of sound and phrasing that defines his later ‘50s work. Not quite; “Oleo” shines as the first recorded example of Davis’s use of the Norman mute, an event of huge significance in the landscape of 20th century music. But BAG’S GROOVE has so much more to recommend it. Like Silver’s rich, soulful playing, equal parts grease and intellect. Or Heath’s massive bass line on “Oleo”. Or how the whole group navigates the shifty buoyancy of “Doxy”, a tune with a shrewdly casual head that in the wrong hands could easily be maimed into sounding like a bad sit-com theme from around 1960, this crew making it sound instead like a truly fabulous sit-com theme from around 1960, with typically grand solos from Davis, Rollins and Silver, all displaying the deceptive no-big-deal-ness that perfectly suits this sort of sophisticatedly funky material shining from between the intro and the play out. Side 2’s five tracks would justify the purchase of BAG’S GROOVE all by their collective lonesome, but the two takes of the title tune excerpted from the now legendary Christmas Eve ’54 date on side 1 help this LP rise to the level of an abundantly revelatory document. Fittingly, the lineup shifts. Rollins exits and vibraphonist and fellow Modern Jazz Quartet member Milt Jackson turns up in unsurprisingly fine fettle. Silver the approachable synthesist is replaced by Monk the idiosyncratic master, and this is initially where the action is; specifically, Miles’ difficulty in playing along with Monk’s stridently non-traditional execution can in some ways appear like an early incarnation of the trumpeter’s now legendary flare-ups of close-mindedness, mean-spiritedness or downright intolerance. But actually, no: what it illustrates in this case is that Davis was indeed really listening to his fellow contributors and that Monk’s unusual conception unfortunately hindered the trumpeter’s ability to create in the moment. The rest of this session has been long available on MILES DAVIS AND THE MODERN JAZZ GIANTS, and those tracks make a few things quite clear. First, Monk was apparently asked to refrain on “Bag’s Groove” only. Second, the pianist, obviously stung by hurt feelings, contrarily instigates difficulties to the studio atmosphere, with the evidence plainly revealed through the false start of “The Man I Love”’s first take. But if this difference of musical temperament persists as part of BAG’S GROOVE’s alluring lore, it’s far from the main reason for its lasting import. Here’s another; earlier, I described Monk’s playing as stridently non-traditional, and it surely is, but it’s not always easy in century 21 to ingest or relate that fact. Monk’s work has become such an integral part of the jazz discourse that in many ways he no longer sounds “weird” or at odds with any prevailing norm; he instead just sounds like Monk. And this is cool, since the true appeal of the pianist’s oeuvre lies not in its strangeness but instead in its inexhaustible depth and rare, thorny beauty. But for some valuable insight into just how unique Monk actually was at the time of his marginalization, “Bag’s Groove”, particularly take 1, is a superb study. Milt Jackson’s composition begins with the expected grace, all the players sans Monk contributing to stating the theme before Davis turns out a solo of striking magnificence, with strides made in just a six month period immediately palpable, his playing really sounding like the Miles of the insanely fertile ’57-’67 period. Then it’s Jackson’s time to solo, and it’s a turn of eloquent blues feeling. It’s here that Monk first appears, and Ira Gitler is spot on in the LP notes, describing the pianist as “comp[ing] timidly”. If this was the extent of Monk’s contribution it would surely be an underwhelming experience. But the solo to follow audaciously announces a change of direction. Gitler’s assessment of it as Monk “toss[ing] rhythmic figures around like someone bouncing a rubber ball off a wall” can’t help but smack of the writer taking a jab at the pianist, possibly on Davis’s behalf (it is his album after all), but it also points to the hesitancy of appreciation that was still dogging Monk circa ’57.  But in actually hearing that solo, it becomes easy to understand (though I ultimately don’t agree with) the backhanded nature of Gitler’s evaluation. To call Monk’s playing angular in “Bag’s…” is a bit like calling Marilyn Monroe pretty or Magic Johnson agile for a big man. It’s accurate but doesn’t really suffice, dig? Compared to the (soon to be classique) straight ahead sensibility of the rest of the group, Thelonious arrives as if from some other planet. For a small taste of what it was like to be a jazz fan in the ‘50s, nonchalantly confronted with the crossroads of hipster elegance and square limitations, well look no further. But Monk ultimately and rather easily transcends attitudes of mere coolness. He was, in the sage words of Ray Davies, not like everybody else. Hey, thanks Miles, for being such an astute pain in the ass.

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