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January 31, 2008

If Bach had lived in Cuba...

or Beethoven had lived in Brazil, or Chopin in Louisiana...

They might have sounded like Frank French.
He is one of the best and least-recognized pianist/composers working today. In addition to mastering classical, ragtime, choro, tango, and carribean styles of piano playing, he has fused them together in some terrific compositions. Along with fellow Pianists Scott Kirby and David Thomas Roberts, he has developed a (virtually unknown but beautiful) genre of music known as Terre Verde. It is complex, but accessible; swinging and mealancholy; romantic yet contemporary; spare and full of energy.

Check out some videos of him here

or listen to some of his music here and here

Highly recommended, especially if you liked the Lionel Belasco post.

More on Frank and the other Terra Verde pianists to come. If you're interested, check out the Terra Verde label, Viridiana Production. You can hear all those guys there.

And if you like what you hear, please share this post and consider ordering some of their albums. They're some of the hardest-working and most talented contemporary musicians. And they're criminally under-exposed. Virtually all of their music is available from the links above, and all of it is worth hearing.

January 29, 2008

Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Sam Bush, Butch Robins, Vassar Clements, David Holland, Jethro Burns

Year: 1975
Label: Flying Fish

I have often thought that jazz and bluegrass have a lot in common (this goes along with my secret theory that The Grateful Dead was Rock & Roll's unconscious answer to Ornette Coleman). Both traditions rely on dynamic group interaction, where the musicians take turns soloing and supporting each other. Improvisation is a key element, there is a premium on tone, and communication is paramount. There's no such thing as going it alone.

The musicians on this record are:
* Norman Blake - Guitar, Mandocello, Vocals
* Vassar Clements - Violin
* Jethro Burns - Guitar, Mandolin
* Butch Robins - Banjo
* Tut Taylor - Dobro, Mandolin
* Sam Bush - Mandola, Mandolin
* David Holland - Bass
And let me tell you, they all shine. It would be fair to call this a supergroup, though they were never really all a band. But they are certainly virtuosi. Not only are they all masters of their instruments, able to play anything they set their minds to, but they have enough confidence and taste to know what and when not to play. As a result, the tunes on this album are sometimes bursting into a multitude of exciting different directions, sometimes enticingly spare and gripping.

This record is a jam session. Which is to say, it is a dialogue made possible by the shared language of tradition, but born out of a need to express spontaneously, to jointly create an entity that exists only in the present moment. The musicians who made this album were not a band, though some had played together before. They were mostly seasoned studio musicians, adept at supporting people they had just met.

So it makes sense then, that though some of these players met the second time to record this album, they all sound so comfortable, you'd think they'd been playing together for years. That being said, they stretch well-beyond their comfort zones, forging a new path between two genres of music that had rarely met. And though there are some jaw dropping passages of dazzling virtuosity, the whole album feels relaxed. It feels like these musicians, from different generations, different traditions, and different countries, have all gathered around to have a barbecue and take turns telling their lives. Yeah, kinda like that. But better.

And don't just take my word for it; read the AMG review.
Or, better yet...

hear it for yourself.

mr (vinyl) | mp3 vbr 192+kbps | no cover | 56mb

and here are the liner notes, which tell how this album came to be, and conveys the awe of discovering these musicians in the '70s:

saturday afternoon in nashville

me and norman and all the rest of the gathered together in hound's ear studio and played music. we are here because of our shared desire to record together. spontaneous and free!

i started playing guitar when i was eleven, i guess, and took lessons from rev. gary davis when i was sixteen. my interest in acoustic music developed something like this: john hurt gary davis jerry jeff walker david bromberg doc watson bluegrass! bill monroe flatt & scruggs mandolin 5-string banjo and the violin! charlie poole arthur leizime brusoe kenny bakker bromberg's 1st record with hartford's band! these guys are fantastic! find john hartford's aero plain record produced by bromberg with norman blake, vassar clements & tut taylor. see john fartford on P.B.S. t.v. with arthur fiedler and norman blake & vassar clements. they play symphony hall rag! i am thinking this approaches jazz on acoustic instruments. vassar is exciting! go to philly folk festival. see & hear john & norman blake. they play richland avenue (front porch-wood pile) rag and talk about how they stacked wood that somebody left on norman's driveway and about how they sat down to pick afterwards on norman's front porch. i have never seen or heard anyone play the guitar with the confidence and ease of norman blake. norman says he's got a record out on rounder, i get it along with tut's and vassar's. john hartford's new record comes out with old joe clark on it, which he & norman played at the philly folk festival. i keep remembering seeing those 2 musicians on stage at philly playing beautiful music with all the ease and confidence i've ever seen in one place in my whole life. there is a jazz bassist from london on john's new record. david holland.

