If there’s a theme this month, it might be “musicians going for it” — whatever the era, whatever the wisdom they assimilate along the way. Another common factor: all of these are strong contenders for my end of the year favorites list! As usual, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; where available, album playlists or samples follow each review.
Bill Bruford, Making a Song and Dance: completists may go pale, but this isn’t another massive “collect ’em all” box a la Bruford: Seems Like A Lifetime Ago or Earthworks Complete. Rather, it’s a judiciously curated, career-spanning set targeted at a wider market and chosen by the man himself. Organized to reflect the creative roles Bruford posited for expert drummers in his doctoral dissertation Uncharted, discs 1 and 2 cover his years as a “collaborator” in ongoing bands, (mostly Yes and King Crimson), while discs 3 and 4 lay out his qualifications as a jazz-oriented “composing leader” in the above bands and other occasional combos. But if your listening experience is like mine, discs 5 (“The Special Guest”) and 6 (“The Improviser”) will provide the freshest material and perhaps the niftiest surprises; Bruford sits in with everyone from folk-rock iconoclast Roy Harper to speed-fusion guitarist Al DiMeola to the Buddy Rich Big Band, then contributes equal amounts of chops and space to music conjured from thin air with (among others) daringly lateral pianists Patrick Moraz and Michael Borstlap. When the man said he retired from performance because he couldn’t think of anything more to play, he wasn’t kidding — based on the evidence collected here, he’d already done it all. Not only does Making A Song and Dance give an ample picture of Bruford’s stylistic range, it brilliantly charts the growth of an essential artist down the decades.
Vashti Bunyan, Wayward – Just Another Life to Live: indirectly named after a Biblical queen, Vashti Bunyan’s thirst for meaning led from a middle-class childhood through Oxford art school to a London fling as a wannabe pop chanteuse (her debut single was a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards offcut). Adrift in the aftermath, Bunyan seized what seemed a golden opportunity: a journey with her paramour from the Big Smoke to a new life in the Hebrides, undertaken by horse-drawn wagon. That unlikely odyssey forms the heart of this evocative, compelling narrative; laboriously heading north through the heart of England, Bunyan gains understanding of the natural world, of the extremes of human kindness and cruelty — and of her own animating passions, her sturdy inner core. She also writes the deceptively simple, uncommonly rich songs that became her lovely 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day. The fulfillment (and dissolution) of Bunyan’s quest, her immersion in “lookaftering” children and stepchildren, and her artistry’s rebirth when the Internet rediscovered her music in the early 2000s provide the epilogue to this tale of a wandering soul’s coming to terms with the beauty and the beastliness of life. Highly recommended.
Robert Fripp, Exposure: After King Crimson “ceased to exist” in 1974, Fripp withdrew from the music industry, pursuing a spiritual sabbatical. Reinvigorated, he dipped his toe back in the water via guest shots with David Bowie and Blondie, then moved to New York City to get serious about returning to active service. Exposure was Fripp’s calling card for his “Drive to 1981,” self-described as research and development for what might come next; along with nods to his current production work with Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall, ghosts of Crimson past (the metallic “Breathless”) and future (“NY3,” with ‘found vocals’ from Fripp’s argumentative neighbors draped over cyclical odd-time riffs) haunt the album. But there’s also New Wave 12-bar blues (“You Burn Me Up I’m A Cigarette,” with tongue-twister lyrics gamely tackled by Hall), furious punk energy (“Disengage,” featuring Peter Hammill’s improvised, gleefully atonal vocals cutting across Fripp’s proto-shred guitar and Phil Collins’ blunt, brutal drumming), and surprising amounts of gentle lyricism (Hall on “North Star”, Terre Roche on “Mary”, Gabriel on a gorgeous solo piano “Here Comes the Flood”). What binds these disparate tracks together is the innovation of Frippertronics — the solo guitar looping set-up that Fripp then took to concert halls, dance clubs, restaurants and record stores on a low-budget promotional tour — weaving in, out, between and behind it all to unify the album and give it a futuristic impetus. As strange and compelling a beast as any Fripp has brought us over the years, Exposure is a wild, worthwhile listen in and of itself, while providing distinctive previews of coming attractions. The new “Fourth Edition” features a discreetly energizing remix by Steven Wilson, plus previous versions (including an unreleased master with Hall as the primary vocalist) on a bonus DVD. For those with deeper pockets, the 32-disc box set Exposures exhaustively archives Fripp’s studio and live work from 1979-1981 — including the Frippertronics concert at Peaches Records in Detroit that completely exploded my own musical boundaries. (More of this boundary-breaking beauty can be found on the new release of 1981 Frippertronics, Washington Square Church.)
Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis and Belladonna: since the late 2000s, guitarist Halvorson has taken the free jazz scene by storm with her spiky, driven playing and her off-center yet richly inviting compositions. Making the leap to a major label (the determinedly eclectic Warner Music Group subsidiary Nonesuch), this matching pair of releases may be both her most immediate and her most daring yet. On Amaryllis, Halvorson leads a boisterously simpatico sextet — great improvisations abound from trumpet, trombone, vibes, bass and drums — through an appetizer of three melodically abstract, harmonically extended, delightfully swinging originals, then piles the Mivos Quartet’s eerie string lines and plush chordal pads on top the band for three more delicious courses. Belladonna is both more through-composed and more improvisational, as Halvorson stings, soars, flutters and wails with, atop, around and about an astonishing variety of ideas and textures executed by Mivos. Throughout she endlessly prods her fellow players to dig deeper with her chord choices, tosses off one pungent, pick-driven lead line after another, and lets loose with delay-laden fusillades galore; it all made me laugh out loud for joy at her sheer audacity. These two albums will open your ears real good; I dare you to give them a try.
Pure Reason Revolution, Above Cirrus: I pretty much stand with Time Lord here; though I’ll always carry a torch for their debut The Dark Third, this baby reveals PRR at their best, consistently upping their game to the next level. “New Kind of Evil” unfurls Jon Courtney, Chloe Alper and Greg Jong’s newly polished blueprint — for every moment of blissful harmonies and glidepath atmospherics, there’s an equal and opposite moment of feral guitar/drum slammin’ (and when they layer the two together, look out!). Even better, “Phantoms” mashes up all of the above with the vicious jackhammer grooves of PRR’s vastly underrated Amor Vincit Omnia and Hammer and Anvil. The pensive musings of “Cruel Deliverance” (punctuated by dramatic drum fills), the multipolar dancefloor thrill ride of “Scream Sideways,” the wild dynamic fluctuations of “Dead Butterfly” — one good thing leads to another, with Courtney, Alper and Jong in perfect sync throughout. And “Lucid” brings it all to a shudderingly powerful climax, catching that distinctive PRR evocation of simultaneous wistfulness and menace. Buckle up before you listen; Above Cirrus is one heart-stopping ride.
— Rick Krueger