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The University of Hartford

By Kevin O’Toole

Yeah, I know, it's not much of a title for a music column, but you probably picked this guide up for free anyway, so quit yer complainin'. Besides, it gives me a reason to start using a ratings system (for all those who, like me, prefer a user friendly precis option in their media reviews):
^^^^^= Five chips- The salsa's great and the chips are eternally refreshed. Dunk at will and repeatedly. Own this.
^^^^ = Four chips- The chips are a wee tad more stale than you would prefer. Enjoy the salsa, though, 'cause it's mighty tasty. You might want to own this.
^^^ = Three chips- Salsa's less than perfectly fresh and the chips are still stale. It adequately mimics the peach salsa experience, but that very special something is missing. Borrow this at least.
^^ = Two chips- It physically resembles chips and salsa, but it ain't it. Don't feel bad if you miss hearing this.
^ = One chip- It seems to resemble a foodstuff, but who knows what it is anymore? If you must, crane your neck briefly to take notice of this, as you would a car wreck on the highway.
_ = No chips- Better you eat cow chips than this. Avoid this and warn your friends to avoid this. Please.
All set? Good. Now for this month's reviews.
The cruel truth about writing things for this program guide is that things tend to fall through the deadline cracks. The items I review for this issue will be, likely, a bit too old to qualify as truly "new," given the: a) six weeks in advance publication deadline, and b) the time needed to listen adequately to this music on a volunteer basis (in other words, I NEED TO MAKE A LIVING AT A REAL JOB, TOO!!).
(Sigh) Yet another case where mere economic and temporal realities conspire to make me appear unhip.
So, if you've already heard these albums to death by now, forgive me; print is a limping, though not quite dead, medium, as regards its' immediacy.
Then again, if you wanted to just hear these tunes and more like (and unlike) them (and not my expanded commentary on them), you would probably wait until Friday night/ Saturday morning from midnight to three to listen to "The Call It Thing Show." But please: read, then listen, then decide, then support good music why doncha???
So here's the stuff:
If Chris Whitley displays a weakness as an artist in his latest album, Rocket House (^^^^, ATO Records, 10/2001), it's that he is not as consistently sparkling a writer as he is a gifted instrumentalist. It's hard to truly dislike his lyric writing though, since he actually seems to be writing from the heart about matters of love and faith.
Or, at least, his soulful vocal delivery puts that across with all appropriate sincerity, even when he engages in the trifle cliched hook now and then (i.e., "Say Goodbye to Yesterday"). And then there are the grooves. I mean, the GRRROOOOOVES…
Whitley has been plying his musical trade for well over a decade, through the genres of rock, folk (as when he spent time busking in New York City as a teenager), blues and jazz - (for instance, on Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, as well as Grateful Dead bassist Rob Wasserman's Trios). He understands how groove works, and he works it on Rocket House, with more than able help from DJ Logic (himself no multi-genre slouch, working with Uri Caine Ensemble, Medeski, Martin & Wood, moe., Vernon Reid (on his one and only wonderful solo album, Mistaken Identity), Sex Mob and even MTV-ready pop-singer Vitamin C). Logic knows what to loop, how to loop and when. Of course, he's also employed another young session guy by the name of Dave Matthews…(!)
Let's say you're here from another planet, and you're asking, "What is this groove you speak of?" Well, for example, we could start with the first track, "To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)," with tight rhythm work from producer Tony Mangurian (mainly knowable for a lengthy association with Luscious Jackson, though he's also worked with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson). "To Joy" gets its' groove out of a bag full of funky drumming, turntable scratches, guitar whirrs and chirps and a funky banjo loop ("funky banjo" being a term rarely used this side of, say, Bela Fleck, though certainly welcome).
The album wields the twin thematic swords of the materially funky and the purely spiritual, Gospel and the Blues. It may rarely hit the heights of Jeff Buckley's Grace, but musically these meditations are more than listenable. "Solid Iron Heart" is a showcase of Logic's turntable manipulations, quacking and whirring while Whitley busts on bluesy, hallucinatory acoustic grooves worthy of Shuggie Otis.
The groove concept is stretched a bit by the elastic, propulsive rhythms of the title track, with its' appropriately spacey guitars over a jerking, lunging rhythmic sputter. These lyrics are some of the albums best, rejoicing in a very personal religious experience of sorts: that of music ("All religions fall away/ I been running for a hundred years/ but I always got someplace to pray"). Chuck Graning adds something like an eastern flavor on the fade out with a blues-cum-Qawaali vocal abstraction.
"Vertical Desert" strives to be the poetically densest track here (with lines like "the curved air of collapse and creation/ the ballast of chaos and gravity's liberation's." Oi!), but the electronic drum chugging and the touches of ambient guitar and piano keep you listening. Groove, it seems, again saves the day.