david's bass playing is warm & soft & mellow. his sense of timing is perfect. uncanny. the way he hears his music is new to me and beautiful. subtle & smooth. like nature. i am playing the fiddle now. have a recurring fantasy about wanting to hear david holland and vassar clements play together. improvise & communicate like staphane grappelli and django reinhardt. am anxious to see everyone in concert together and wait. get tired of waiting and decide to produce my own concert with my favorite musicians: result: i present john hartford, norman blake, david bromberg, vassar clements, tut taylor, sam bush and david holland at the academy of music in April '74. success! right before the concert a radio dj gives me a promo record the radio station got: a david holland record called conference of the birds, with two saxophone players and a fantastic percussionist named barry altschul. this is avant garde jazz, i read. vassar had just told me he listened to jazz horns and stuff like that. miles davis. i begin to listen to jazz along with this esoteric bluegrass of john & vassar. experience django & stephane.

… after concert we talk about phonograph records and record companies some. hey, let's do a record in nashville with everybody. "and jethro burns" says sam. o.k. all right let's do it. i fly to nashville to see claude hill and we do it. i finally get to hear vassar clements and david holland play together and now so do you.

Hank Deane
Sunday 30 March 1975

January 21, 2008

Harry Partch - Delusion of the Fury

Enclosure VI: Delusion of the Fury
a ritual of dream & delusion, opera in 2 acts for voices & large ensemble of Partch instruments

Another hero, another hobo.

Harry Partch stands alone as the most creative, individual, and iconoclastic musician of the entire 20th century. He reinvented music, starting with it's foundation: the scale. Tossing aside the familiar 12-tone octave familiar to western ears, Partch invented a 43-tone octave. Which meant, of course, that he had to build all his own instruments. And, of course, he had to teach people to play those instruments. In addition to this inventing, crafting, and teaching, Partch composed some of the most unique and compelling music I've ever heard. And, in his most-ambitious masterpiece, Delusion of the Fury (1969), he also wrote the libretto, choreographed dances and made costumes. If this begins to paint a picture of an obsessive control-freak, well, that is perhaps true; but while Harry Partch had to do everything his own way (it had never been done before), his work is never self-indulgent or pretentious -- it is inclusive, relevant, and timeless.

"Harry Partch was born June 24, 1901, in Oakland, California, the third child of Presbyterian missionaries who had spent 10 years in China prior to his birth. His boyhood was spent near Tombstone, Arizona, where, despite the total lack of formal music training, he grew up surrounded by music. His mother, a woman of talent and determination, taught her children to read music and play several instruments. Young Harry, by the time he was 6, not only knew how to play the reed organ, but also the guitar, the clarinet, and the harmonica. He began to compose at 14. When the family moved to New Mexico and he received the first music lesson outside his home, he discovered in short order that he loathed formal music training as repressive and constricting. It was an antipathy that colored the rest of his life. He struck out on his own, and, in the years that followed, wrote a piano concerto, a symphonic poem, a string quartet, all in the conventional mode. To keep body and soul together, he became a proofreader, a sometime piano player, a grape picker, while he continued to compose and to search for a way to express his music. Then, at age 28, in New Orleans, he burned the whole body of his musical work of 14 years, determined to start anew, to develop for himself music that would trancend the conventions of musical composition. Its basis was the multi-tines he found in the space of the octave. It enabled him to make the first transitions ever from the human voice to the musical instrument. During the depression, Partch traveled throughout America by rail as a hobo, writing of his experiences in his music. Although he had received a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant in 1934, it wasn't until 1943 that he received the first of the more substantial grants that made it possible for him to work and travel and to give the 1931-34 and 1943-45 performances that started to make his work known.
To this day, the difficulties surrounding a performance of Partch's music -- the complexities of training musicians to play his music on his instrumens and then to transport those large and delicate objects that cannot function properly without his personal attention -- inhibit managers and impresarios.
Partch now lives quietly in Encinitas, California, in what he calls his first real home since his childhood, surrounded by the bizarre and wonderful array of instruments he has built, through which he has made, according to Jacque Barzun, "the most original and powerful contribution to dramatic music on this continent." -- Eugene Paul, from the liner notes of the original 1971 release.

