Thursday, October 21, 2010

Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles (1964)

In a word, terrifying.  The incendiary brainchild of four artists in the first bloom of their careers, Empyrean Isles remains one of the most daringly imaginative titles ever to appear under the Blue Note label.  Its best tracks--none better than the astonishing closer, "The Egg"--possess a nervous energy, a panicky urgency suggestive of some imminent crisis over which the music broods.  The percussion crackles; the piano skitters about, its notes like supercharged ions crashing into one another; and the trumpet, meteoric, burns through it all, with all the brashness--with the piercing swagger--we'd expect, not quite from Clifford Brown, but perhaps from Brown's rebellious bastard child.  The whole is a seething mass that, for all the flashy originality of its individual performers, somehow coheres beautifully: the players keep on goading each other--and us--to audacious new heights, to lushly exotic musical terrains.  This is music, in short, that we're still learning how to listen to.
The record's frenetic, high-octane sound was, in part, the sound of youth.  This is an album cut by a cadre of kids, essentially: Hancock was freshly 24, though he'd already released two titles as a bandleader; Freddie Hubbard (cornet) and Ron Carter (bass) were only slightly older; while Tony Williams (drums), that most freakishly precocious of jazz prodigies, was, at 18, not even old enough to be legally admitted into the nightclubs he played at.  Hancock, Carter, and Williams were still active members of Miles's legendary second quintet, and had yet to record most of the records for which that group became famous: Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, The Sorcerer, and others.  But Hancock, in organizing his own independent projects on the side, clearly was after something different from the old master: if Miles was interested in raw, at times soupy and formless, explorations into the unknown--jointly spearheaded by fast-rising star Wayne Shorter--then Hancock revealed, by contrast, a fascination with hard bop, a style that had peaked in the mid 50s but was still enjoying relative popularity.  Yet this wasn't the same hard bop that guys like Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley had made famous a decade before; it was bop with an avant-garde twist.  True, cuts such as the opener, "One Finger Snap," and the contagious "Cantaloupe Island" (later recycled by US3 as "Cantaloop" in what would become Blue Note's best-selling single of all time) are straightforward enough.  But the moment we venture upon "The Egg" or "Oliloqui Valley" (especially the superior alternate take) we're confronted with vast, unwieldy soundscapes that, in their experimentation, remind us that this was also the year that A Love Supreme was recorded.  Soaking up both versions of "Oliloqui Valley" will reveal how adventurously inventive these wunderkinds were--how willing to branch off in completely different directions from one take to the next.  But one keeps coming back to "The Egg," which, in its solos, its almost telepathic interplay among the four players, and its sinister middle section--where the music slows to a creeping pace and Ron Carter takes a bow solo while the others chime in furtively--seems to distill the essence of the Empyrean Isles project.

It's tempting to pick out one member of this supergroup and say, "He's the one who makes this session tick."  But there's really no one who jumps out more than anyone else.  Yes, the man-child Tony Williams is frighteningly good, showing off the constant speeding-up and slowing-down of tempos and range of rhythms that propelled the Miles quintet.  But so is Freddie Hubbard, who delivers in Empyrean Isles what must be one of the single best, and most confident, studio performances on a trumpet (actually, it's a cornet) of the 1960s.  Among hard bop trumpeters during his own lifetime, he had only the brilliant but doomed Lee Morgan for company.  Ron Carter is always damned good as far as I'm concerned, and, well, Hancock is simply the only jazz pianist post-1950 who could stand toe-to-toe with Bill Evans.  If Evans was the contemplative, Debussy-influenced impressionist--the "quiet fire," as Miles dubbed him--then Hancock was the young punk whiz-kid who thrived on complexity for its own sake, the guy who, in his spare time, took apart gadgets and put them together again, and read Buddhist scriptures.  A student of engineering who was obsessed with electronics, he was one of the earliest and most ardent proponents of the fusion music that came along some years later.  And his intriguing later records (Crossings, Mwandishi), startlingly different from this one, show that he was one of the most successful practitioners of that style.  But in a sense he was never better than he was on his stripped down, visionary early albums, Empyrean Isles and, to a lesser extent, the more celebrated but less bold Maiden Voyage (1965).

