Indonesian jazz, depth charge dance and Record Store Day 2015’s stacks o wax
Journeys through vinyl, but it from analog or digital sources, with good music the only common currency
by Ken Micallef
Jazz guitarists, and those who love their music, sometimes fall into strange and unusual camps.
There are jazz purists for whom Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Barney Kessel, Freddie and Grant Green remain the Holy Grails of the instrument, those single-note rhythm slingers who never confused complexity with good taste. Spanning wider within the jazz guitar canon, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, George Benson, the largely forgotten Johnny Smith, and Kenny Burrell brought greater improvisational dexterity, with advanced chordal structures and harmonic density allied to superb soloing skills. The disciples of these masters became the modern guitar stars: Bill Frisell, Mike Stern, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Allan Holdsworth (though whether he is a pure jazz guitarist is up for debate). Quickly swimming into their wake is the 40ish crew who reside primarily in New York City yet hail from across the globe, including Peter Bernstein, Gilad Hekselman, Tom Chang, Rez Abassi, Julian Lage, Lage Lund, Wayne Krantz, Nels Cline, and Charlie Hunter.
Jazz guitar lovers can be as obsessive and single-minded as fans of Eddie Van Halen, Tony Iommi or Randy Rhoads. They cloak their fanaticism in jazz minutiae, challenging each other on the bizarre and cryptic knowledge contained in alternate takes, bootleg recordings, and suspicious tales endlessly discussed (Lenny Breau’s death by strangulation, Danny Gatton’s unexplained suicide: Go!). Burrowing into deadwax, deep groove and vinyl weight variations, jazz guitar lovers put their vinyl collections to levels of scrutiny and verification as demanding as confirming authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course, this madness can be applied to all completists within jazz fandom, but as in rock guitar where stage front and center demands adulation, modern jazz guitar — though wrestling against the more influential history of jazz tenor saxophone – is what brought most of us to our current jazz fascination, migrating as many of us did through ’70s progressive rock and fusion to pure jazz.
This brings us to jazz’s global reputation. When jazz was dying on the vine in the late ‘60s as free jazz (“New Thing”) and rock’s strangle-hold forced the sophisticated jazz guard to tour Europe and Japan where many remained for years (Dexter Gordon comes to mind), the Japanese rightly deserve credit for keeping jazz reissues alive. Japan’s King and Toshiba labels reissued Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige LPs and CDs years before similar reissue campaigns hit the US, where most jazz labels were split up and sold off during the music’s early 1980s barren period (though fans of European free jazz fans will dispute any notion of a “barren period”). While European and Japanese jazz musicians have grown in prominence, skill, and influence (the entire ECM roster for example), jazz remains a US of A game. Or does it?
Superstar Indonesian guitarist Dewa Budjana is upending that equation. Bringing the pop sensibility of Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, and a touch of Joe Satriani to long-form world-oriented fusion compositions that allude to Metheny, Holdsworth and Scott Henderson, the 40-something Budjana has recorded over 20 albums with his pop rock band, Gigi (100s of 1000s of albums sold), and eight solo albums. Budjana’s music incorporates a global perspective, his compositions equally blasting, cerebral and dreamlike, with fevered, tightly-wound solos balanced by expansive melodies that stretch over bar lines, arcing like a lunar orbit.
Budjana’s most recent release, Hasta Karma (Moonjune Records) ─ with its freaky cover depicting nine hands illustrating Buddhist symbols, under water as if in a woodland pool, while nearby a submerged guitar grows into a thicket of brambles forming an arch ─ features the best US jazz musicians his serious pop money can buy: bassist Ben Williams, drummer Antonio Sanchez, and vibraphonist Joe Locke, the latter the unusual melodic ringer in this exceptional album of progressive, blissed-out modern jazz.
