Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dual CD Review: Dewa Budjana, Surya Namaskar; Tohpati, Tribal Dance

Dewa Budjana, with Jimmy Johnson & Vinnie Colaiuta
Surya Namaskar
MoonJune Records MJRO63 (2014)

Tohpati, featuring Jimmy Haslip & Chad Wackerman
Tribal Dance
MoonJune Records MJRO64 (2014)

It sounds like an intriguing musical combination. Take an Indonesian guitarist, well-versed in Western progressive and fusion music yet not forsaking the structures and sonorities of his native land; and pair him with a rhythm section comprising a bassist who has played with Allan Holdsworth and a drummer who has played with Frank Zappa. A rare concoction, right?

Not if you are Leonardo Pavkovic, whose MoonJune label specializes in prog and jazz fusion with ethnic flavors and a flair for the unusual. In 2014, he managed to release CDs from not one but two different trios of the same ethnic and musical combination described above. That’s two extraordinarily talented Indonesian guitarists fronting incredible trios.

Surya Namaskar features guitarist Dewa Budjana, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. It was recorded in Los Angeles in September 2013. Tribal Dance features Tohpati (as he’s billed) on guitar, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Chad Wackerman on drums. It was recorded in January and October 2013. In Los Angeles (except for one track recorded in Jakarta earlier this year). For a city sitting on top of so many fault lines, it was very risky having both these dynamic trios recording in L.A. in the same year.

According to Pavkovic, “Tohpati has a very big profile in Indonesia, mostly in the pop world as a top session player, composer, and arranger for many pop stars. But Dewa Budjana is huge in Indonesia, his band, called GIGI, is one of the most famous in the country. What I am able to capture of them on MoonJune is maybe 0.5% of what they do in their careers.”

Of the two CDs, Surya Namaskar is the more progressive-sounding, very muscular and daring with the unexpected twists and turns one expects from a prog recording. Fully instrumental (except for a vocal on the largely improvised “Kalingga,” which also features Sundanese violin and harp), the album’s sound is fleshed out with important contributions from such notable musicians as Gary Husband (synthesizer on the King Crimson-esque opener, “Fifty”) and Michael Landau (guitar solos on “Campuhan Hill,” which Dewa composed after his first meeting with Holdsworth). The music is impressive and relentlessly energetic. In spite of their power and ability, Johnson and Colaiuta show great restraint; each is fully capable of taking over a tune or a session with their virtuosity (which nevertheless is on display throughout, especially for Colaiuta on “Lamboya” where he becomes a cyclone under Dewa’s restatement of the theme), but the spotlight is firmly on Dewa throughout the CD and he shines.

Tribal Dance, in contrast, is more of an East-meets-West affair, largely in the realm of jazz fusion with ethnic influences. This trio is a bit more democratic, with Haslip and Wackerman getting a few spotlights of their own; in particular, Haslip takes a nice solo on “Run” and Wackerman turns up the heat at the end of the title track, the middle of the following tune, “Red Mask,” and “Supernatural.” Several of the songs open with exotic chants or percussion before leading into the composition proper, as if Indonesia was setting the table for the American musical feast to follow. The one exception is the closer, “Midnight Rain,” which stays largely in the East (in fact, it is the only track recorded in Indonesia). Tohpati is a very fluid and nimble player who uses effects sparingly but effectively. One can detect traces of Di Meola and Scofield in his playing, but he is very much his own artist.

If these CDs are any indication of the talent that exists in Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in the world), more Western musicians and labels should be heading out that way to mine the apparently very rich veins of musical ability to be found. If they do go there, they will find that Pavkovic has had a head start.

“There is great talent in Indonesia,” he says, “but also great diversity. For example, Tohpati is ethnic Javanese, from Java, so he has certain influences, both genetic and musical, that might be different from Dewa, who is ethnic Balinese, which is a minority in Indonesia. I am also working with Dwiki Dharmawan, a well-known pianist and keyboardist; guitarist Reza Ryan from I Know You Well Miss Clara, who has more European influences, such as Terje Rypdal, Jan Akkerman, and Phil Manzanera; and two other guitarists, Agam Hamzah and Tesla Manaf Effendi. They are all very different from each other.”

