Machine Gun - Rapid fire History of Epic Jazz

Machine Gun // A Rapid-fire History of Epic Jazz (1960-2015)

Think of a well-known Smiths melody and start scatting: “Some jazz is more epic than other.” It might not be one hundred procent correct grammatically. But as Miles Davis would say: “So what.” He rewrote the rulebook more than once: most notably on modal jazz milestone ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) and on the monumental – one might say epic – double album ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969), which paved the way for a cornucopia of fusions between jazz, rock, funk and world music.

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1970)

So what … is ‘epic’? It’s a feeling, a mood, certainly not a genre. A timeless atmosphere or cinematic quality that oozes out of jazz’s most grand and often groundbreaking gestures. Epic jazz unfolds its stories patiently, sometimes violently, and might deal with matters that transcend our understanding, such as time and space, inhuman suffering and superhuman achievements, …

Here’s a list of records that sound epic or cinematic to my ears, ordered counter-chronologically, honouring the unruly nature of many of these albums. They were released between 1960 and 2015, which raises another question: was 1959, when  ‘Kind of Blue’ (Davis) and ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ (Ornette Coleman), iconoclastic statements in their own right, freed musicians from their harmonic and compositional straight jacket, the year when jazz became more epic?

Kamasi Washington – ‘The Epic’ (2015)

Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)Look at Washington’s overlord pose and confident glare, and tell me this album isn’t epic. It spans almost three hours of highly addictive music. A sidemen to people like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, saxophonist Washington and his impressive troupe of musicians channel everything from Debussy’s Clair De Lune and Donald Byrd’s jazz and gospel choir classic ‘A New Perspective’ to modern soul and Fender Rhodes explorations by the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. An epic of biblical proportions indeed.

Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)

Brad Mehldau - Highway Rider (2010)

Piano player Brad Mehldau doesn’t dwell in the same place for too long. He travels between trio recordings and sharp-edged collaborations. Most recently, he teamed up with Mark Guiliana on jazz-funk-prog album ‘Taming The Dragon’.

Mehldau’s restless ambition reached its peak on ‘Highway Rider’, a 100-minute cycle of jazz and classical music with elements of pop – there’s even a salute to Elliott Smith – and electronica, beautifully arranged and executed by Mehldau’s trio, sax player Joshua Redman and a full-blown orchestra.

Exploding Star Orchestra – ‘Stars Have Shapes’ (2010)

For Exploding Star Orchestra,Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes (2010) a large band led by Chicago musician Rob Mazurak, everything seems to revolve around … the sun. Or should I say Sun Ra? They’re certainly at ease with the cosmic side of things.

Dropping listeners in mid-space, Ascension Ghost Impression no. 2 floats towards complete astral chaos, with gigantic wooshes of sound and near-collisions of cosmic debris. After a brief soothing middle section, the turmoil returns, and then transforms again. Three Blocks of Light represents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and while Impression no. 1 contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.

Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)

Patricia Barber - Mythologies (2006)Deep-voiced jazz pianist and composer Patricia Barber meanders through Ovid’s classical masterpiece ‘Metamorphoses’ and turns it into a thrilling suite on ‘Mythologies’. Despite her often offbeat sense of melody, the album progresses smoothly, propelled by subtle piano, brief sax improvs, spirited percussion and blistering guitar, courtesy of Neal Alger.

On songs like Icarus and Phaeton Barber’s voice is out of this world. Just spell-binding. A timeless album, ‘Mythologies’ clearly flies close to the sun. But never too close.

Electric Masada – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (2005)

Masada is the name of a series of insanely versatile Electric Masada - At the Mountains of Madness (2006)klezmer-inspired songbooks written by John Zorn. Versatile? Because these compositions have been interpreted by numerous bands and musicians, both within and outside of Zorn’s immediate entourage. In 2013, Pat Metheny had a shot at taming Zorn’s ‘Book of Angels, Vol. 20’.

Almost a decade before that, a rather extreme ensemble aimed at the Masada repertoire too. No surprise it was one of Zorn’s own groups: the allmighty Electric Masada, which took a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to the music.

Compare the quiet Abidan to the complex and brutal Metal Tov. The obi that goes with double-disc live album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ puts it right:

“Tight as a drum and hot as a blowtorch, these two incredible live performances will leave you breathless. Astonishing group conductions, searing solos and crazed insanity from one of the most amazing bands Zorn has ever had.”

