Succinct Reviews of Seven Sterling (Non-Prog) CDs

I live with several people and many things: my wife, our three children, a dog, two cats, five chickens, numerous fish, a dated wardrobe, and countless delusions. Among those delusions is an unwarranted—irrational!—belief that I will write long, detailed reviews of every album I deem worthy of such. Reality smirks at such excessive dreams, but I continue to harbor them. Still, I sometimes relent to reality, with gritted teeth and a fleeting snarl. So, what follows are short reviews of seven recently released albums (mostly downloads, actually) that share two qualities: they are not prog, and they are excellent. I should note that although the main focus of Progarchy.com  (which I conceived and Brad birthed—ooh, that sounds a bit, uh, strange) is obviously prog, it is open to all forms of good music. Genre is of far lesser importance than quality. That said, let’s push “Play”.

• “Until The Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus. This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.

• “3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam. His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.

• “Long Wave” by Jeff Lynne. A part of me was prepared to dislike this because it is a covers album and is quite short (barely 28 minutes). Yes, this is a rather nostalgic homage to songs Lynne grew up on (standouts include “She” and “Beyond the Sea”), but the wizard of ELO brings such an obvious love to the project, I was won over. It doesn’t hurt that it is impeccably sung, played and produced, with lush Lynne-harmonies and ELO-like arrangements that are all about the songs. Besides, if there is one thing Lynne’s music has always had, it was a sense of nostalgic melancholy and romantic regret. Short, bittersweet, and stellar.

• “Manu Katché” by Manu Katché. Who hasn’t this phenomenal drummer played with? Notable names include Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Tori Amos, and about a billion others. This is Katché’s fourth disc for ECM, and each has been fabulous; this newest release is notable for its propulsive approach. As one reviewer noted (I’ve lost the link), this is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ. Recommended for anyone who loves great jazz and anyone who needs an entry point for modern jazz that is equally brainy and passionate.

• “Albatross” by Big Wreck. I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody. One of my favorite releases of 2012.

• “Born to Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.

• “Now Here This” by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Some fans of McLaughlin’s legendary projects from the 1960s and ’70s aren’t too taken with his recent albums, which often feature guitar-synth and other modern devices. But while this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it. Fantastic effort from the legendary axe man.

The Roots of Prog: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

My introduction to jazz was through Weather Report in the late ‘70s, and I couldn’t have made a more fortunate choice. Led by Josef Zawinul on keyboards and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, my love for that group’s music opened the door for me to the mother lode of jazz: Miles Davis.

Miles’ 1969 album, In a Silent Way, is a cornerstone of progressive music. Consider this – it contains just three songs: “Shhh/Peaceful” (18:16), “In a Silent Way” (4:11), and “It’s About That Time” (11:27). These songs don’t follow any typical structure; they are mostly jams, albeit within a strictly controlled atmosphere. Hearing the album gives the listener a sense of time being suspended, while gifted musicians at the top of their game improvise with each other. Also, as with many prog classics, the studio was an integral part of the finished result.

In 1969, Miles’ group was in transition. Pianist Herbie Hancock was itching to go solo, drummer Tony Williams was starting up his fusion band Lifetime, and bassist Ron Carter was tired of touring. Miles recruited British bassist Dave Holland for the sessions, guitarist John McLaughlin, and electric pianist Chick Corea. At the last minute, he invited keyboardist Josef Zawinul to join them. So the sessions began with a unique lineup never before seen in jazz: three keyboards (Hancock, Corea, and Zawinul), bass (Holland), electric guitar (McLaughlin), soprano sax (Shorter), drums (Williams), and trumpet (Davis). Teo Macero, Miles’ long-time producer, was again at the controls.

Apparently there was very little actual composition written out beforehand. However, that doesn’t mean the songs are aimless noodling. Tony Williams is a master of restraint, playing a steady pulse on his cymbals almost the entire album. Here is how Ian Carr, in his biography of Miles Davis, describes the music:

There is great delicacy and finesse in the solos, great subtlety in the keyboards (everybody is listening to everyone else), and the music is pervaded by Miles Davis’ unique atmosphere of buoyant though melancholy reflection. Perhaps paradoxically, the total impression is powerful and seductive because the steady time with its occasional pauses (as if the music were actually breathing) creates the non-western climate of timelessness – and in a sense, it is music which should be inhabited rather than merely listened to.

Some of Miles’ greatest solos are in these sessions, as well as Wayne Shorter’s. By this time, they had played together so long they seemed to be one mind with their improvised interplay. When the sessions were over, they had about two hours of material. Teo Macero had learned to just let the tapes roll as soon as Miles began, and not stop until everyone quit.

Macero used editing to cut and paste together the final album, and he deserves most of the credit for making it such a satisfying listen. In “Shhh/Peaceful”, he includes a trumpet solo at 1:35 that states the theme, then he lets everyone trade solos for the next twelve minutes. At 13:31, he brings back the same solo to close out the piece.

“In A Silent Way”, which opens side two, begins with John McLaughlin alone on guitar. Miles famously suggested to McLaughlin that he “Play it like you don’t know how to play guitar”, and the result is a beautiful and simple tune that is charming yet challenging to listen to. It then segues immediately into “It’s About That Time”. Again, Tony Williams sets up a steady pulse over which the others can vamp and solo. Holland plays a repeated riff on bass that slowly builds tension while McLaughlin, Shorter, Corea, and Davis take turns soloing. The keyboards and guitar join Holland playing the bass riff until finally, at 9:00, Tony cuts loose and flails away on the drums while Miles solos. Then the exact same take of “In A Silent Way” that began the side brings the listener back to earth. No one had used tape editing in such a radical fashion before, but Macero makes it work.

It would be hard to overstate the influence In A Silent Way has had on music. Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell – all display hints of this music. Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden is heavily indebted to it, as well as a lot of Steven Wilson’s latest work (Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion). Practically anything that has “space” in it can trace its roots to this album.

Once again, Miles proved himself to be a visionary artist, building the bridge between traditional jazz and the newborn genre that would soon be known as progressive rock.

Listen to a stream of Side Two: