Saturday, December 16, 2017

Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past

The clattering machinery that delivers new versions of the past, whether via deluxe reissues or previously unreleased material, took a while to get up to speed this year. I was even slightly concerned at mid-year about finding even ten truly great things to properly stock this category. But the aroma of holiday cash has a way of focusing the minds of labels of all sizes, so now that stockings and menorahs are sprouting in every household, it’s clear I needn’t have worried. If you're looking for gift ideas, you’ll find more than enough here to satisfy even the most discerning of your retro-centric family and friends.

Reissue Of The Year

Bob Dylan - Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 (1979-1981) This astoundingly rich deep dive into one of Zimmy’s most controversial periods is one of the highlights of an already extraordinary series, ranking with my favorites, Live 1975 and Tell Tale Signs. When you consider that one of the most celebrated musicians of the century went out on the road with all new, religiously-focused songs it becomes ever clearer that Dylan has always been a true believer - in himself. Another thing that went unmentioned in my verbatim report of its creation is that the Dylan camp’s maximalist approach over the last few sets (Like on last year’s incredible entry, The Cutting Edge, where they included every take of Like A Rolling Stone) makes me wish they would return to the Rolling Thunder Revue and mine more gold from that rich seam. But there’s more than enough here to occupy me until the next set. Ready for the Neverending Nineties?

Lost Masterpieces

Alice Coltrane - World Spirituality Classics Vol 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda This collection of ritual music may never not sound a little strange, with its combination of chanting, percussion, and swooping synths, but it needs to be heard to be believed.

Laraaji - Celestial Vibrations For more uniquely transporting sounds, finding the debut album by Larry Edward Gordon - released on a private press label before the ambient master met Brian Eno - is easy now thanks to wider release by Soul Jazz

Ornette Coleman - Ornette At 12/Crisis It’s a sad commentary on the state of our “all music all the time” ecosystem when it takes 40 years for TWO major albums by one of our most significant musicians to appear in a digital format. And even now that Real Gone Music has engineered the reissue of these records, their licensing deal only permitted a release on CD, which seems to be a sunsetting medium. All I can say is, if you no longer have a way to play shiny silver discs, make friends with someone who can because you need this music. 

Both Ornette At 12 and Crisis are live albums, recorded on opposite coasts seven months apart, but the only difference between them and Coleman’s studio work at the time is that there was an audience involved. The quality of the sound is more than acceptable and, on the four tracks that make up Ornette At 12, even extraordinary. Charlie Haden’s bass never sounded better and Coleman’s alto sax is a warm ribbon of golden melody throughout. Dewey Redman’s tenor is the perfect foil as he is more than willing to pursue the overblown noises and extended techniques so often associated with “free jazz.” Ornette does push that envelope a bit when he sallies in on violin, but it still works, as does his one trumpet solo, which is surprisingly beautiful. 

Crisis features Don Cherry on trumpet (and flute) so Coleman leaves those duties to him. As you might expect from the original cover art, which features a burning Bill Of Rights, these five tracks tend toward the political, in the same way Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun is political: a purely sonic response to the world's chaos. So Space Jungle and Trouble in the East are uncommonly aggressive and cacophonous, almost sounding like a different band on the latter track thanks to the combination of Coleman's violin and Cherry's doubled flutes or recorders. Haden's composition Song For Ché, a hymn-like creation, is also featured in likely its definitive performance.

I can't say enough how important it is to have these crucial albums back in circulation. Hopefully someone will do the same for the latter-day Coleman albums that are still out of print, like Of Human Feelings, his sassy take on pop-jazz from 1982. Also of interest to Ornette fans is the long-awaited release of both his final performance at a star-studded tribute concert in Prospect Park and the music from his memorial concert.

Hermeto Pascoal & Grupo Vice Versa - Viajando Com o Som The subtitle informs us that this album by the man Miles Davis called "the most impressive musician in the world" consists of the "Lost '76 Vice-Versa Studio Sessions." Recorded over two days in a white heat following a concert which combined his usual rhythm section with a trio of young-gun sax players, two of four tracks find O Bruxo (the Sorcerer or Wizard), as he is known, pursuing a more collective improvisational approach than his usual highly composed work. The second of these is Casinha Pequinina, a 26-minute odyssey that shows how powerfully Pascoal had absorbed his experience playing with Davis on the recordings originally released as Live-Evil. The title of album loosely translates as "Traveling with the Sound" and Casinha is indeed a trip and a half, moving from deeply reflective moods to almost comic exuberance. There doesn't seem to be any great explanation as to why the record was never released, except that Pascoal was just moving to fast to prepare it for release. Nothing has changed in that regard, as the 81-year-old legend has put out two new albums this year, one with a big band and one with a smaller group. Start catching up!