This album espouses that idea: grooves can save, music can save. Perhaps that is the decider as far as whether you like this album or not. With its' meditations on faith, love and music, it can seem as hazy and vague as faith can be sometimes.
Hey, you're either feeling this album, or you're not. How's that for an appropriately vague recommendation?
So what's with the I Am Sam soundtrack (Various Artists, V2 records, ^^^½)? Well, for starters, like so much recent Hollywood product, or commentary or creativity, it lags sadly behind more current events. No, I'm not speaking of September 11 here. What I'm talking about is a whole album of Beatles covers and NO GEORGE HARRISON TUNES? I know, the movie and soundtrack were probably very much in the can by his November, 2001 death, but come on: in a way isn't this another slap in the face, a posthumous continuance of the syndrome that clouded proper consideration of the man's talents for thirty something years? Always with the Beatles it's "Lennon/ McCartney" this and "Lennon/ McCartney" that. I mean, Sinatra used to sing "Something" and talk about what a great song Paul and John wrote. No room for "Something" on this collection, folks? No "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," or "I Me Mine?" Not even "Norwegian Wood" (which, granted, wasn't a Harrison composition, but at least would have amply recalled the eastern music contributions of the man)?
That's problem number one for me. Number two is: an album like this is bound to disappoint someone like me because it's an album full of covers of music done so right the first time, and, unlike, say, Downtown Does the Beatles: Live at the Knitting Factory, we're dealing with pop artists. Admittedly, they're interesting ones, but nonetheless, they are pop artists and they are trying to do tunes which were done right the first time. The remaining charms in this album come in the general qualities of the performances, and the daring of the artists in, perhaps, taking the original and stretching things to mutate the songs to their own artistic purposes.
Some do this merely by singing the tunes. Rufus Wainwright turns in another excellent cover of "Across the Universe" (for another one, you should seek out Laibach's Let It Be). Some tunes seem to have presented themselves rather obviously, once an artist's name popped up. Eddie Vetter? How about "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away?" Nick Cave? Oh, he's got to "Let It Be." Ben Folds? Oh, yeah, he's doing "Golden Slumbers."
But then there are ones I feel they could have avoided, maybe. Ben Harper doing "Strawberry Fields Forever' is all fine and well and nice, and the full-fledged production seems to be a skillful recasting of the original's ideas, with arrangements for live instruments and manipulations that once were achieved by tape manipulations. It would nearly be superfluous if it weren't for that guitar solo at the end. THAT rocked.
Similar problems crop up for me with the Black Crowes' version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The creativity seems blunted by the foreknowledge that it's been approached very much this way before, and better.
Sarah McLachlan doing "Blackbird," Sheryl Crow with "Mother Nature's Son" and Heather Nova's "We Can Work It Out" are excellent vocally, and the arrangements are nice and recall the original, but… well, that's the problem. Where they differ, the differences are nice, but are these tiny nice differences enough to justify the exercise?
A couple of these are really sub-par, though, beyond any doubt. The Vines cover "I'm Only Sleeping," without much real feeling, and I get the feeling they're only here because Third Eye Blind was unavailable. The Wallflowers have committed some interesting songs to CD. Their cover of "I'm Looking Though You" isn't one of them, and, again, can only suffer in comparison.
All that said there are wonderful tracks to be heard here, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn's version of "Two of Us" is very nice, and Stereophonics deliver a well-felt version of "Don't Let Me Down." I was hoping for a full band with Paul Westerberg on "Nowhere Man," but his solo acoustics fill the bill adequately. Howie Day unplugs "Help!' and gives the Lennon classic new room to breathe, and Grandaddyhas good fun deconstructing and reconstructing "Revolution."
The real stand out, though, is Chocolate Genius's reworking of "Julia." In a full band arrangement (unlike the original), he delivers his phased vocals with a good feel for the song, and the arrangement builds with shimmery wah-wah guitars and harmonica stirring up to the fade out. Lovely.
O.K., I have to admit, most of this is quite listenable. And the CD was recorded by all involved, from start to finish in three weeks (or so the notes tell us). But surely with all this talent and material to work with, couldn't such a project have been better than generally mediocre?
I'm cranky. I'm going to bed now.
If you're reading this in the first days of March:
Hey! Please remember that Marathon is in progress! Please pledge your support!
Or, if you read this later on:
Hey! Thanks for your support in Marathon! We made our goal or came darn close thanks to you! Now please send us your money and fulfill your pledge!
Or, if you're reading this in the year 3000:
Hey! There was this thing called radio back before we could travel through time for entertainment! You kids and your dad-blasted TARDISes…
Until next time, keep your feet. And thanks.

