Monthly Archives: July 2012

Five Recordings to Get Into the Outside

Today’s piece is specifically written for those who don’t fully embrace free jazz. I have a lot of friends who say they “just don’t get it” when I put on some far-out Sun Ra and even some who say Thelonious Monk sounds like a beginning piano student. I’ve compiled a brief list of recordings that hopefully can help ease these people into the world of free jazz, help them find their way out.

 

  1. “So What” from Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

If you own only one jazz record, it’s Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue is the record everyone gets to get into jazz, with good reason. Miles Davis was a driving force behind at least three major jazz movements (cool jazz, modal jazz, and fusion), and Kind of Blue is one of his most beautiful records. It has very little dissonance, which, unfortunately turns it into background dinner music all too often. Kind of Blue was the first widely appreciated modal jazz recording. The term “modal” comes from the archaic church modes, which were used in early chant, before harmony was developed in the west. Modal jazz refers to the fact that the musicians improvise over these established modes, the major and minor scales with slight variations, instead of improvising over chord changes.

This makes a lot more sense in the context of jazz history. Before the 1950s, the dominant trend in jazz was bebop (the punk rock of jazz). Bebop tunes are generally always based on frequent chord changes, over which the musicians would fly in their solos. For example, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps came out the same year as Kind of Blue (on which Coltrane also played, of course). Giant Steps’s legacy is now that it has some of the hardest chord changes to play over of any commonly played jazz standard. Coltrane, and Charlie Parker before him, made theirs names playing fast tunes with a lot of chords. Miles Davis, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in playing super fast technical passages in his bands. Kind of Blue successfully created a subgenre of jazz, free of restrictive chord changes, and almost free of harmony. Listen to “So What” to hear how, after a free, yet subdued, introduction, pianist Bill Evans and bassist Paul Chambers play the same chord for 16 bars in a row, one different chord for 8, and then return to the original chord for 8 more. As the form repeats, they effectively play the same chord for 24 bars in a row with a short interruption before doing so again. Even though the musicians all play within the modes, the abandonment of traditional harmony is one key element of free jazz.

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B-52s at Denver Botanic Gardens

B-52s
July 4, 2012
Denver Botanic Gardens, Chatfield
By Geoff Anderson

Is there anybody that doesn’t like the B-52s? Probably, but most of those people have had a lobotomy or went to law school. Actually, I didn’t think much of the B-52s when they first hit the scene in 1979. I was in college at the time and very serious about music. I was all about progressive rock and its complexity and virtuosic playing. I had also begun listening to a lot of jazz at the time too, which of course features more complexity and virtuosity. So when the B-52s showed up with their crazy hairdos, cartoonish album covers and seemingly simplistic ditties, it was pretty obvious that this was not serious music. Not for me.

Then, I went to Scott Arbough’s annual Halloween party in Boulder in 1989. There, sometime around midnight and sandwiched between “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” by the Stones and some Stevie Ray Vaughn, “Love Shack” came on the stereo. There was no denying the pure party power of the song. And we’re not talkin’ the kind of party with conversations like these, “I have one word of advice: Plastics!” or “Scalia has clearly exceed his Constitutional authority this time!” No! We’re talkin’ a party attitude that does not include investment advice, politics or the law. “Sure! I’ll take another beer, bro!” It was a tune that demanded that you move; demanded that you dance, now! That night at Scott’s house, I finally got it.

“Love Shack” has the beat that absolutely will not let you remain seated; or even standing: Dance, indeed. The fact that a whale sized Chrysler plays a key role in “Love Shack” definitely added additional appeal because I spent my high school years driving one of those gargantuan Chryslers. “It seats about twenty/So c’mon and bring your juke box money!” Been there.

After the epiphany at Scott’s house, I went back and listened to the band a little more closely. The “Peter Gunn” guitar in “Planet Claire” certainly had appeal as did the reference in that same song to a Plymouth Satellite (another Chrysler product!). And, really, does it get any funnier than a song about a lobster?

So when I saw that the B-52s were scheduled to play at the Chatfield division of the Denver Botanic Gardens (only a couple miles from my house) on the 4th of July, it seemed like the natural thing to do (especially when the aforementioned Scott Arbough fixed me up with a couple comp tickets courtesy of KBCO (thanks Scott!)).

The front line of the band has remained more or less stable since inception with the exception of original guitarist Ricky Wilson who died in 1985 of AIDS. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson (Ricky’s brother) still sing, along with Fred Schneider. Keith Strickland, the band’s original drummer, switched to guitar after Ricky Wilson’s death. The two women have retained their vocal range with their trademark “ooos” in the extreme upper register. Their hair just isn’t quite as tall these days, however. (But whose is? Admit it.) Schneider, of course, has never really done much singing, instead making snide observations in more of a talk/rap/quasi-singing style. That shtick remained totally intact.

Actually, the show got off to a bit of a shaky start with some of the vocal harmonies slightly less than sweet. The fourth song, “Give Me Back My Man” featured mainly Wilson on vocals. She started with some sort of unintelligible monolog and she sounded a bit drunk. (Wait! This is a party band! So…..) Her vocals on the tune were pretty loose (i.e. lack of accuracy in hitting the notes she was aiming for). Shortly after that, however, she and Pierson got in sync and the vocal harmonies were right on for the most part the rest of the evening.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the short set. At what seemed to me to be about the half-way point through the show, the band broke into “Love Shack.” That was surprising because I was sure that would be an encore tune. I was even more surprised when the band finished that tune and started saying “thank you” and “good night.” They’d been playing only about 50 minutes by that point. They came back for an encore of two more tunes, but even with the encore break the whole set was only about 70 minutes.