Thelonious Monk - Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 In 1959, Monk entered a New York studio to record performances for the soundtrack of Roger Vadim's adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos infidelity classic. Mostly remakes of Monk tunes with his tight ensemble of the time, the music was never used and never released - until now. It's of much more than just historical interest as everyone was in fine form and Monk never really played the same thing twice. The one song I could have used more of was By And By, which is (I think) the only studio recording he made of the classic hymn. A nice present for the 100th birthday of this American master.

More Brazil Classics

There seems to be no end to wonderful old records from Brazil, partially due to the efforts of Far Out Recordings, who are responsible for the Pascoal album. One of their best reissues this year was Piri's Vocês Querem Mate?, a blissful collection of psychdelic tropicalia from 1970. Tenorio Jr.'s Embalo, the sole album this piano genius made as a leader, was also put back into print this year and it is full of delights beyond the ever-popular Nebulosa.

Love Them Live
David Bowie -  Cracked Actor: Live Los Angeles '74 If only all my favorite bootlegs were spiffed up by Tony Visconti. While this will never replace David Live, which I still (perhaps unreasonably) adore, this is another invaluable document of the Diamond Dogs tour. 

The Replacements - For Sale: Live At Maxwell's 1986 The legend about The Replacements is that they delivered shows that were either focused or entertainingly shambolic. The truth is that most shows were a bit of both, which is what we get here in a fantastic multi-track recording of a concert at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ. The band starts off with a furious rendition of Heyday that isn’t even half over before Paul Westerberg starts inserting the word “murder” into the lyrics almost at random, which also happens elsewhere in the show. But such ad libs never stop the train, which only really breaks down once, during a sloppy take of Sweet’s Fox On The Run. Other than that, they execute pretty much every song you would want with passion and headlong excitement, making for an essential addition to the ‘Mats catalog, featuring the original lineup in all its ridiculous and heartfelt glory. Note that if you opt for the vinyl, Rhino does not provide a download card.
The Yardbirds - Yardbirds ‘68 When I was in high school I fell hard for The Yardbirds, fascinated by their trajectory from blues-wailing live act to studio experimentalists who incorporated everything from harpsichord to Gregorian chant as they helped forge “rock” from the embers of “rock & roll.” This passion took commitment to pursue, as all of the records depicted on the back of my brother’s copy of Greatest Hits were out of print. Eventually I acquired them all, but I still needed more. So, when I spotted a copy of Live Yardbirds featuring Jimmy Page on the wall of my favorite shop (Venus on 8th Street, if you must know) for the princely sum of $35, I told them to hold it for me while I scraped up the cash. 

Eventually, I got the disc (which may or not be counterfeit, as I found out later) onto my turntable and got to hear how The Yardbirds story ended on the stage of the Anderson Theater. Or very nearly so, as Epic Reords had seen fit to bury the performance under a blanket of artificial chatter and even clinking glassware. Still it was thrilling to hear a nascent version of Page’s approach to Jake Holmes’s Dazed And Confused - he even whipped out his violin bow - not to mention singer Keith Relf’s clear tenor improvising on I’m A Man in a way that pointed forward to his brief turn in Medieval-flavored Brit-folk band Renaissance. 

Now Page, having run out of Led Zeppelin catalog items to remaster and repackage, has turned his attention to his time in The Yardbirds and worked his magic on the Anderson Theater show, which is something for all fans of the man and the band to celebrate. Besides stripping away the fake audience noises, he has polished up the mix, making everything sound as good as possible and giving his guitar an almost physical presence throughout. While this was undoubtedly a transitional period for all involved, there’s enough here to thrill any lover of both the blues and psych which make up The Yardbirds brand, even of this wasn’t their greatest period. 

I’m also not sure this was necessarily their greatest concert of the era. Page points out in the liner notes that they were doing two sets a night at the Anderson, which slowed their roll a bit, leading to an occasionally perfunctory quality to the performance. As contemporaneous bootlegs from The Shrine in L.A. show, when given a chance to stretch out they were able to get into a lengthy version of Smokestack Lightning, which was a spectacular showcase for Relf’s harp, something he excelled at more than singing, as well as storming versions of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and The Velvet Underground’s I’m Waiting For My Man. 

Also, as much of a gentleman as Page is about the talents of Relf, bass-player Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty, there was no way they could follow him where he needed to go, which was Led Zeppelin. This is also evident on the second disc, Studio Sketches, a brief collection of unfinished recordings they made around the same time as the final concerts. Even with those limitations, there are riches to be heard here, including an early version of Tangerine, so evocative even in rough form, and Spanish Blood, which features diamond-sharp acoustic playing from Page and a pulpy spoken word segment from McCarty that almost makes it sound almost like a song by The Clientele. It should be noted that, as good as everything sounds, Page made some questionable choices by eliminating Relf's vocal on the Tangerine demo and part of McCarty's on Spanish Blood. Complete versions of those songs are on the the now out of print Cumular Limit album. So, Yardbirds '68 is a mixed bag, then, but a very good one. 

