Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius

richardbarbieriI was first exposed to that exotic, amorphous musical genre called “electronica” in junior high by a friend who listened to what we called “weird stuff”. I’m not even sure what it was; some of it was from Japan. It made a dent in my memory banks, however, because until then my musical interests had been confined to some classical (Brahms! Mozart! Good!), Top 40 rock (Queen! Also good!), and lots of mediocre CCM (Not good!). During my high school years I listened to a good deal of The Alan Parsons Project, in part because of the huge hit “Eye In the Sky”; I eventually collected all of the APP albums. Parsons, of course, has straddled the worlds of progressive rock and mainstream pop/rock with his production prowess, writing, and work with keyboards and Fairlight programming. In hindsight, his music opened the door in various ways to music that was more overtly electronic.

(A quick, semi-related aside: A good friend in high school, who spent a lot of money on a fabulous car stereo system, liked to alternate between playing—very loudly—the raunchy rap of 2 Live Crew and the muzak of Yanni: the first to demonstrate his system’s bass; the latter to show off it’s high end. I’m not sure which music scarred me more.)

In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was an explosion of so-called “New Age” music (which had been around since the Sixties and whose identity has been hotly debated for decades), much of which was ambient or involved whales bellowing, birds chirping, and flowers clapping their petals. I mostly  ignored it, but did eventually latch onto the music of Patrick O’Hearn, whose solo albums on the Private Music label were lush, complex, mysterious, evocative, and never boring, even at their most sedate. O’Hearn, like all of the finest electronica artists, is the master of tone and mood; the music is rarely about virtuosity—unlike wide swaths of prog rock—but about constructing layers and movements. I liken it to a painter who builds layers of luminosity into his work through patient precision (more on the visual arts parallel in a moment).

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of cross-pollination going on between some “New Age” artists and various progressive rock groups and musicians. O’Hearn, who has legit jazz chops—he studied with jazz giant and bassist Gary Peacock—played with Frank Zappa as a youngster, and then with the new-wave band Missing Persons; the Private Music label featured a number of musicians with deep ties to progressive rock. (Another good example of this relationship can be found in Jon Anderson’s albums with Kitaro and Vangelis.) In the 1990s I bought several albums by Moby, Portishead, Björk, Aphex Twin, and Massive Attack, even while I ignored (for whatever reason) other key artists (Brian Eno, for instance).

Richard Barbieri is, of course, no stranger to prog fans, being a key member of Japan and Porcupine Tree and having worked in a number of other settings. His new album “Planets + Persona” [Kscope Music] is his third solo album, following 2005’s “Things Buried” and 2008’s “Stranger Inside”, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The three albums are similar in many ways, but this new album seems, to me, to be warmer, more organic (or acoustic), and more contemplative. Geno Thackara, at AllAboutJazz.com, explains it so: Continue reading “Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius”

How to Listen to Jazz, by Ted Gioia

A taste of a great book review by Paul Beston:

Gioia is so confident that newcomers can appreciate jazz in part because he believes that objective benchmarks of evaluation exist, and that, in the case of jazz, we can listen for fundamental “building blocks” such as rhythm, dynamics, pitch and timbre, and phrasing. This view puts him at odds with more theoretical critics who claim that subjectivity is the only aesthetic standard. Nonsense, says Gioia: “Understanding jazz (or any other form of artistic expression) can never be reduced to personal whim or some flamboyant deconstructive manipulation of signifiers but always builds on a humble realization that these works impose their reality on us. . . . and in this manner can be distinguished from escapism or shallow entertainment, which instead aims to adapt to the audience, to give the public exactly what it wants. We can tell that we are encountering a real work of art by the degree to which it resists our subjectivity.” In this one passage, Gioia manages to push back against both highbrow and lowbrow wrongheadedness.

Frank Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog Rock?

I originally posted this a year ago, to mark the 99th anniversary of Sinatra’s birthday on December 12th. After reading this USA Today article on Sinatra’s influence on “the world”, I thought it made sense to re-post it to mark the centenary of his birth.

sinatra_studio
Sinatra in studio in the 1950s, during his Capitol years.