As for these two recordings, it is always nice to see the trio format utilized; it is, in my opinion, the structure that requires the most awareness, instinct, and communication among the musicians. In the jazz world, some of the greatest recordings of all time have been made by trios, and these two releases add considerable luster to the form. Both guitarists are well worth watching out for.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

CD Review: Heliopolis, City of the Sun

City of the Sun
10t Records, 10T10078 (2014)

Back in 1989, I was certain that progressive rock was dead. I had a fairly decent view of the landscape back then, as I was publishing a monthly newsletter on the genre entitled On Reflection. Though it wasn’t the reason I started the venture, one of the biggest perks was that labels and bands sent me their wares to review. Unfortunately, it was the quality of those wares that led me to believe that prog had indeed fossilized into the dinosaur remains predicted more than 10 years earlier when punk took hold. Simply put, most of the recordings were awful.

It wasn’t so much that the musicians didn’t have chops, manly of them were quite talented. The problem was that they were not progressive. They didn’t just wear their influences on their sleeves, they draped them over three-piece suits. There were bands that sounded just like Genesis, or just like Yes, or just like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. If a band had the courage to attempt to sound just like more complex outfits like Gentle Giant and King Crimson, I would give them points for effort, but they were justifiably few in number.

It got so bad that I eventually shut down the newsletter and plunged myself into the healing waters of jazz, where the musicianship was even more impressive, the idea of blatantly copying another musician or group was anathema, and the music was heartfelt and honest – with no Taurus bass pedals, no ridiculous lyrics, and no capes.

In the ensuing years, I have continued to enjoy the prog that I always liked and have been downright suspicious of any modern attempts to wave the banner. I have written features and CD reviews for Progression magazine (which, incidentally, was originally launched as a continuation of On Reflection by one of my subscribers, with my blessing and assistance) since 2010, and while no 21st-century progressive band has joined my personal Mount Progmore, I do realize that there are artists doing interesting things with the tools and technologies now available, who have a couple more decades of influences to absorb, and who are facing an even more hostile recording industry.

So perhaps my heart has softened, perhaps I have become more sentimental and nostalgic, perhaps I have left my guard down, but I do now acknowledge that prog has a pulse left. Even so, nothing could prepare me for City of the Sun, the debut album of Los Angeles-based Heliopolis, which I have to say is freaking awesome!

At the outset, they have all the trappings of prog-chic: a cosmic name; a five-piece lineup with wailing lead vocalist and hot-shot guitarist, keyboardist, bass, and drummer; and suite-like songs in excess of 10 minutes in length. A Theremin even appears, played by Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints and Brian Wilson’s band (in the latter group it is he who plays the Theremin – actually a Tannerin – on “Good Vibrations”).

As for the music, well, it’s classic prog as well, and while influences are discernible (the opening suite, “New Frontier,” in addition to sharing a title with a Donald Fagen composition, starts off with Crimson-esque crunch and cacophony, and once the vocals appear the composition ends up sounding like it could have borne the credits of Lee, Lifeson, Peart), there are no slavish imitations of anything that came before. Rather, there is a rich diversity of moods, tempos, and arrangements, where pop overtones and reflective balladry meld smoothly with jazz fusion and hard rock. For example, the six-minute “Elegy,” dedicated to the late singer/drummer Shaun Guerin, is not in the least bit funereal, unless you’re talking about a Viking funeral. This track has energy and passion to spare.

As for the players themselves, the high tenor vocals of Scott Jones are more Steve Hogarth than Greg Lake, and his articulation and emotion make the words worth listening to. With drummer Jerry Beller, keyboardist Matt Brown, and bassist Kerry Chicoine supplying harmony vocals, the voice component of the musical mix is thoughtfully and effectively deployed throughout.

On multiple keyboards, Brown supplies a wide range of compelling sounds and textures. With a focus on evocative musical expression, he is not one to supply aimless synth washes or death-ray flares; rather, he uses interesting voicings to complement what I would call “real” playing, as on his funky/jazzy solo on “Elegy” or his spacy but substantial solo on the 14-minute closer, “Love and Inspiration.”

The “rhythm section” is typically more a topic for discussion in jazz than in prog, where in many cases the bassist and the drummer act as competing soloists rather than as collaborating cogs in a unified rhythmic system. Chicoine and Beller defy that characterization, deftly executing sudden tempo shifts and providing exactly what the complex music requires to keep from falling apart – along with ample opportunities to add exciting filigrees.