Empyrean Isles

1. One Finger Snap (7:23)
2. Oliloqui Valley (8:30)
3. Cantaloupe Island (5:34)
4. The Egg (14:01)
5. One Finger Snap - Alternate Take (7:36)
6. Oliloqui Valley - Alternate Take (10:47)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Curtis Mayfield: Curtis/Live! (1971)

Has there ever been a sub-genre as electrifying, as cool, or, at its best, as transcendentally moving as 1970s soul?  Some forty years after their original release, the greatest soul records still shine like burnished steel, still radiate much of the brutal honesty, the visionary hope, the frustrated bitterness that they did when they first appeared.  Lyrically and musically, the stuff goes on speaking to us with an urgency and, in many cases, an operatic poignancy almost unique among the music of the last several decades.  When I think of the best American soul artists--like many people, I'd imagine--I think of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield; they're forever paired together in my mind, perhaps unfairly, a tandem representing the twin blossoms of the Detroit and Chicago soul scenes, respectively.  Of the two, I've always had more admiration for Mayfield, a musician who has held me consistently in thrall for the last decade or so, a fixture through all my countless listening phases.  Although Gaye is the one who's received more accolades, by far--he's the "Prince of Soul," after all--when the smoke clears, it may be that Mayfield will emerge as the more awesomely gifted of the two, the guy who, to speak simply, wrote more great songs and was more genuinely bent on effecting social change through his art.  Indeed, anyone who has listened to their respective masterpieces, What's Going On and Superfly, side by side, knows that the latter is superior: What's Going On is essentially three stunningly good songs placed at the beginning, middle, and end of the album, with filler interspersed between; Superfly, on the other hand, is hair-raisingly good from start to finish.  Gaye claimed that with What's Going On he finally began "writing with his head instead of his penis," but even after that record he reverted to making songs about fucking, his enduring theme; Mayfield, though, spent his entire career crafting tough, cerebral, and often overwhelmingly beautiful--if tragic--jeremiads about the nightmarish plight of America's inner city, elegies on drug dealers left to die on corners, and celebratory songs reminding black people that they were beautiful, winners second to none, in case they'd forgotten.  We are still sifting through his mind-boggling legacy.

Curtis/Live! is one of Mayfield's finest recordings, and one of the most intriguing live albums of the decade. On a freezing January night in 1971, Mayfield and three hired session men--Master Henry Gibson (percussion), Craig McMullen (rhythm guitar), and Joe "Lucky" Scott (bass)--appeared at The Bitter End, the intimate club on Greenwich Village's Bleecker Street.  The legendary performance that ensued is one defined by a sense of hushed intensity: Mayfield and his three-piece group hustle through these songs--most of them culled from his recently-released Curtis (1970), as well as the records he'd made with The Impressions--with a muffled urgency that derives power from restraint, a stripped-down rawness that makes for a fascinating set of takes on the album versions.  What drives this set above all is Gibson's wizardry on drums.  Gibson, a vastly underrated drummer who happens to be the world's most recorded percussionist (he appeared on over 1200 albums), veritably gallops along on drums and, occasionally, congas, lighting a fire under Mayfield's ass while the latter joyously pours out his trademark falsetto.  Motherfucker can play.  And, well, the songs themselves are simply a delight, contagiously danceable charts featuring Mayfield's patented social commentary, with political "raps" sprinkled in between: "For a country so far advanced, we seem to be able to do everything but get along.  There's even a bit of humor in it, when you think of such people as Agnew," he muses.  The crowd is clearly eating up the whole of it; Mayfield's rallying cries for black power are especially galvanizing.  "We're so goddamm undecided," he complains on the excellent opener, 'Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey).'  "I'm black and I'm proud!"  By the close of the set, his listeners are obviously transfixed.  One tries to imagine them crowded together in this rather small venue, struggling to keep warm but also utterly enchanted by the show, perhaps even conscious of the fact that they were witnessing a historic performance.

So that's really it.  The entirety of the album is very good, but in some ways the stretch beginning with "Check Out Your Mind" and continuing through "The Makings of You" is the highest point, and is worth the price of the whole record.  This last song is simply one of the loveliest, most unabashedly sweet pieces I've ever heard, and Mayfield gives it a fine treatment here, though I think I'll always prefer the lushly produced studio version.  Also worthy of note is a highly charged rendition of "Superfly" towards the end, a bonus track from a later show that was included on the compact disc reissue, and that gives a sneak peek of great things to come in Mayfield's career.  This is a record that catches Mayfield just as he's hitting his stride, and there's something wonderfully fun about hearing him discover his remarkable powers as a songwriter and performer.  Wear it out, especially late at night, when it seems to sound best.

1. Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) (6:56)
2. Rap (0:26)
3. I Plan to Stay a Believer (3:26)
4. We're a Winner (4:47)
5. Rap (0:51)
6. We've Only Just Begun (3:44)
7. People Get Ready (3:47)
8. Rap (0:34)
9. Stare and Stare (6:12)
10. Check Out Your Mind (3:53)
11. Gypsy Woman (3:48)
12. The Makings of You (3:28)
13. Rap (2:01)
14. We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue (6:46)
15. (Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go (9:27)
16. Stone Junkie (8:05)
17. Superfly (3:56)
18. Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) (Single Version) (3:16)