They Came From The Nineties

Radiohead - OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2007 Trust me, if I could afford the super-deluxe version of this, it would be proudly displayed next to my Ming vase. Instead, I’ll just enjoy the three unearthed songs on Spotify and hold on to my two-disc version from 2007. 

Helium - Ends With And If this compilation of rarities by Mary Timoney’s band gets more people listening to them again, that would be a very good thing. I would still recommend beginning with debut album The Dirt Of Luck, which has never gone away but was reissued on vinyl this year along with sophomore album The Magic City. However you get their sweet crunch in your life, just do it!

Reggae Roots & Branches

Every year, a small army of reissue labels fills in more reggae history, a seemingly bottomless well of goodness. In case the forest is obscuring the trees, here are a few from 2017 with real staying power. 

The Abyssinians - Satta Dub (Deluxe Expanded Edition) A big helping of classic, rootsy dub made bigger and better with more tracks, including dubs of dubs!
Lloyd Parks - Time A Go Dread Crucial collection from a soulful yet tough singer that deserves more attention. 
Lee Perry - Back On The Controls: The Session Reels Five stunning singles in stunningly remastered sound. Originally released in 2015 as a box set of vinyl 45s, this killer collection is now available to stream and download. Will we ever get enough?

African-American Power
Isaac Hayes - The Spirit Of Memphis (1962-1976) After proving himself, in collaboration with David Porter, to be one of the greatest songwriters of the soul era, Ike branched out into a solo career that was at least as spectacular. Albums like Hot Buttered Soul, To Be Continued, and Black Moses were essentially perfect - and essentially impossible to anthologize due to the length of the tracks. This new four disc set gamely tries to cover all facets of Hayes’s career (until 1976, that is, when he signed with Polydor), starting off with a generous helping of his songwriting and production for the likes of Sam & Dave, moving through his tentative first steps on his own (Sir Isaac & The Do-Dads, anyone?), and then sampling from the solo albums in a fairly effective manner, although with a few too many edits for my taste. 

Most importantly to this longtime listener, however, are the rarer goodies, like the 33-minute uncut version of Do Your Thing from Shaft that shades into Bitches Brew territory, or a live set from from a PUSH event in Chicago that features a performance of His Eye Is On The Sparrow that is staggering in its vulnerability and mastery of the gospel form. In the end, while one could quibble with some of the selections, the mere fact of the existence of The Spirit Of Memphis is a great thing, giving some proper due to the legacy of Isaac Hayes, which is so often reduced to a song or two. Get the spirit!
Various Artists - Soul of a Nation: Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power: Underground Jazz, Street Funk, and the Roots of Rap 1968-79 If you read that long title and assumed that the first cut was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, you would be correct. But I doubt anyone other than a specialist could predict what else Soul Jazz has unearthed and included on this essential compilation. 

Sounds From The Bush, by the Mandingo Griot Society with Don Cherry is one of a few tracks combining notable jazz players with African-influenced sounds, with Horace Tapscott, Joe Henderson also appearing. But most of the names are unfamiliar, such as Sarah Webster Fabio, David McKnight, Oneness Of Juju and Doug Carn. Fabio’s entrant is a funk vamp with some spoken word and a lengthy band introduction, complete with horoscope signs (it’s fabulous) while the Oneness cut, simply called African Rhythms, has the distinct flavor of a PBS special, especially when the narrator says, “These are African rhythms, passed down to us from the ancient spirits. Feel the spirits, a unifying force!” In short, it’s a little kitschy, but only because we’ve come so far in understanding (or at least hearing) music from all parts of the African continent, not due to any lack of sincerity on the part of the musicians. 

There’s a ton a variety here, too, and almost nothing overstays its welcome (Is It Too Late? by Duke Edwards & The Young Ones is a little tedious), with many paths for further investigation promised. For example, Carlos Garnett, the sax player whose Mother Of The Future closes the set, is someone I'm looking forward to listening to more. I’m also sure that Soul Jazz has done a terrific job with the booklet, so I’m looking forward to picking up the physical release and learning more about these fascinating, funky, and in many cases forgotten acts.

Beatles For Sale

Giles Martin's radical remix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, part of a 50th Anniversary deluxe reissue sheds new light on something you may think you have heard enough times. The in-progress bonus tracks, featuring plenty of studio chatter, are pure catnip for Fabs fans. The same can be said of the nifty (if overpriced) box of fan club Christmas singles - except most serious fans have heard them many times. However, if you haven't you really should, and if you insist on doing so legally, here's your chance!

You can hear tracks from most of these here and below. Ornette Coleman and The Yardbirds are on CD or vinyl only and while the Monk is also not on any streaming service, it can be downloaded. Many more reissues are tracked in an archived playlist.

Coming up next: Best of 2017: The Top 20!

You May Also Enjoy:
Record Roundup: Spirits Of The Past
Best Of 2016: Reissues
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past

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