“Well, yes, of course,” you said, upon reading the headline. “Everyone knows that Old Blue Eyes was not just a crooner, but a prog crooner, and thus the grandfather of prog rock! Does it really need to be said again?” Yes, it probably should, despite the abundance of articles on the topic (ahem). Especially since today marks what would have been The Chairman of the Board’s 99th birthday if he was still among us. Sinatra was born on this day in 1915, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and would go on to be one of the best-known, best-selling musical artists of the 20th century, rivaled in sales and popularity by only a handful of artists and groups.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that Sinatra was a “prog rocker”. I might be a Sinatra fanboy—I have over 1,200 Sinatra songs in my iTunes library and listen to some of his music nearly every day—but I’m not insane. At least not that insane. What I am saying is that Sinatra did a number of things on the musical front that were either quite unique or very notable (and probably little known to most people), that pointed toward key elements and attitudes making up what we now call “prog”.

Here, then, are five things that make The Voice the Grandfather of Prog: Continue reading “Frank Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog Rock?”

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 29

Welcome to day two of my ‘Album Of The Year 2015’ countdown. If you missed the opening instalment of what is a series that will either make or break me, you can check it out right here: Album of the Year 2015 – Number 30. Additionally, if you missed my similar countdowns from the past […]

https://manofmuchmetal.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/album-of-the-year-2015-number-29/

Review: Jason Rubenstein NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES

Review: Jason Rubenstein, NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES (Tone Cluster, 2014).

new metalSo.  You’ve been a progger since the 1970s, you’re musically trained, and and you’ve enjoyed a solid if now former career as a software engineer with several major companies.  What do you do?  You write a brilliant, stunning, majestic soundtrack to your life, especially if you live in glorious San Francisco.

I exaggerate a bit, but not much.  This, essentially, is the background to music maestro Jason Rubenstein.  He has just released a rather stunning album, New Metal from Old Boxes (Tone Cluster, 2014; mixed by Niko Bolas and mastered by Ron McMaster).  While many Americans and other citizens of western civilization might simply desire new wine from old bottles, those of us who live in the republic of progarchy can rejoice heartily.  We can have our wine and our Rubenstein!

From the first listen, I was hooked.  This is a mesmerizing album best described as cinematic.  While dark and brooding (just look at Rubenstein’s photo—the guy is the perfect Hollywood dark hero), the music is always playful and mischievous, never coming anywhere near the dread of dull.

Almost effortlessly, Rubenstein employs classical jazz, noir jazz, prog, metal, classical, and jazz fusion.  If I had to label it, I’d called it “Cinematic metal prog.”  At times, it’s downright frantic, always extravagant, but never campy or over-the-top.  While this is certainly Rubenstein’s creation, he is never shy about borrowing styles from those he clearly admires.  I hears lots of The Tangent, ELP, King Crimson, Cosmograf, Cailyn, Tool, Dead Can Dance, and even Wang Chung (only from their spectacular To Live and Die in LA soundtrack)

Alex Lifeson? Harrison Ford? No.  Jason Rubenstein.
Alex Lifeson? Harrison Ford? No. Jason Rubenstein.

Rubenstein credits himself with keyboards, synths, samplers, computers, programming, and angry noises.  In terms of sound quality, this album is perfection itself.  Pardon me for employing such a Catholic term, but its production is immaculate.  Even the packaging is a work of art.  Like the music, it is dark, brooding, and industrial.  Intricate pipes and strings, smelting of iron, nail heads (in a V’ger pattern), more strings, more pipes, and, then, rather profoundly, a GQ-Rubenstein, looking every bit the Hollywood action hero.

Admittedly, looking over my review, I’m tempted to fear that I have given the impression this is just a hodge podge of musical ideas.  Please note, that nothing could be further from the truth.  This is the soundtrack of your best day.

 

To visit Jason Rubenstein’s beautifully designed website, go here.

Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!

