Friday, 26 June 2015

Vale Ornette Coleman

Pioneering Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman has died, ages 85. He leaves behind a legacy as a boundary-pushing artist with an ever restless muse. He was a composer who, similar to Miles Davis or John Coltrane, never stood still for very long, in a creative sense.

His 1959 LP, possibly somewhat arrogant in title at the time, "The Shape of Jazz To Come" changed the rules for what Jazz could sound like. It was very divisive among critics at the time, but it turns out the title was rather prophetic. Then, in 1960, he broke the rule book of Jazz wide open with a collective improvisation piece for double quartet entitled "Free Jazz". "Free Jazz" is an album that does what it says on the tin: it is a free improv piece spread out across two sides of an LP (37 minutes in total).

For a man who was hailed as such an innovator, he was also derided in some circles by those who really should know better. It would appear if you were to push the boundaries of jazz to its ultimate limit (i.e having as fewer rules as possible) then that negates the value of any future work, according to some. And that couldn't be further from the truth.

Ornette's music removed the emphasis on rhythm and melody and gave equal weight to both, thus de-emphasising them. It's a hard concept to get one's head around, but it creates music that is both fascinating and challenging. Thankfully Jazz is a style that can both support and tolerate such a musical innovation, when several other styles would collapse in a fit of noise.

Thankfully, all the albums are there to appreciate and it's worth taking the time to appreciate the man's works once more. Vale Ornette.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Bargain Bin Review #6: Todd Rundgren - "2nd Wind"

We're back after a long absence!

"2nd Wind" is the 13th studio album from maverick rock musician Todd Rundgren and yet again it finds him following his muse and not kowtowing to the interests of his record company.

Todd is a virtuoso who has been know to record and produce entire LPs on his own in his own studio. He occasionally performs and records with his live band Utopia in addition to making solo albums.

This album is different inasmuch as "2nd Wind" is a record that Todd Rundgren recorded live in front of an audience. Performed in  a similar fashion to Joe Jackson's 1986 LP "Big World", where the audience were instructed to remain absolutely silent until the music was finished. From the perspective of an audience member, it must be an odd way to experience a show. And a strange way to perform for the band considering that most of the energy in a live performance comes from both audience and band feeding off each others's vibe.

Despite Warner Brothers' insistence that there was no "single-worthy" material on this album, there are plenty of songs that are eminently singable, even though they don't necessarily stand up well against the man's best work. The opening "Change Myself" contains a soaring melody but with a classic self-deprecating Todd lyric in the chorus: "How can I change the world of I can't change myself? Try again tomorrow."

Tracks four through to six inclusive are recorded excerpts from a stage version of the Joe Orton play "Up Against It", which explains the faux-Broadway nature of the music and the shprectstimme vocals.

"Public Servant" and "Love Science" have a cheeky playfulness about them, not to mention some of the slinkiest grooves he's ever written. "If I have to be alone" and "Who's Sorry Now" are the pick of an overly ballad-heavy record. Honourary mention goes to "Kindness" as a gorgeous slow song too.

But the real issue is the horribly dated late 80s production, with thin Electro-drums and awful dated synth strings and pianos. The core of the songs are strong but they are tarted up with a finish to make them sound plastic. Despite this fact, the videos for the album were expensive animated ventures made on the then-new "Video Toaster" graphics processors for the Commodore Amiga computer. According to Electronic Musician magazine (via Wikipedia): "Todd Rundgren's stunning video for his song "Change Myself" required no less than ten Toaster systems running in parallel for a period of five weeks."

In the end, the album bombed. Neither of the two singles from the LP attracted sufficient airplay ("Public Servant" was a bad choice for a single anyway) and The New York Times panned the stage show. Still, if you can find a copy of the album, there's still some great tunes here, if only for their good ideas and not their overlong arrangements.