Pat Metheny – ‘The Way Up’ (2005)

Pat Metheny - The Way Up (2005)Guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny and keyboardist-sidekick Lyle Mays took their Pat Metheny Group recordings to the next level with this 68-minute twisting and turning piece of music. Partnering gorgeous melody with bursts of bebop improvisation, and Steve Reich-like pulses with a proggy compositional structure, ‘The Way Up’ is one of a kind.

Metheny had embarked on such grand-scale adventures before. ’80/81′, ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’, ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’ (his take on ‘Metal Machine Music’), … anyone? After ‘The Way Up’, Metheny’s next step was to replace his Group by a stagewide construction of automated instruments, the orchestrion, which he dragged aIl around the world.

Dave Holland Quintet – ‘Extended Play. Live at Birdland’ (2003)

Dave Holland - Extended PlayHonestly, the first track on ‘Extended Play’, The Balance is one of the most celestial pieces of music I know. The way the horns parts fight each other, and then fall into each other’s arms, is beyond words. As is the polyrhytmic base provided by Dave Holland (bass), Steve Nelson (marimba) and Billy Kelson (drums). ‘Extended Play’, an ECM release, was recorded live at Birdland in 2001.

Every single track on this massive set is a stretched-out version of a composition that was first recorded in the studio. In other words: Extended. And Play-ful most of the time, especially during the Chris Potter-Kevin Eubanks battle on Prime Directive. ‘Extended Play’ remains a crowning achievement for one of jazz’s finest band leaders.

Jaga Jazzist – ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2002)

Jaga Jazzist - A Livingroom Hush (2002)The last track on ‘A Livingroom Hush’ by prodigious Norwegian ensemble Jaga Jazzist is called Cinematic. Tellingly, this minor-key noise elegy is the least cinematic of all.

Main composer Lars Horntveth has a sixth sense for grand melodies and brightly coloured arrangements. Take Animal Chin and its huge, textured sound, which couples jazz marimba with electronics and turntables. One great theme is followed by another followed by another … culminating in a strange voyage through Lithuania, which couples Tortoise-like minimalism with orchestrated house. Now that’s cinematic.

The Necks – ‘Next’ (1990)

The Necks are an unusual Australian experimental jazz combo,The Necks - Next (1990) with a very common set-up: piano, bass and drums. For years now, they have been releasing single, looooong compositions as albums, like ‘See Through’ and ‘Mosquito’. Meticously crafted acres of improvised music, time and time again. Debut album ‘Sex’ introduced the format. Follow-up ‘Next’ broke it.

It’s 28-minute centerpiece Pele, which patiently and brilliantly builts towards a gently pounding climax, sets the tone for The Necks’ further career, together with final piece The World At War. The ghostly guitar funk of Nice Policeman Nasty Policeman and the Seinfeld slapp bass of the title song only add to the fun on this overlooked album.

John Zorn – ‘Spillane’ (1987)

John Zorn - Spillane (1987)One of the most versatile composers around, John Zorn had released challenging ‘game pieces’ and a splendid tribute to Ennio Morricone (‘The Big Gundown’), before seeking inspiration from cult crime writer Mickey Spillane. The 25-minute title piece wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the cartoon/live-action film that hit the theaters a year later. Both ‘Spillane’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ share the same setting: the 40’s-50’s LA underworld.

Zorn’s jumpcutting technique (from cartoons to harsh reality in a split second), samples and Morricone-mystique all work brilliantly. Besides Spillane there’s a thunderous blues jam featuring Albert Collins (Two-Lane Highway), and a mindblowing modern classical piece performed by the Kronos Quartet (Forbidden Fruit). Together with the Ornette Coleman readings of Spy vs. Spy’, ‘Spillane’ would lead directly to jazz/hardcore masterpiece ‘Naked City’.

John Abercrombie – ‘Timeless’ (1975)

‘Timeless’ begins with rapid-fire interaction between gJohn Abercrombie - Timeless (1975)uitarist John Abercrombie and keyboard player Jan Hammer (the Miami Vice guy). Meanwhile Jack DeJohnette holds everything together with his automatic weapon drumming.

But very soon, the trio sails into calmer water, evocating a wide range of moods: Love Song is a moving acoustic, well, love song. Just piano and guitar. 