The petite, dynamic, big-haired bundle of mesmerizing musical energy named Hiromi Uehara (official website) recently released her ninth solo album in eleven years. Titled “Alive” (Concord Music Group, 2014), it is arguably her most overtly jazz album. Yet it also contains plenty of fusion, rock, and, yes, prog influences, as have her previous releases, which are marked by an instantly recognizable combination of breathtaking technique, astounding precision and speed, complex time changes, and boundless, mind-boggling virtuosity. I’ve been following her career since her debut album, “Another Mind” (2003), and have been both amazed and enriched by her music.hiromi_alive

However, one of the criticisms leveled against Hiromi, by some inside and outside the jazz world, is that her prodigious technical abilities tend to overshadow—or even overwhelm—other qualities, including nuance, emotion, and interpretive insight and dialogue. I think there is some merit to those criticisms, but I take them with a grain of salt. Frankly, the Argument From Lack of Emotion is, at best, quite subjective. Some people simply don’t like, or cannot handle, a cascade of notes (and last time I looked, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson are both, rightly, hailed as jazz greats; and Hiromi loves Peterson’s music). Plus, I think many such critics miss the apparent fact that Hiromi, while clearly working within the broad realm of jazz, is also very much a prog-rocker in her heart of hearts—as well as a player of funk, soul, R&B, metal, electronica and, well, you get the idea. And all of us here at Progarchy.com know how often prog rock is criticized for having an abundance of technique but a lack of emotion resonance, a criticism that almost alway tells me much more about the critic than it does the music.

Hiromi’s acknowledged influences include the obvious—Ahmad Jamal (a mentor, and a jazz giant), Chick Corea (they recorded a duet album), Bach and Franz Liszt (the classical influences are often front and center)—and the not so obvious, at least to many listeners: Dream Theater, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, and Robert Fripp. The short bio on ProgArchives.com site states, “Her style brings a wholly new approach to jazz fusion, as her prog influence is derived primarily from such artists as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Frank Zappa rather than earlier jazz fusion artists. Her music is almost orchestral in scope, and each of the musicians she plays with has a virtuosic grasp of their instrument, allowing for each instrumentalist to have an approximately equal role in the direction of the music. Her music is more melodious than traditional jazz fusion but with an equally complex sense of rhythm. Time signature changes are not in short supply here.” It’s impossible for a prog rock lover to hear, say, “Return of the Kung-Fu Champion” (from her second album, “Brain”), and not hear a lot of prog influences in the mix:

Continue reading “Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!”

Brand X – rare recordings

As a teenager I was a big fan of Genesis (and still am), and as a budding, slightly obsessive completist I sought out the solo material and extra-mural projects of band members as well as the group recordings (as much as my limited income at the time would allow). It was through this route that I had my first real encounter with Jazz Rock Fusion, in the guise of Phil Collins’ solo project, ‘Brand X’.

I was quickly blown away by the virtuosity, energy and inventiveness of Messrs Collins, Goodsall, Lumley Jones & Pert, with later contributions from Robinson, Giblin & Clark. This was exciting music, which took me to places that Prog rock didn’t, and I loved it (and it took me into the multi-faceted realms of more conventional jazz, too). I even managed to catch the band on tour in 1980 at Bradford University, sharing the bill with Bruford, which was a particular joy.

I was delighted to discover that some of the band’s rarer material had become more widely available recently. One was a live recording of a show the band performed in September 1979 at the Roxy, LA. Most of the material here is from the ‘Product’ album (the first of their recordings that I bought, and which they were promoting at the time), and the recordings are of a slightly poor quality, probably being audience-recorded bootlegs. There is a good interaction between band and crowd, with some attempts at Pythonesque humour in places (the band had Michael Palin write sleeve notes for ‘Do They Hurt’ in 1980), though there are some slightly annoying ‘whoops’ from the audience at times: throughout, the musicianship is first rate, as one would expect.

The other is a collection of early session recordings from 1975 & 1976 with early versions of tunes from their first couple of albums, and other material which never made the official releases. So we have ‘Dead Pretty’, which became ‘Born Ugly’; ‘Why Won’t You Lend Me Yours?’ which emerges as ‘Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already)’; and an early version of live standard ‘Malaga Virgen’, which begins life as ‘Miserable Virgin’.

An interesting couple of collections, which give some insights into the workings of this great group of musicians.