His handmade instruments include some that are somewhat familiar (though adapted to play on his scales), such as modified marimbas, lap guitars, zithers, gongs, gourds, and violas. There are also some that are much less familiar: his Kitharas, based on ancient lyres; his Harmonic Canons, complex koto-like instruments, and his Chromelodeons, adapted reed organs. And there are some Partch instruments that are completely unlike any other, such as the Cloud-Chamber Bowls, made of "Pyrex chemical solution jars cut in half, suspended on a rack, and hit on sides and tops with soft mallets;" the Spoils of War, which "consists of artillery shell casings. Pyrex chemical solution jars, a high wood block and low marimba bar, spring steel flexitones (Whang Guns), and a gourd guiro"; and the Blo-Boy, a foot-pedal mechanism that acoustically reproduces the sound of a train whistle. The marvel of the Partch instruments' sound is all-the-more marvelous when one realizes that many of them are made from common household or junkyard items.

Most innovators come from a tradition, and even if they expand that tradition, their work ultimately falls into that tradition's evolutionary trajectory. They stand on a firmly established foundation, adding a brick to the top, or finding a place where two sides could be bridged. Partch started a whole new building. Which is not to say he did not have influences. Partch's list of influences includes "Christian hymns, Chinese lullabyes, Yaqui Indian ritual, Congo puberty ritual, Cantonese music hall, and Okies in California vineyards, among others," (I would add to that list Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, Southeast Asian gamelan music, ancient Greek theater, cinematography, carnivals and trains). His music is ur-world music; it is East-meets-West; it is avant-garde primitivism; it is mythic and autobiographical; it is non-generic, i.e. universal.

This music is weird. Frankly, it's quite scary. On the first listen, pretty much everyone will be taken aback, confused, uncomfortable, even psychologically nauseous. The sounds are so alien-sounding to ears used to Western music; it is difficult to feel the tremendous amount of emotion in the music because we only hear its surface qualities. At first. Those who find this strange, out-of-comfort-zone music interesting enough to keep listening will be drawn into another world. The world of Harry Partch is complete and self-sufficient. Using Just Intonation, Partch's instruments produce shimmering pure harmonies. And his microtonal intervals allow the music to acquire emotional shading that is simultaneously frightening and uplifting. And while Partch's music is certainly otherworldly, it also has a quality of primeval familiarity to it -- an ancient and unforgettable truth, an enchanting magic, rings through this music -- which separates it from the bulk of avant-garde and experimental music.

Through all this, Harry Partch has succeeded in creating a truly moving, original art. Though it draws from many sources, it imitates none. With Delusion of the Fury, Partch synthesizes art, music, film, theater, and life into a new form of integrated musical theater. His aesthetic position is Corporeal, a music that is essentially "tactile." And to see his intricately crafted instruments, or his musician-dancer's outfits one realizes that Partch's sense of beauty included all senses. And while the format of his productions was akin to musical theater, with narrative, characters, stage and all, the experience of them was more akin to a ritual -- fully inclusive of the audience, and with a narrative understood to reflect everyone's life. As Harry Partch said, "This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experienceritual."

Delusion of the Fury | recorded 1969, released 1971 | cd; not my rip | 192 kbps mp3 | with cover
download it here. (re-re-posted Mar 26 '08)
and please leave a comment, telling me what you thought.

External Links:
If you like what you heard, you can purchase more of his music from New World Records,
and see this excellent biography and discography, with links to most of his albums.

The whole Enclosure series of Partch archives (8 parts: CDs, DVDs and a book) is available from innova Recordings: This includes the CD of Delusion as well as the film of the frst performance. ~~anonymous

See the pictures of his instruments, as they appeared in the liner notes.