Abdulla Ibrahim with the NDR Big Band: Ekapa Lodumo - ENJA Records
By Chuck Obuchowski

Despite its U.S. origins, jazz music has always displayed an uncanny ability to absorb influences from every corner of the globe while still retaining its own essence. This--and its heritage in the diverse musical traditions of Africa and Europe--qualify jazz as history's first true example of "world music." Abdulla Ibrahim embodies that world music connection in virtually every aspect of his art. As a child in Cape Town, South Africa, he was exposed to a plethora of musical styles during his travels throughout the bustling seaport. He studied African folk and pop genres, but Ibrahim also fell under the spell of jazz while listening to records he'd purchased from American sailors. At 28, he left his native country to escape the madness of apartheid. Duke Ellington heard him in Zurich and was impressed enough to finance a recording and land him a gig at the famed Newport Jazz Festival. Ibrahim eventually settled in New York City, but his compositions never lost the euphoric rhythmic drive nor the meditative, spiritual qualities associated with his culture's music.
Ekapa Lodumo finds the 67-year-old pianist more comfortable than ever with his role as global sound griot. This recording documents a concert that paired Ibrahim with one of the finest jazz orchestras in the world, Germany's NDR Big Band. The program amounts to a live greatest-hits package from South Africa's reigning jazz elder statesman (he happily returned to his homeland when apartheid was abolished). Thanks to brilliant arrangements by Steve Gray (of England) and Fritz Pauer (of Austria), the leader's compositions are given more room to breathe than ever before. And the NDR soloists take full advantage of the space, spurred on by Ibrahim's emotive keyboard work.
This music merits a careful listen; you'd be hard-pressed to find a better antidote to the prevailing attitude of suspicion and paranoia surrounding those who look, sound or act "differently" than us (whomever "us" might be!). Listen with your heart, and experience the power that people of diverse cultures exhibit when they come together to pursue a common, peaceful goal - in this case, celebrating the exciting creation of new sounds through the union of many musical traditions and unique instrumental voices.

Bobby Previte & Bump: Just Add Water - Palmetto Records - By Chuck Obuchowski

Start with one deft jazz drummer; flavor with exceptional composing skills, a wild imagination and an unquenchable thirst for variety. Add five equally imaginative, equally capable sidemen. Send the gang to Europe a few times to allow the mixture to gel. Finally, plop 'em down in the Maggie's Farm studios, and Just Add Water. Voila - a brand new CD by Bobby Previte's Bump the Renaissance!
Bump or not, Previte has proved quite the Renaissance man himself since he burst onto the New York downtown scene some two decades ago. During that time he's recorded about 20 albums as a leader, and guested on over 50 others. His resume includes gigs with poets, contemporary chamber groups and the Moscow Circus, in addition to more "typical" jazz aggregations. At present, he leads or co-leads no fewer than six ensembles, including a trio with saxman Greg Osby and guitarist Charlie Hunter that plays its first gig April 4 at the Knitting Factory.
For all his talents, Previte remains a relatively obscure figure on the current jazz scene. Of course, his passion for experimentation hasn't exactly helped his standing on the Billboard charts or in Downbeat Readers Polls. Yet, as Just Add Water shows, this man can swing with the best of them. From the gritty funk of "53 Maserati" to the late-night romance of "Nice Try," this recording beckons the listener to stay tuned. Fans of Previte's more "edgy" work will, however, be happy to know that there are enough "subversive elements" (quoting Don Byron) to keep them entertained as well. How could it be otherwise, with envelope-pushing veterans like Marty Ehrlich, Ray Anderson and Wayne Horvitz aboard? The presence of electric bass pioneer Steve Swallow is another bonus, although sadly, his warm, lyrical tones are sometimes lost in the mix here. Still, this just may be the release that finally brings Bobby Previte the attention he has long deserved. In an age of copycats and poseurs, it's a blessing to hear genuine individualists who still believe in pursuing "the sound of surprise" that has given jazz such vitality during its first century

Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 2002

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