Well recorded and produced, Hasta Karma is a thundering, high pressure journey through lengthy stretches of atmospheric soloing by Locke and Budjana, with Williams and Sanchez toiling hand-in-glove from their tenure in Pat Metheny’s Unity Group. It’s great to hear modern jazz this well recorded and performed on vinyl! In the US, vinyl is prohibitively expensive for most jazz musicians, but Budjana’s three and counting vinyl releases are uniformly well executed, while the focus of each album is quite different. Hasta Karma is guitar texture heaven, Budjana’s sounds ranging from fuzzed and searing to wet and squirming. The result of a single recording session at Kaleidoscope Sound in Union City, New Jersey, Hasta Karma is a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz guitar in the mold of Metheny, Scott Henderson and yes, Al DiMeola, whose recent world music albums are wonderful – for those with ears to hear.
Recorded in 2013 in Los Angeles, Budjana’s Surya Namaskar (MoonJune) is one for fans of both guitar solos and madly improvisational drums and electric bass, here performed by Vinnie Colaiuta and Jimmy Johnson, respectively. Not since Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets has a guitar-driven trio album featured such explosive, demented and fantastical rhythm section playing.
With fellow drum ringer Gary Husband on synthesizers and Michael Landau on guitar, the Budjana/Johnson/ Colaiuta workout is pure balls-to-the-wall, improvisational taking of zero prisoners. Budjana leads the trio through the hypnotic 6/8 burn of “Duaji & Guruji,” and the calming title track, as well as lyrical acoustic guitar pieces.
Perhaps his first expression as an improvising wunderkind, Joged Kahyangan (MoonJune) is Budjana at his most commercial, though nothing here would work at, say, a Sting concert. Taking advantage of the superior skills of drummer Peter Erskine, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Jimmy Johnson and vocalist Janis Siegel, Joged Kahyangan is Budjana’s streamlined pop-jazz vision: a focus on melodies and commercial appeal, less on rabid jazz improvisation.
Still, as a document from whence Dewa Budjana came, Joged Kahyangan is worth a listen on Spotify. Surya Namaskar and Hasta Karma, on the other hand, are examples of the finest in world jazz, which is truly a global improvising language, even while Americans typically bury their heads in the compressed sand of hip-hop and country MP3s.
While most would agree that Bjork’s earliest albums, Debut, Post, and Homogenic, were innovative recordings compositionally, instrumentally, and in their production esthetic, the elfin Icelandic woman with the equally sensitive and caterwauling vocals has missed the mark more often than not in recent years as acting, fashion, and museum installations have occupied her freewheeling brain.
Enter Vulnicura (One Little Indian Records), her ninth studio album, produced by Björk, Arca and The Haxan Cloak, the latter one of the most arresting of contemporary electronic artists. I could barely pull Vulnicura out of its clear vinyl sleeve, its halo of murky colors creating a two-in-one cover art overlay (of a female bending backward as if to swallow a sword) when enclosing the album jacket.
Cited as essentially a break-up album, Bjork composed Vulnicura in the same fashion as 1997’s Homogenic, programming and arranging chamber strings over electronic beats in all varieties of weight, tempo and texture. In theory, Vulnicura should sound similar to those early Bjork masterpieces, yet with a maturity that comes with age. Post and Debut in particular were mad hi-fi workouts, their super low synth tones the biggest challenge to woofers this side of a pipe organ’s foot pedals or Hammond B3. We’re talking serious, nearly subsonic tones that stretched for miles and terrorized the neighbors, allied to Bjork’s demonstrative yelps and growls and perfect, pop friendly songcraft.
Unfortunately, I found Vulnicura to be uniformly dull, melodramatic, pretentious, and boring. The songs on this four-sided double LP all share a similar melodic and rhythmic footprint, as Bjork’s cavern-filling vocals stretch and pitch theatrically over chamber strings and righteous electronic dance beats. There is little variation, even the melodies from side to side sound the same. There are no melodic or vocal hooks to latch onto, or perhaps I am mistaken in thinking this is still pop music. I guess it’s serious music now?