To learn more about his instruments, click here.
And here are the original liner notes
both of which are hosted by his official site.

See also the allmusic guide listing for the composition and the performance.

And find out more about just intonation here.

January 13, 2008

Lionel Belasco - Goodnight Ladies and Gents

Belasco was the Scott Joplin of calypso:
he composed West Indian music from folk sources, which he found on his many travels throughout the islands, and was the first person to popularize calypso outside Trinidad. Piano player, band leader, composer, and entrepreneur, Belasco recorded more West Indian songs before World War II than any other performer.

For those of you who like calypso (or are interested in the roots of Carribean music), this is the real thing. Belasco is at the heart of the birth of calypso music, as its first important composer, arranger, and piano player. He crafted a style which incorporated such various influences as ragtime, dixieland jazz, Brazilian choro, Venezuelan folk, Trinidadian ritual music, classical parlor music, and the Spanish romantic tradition. Think a genteel Buena Vista Social Club via a trip through the slums of New Orleans and Brazil.

Port of Spain, Trinidad was in many ways the was the musical Mecca of the Carribean. It was "the most cosmopolitan place in the world for its size. It's like Hong Kong. You have every nationality in the world there… Syrians, Chinese, Portugese, East Indians, everything English, Jews Spaniards, there are still Carib Indians… I mean sometimes you walk in certain parts of Trinidad and you think that you are in a foreign country because you hear nothing else [but foreign languages]." --Lionel Belasco, from an interview 1961

Additionally, Belasco absorbed influences outside the city. As a teenager, he would go to out in the jungle to participate in stick fights and cock fights (once he got his hand broken by a cudgel). He witnessed a lot of native's songs, dances, and rituals, and brought this jungle music back to the city (much to the dismay of his mother). He also traveled extensively in Venezuela and Brazil, and was likely exposed to the similarly syncopated Choro music of Ernesto Nazareth, as well as South American folk melodies. He also lived and recorded in New York City for many years. His music was Creole; a true mix of cultures and races. Belasco's music inhabits a rare middle ground between the jungle and the parlor. It is both raw and refined.

Though there is quite a lot of nimble, quick playing on the part of the accompanists (check the Eddie Lang-esque guitar on Blow Wind Blow and Caroline), it never feels rushed. Belasco keeps to a stately pace throughout all the songs, never hurried and never lagging. It's a rhythm you could strut to, provided you also swung your hips and shoulders. This stately tempo allows for Belasco's infectious syncopation to work its magic. Through subtle polyrhythms, a simple melodic line becomes an complex and compelling tune without losing its simplicity.

Whether playing as an band-leader, accompanist to singers like the great Wilmouth Houdini, or solo, Belasco always played his music with grace and continuity. He never leaves you in the dark: every wayward melody finds its home, and each emotion is resolved before the next one begins. He can play an upbeat, joyous song that swings like you've never heard, and the next minute play a lilting waltz that becomes all the more mournful for its steady pulse and lack of dramatic flair. When the day is done, this music may seem old-fashioned, and in many ways it is. The lyrics, like most of calypso, are largely about the neighbors. It is gossip in song form. But the music also contains the gentle seed of something that we have forgotten. All art reflects the culture it is born in. With its gently prodding rhythm and loping melodies, this music gives us a glance to a world caught in between tradition and modernization: an impossible cusp where for a moment, the excitement of the dawning bustle of the city matched the regret for its drowning heritage.

get it here: part 1 and part 2 (re-re-re-posted May 10 2009)

my rip | mp3 192+vbr | 105 mb | cover included

see also the postings for Calypso Pioneers and Wilmouth Houdini at El Diablo Tun-Tun, and you'll find many more fine calypso, mento, afro-cuban, cajun, blues, old-time, etc. postings there too

January 9, 2008

Washington Phillips - The Key to the Kingdom

There are few musicians who can make something that sounds as sweet as a lullaby and as haunting as a death rattle. There are not many Christian religious singers who convey a sense of humility and quiet acceptance that is powerful enough to make me fully believe his words. There are not many musicians who directly influenced the great Blind Willie Johnson.