Guitarist Matier eschews the prog stereotypes of pretzel fingers and faux classical renderings, preferring to wring a mix of intensity and lyricism from his instruments, playing metal power chords one moment and soaring, melodic solos that get under your skin and drill intro your brain the next. On the short, Rundgren-esque Mr. Wishbone, Matier plays all the instruments except drums.
My personal favorite track on the album (with five tracks in all, the CD clocks in at a respectable 42:48) is the second, the nearly-nine-minute “Take a Moment.” Musical and lyrical drama and intrigue are built through an ascending vocal line, frequently shifting tempos and dynamics, and powerful solos from Brown and Matier. The lyrics includes the following lines:

Life’s but a journey
Never ending, Just unfolding
Always happening the way that it should be

Grudgingly, I have to admit that the same could apply to progressive rock, even in 2014. I guess I have Heliopolis to thank (or blame) for that.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

CD Review: Marbin, The Third Set

The Third Set
MoonJune Records, MJR065 (2014)

The Third Set is the fourth recording from this Chicago-based band founded by two extraordinary Israeli musicians. It is their first live album and because their talents and energy are best realized in live performance, this might be the one to get if you have yet to experience the musical dynamo that Marbin is.

Founded by Dani Rabin (guitar) and Danny Markovitch (saxophone), Marbin was formed in 2007; they released their first, eponymously titled album as a duet in 2009. By the time of their second album, 2011’s Breaking the Cycle, their first for Leonardo Pavkovic’s MoonJune label, they had expanded to a quartet, with the album featuring the all-star rhythm section of Paul Wertico on drums and Steve Rodby on bass, both on loan from the Pat Metheny Group. For the touring group and subsequent recordings, Dani and Danny have been ably supported by drummer Justyn Lawrence and bassist Jae Gentile, making for a uniquely configured black-Jewish foursome.

MoonJune is a label specializing in prog and jazz fusion with ethnic influences and left-of-center musical tendencies. Marbin fits perfectly in its roster and all of the band’s diverse styles and sounds are in full display on The Third Set, recorded in America’s breadbasket in early spring 2013. For example, the opener, “Special Olympics,” is a prog-metal burner, with Rabin playing the role of Captain Speedfingers. That’s followed by a funk tune, “The Depot,” in which Markovitch takes the lead. After that is the bluesy “Crystal Bells” and the jazzy “Redline.” And yet all of it makes sense together, as the musicians bring not only great chops but also empathy and sensitivity to group dynamics. Though tempos are generally fast, except on the ballad “Northern Odyssey,” there are often dramatic and sudden shifts in tempo, dynamics, and rhythm. Like a race car with great brakes, they can surprise you with their ability to rev up, then stop on a dime and change direction.

Gentile is strong and steady throughout, and Lawrence gets a chance to strut his stuff in a call and response with Markovitch at the end of “Rabak.” On both the opener and the closer, “Volta,” Rabin and Markovitch play in unison at breakneck tempo, with the blended timbres of their instruments resembling an electric violin. There are comparisons that could be made to Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report, or even bands such as Brand X, but Marbin is truly an entity unto itself. While the previous two studio albums featured additional guest musicians and vocalists, The Third Set shows that Mssrs. Rabin, Markovitch, Lawrence, and Gentile are more than sufficient to make Marbin a supremely powerful and highly satisfying musical experience.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Concert review: Esperanza Spalding, Boston, MA

My review of Esperanza Spalding appeared in the Arts Fuse

CD Review: John Mayall - A Special Life

John Mayall
A Special Life
Forty Below Records, FBR 006 (2014)

By the end of this month, legendary British blues icon John Mayall will be 81 years old. Over the last 50 years he’s put out 60 or so albums. His bands have launched or legitimized the careers of many notable musicians, such as guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, and Robben Ford; bassists Jack Bruce and John McVie; drummers Aynsley Dunbar, Keef Hartley, Jon Hiseman, and Mick Fleetwood; and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. Clearly, the man has nothing left to prove. And yet he may also have nothing better to do, because he’s released another excellent album this year. If it’s not destined to be as influential as the best of his earlier work, A Special Life is nonetheless a strong collection of originals and covers, sung with conviction and played by a crack band of musicians barely old enough to be his grandchildren.

