Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 28)


Laurel Aitken, The Pioneer Of Jamaican Music: Vintage Recordings From The 1950s And 1960s    (Reggae Retro)

Having made its way through numerous editions (and album covers) over the last decade, this recently reissued compilation offers the finest overview we’re likely to get of a showman and latter-day blues shouter involved in nearly every permutation of pre-reggae era Jamaican music. While the liner notes are at some pains to compare Aitken to more celebrated pioneer Prince Buster, it’s actually the Isley Brothers who come to mind – both made careers riding successive waves of musical innovation, and both possess discographies mirroring the history of their chosen field. By 1966, when this collection’s last tracks were cut, Kingston dancers were switching their allegiances from ska to rock steady, a market Aitken dutifully pursued. But his influence stems from an earlier immersion in an evolving UK-based West Indian scene, where Aitken both preceded and capitalized on Millie Small’s 1964 “My Boy Lollipop,” along with numerous r&b sides cut in both London and Kingston, and even earlier singles in mento and calypso style. Those r&b sides certainly don’t threaten Aitken’s stateside contemporaries. Yet these “Jamaican blues” sessions offer early glimpses of future Caribbean heavy hitters like Rico Rodriguez, Ken Richards, Eddie Thornton, Stanley Ribbs, and Theophilus Beckford, all of whom surface as Aitken’s sidemen. And while this music won’t immediately signify to average reggae fans, music scholars could no doubt point to specific features exemplifying rhythmic tendencies already pushing beyond New Orleans’s confines. One might also note lyrical concerns common to roots-era reggae already firmly in place by 1957, as evidenced on “Ghana Independence,” an ode to Nebuchadnezzar, and a version of “Day-O” in which Aitken sings “me say Jah”. While he also makes room for tributes to Jamaican cricketer Collie Smith and a 1963 West Indian victory match, it’s God and women that most interest him, sometimes concurrently. “Zion” seems suitably pious, but on 1960’s “Judgement Day,” he warns that his plans involve rock and rolling his sins away. 

Yo La Tengo, Live At Maxwell’s, December 22, 2011     (nyctaper free download)

For those unfortunates not within driving distance of the Philly-Jersey-NYC nexus, the eight-night runs of Yo La Tengo’s long-standing Hannukah Shows at Maxwell’s are delicious rumors - the ultimate couples band basking in one of the deepest back catalogues in alternative music, and proof of Ira Kaplan’s deserved reputation as our wittiest record collector/performer. Thanks to the historians over at nyctaper, five of those eight concerts can be streamed or downloaded in their entirety, band approval and quality fidelity intact. If you’re a true believer, take this review as a standing endorsement for any of the performances, be it the covers-happy night of Dec. 27 (featuring “I Threw It All Away,” a one-two Beatles punch of “Flying” and “It’s All Too Much,” plus a 10-minute “Heroin” speeding merrily along) or a working band’s goofy camaraderie on Dec. 26, making room for Peter Stampfel’s fiddle and pinched vocals on “Greselda” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow”. Yet this early show has become my preferred night, partly thanks to a friend who described it to me as “the slow, somnolent, songwriterly Yo La Tengo show of my dreams, until half of Sonic Youth show up”. Those autumnal qualities are partly the result of a health scare forcing Ira the workaholic to perform from a seated position under doctor’s orders, which helped transform “Sugarcube” from shoegaze anthem to introspective jaunt, pumped up the atmospheric qualities of “The Last Days Of Disco,” yet still highlighted their soul-cover-band talents on a sprightly “Mr. Tough”. And for those who treasure this songwriting institution for their equal adherence to guitar skronk, Renaldo and Shelley step in and blast their way through that other great couples band’s “Mote,” along with a twelve-minute deconstruction of “Pass The Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind”. Later, John Cameron Mitchell takes the stage to go out on a Barry Manilow tune. 


