Voltarol - related music

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Smokin'In The Pit

Vibraphonist Mike Maineiri has fronted his own band - Steps Ahead – for getting on for thirty years now. The band has gone through many personnel changes over the years but I first bought an album by them in 1983. This was the first, eponymous album and it blew me away. It featured the young Eliane Elias on piano, Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone, Eddie Gomez on double bass and Peter Erskine on drums. Mainieri was playing synthivibe (an invention of his own) as well as vibraphone and marimba.

I thought the playing was terrific, the group sound extremely integrated and the compositions excellent. To me, the music had overtones of what Weather Report were doing - what was (and still is) rather contemptuously referred to as ‘jazz fusion’ – and I liked it a lot. For my money this material, like that of Weather Report represented another move forward with the music. It was an expansion of ideas, with the musicians simply bringing fresh ingredients to the table. Over the years the band would include more of the elements that the most staid jazz fans despise – electric basses and guitars and all manner of synthesisers – but at this stage there was only the synthivibe to point in this direction. It was the ideas rather than the instrumentation that defined it.

The next album – ‘Modern Times’ (1984) – saw the departure of pianist Elias and the arrival of keyboardist Warren Bernhardt. It also featured some guest musicians and a more electronic sound and I enjoyed it even more than the first album. Later versions of the band would consolidate this approach and feature electric guitar, electric bass and plenty of synthesis, but ‘Modern Times’ remained my favourite Maineiri - led album for many years, until the re-release of something that I had somehow managed to miss at the time. That something was ‘Steps / Smokin’ In The Pit’ and here’s what Mike Mainieri had to say about it in the sleeve notes for the 1999 CD release.

In December of 1979, our newly formed group Steps, ventured beyond it’s home, the Jazz club “Seventh Avenue South” where we had been playing to sold out crowds for several months and left for Tokyo where we had been invited to record three albums for Nippon Columbia. Two albums were to be recorded in one week, a ‘live’ double album of performances at the Pitt Inn Tokyo on the 15th and 16th and a studio recording on the 17th of December, 1979. The double live album, ‘Smokin’ In The Pit’ was released in 1980 and was awarded a gold record. The studio album, ‘Step by Step’ was released shortly after, followed by another live recording in the summer of 1980 at Seventh Ave South entitled Paradox. These three recordings were the only albums released by the group under the name of Steps. Upon signing with Elektra Records in 1982, we learned that a local band in North Carolina had trademarked the name Steps and hence Steps Ahead became our new moniker. These two discs contain the original eight compositions plus three alternate takes and three new additional compositions.

This is stunning stuff. There is a fantastic energy running through every track and every track is a winner. The alternate takes of songs are from performances on different nights, and listening to the versions side by side shows just how fresh and inventive these guys were, and how much they seemed to get off on each other’s playing. The line up here is Maineiri – vibraphone, Michael Brecker – tenor sax, Eddie Gomez – double bass and the wonderful Don Grolnick – piano. There is also a guest performance by the great Japanese guitarist, Kazumi Watanabe. It’s interesting to note that Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick and Michael Brecker all went on to contribute to some of the great non-jazz albums of our times. Gadd and Brecker worked with Paul Simon and Steely Dan. Gadd and Grolnick worked with James Taylor. Brecker also worked with Joni Mitchell. Alas, both Michael Brecker and Don Grolnick are no longer with us, but I’m happy to say that I am looking forward to seeing Steve Gadd with James Taylor later in the year.

Needless to say there is no YouTube material by this line up but below are a selection of Steps Ahead and related artists clips. The album itself is still available from the usual suspects and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I think it might well be up there in my top ten all time favourite albums, if only I could bring myself to decide on only ten…

This is the line up from the Steps Ahead album playing a Don Grolnick composition but with Eliane Elias on piano

This is a later line up with Steve Gadd back in the drum chair.

and here is Don Grolnick leading a workshop through his own composition - Pools - that is featured in the first clip.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A pat on the back for Barnes and Mullins

For those of you who don't know, Barnes and Mullins are a long-established musical instrument wholesale company. Amongst the many products that they distribute are guitar stands, and that is where this story starts.

I own a very fine Bartram electro - acoustic guitar which, unlike most production-line guitars these days, has a nitrocellulose finish. There are many advantages to using this lacquer but it is not as robust as modern acrylic and polyester finishes. A few years ago, when I was still gigging regularly, I bought a couple of guitar stands, the sort that have a tripod base and an extending arm that supports the neck of the instrument in 'U' shaped recess with a safety bar. The supports are generally covered in plastic foam of some sort, to protect the instrument from the metal of the frame. After using one of these for a while I noticed that there was a place on the neck of my guitar that was becoming discoloured and tacky. A closer inspection revealed that this place coincided with the point at which it was supported by the stand. Research revealed that this was not an uncommon problem. There was some chemical element in the foam covering that was interacting badly with the cellulose, and so deeply did it penetrate that I had to have the neck of the guitar stripped and treated to render the rogue chemical inert before it could be refinished. That cost me £200!