From top to bottom, the 11 songs on A Special Life are rendered consistently tuneful and energetic thanks to Mayall and his band. Rocky Athas occupies the historically significant lead guitar role in the band with clear confidence and exceptional Texas chops. On the Albert King song, “Floodin’ in California,” my favorite on the album, Athas constructs a terrific solo that starts out easygoing and melodic, is interrupted by a short organ solo by Mayall, then returns and builds in intensity. He cranks it to 11 on Sonny Landreth’s “Speak of the Devil” and does the aching slow burn on the late Jimmy McCracklin’s “I Just Got to Know.”
The rhythm section on the album is Greg Rzab (Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Black Crowes) on bass and potent drummer Jay Davenport, who counts as his influences Art Blakey, Billy Cobham, and Steve Gadd. Rzab contributed one composition to the album, a powerful blues lament called “Like a Fool.” Davenport is crisp and inventive, driving the band to higher heights and deeper depths.

Zydeco legend C.J. Chenier appears on two tracks, his accordion gracing the set’s opener, “Why Did You Go Last Night.” But ultimately, the cat who impresses most is none other than Mayall himself. Contributing four original compositions, singing every song, and playing piano, organ, harmonica, clavinet, and lead guitar, Mayall performs at a high level across the board. While giving his band ample opportunity to show why this incredible convener of talent has not lost his touch (or his ears), Mayall’s playing and soloing is tasteful and warm throughout, and his voice is full of vigor and character. With titles like “World Gone Crazy,” “A Special Life,” “Heartache,” and “Just a Memory,” his songs are the most personal on the album, and his beautiful piano solo on the latter, the album’s six-and-a-half-minute closer, speaks volumes after the lyrics have all been sung.

I saw Mayall perform live a couple of months ago and though he only performed three songs from this album, his pride in his band was evident and they covered several periods of his long career with reverence – but not too much, as this group had its own things to say on such classics as “Chicago Line,” “Parchman Farm,” and even Mayall’s harp showcase, “Room to Move.” One thing the concert and the new album had in common was the astounding fact of John Mayall’s enduring abilities; it’s not that he’s been rejuvenated, it’s more like he’s never aged. A Special Life was released in 2014, but it sounds like it could have come out at any time in Mayall’s career. And that’s about as high a praise as you can give a blues recording.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rebooting the Blog: Introduction/King Crimson Concert Review

Have you ever looked up the definition of a word that you already know what it means, just to see what the actual definition is? I just did that with “reboot” and the definition was “boot again.” I guess it serves me right. After all, my life philosophy is “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (a line by Bob Dylan), which to me has always meant, “have faith in your own instincts and intelligence, you don’t need an authority to tell you what’s clearly obvious to you.”

So why did I bother in the first place? Because I am rebooting my blog and I thought it would be fun to do it dictionary-style. I was wrong. And I may be wrong about rebooting my blog but since most of my readers are probably people who found it by accident, it doesn’t really matter. But to me and to anyone who has actually popped by with any regularity over the last few years, it does matter, or it should.

From the get-go, my blog was intended to be one way of building what the dying publishing industry calls a “platform” – an established area of expertise one has, along with a built-in following who might be interested in purchasing one’s books. The platform I chose – perhaps more accurately, it chose me – is music. After all, my first novel, The Grave & The Gay*, was based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, while the second one I am currently struggling mightily with was inspired by a song by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.

Maintaining a blog is no easy deal, as I soon found out, and I have frequently written posts that have nothing to do with music. That may prove to be true as well in the future, but to help invigorate my blog and infuse it with meaning, I have decided to reboot it primarily as a concert and CD review site. I have plenty of both to get me started, but if you are reading this and you have a CD you’d like me to review, please contact me via my website – – and I will tell you how to send it to me.

I should note that I have a particular interest in prog and jazz, but am a fan of rock, pop, soul, and folk, as well as ethnic/world music and anything that doesn’t fit neatly in the dying music industry’s various marketing labels. I also write CD reviews and features for Progression magazine, and reviews and articles for the Arts Fuse online magazine and Musicovation blog, so I’m not a complete dodo.

Before I launch into my first review, I want to remind/inform my readers (intentional or accidental, you both are welcome here) the meaning behind the blog’s title, Dove Nested Towers. It is a typically inventive phrase by Van Dyke Parks that is part of the lyrics to the Brian Wilson masterpiece composition “Surf’s Up.” Originally written in 1966 for the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile album, the song eventually appeared in 1971 as the title track of the band’s LP offering that year. Brian did his own version in 2004 on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, and five different versions appear on the 2011 Smile Sessions boxed set. It is my favorite song.