Red and Orange, by contrast, seems to predate early 1990s rave music like Nightmares on Wax. And the first four minutes of the title song provide an early example of ambient, while the next part has an elegant repetitive motif, which makes you think of Portishead, or even Radiohead. To top all that, ‘Timeless’ has that cystal clear ECM production. It’s a classic without expiration date.

Keith Jarret – ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)

Keith Jarret - The Köln Concert (1975)When on 24 January 1975 Keith Jarret finally sat down on his piano stool in the Köln Opera House, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to play. He improvised his solo concert from start to finish. And still it became the best-selling solo piano album in jazz history.

But even more wonderous than the sales figures, is the fact that Jarret’s on the spot invention maintains a constant quality throughout two lengthy pieces, and knows no boundaries whatsoever – you’ll even find a Laura Nyre-like pop melody at about 02:25 in Part II c. Pressed on two LP’s and released on ECM Records, ‘The Köln Concert’ is a sincere work of art.

John Coltrane – ‘Interstellar Space’ (1974)

John Coltrane - Interstellar Space (1974)‘Interstellar Space’ is Coltrane’s posthumously released, deeply spiritual cosmos voyage. Recorded just five months before his untimely death in July 1967, his odes to Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and the constellation of Leo are among the final sounds he put to tape.

On ‘Interstellar Space’, it’s just Coltrane, his wildly inventive sax improvisations, and the equally intense drum parts of Rashied Ali. As a listener you’ve got very little to hold on to. No melody to whistle along to. No beat to tap your foot to. This album is lightyears away from his beautiful ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965), which he had recorded just two years before, and therefore a witness of his increasingly restless soul.

Sun Ra – ‘Space Is the Place’ (1973)

Sun Ra - Space Is the Place (1973)It takes just one Google Images search to find out that Sun Ra was a mythical character, inspired by ancient Egypt. As you start digging into his vast body of work, another lifelong obsession emerges: outer space and the future. No wonder he confused audience and critics alike.

‘Space Is the Place’ – especially its sidelong, freeform, cosmos-worshipping centerpiece – is a gentler (i.e. more easily digestible) ode to all things celestial than Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’. And its title track, a whirlwind of repetitive voices, horns and keyboards, is a testament to the genius of one of jazz’s maddest mavericks. But let’s not fall into the trap of explaining too much, as Sun Ra warns in his liner notes:

“What can I say other than the music itself? Music? Yes, to the ears that dare to hear, that dare to hear, that dare to hear. Both the silence and the sound.”

Miles Davis – ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ (1971)

Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)The genesis of Right Off, the first of two +25 minute tracks on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, is a special one. Apparently, while waiting for Miles, guitarist John McLaughlin started a riff on his guitar. Drummer Billy Cobham and bass player Michael Henderson joined in. Together they built an explosive foundation for Miles’ solo, which starts at 02:19.

In the meantime, Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the NYC building for some other business, was ushered into the 30th Street Studio to play keyboards. Track two, Yesternow, may be a less succesful cut-and-paste affair, but ‘Jack Johnson’ emulates the power of the legendary boxer it was inspired by. Johnson himself, voiced by actor Brock Peters, had the final word:

“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”

Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)

With tensions within Soft Machine rising, and the sword of DamoclesSoft Machine - Third (1970) hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own composition Moon In June. The other members of Soft Machine wanted to pursue purely instrumental jazz, a schism which would very soon lead to Wyatt’s dismissal from his own band. All brilliantly described by Marcus O’Dair in ‘Different Every Time’. 

Luckily, the internal dissonance is not evident from ‘Third’. The album comprises four glorious side-long tracks. And though its sound and scope  seem modelled on ‘Bitches Brew’, it was recorded before Miles even released that set. It’s a defiantly idiosyncatric and British sounding record, and arguably one of the all time finest marriages of jazz and rock.

Peter Brötzmann Octet – ‘Machine Gun’ (1968)

Peter Brötzmann Octet - Machine Gun (1968)“This historic free jazz album is a heavy-impact sonic assault so aggressive it still knocks listeners back on their heels decades later”, writes Allmusic’s Joslyn Layne. And she’s not exaggerating. It takes some nerve to get ‘Machine Gun’ out of its sleeve, to put it on the turntable and to let a wild bunch of sax players, bassist, pianists and  drummers trash your ears, your walls and your furniture.