Needless to say, Washington Phillips was a singular artist. No one has ever sounded like him, and likely no one ever will. It wasn't just that his instrumental accompaniment sounded like a cross between a harp, a guitar, a piano, and a set of ringing chimes, which sounded a heavenly cloud of notes. Beyond that, there is a certain clarity and weariness to his singing that cuts to the heart. It is that world-weariness, that wise and passive acceptance of suffering, which transforms his songs' potentially sentimental or preachy lyrics into poignant prayers that cut through all pretense. Washington Phillips is like the painter Fra Angelico, whose humility separates his paintings from every other renaissance artist. He crafts small, unassuming gems which hold an authority born of wonder, honesty, and a devotional attention to detail. Both artists do what medieval churches do: they make me want to believe in a simple, holy glory upon which I can rest my burden and be lifted up. This music is not about salvation; it is salvation.

Washington Phillips is bearing witness to God as he sings to us, and he is baring his soul equally. There is no distance (intellectual, spiritual, or emotional) between Phillips, God, and us. He is present and with us at every moment, sharing his devotion and cultivating our own. It is this presentness, I believe, which collapses the time between the recording of these songs (1927-29) and now. We can't believe like Washington Phillips believed anymore, no more than we can believe as they believed in medieval times. Our world is larger; our heaven is smaller. Yet these songs, but for their residual layer of surface noise, sound like they were made tomorrow. Joanna Newsom would do well to hear these recordings, as would all of the hyped-up singing preachers currently polluting our spirits and airwaves.

There are also 4 tracks on this cd from Blind Mamie and A.C Forehand, a street-singing duo that sounds like Blind Willie Johnson with a haunting female singer and a chiming hotel desk bell to keep time. Two of the tracks appeared on the excellent John Fahey-produced compilation American Primitive Vol.1: Raw Pre-War Gospel, available through Revenant Records.

A Note on Washington Phillips' instrumentation:
For years it was thought that Phillips played a dulceola (a zither-like instrument with a small keyboard attached that was invented by piano tuner David P. Boyd in the 1890s) at these sessions, but it now appears that he actually played two self-modified table zithers (one a phonoharp and the other a celestaphon) simultaneously to get his unique, celestial sound.
--from the AllMusic Guide entry

This information was distilled from extensive, fascinating research, which you can read at Fretless Zithers and the Dulceola Pages.

Get it here

my rip | mp3 192+vbr kpbs | 79mb | cover included in mp3 files

also see the Phillips post at BluesRoots; that album has fewer tracks and lower bitrate, for all you dial-up pirateens.

also check out this extensive Washington Phillips discography.

January 1, 2008

John Fahey - God, Time & Causality

Label: Shanachie
Year: 1998

..we may here have the ultimate - both in terms of best and final - statement of American Primitive Guitar.
(from the liner notes)

For those of you who don't know who John Fahey is, do yourself a service and look him up on wikipedia or . He is every bit as important to contemporary music as people like Harry Partch, John Cage, Jelly Roll Morton, Astor Piazzola, Duke Ellington, Arsenio Rodríguez, Frank Zappa, and Bill Monroe. His contribution to guitar playing is on the level of Andres Segovia, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Charley Patton, Son House, Davey Graham, Charlie Christian, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Django Reinhardt.

This album is a masterpiece. I'd put it up there with his The Yellow Princess, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, and America. Except technically his playing is even better than on them. “I practiced a lot to save on studio time. I don’t think there’s one edit on the whole record,” said Fahey about his playing on the album. And the sound quality is clear and sharp, so every note comes through sparkling. These two qualities (well-precticed virtuosity and crispness of recording), could easily turn into a cold display of prowess, but they don't. Instead, they serve only to heighten all those aspects of Fahey's playing and composing which make him stand out from fingerbusters like Leo Kottke. Like Kottke, Fahey's rhythm is complex and driving, his melodies are precise and syncopated with layers of sympathetic harmonic and dissonant drones. You can hear all the overlapping layers of sound individual and distinct from one another, but they never separate from the overall cloud of shimmering sound that washes over you. You can bathe in this music. You can drown in this music.