Any band still going that started out in the late '60s by now will have experienced any number of lineup changes. Typically these are due to death or the intentionally vague “musical differences” and they tend to involve a single player. King Crimson is anything but a typical band. When they have a lineup change, it usually means everyone but the guitarist has been let go. Indeed, Robert Fripp, the seated lead guitarist who dresses and appears as composed as an accountant but plays like a zombie slayer, has been the one and only constant in what has now been eight different lineups since 1969.

These lineups have included a trio, quartet, quintet, and a double trio composed of two drummers, two guitarists, and two bass/Stick players. The eighth lineup may be the oddest one yet: seven musicians, including no fewer than three drummers who are set up in the front of the stage (Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin, and Pat Mastelotto), with two guitarists (Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk), bassist/Stick master Tony Levin, and sax/flute guru Mel Collins comprising the second line.

One reason for the many lineup changes (the band has accommodated a total of 21 full-time musicians in its history) is that it periodically breaks up and reforms. The first hiatus was from 1974-1981. By 1974, the band had endured three lineup changes in five years. The 1981 lineup had a successful three-year stint before ceasing operations until 1993, when the double trio was introduced. Two more hiatuses take us to the present day.

With each tour, Fripp takes pains to warn fans not to arrive at the venue with expectations that anything from prior lineups will be played. Typically, some older songs are included in the set lists, but the idea of a “greatest hits” repertoire is anathema to Fripp, who regards Crimson as “a way of doing things” rather than as an ongoing jukebox.

So it was that I arrived at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston to experience how King Crimson would be “doing things” after 45 years of stops and starts. In spite of Fripp’s warnings, lineup #8 did seem to suggest that a retrospective approach to song election was possible. After all, Harrison was with the band in 2008; Jakszyk performed in a Crimson alumni band and has collaborated with Fripp, Collins, and Harrison; Mastelotto and Levin have done a few stints with Crimson together and apart, and Collins goes as far back as 1970.

What transpired was beyond all my expectations and, dare I say, fantasies. It should be noted that my favorite era of King Crimson was 1973-74; that three-album span featured my favorite rock-oriented drummer, Bill Bruford, as well as bassist/vocalist John Wetton, a brilliant player who seemed ever to be in search of fame and finally found it in 1983 in the band Asia. That era was particularly well-represented, and in fact the set’s opener (“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One”) and closer (“Starless”) came from those albums, along with four other songs (“Red,”, “One More Red Nightmare,” “The Talking Drum,” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two”). That, for me, was well worth the price of admission.

The rarely acknowledged Islands album from 1972 (the last of three that Collins appeared on) surprisingly offered two songs, “The Letters” and the jazz-metal instrumental workout, “Sailor’s Tale.” Collins was also proud representative of the 1970 tune “Pictures of a City,” blaring on sax with the force of a Peter Brotzmann (look him up). Collins, whom I saw on Roger Waters’ first solo tour in 1984, was one of four MVPs of this show, playing soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax in addition to flute.

Of the eight remaining songs, six date from after Bruford left the band, at which time I took my own hiatus from Crimson’s only-constant-is-change gyrations. As such, I was not familiar with them, though the level of musicianship was consistently amazing throughout the show. As a final encore, the band rocked through the touchstone tune, the opener on Crimson’s 1969 debut album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which featured an astounding drum solo by Harrison, who was another MVP, as was Tony Levin, who played three different basses and Chapman Stick and had the unenviable responsibility of anchoring the heavy, complex playing of this seven-legged sea monster.

The final MVP I would give to Fripp himself, who says nothing on stage and yet says all there needs to be said on his guitar. It could well be said that Robert Fripp is also a way of doing things, and like the band he has carried on through thick and thin, there is no one who does it anything like he does. As for the three drummers, I feel that Harrison could have done the job himself (as, indeed, Bruford could have done, and maybe would have if he and Fripp were not currently as close as Ray and Dave Davies).

It is inevitable that this lineup will cease to exist and another hiatus will begin. But Fripp is 68 now and one has to wonder how much more of this he can take. One night was powerful enough for me; imagine being in the midst of it night after night. He has finally plumbed the depths of the King Crimson catalogue and past lineups so if there is a ninth lineup, it will be a challenge to make it a surprising one. But setting up and facing challenges is ultimately what King Crimson is all about; indeed, it is what it does best.