The other surprise was the song selection. This is a band with at least a couple dozen hits, or at least that many very well known tunes. Wednesday night we heard three songs from their 2008 album “Funplex.” Did you even know they released an album in 2008? Me either. Also in the set was “Hallucinating Pluto,” an extra song on the “Time Capsule” album, a best of collection. That’s not a bad song, but not exactly classic B-52s. Normally, throwing in a few new songs is nothing to complain about, but with a shorter than average set, the band left many great songs on the table: “Channel Z,” “Good Stuff,” Strobelight,” “Quiche Lorraine,” “Is That You Mo-Dean?,” and “Deadbeat Club” just to name a few.

When the band was playing, they succeeded in laying down the party vibe. Many of the mostly middle aged audience (and a few of their kids) danced for most of the show, and by the end, just about everybody was on their feet. The cheesy guitar riffs, Schneider’s wry observations and the distinctive female vocals were all there for an energetic, but short-lived party.

The band Squeeze opened the show. This is a group from about the same time period as the B-52s, I guess. I never paid much attention to them. I never really heard anything that grabbed me. After all, life is too short to listen to good music when there is so much great music out there. I heard a couple tunes that seemed familiar, but the big advantage of not being familiar with their music was that I was neither frustrated nor disappointed when they played their new stuff because as far as I could tell, it all sounded pretty much the same.

Set List

Party out of Bounds
Mesopotamia
Private Idaho
Give Me Back My Man
Love in the Year 3000
Hallucinating Pluto
Hot Corner
Funplex
Roam
52 Girls
Whammy Kiss
Love Shack
Encore
Planet Claire
Rock Lobster

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Victor Wooten Band at Cervantes

Victor Wooten Band
July 14, 2012
Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, Denver
by Geoff Anderson

How low can you go? You can’t go any lower than the Victor Wooten Band. The band is deep, it’s low, it’s almost all bottom. This is a band where five members play bass. That is to say, five bass players. In one band. They didn’t all play at the same time. Saturday night, the most bass players we heard at one time was only four. That is to say, four bass players played at the same time. Frequently.

The band Morphine pioneered what they called low rock. But they only had a two string slide bass, a baritone sax and some drums. The only bands out there with as many bass players as the Victor Wooten Band are symphony orchestras. And those outfits tend to throw in a few dozen other players for good measure. The VWB has seven members. Wooten himself is a bass player and apparently he likes it so much he’s surrounded himself with more bass.

Actually, all the band members are multi-instrumentalists. It just so happens that most of them play bass. At least part time. Wooten himself started the evening on electric cello with only three bass players behind him. The band leader stuck to bass most of the evening; usually of the electric variety, but he also pulled out an acoustic bass, just to show everyone he could play that too. He even strapped on a guitar for some scratchy funk on “Chameleon.”

The instrument switching occurred mid-song as often as it did between songs requiring careful attention to keep track of what was going on. Bassists Steve Bailey and Dave Welsch doubled on trombone and trumpet, respectively and often picked up their horns with their basses still strapped on for a horn solo or some unison playing. Anthony Wellington was the most consistent bassist staying in the deep end most of the evening.

The only band members eschewing the bass were drummer Derico Watson and vocalist Krystal Peterson. Peterson doubled (tripled?) on keyboards and drums (while the other drummer, JD Blair, got into the bass action). Watson stuck with his drum kit for the evening.

The sound, as you can imagine, is deep, heavy. That’s not only because most of the instruments dwell in the bass clef, but also because the band is bursting with virtuosos which leads, in turn, to lots of notes. When more than two basses were in action, one or more would work on the upper end of the fret-board to provide some sonic diversity. Throughout much of the evening, however, it was a little difficult to follow everything that was going on in the deep end. The concert environment is notoriously difficult to deliver crisp, defined bass sounds. Even with some recent sonic upgrades at Cervantes including the addition of baffles on the ceiling, the low-end sound was a bit muddy.

Nevertheless, when it counted, Wooten’s bass came through with relative clarity. Not surprisingly, the band’s namesake stood out front for a number of solos. Sometimes, he would play impossibly fast single-note lines seemingly using all ten fingers at once. Another solo was mostly chords invoking a throaty guitar-like sound.

Wooten has earned a reputation as one of the top jazz bassists on the scene with his work over the years as a Flecktone, helping Bela Fleck bring the banjo back to jazz. Like the VWB, the Flecktones are a band of virtuosos and the resulting sound is often fast, furious and intricate. The VWB shares some of those characteristics, but one big difference, besides all those denizens of the deep in the VWB, is vocals. Peterson was out front singing on over half of the tunes with Wooten and other band members, including both drummers, adding backing vocals. Another difference between the Flecktones and the VWB is that, whereas the Flecktones play mostly original music, the VWB throws in covers on a regular basis.

Much of the instrumental playing was manic, frantic, dense and tense. Like the Flecktones, that’s just what happens when you collect a number of instrumental masters, put them in one place and turn them loose. Many of the covers served to lighten the mood. Wooten pulled a couple from the Motown stable including “I Want You Back,” a hit for the Jackson 5 and “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder. Equally soulful was “Tell Me Something Good.”

Peterson, herself, was a contrast with her blonde pixie cut set against the serious backdrop of the male musicians predominately working on their bass guitars or drums. Steve Bailey was a particular highlight of the evening. He holds the Bass Chair at the Berklee School of Music and mostly played an electric six string fretless bass, a feat that seemed to impress even Wooten. It was a massive instrument, but Bailey played it with a light, melodic touch. He and Wooten liberally sprinkled their solos with quotes from Monk to the Stones to the Wizard of Oz.

It may not be the conventional way to do so, but the Victor Wooten Band definitely gets down to the bass-ics.

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