Vijay Iyer With Prasanna And Nitin Mitta, Tirtha    (Act Music + Vision)

Iyer is a Bay Area keyboardist I first encountered in Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar Ensemble, in which he brought jazz bona fides to a group mining a wonderfully murky vein of Great Black Music. On this exploration of the intersection between jazz, Indian classical, and minimalism, his piano is joined by the tablas of Hyderabad percussionist Nitin Mitta and the electric guitar of South Indian Carnatic musician Prasanna. That intersection of jazz, Indian classical, and minimalism may seem intimidating to non-musicologists, and I’m not about to suggest that this will appeal to all tastes. But the landscapes Iyer explores reflect the outsized role Indian classical has played in late-20th century western music (from Steve Reich to John Coltrane), even if the dialogue initiated by these three world-class musicians highlights how often those supposed nods to Indian tradition add up to little more than flashes of exotica. At times, Iyer and company pursue ambient meditations, as on the title track, which builds slowly over plaintive piano chords before finishing with Mitta’s bracing tabla run, or on concluding number “Entropy And Time,” a melodically subtle slow-burner with Prasanna conjuring the sitar via his plugged-in fretboard. But perhaps this album’s highlight is the 11-minute “Tribal Wisdom,” in which the trio most fully realizes their goal – to explore, break down, subsume, and scatter the various strands of improvisatory music they specialize in. With guitar runs edging ever closer to rock, the tablas rise and fall as Iyer comps away. Not fusion – chamber jazz. 

Common, The Dreamer / The Believer     (Warner Bros.)

First things first – this succeeds primarily thanks to a dense production courtesy of No I.D, a Chicagoan who’s backed up Common since his early singles. Hard-hitting beats placed front and center help push great samples from ELO, Curtis Mayfield, and Kenny Loggins, creating an organic amalgam of classic soul all the more welcome for arriving amid a rap scene growing more enamored with synthesizer patterns by the week. Lyrically, one finds fewer thrills, with the greatest controversy arising from an ode to a “buck naked” pancake-flipping “bitch” being in questionable proximity to Maya Angelou’s opening recitation. Always willing to mix the sacred with the profane (and never having found Angelou to be particularly sacred), I’d note that Common’s ribald “I wanna bitch that look good and cook good” is at least as profound as a poem that notes “You can build a better future when you join the winning team”. More troubling is the self-consciously “hard” track, “Sweet,” a potentially ludicrous celebration of machismo (“you get in my presence/ you gon’ feel like a little ho”) made more ludicrous when one discovers the ostensible target to be Drake. Later, cooler heads prevail, as when a noisy barroom drunk elicits no stronger reaction from our hero than a hope that the dude carpooled, although by song’s end, a non-metaphorical bottle has been cracked over the drunk’s head. Nice as it is to see one’s elders mix things up a bit, such battles go over best when the elders keep their shirts on.


Caveman, CoCo Beware    (Magic Man / ORG Music)

An indie band from – you guessed it – Brooklyn, with thirty minutes of mild psychedelia moving comfortably around inside an echoey Beach House/Grizzly Bear template, with enough good melodic sense to keep things interesting, although not quite enough to help distinguish between individual songs aside from the quite lovely “Old Friend”. A generous reviewer at notes “African highlife-inspired guitar arpeggios” as a key component of this band’s palette. If your knowledge of African highlife extends beyond Vampire Weekend (who claim greater familiarity and fealty with pop music in all its variety and glory than any number of their Brooklyn compatriots), you likely won’t hear that component, either. The same reviewer goes on to wonder if the album title references WWE Hall of Famer Koko B. Ware as a result of both wrestler and band favoring “colorful” “textures”. Faced with music so opaque, one understands her desperation.

George Benson, Guitar Man     (Concord Jazz)

For the jazz faithful, even those who wouldn’t dare equating market success with treachery, Benson has always seemed the most willful of sellouts, following the vision of Creed Taylor from CTI to Warner Bros., and relegating his guitar skills to intros and fills while favoring vocals pleasant yet modest (a modesty that makes career comparisons to Nat King Cole absurd, as if Cole didn’t merely possess one of the past century’s most distinctive voices). What makes Benson impossible to fully discount are his undeniable guitar chops – chops many fellow passengers on the smooth train couldn’t hope to match, and chops that still recur from time to time, especially in concert. So it was with hope rather than cynicism that I checked out this release from Concord, daring to dream the title might be somewhat descriptive. Opener “Tenderly” and a restrained “Naima” aren’t half bad. But perhaps it should have been an early warning sign that the longest track on this supposed “contemporary jazz” album runs a mere 4.31. And while the three vocal numbers remain rather undistinguished, it’s not as if they sully proceedings any, not with an “I Want To Hold Your Hand” buried beneath a Percy Faith arrangement or a pointless acoustic take on Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” that adds nothing to the far more fragile version Pat Metheny offered a few years back. And that aforementioned 4.31 epic? A slick, over-rehearsed “funk” stab at The Champs’ “Tequila”. The band even yells the spirit’s name out at song’s end. Wouldn’t want to commit too radical a reinterpretation to posterity, would we?