Anyway, the production is interesting, Bjork’s penchant for subsonic low frequencies still intact as are her eccentric synth sounds. But there is a murkiness to the album’s sound, a dark, syrupy stench of a sound like someone forgot to attend to the music’s upper frequencies, because they simply don’t exist on Vulnicura.
Larry Young, In Paris
I faithfully lined up at 7:30 a recent April morning to attend Record Store Day 2015. I chose Rock & Soul Records in midtown Manhattan, hoping its low profile would mean a short line, and I was right and wrong. I was early enough to grab a good spot in line – 30 humans back from the front door. Did I have a list? Sure I had a list. But I was also open to suggestion and all possibilities.
Doors opened and I swiftly raced to the merchandise, grabbing The Doors’ debut LP in mono, a Jethro Tull live double LP, Goldfrapp’s excellent mid ‘90s debut, Felt Mountain, the Miles Davis’ Prestige EP box Volume 2, a Thelonious Monk live record, and Larry Young in Paris – The ORTF Recordings (Resonance). “This exclusive 10” record features never-before released, 1965 live and studio recordings from the Office of Radio and Television in France featuring American jazz organist & pianist, Larry Young. 140g vinyl,” stated the RSD site.
Known for stretching the Hammond B3 organ’s boundaries in the late 60s and early 70s, Larry Young recorded a series of highly regarded Blue Note albums, including Into Somethin’, Unity and Contrasts, essential jazz listening by anyone’s standards. As opposed to such then popular Hammond B3 organists as Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, and Don Patterson, Young played with a modal approach, entirely rewriting the instrument’s parameters. His compositions were also adventurous, performed by the upper echelon of jazz royalty, including drummer Elvin Jones, tenor players Joe Henderson and Sam Rivers, and trumpeters Woody Shaw and Lee Morgan. Young was a “true” organist, playing both the keyboard and the foot pedals, his swirling, heated improvisations the match of any of his accompanists. On par with the dense, furious compositions of Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, Larry Young was a game changer.
So it’s a total surprise to hear the in-the-pocket, hard bop performances on Larry Young in Paris – The ORTF Recordings. Recorded in 1965 while he was knee-deep into his Blue Note contract, this record finds Young apparently blowing off steam with a local pickup band for a French radio audience where the only challenge is to entertain. Young’s Blue Note LPs are so feverish and intense, the Paris recording recalls his earlier Prestige work before his serious spiritual side took hold. Tunes include “Beyond All Limits,” “Luny Tune,” “Frame of Thought” and “Larry’s Blues.” These are a foretaste of an upcoming Resonance release, the complete Larry Young in Paris – The ORTF Recordings. For fans of Young’s later Blue Note work or those simply fond of a classy blowing session, this 10” sampler, along with the Miles Davis EP set, is my choice for best release of RSD 2015.
The Darjeeling Limited
If 50s/60s era Indian folk/pop just isn’t your thing, The Darjeeling Limited soundtrack may be. Though I didn’t see what is apparently a great film, the soundtrack certainly qualifies as space and time travel.
The soundtrack includes aromatic pop ditties from The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and Peter Sarstedt as well as vintage Indian Bollywood from Satyajit Ray, Jodphur Sikh Temple Congregation, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and others.
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, The Darjeeling Limited vinyl has an intimacy, a you-are-there quality as if you’re on that train in 1968 with The Beatles travelling to Rishikesh, northern India, to attend a Transcendental Meditation training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
In the end all you need is love, and vinyl, right?
About the Author
Raised in the Deep South, educated as a commercial artist, Micallef is also a regular contributor to Autodesk’s lineshapespace.com online business magazine, where Smart Buildings, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things provide grist for the mill of future design and cloud-based and 3D manufacturing.
Ken’s current rig includes Shindo electronics, DeVore Fidelity and Snell speakers, a Kuzma turntable and various cartridges.
Financial Interests: Ken contributes to several music-related media outlets including Positive Feedback Online and Digital Audio Review.