The offending stands were disposed off. By this time arthritis had put an end to my professional playing but I still wanted to keep the guitar on a stand in my front room. A guitar that spends all its time in a case doesn't get picked up and played, and I like to keep mine to hand for those odd moments during the day when I fancy a quick plunk - if you'll pardon the expression. So, I went in search of a new stand that wouldn't present me with the same problems and eventually bought a TGI 'A' frame - style guitar stand that seemed to fit the bill. The stands are distributed by Barnes and Mullins who, because the company had been aware of the potential problems with plastics and cellulose, had specified that suitable materials were used by the Chinese company that manufactured them.

The guitar has sat happily in my front room for the last few months, resplendent on the new stand and all has been well - until the other day. I was restringing the instrument and giving it a clean when I noticed a thin yellowish mark on the back of it which did not respond to polish or a damp cloth. Close inspection revealed it to be a discolouration in the cellulose and a little bit of very rudimentary detective work confirmed that the villain in the piece was my new guitar stand. But it was not the foam that was responsible - there is no foam involved in this design. No, it was the plastic itself. Despite the fact that the design results in the absolute minimum contact between the instrument and the support, it was enough to allow a chemical reaction. Then I noticed my wooden floor. There were similar yellow marks on the floorboards where the feet of the stand had rested. The floor is finished with Bourneseal which is not related to cellulose as far as I know, so this was an entirely new development.

I decided to give Barnes and Mullins a call to alert them to this problem and I was soon speaking to someone who was most concerned and said he would bring the matter to the attention of the managing director immediately. He took my phone number and promised me that I could expect a call back before the day was out. As it happened, when the call came I was out. Now I've dealt with problems with companies before, and my experience has generally been that in such circumstances one very rarely gets a follow-up call. But the message on my answerphone was clear. The MD was out of the country for the next two days but would contact me on his return. And he did.

I hadn't been thinking along the lines of recompense so much as the possibility of the problem happening to someone else, but Bruce Perrin 's first response was to offer to replace the current stand with one of their - far more elegant and expensive - wooden stands. He also offered to pay to have my guitar refinished and when I pointed out that this would cost several hundred pounds he did not baulk, and stressed that the company fully accepted the responsibility for the situation and would go out of their way to correct it. He also said that he would make sure that there was an adequate warning of these potential problems with all further stands sold.

The next morning a package arrived by special courier. It was my new guitar stand. It is all wood, with cork protection for the points of contact with the instrument and looks very fetching in my front room. It's not the sort of thing that I would take out on a gig but I'm very pleased with it nonetheless. So - hats off to Barnes and Mullins for the best possible customer service. I'm frequently the first person to moan about bad service from big companies so it makes a very pleasant change to be able to sing the praises of one!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Nothing much?

One album that I have been playing a lot recently is called Nonada which is either the title of the album, the name of the band or both – I’m not really sure. I can’t even find the word in my Portuguese/English – English/Portuguese dictionary, although I’m pretty certain that it means ‘nothing much – a trifle’, which, if that is the case, is as fine a piece of understatement as you are ever likely to come across. This music is terrific!

Just as there is no obvious name for this Brazilian group there is also no obvious leader, but then if you look at the calibre of the individual musicians, they are all leaders in their own right anyway. One would assume that this would lead to impossible tensions but if it does then they are not apparent here. The group consists of Rodolfo Stroeter – double bass; Tutty Moreno – drums; André Mehmari – piano; Teco Cardoso – soprano, alto and baritone saxophones, c, alto and bass flutes and
Nailor Proveta – alto saxophone and clarinet.

As a frequent visitor to Brazil I was aware of these musicians individually and have albums by all of them, but I first became conscious of them as a group around 2000, when I bought a CD under Tutty Moreno’s name entitled Forcas D’ Alma. Teco Cardoso did not feature on this CD but Moreno’s wife – the singer, guitarist and composer Joyce – guested, as she does on ‘Nonada’. As a consequence I pounced upon this new album with high expectations and was not disappointed.

The addition of the great Teco to this line-up was an inspired move. Excellent though the music is on ‘Forces D’ Alma’ it rises to new heights on ‘Nonada’, and the more I listen to it, the better it gets. When I started looking for links for this posting I was amazed to discover that it is not currently available. Although it was recorded in 2005 it was not released until last year, on the admirable Biscoito Fino label, under the Pau Brasil imprint. I do hope that this is a mistake or an oversight of some sort, and if it isn’t then – please, all you good people at Biscoito Fino, reconsider your decision and reissue this album.

The album features compositions by some of the great names of Brazilian music – Moacir Santos, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymii, Hermeto Pascoal and Baden Powell as well as an original by Nailor Proveta and a Joyce composition on which she guests. The rhythmic and harmonic flavour of Brazil permeates this music but this is no stereotypical ‘jazz ’n’ samba’ confection. This is first and foremost jazz, and Brazil now has a very distinct jazz voice of its own. In the same way that North American jazz has always drawn on North American musical culture for inspiration and source material, so Brazilian jazz musicians tap into the great wealth of their own musical heritage, which goes way beyond just bossa nova.