But more than any of his peers, Fahey had a classical musician's approach to phrasing, timing, and tone. He could play a fast, pounding tempo and just as the tension was about to bring it to climax, he would slow way down for a moment to let a note have that much extra impact. He would use the overtones ringing open strings as a harmonic counterpoint to his melodies. In Fahey's world, all the elements of music -- melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, tone, dissonance, tempo -- are subservient to expression. The roots of many of Fahey's songs can be traced back to folk music and blues. Those musics are rooted in the tradition of dance and storytelling, with steady rhythms and circular melodies to support those functions. Taken through Fahey's lens, those same steady rhythms and circular melodies have taken flight from the tradition to which they were bound. Freed from the need to provide a foundation for dance or tell a story, the music becomes an entity of its own. The story is the unnamable mystery of our inner consciousness. The dance is life. The dance is death.

Notes on the Songs
(from The Fahey Files):

Note: we believe that God, Time and Causality was recorded in 1977

From the sleeve notes: In Charley Patton’s 1929 recording, You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die, he quoted the biblical Book of Revelation. Here, Fahey musically quotes Patton in a terse mood piece with shimmering slides.

The Red Pony
From the sleeve notes: Formerly known as Wine and Roses. Possibly named after [John] Steinbeck’s minor novel. The sleevenote says: “Perhaps Van Gogh would’ve sounded like this, had he been given a guitar and not a palette. The piece is expressionistic and angry – Fahey’s guitar becomes a stringed pipe organ, bleating wrath and redemption.”

From the sleeve notes: “If you’re going to steal,” Fahey once said, “steal from obscure sources.” Walter Hawkins ranks high on any list of blues obscurities, though perhaps higher on a scale of originality. The Arkansas ragtime/blues guitarist, who made a handful of recordings in the late ‘20s, somehow absorbed elements of flamenco into his music, perhaps from a stint in Europe during World War I. His A Rag (Fahey’s point of departure here) was liberally spiced with ragtime flamenco! A tribute from one eccentric eclectic guitarist to another, Lion also features a stately Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and, along with some classical wistfulness, references to the music of Charley Patton and Skip James.

Medley: Interlude/The Portland Cement Factory/Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt
From the sleeve notes: C tuning has a wonderfully spacious sound. Fahey uses it for a blend of bugle calls, oriental scales, an hints of Train 4 in his requiem for the gentle John Hurt.
Interlude – This is parts of Melody McBad from Visits Washington DC. The IFC believes that this medley and Sandy on Earth date from 1977.

Medley: Snowflakes/Steamboat ‘Gwine Around The Bend/Death of the Clayton Peacock/How Green Was My Valley
Snowflakes – Not quite a new piece, having been extracted from the conclusion of Silent Night on The New Possibility (1968), plus the intro to Delta Blues (1978).
From the sleeve notes: Well, bottleneck in spirit, but Fahey actually plays Hawaiian style – a guitar with a raised nut set in the lap and fretted with a steel Dobro bar. Musically, he takes us on a slow boat to China that eventually meanders to the Mississippi on a hot summer’s day at the turn of the century. The darker passages evoke the sweltering Delta milieu of Charley Patton; with typical Fahey irony, Death of the Clayton Peacock is the happiest tune on this album.

Medley: Sandy on Earth/I’ll See You in My Dreams
The major surprise on the record. Whilst all the preceding songs were (over) familiar to fans, Sandy on Earth, formerly known as The Nut House, is the masterpiece from the great 1977 sessions which remain (as of 2006) unreleased. The original version contained minor if marvellous electronic enhancements; this version is plain. The composition is anything but, however, and retains the power to amaze and enchant. Even non-Fahey fans have been known to enjoy this one.
From the sleeve notes: Sandy on Earth, Fahey says, “is really the fun house, a place where reality slips and slides, expands and contracts. Fahey’s love of Russian composers is hinted at alongside more Walter Hawkins’ riffs. Then Charley Patton meets Sabicas as sudden flamenco flourishes erupt, and with them some percussive string snapping. I’ll See You In My Dreams is a bittersweet Depression-era pop standard Fahey loves, as did country fingerpicker Merle Travis. Fahey plays it hard – you can almost hear the strings wince under his attack.

Get it here
mp3 | vbr ~250kbps | cover included

if you like this music and are interested in more, leave a comment.

also, if you would like to discover lots of similar artists, check out grown go ugly.

and here is a good review of the album at Bagatellen