Alas, there are no clips from Nonada available on line (apart from the brief sound-bites on the Biscoito Fino website) but I have assembled some YouTube clips of the participating musicians here, for you to get some idea of the sheer quality of these people.

Here is Rodolpho Stroeter with his group, Pau Brasil, in 1996. The personnel includes Teco Cardoso.

And here is the Tutty Moreno Quartet in 2001. This is the 'Nonada' line up but without Teco Cardoso.

Here is André Mehmari with his trio, performing in São Paulo in 2008.

This is Teco Cardoso performing in London in 2008 with the group Oriole Brasil.

And finally, here's Nailor Proveta with Tutty Moreno's quartet again.

Do go and seek out this album. It really is well worth looking for and I'm sure that there are copies to be found still. In the meantime I shall write to Biscoito Fino and ask them to reinstate it!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

You say potato…

My younger brother - Ganja the Dwarf – was round to dinner the other night. His musical tastes are a bit different to mine but we do share some common ground, although he’s more inclined towards the rock, folk and country end of the spectrum than me. During the course of the evening he mentioned seeing a rerun of a Modern Jazz Quartet concert on the box recently (part of the original Jazz 625 series broadcast on BBC 2 in the late ‘60s) and asked if I had any CDs of them in my collection. I muttered something about bears and woods and put on “No Sun in Venice”, which I have owned in one format or another since God was a boy. Before too long the iconic sounds of ‘The Golden Striker’ were emanating from my Quad speakers and G the D observed how timeless and accessible this music was. I had to agree with him (well, I would, wouldn’t I) and it set me thinking about how some people listen to music.

(This version was recorded in the 1980s. The original recording was issued in 1957.)

Not long after I had first started writing this blog I did a piece (Jazz, delicious hot, disgusting cold) in which I talked about my earliest jazz tastes and mentioned the MJQ, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck etc. A passing web-surfer left the comment: “Christ! It’s the Godfrey Winn of Jazz” which - despite its being quite a droll remark - showed that he hadn’t actually read the piece in question. More to the point though, it’s indicative of a certain mind-set that is all too common, particularly amongst the jazz fraternity.

I developed a taste for that stuff when I was thirteen or fourteen, at a time when these players were doing new and fresh things which represented a significant step forward in the development of the music. Sure, it wasn’t as radical an advance as bebop had been or Coltrane and his followers were to give us but it was an advance nonetheless. The fact that it was more accessible to the average non-jazz minded person did not and does not make it bad jazz.

Now it might sound as if I’m mounting a spirited defence of this stuff but that’s not the case – it doesn’t need defending because for the most part it is recognised for the great music that it is. But so many people don’t actually have any affinity with music as such. They are drawn by the baggage that goes with the music – the clothes, the cliques, the politics and the poses. The English bebop fans looked down on the lovers of Traditional Jazz in the late forties and early fifties. They referred to them as ‘mouldy figs’, whilst the revivalists referred to the modernists in equally disparaging terms. On one occasion when saxophonist Bruce Turner joined Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, a group of ‘mouldy figs’ went to the lengths of manufacturing a huge banner and smuggling it into the hall where Humph was performing. As his musicians took to the stage the banner was unfurled. It stretched from one side of the hall to the other and read ‘GO HOME DIRTY BOPPER’.

Even Humph was not immune to this kind of short-sightedness and once, in the early days of his ‘Best of Jazz’ radio programme, followed the playing of a ‘modern jazz’ record with a vintage New Orleans recording and the words “…and now back to sanity and 1927”. Humph was far too good a musician to maintain this stance and his work ultimately reflected many influences beyond the initial ones from the 1920s, and in fact his record programme was responsible for introducing me to such diverse musicians as Michel Petrucciani, Carla Bley and Tommy Smith. And he was as likely to play John Coltrane, Pat Metheny or Joe Zawinul as he was to play Sydney Bechet, Zoot Sims or Buck Clayton.

And that’s the point. There’s a whole lot of great music out there and it is constantly evolving. But when you hear some new development that grabs your attention it shouldn’t mean that the stuff you were listening to before that suddenly becomes obsolete! Or that because you don’t actually like some new development it can’t therefore have any merit of its own. We ought to be able to distinguish between good and bad and like and dislike. This of course applies not just to jazz but to all music right across the board.

There are some things that I really like even though they are not really very good music, and there are some things that I dislike intensely, even though I recognise the quality of what I am listening to, For example, by and large I detest the music of Mozart, but I readily acknowledge that he was a supremely gifted composer. On the other hand I have a sneaking fondness for the compositions of Eric Coates (and I’m sure my anonymous adversary would level the Godfrey Winn taunt at me again for this), but I would never claim that Coates was therefore the better composer. Sadly, many folk can’t seem to make that kind of distinction. There are a lot of people out there that don’t actually listen to music, they only hear it.