It’s an even bigger challenge to sit through the entire thing. But it will send chills down your spine. Albeit chills that feel like bullets. To quote Layne again: “Much like standing outside during a violent storm, withstanding this kind of fierce energy is a primal thrill.”

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

An orchestrated tour de force divided into four parts,Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) ‘The Black and the Sinner Lady’ was ahead of its time. It had nothing to do with free jazz. Instead, the record seemed to come entirely out of Mingus’ mind. So much, in fact, that his psychologist Dr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notes to the original album:

“To me this particular composition contains Mr. Mingus’ personal and also a social message. He feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves.”

Anyway, whatever Mingus tried to say, he did so in a heart-stoppingly beautiful way. Incorporating everything from avant-garde to flamenco guitar in neat – in turns elegant and heavy – arrangements.

Ornette Coleman – ‘Free Jazz’ (1960)

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz (1960)Back to where we started: according to Fred Kaplan, 1959 was the year everything changed. Miles went modal and Ornette Coleman went free, with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. The latter then further revolutionalized jazz with ‘Free Jazz’: one monumental improvisation – created on the spot by his double quartet – split into two sides.

“No re-takes, no splices”, say the original liner notes. It’s a quintessential stereo record, with a set of horns, bass and drums in each speaker. There’s always someone keeping a familiar rhythmic pulse somewhere. That’s why ‘Free Jazz’ is a more relaxing listen than Brötzman’s ‘Machine Gun’. Still, Coleman provided the original landmark. One which impact on the shape of jazz to come is epic in its own right.

What are your views? Which records did I miss? What about the void I left in the 1980s? And was 1959 a landmark year for increasingly ambitious jazz albums?

Special thanks to Jonas Aerts for his suggestions and feedback.
And to the devoted followers of Facebook-group ECM Records for their input and support.

Jilted John - True Love Stores

“Gordon is a moron” // ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an episode of The Guardian Radio Hour Podcast, in which comedian Stewart Lee talked about the cross-pollination between music (or more precisely: punk) and alternative comedy in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

A fascinating listen. In fact, I listened to it twice. The first time while falling asleep, smiling like an idiot. The second time to make extensive playlist notes … smiling like an idiot.

The one track I couldn’t shake off, was ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John, a brilliantly funny slice of teenage life which reached no. 4 in the UK single charts in 1978.

John and Julie

At just 19 years old, Manchester-based comedian Graham Fellows created the character Jilted John and released the album ‘True Love Stories’ that same year. The back sleeve of ‘True Love Stories’ provides some insight into Fellows’s alter-ego:

“Jilted John, otherwise known as Graham Fellows, is a full time drama student in Manchester and his ambition is to become a full time actor. He has 3 sisters and a very nice mother and father who live in Yorkshire. Jilted John likes fancy mice, Kate Bush and the countryside. His dislikes include Gordon the Moron, anyone successful with girls and gardening.”

Gordon the Moron being the name of interest there.

I think I can safely say that Gordon is Jilted John’s nemesis. The song ‘Jilted John’ wouldn’t be half as good without a depressed and angry John bemoaning losing his girlfriend Julie to Gordon, who is – so he keeps repeating – a moron.

Yeah yeah, it’s not fair

In just a few lines, Fellows paints a series of vivid, tragicomic scenes, that gain power through John’s mildly revengeful cockney-voiced delivery:

“She said listen, John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you,
So it’s the end for you and me”

“Who’s this bloke, I asked her
Goo-oo-oor-don, she replied
Not that puff, I said dismayed
Yes, but he’s no puff she cried”

(He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be)

Later on, while crying “all the way to the chip shop”, John is mocked by Gordon and Julie, “standing at the busstop”.

“Gordon is a moron”, John decides, before he launches into a feast of insults and hilarious threats.

In ‘The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy’ (2006), Julian Hall writes: “[Jilted John’s] lament that “Gordon is a moron” made for one the most bizarre singles of the 1970s – no small feat in a decade that also gave us punk and the Wombles.”

Listen to ‘Jilted John’ on Spotify.

Factoid: ‘True Love Stories’ was produced by Martin Hannett – then Martin Zero – who went on to produce such landmark albums as ‘Unknown Pleasures’ by Joy Division and ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’, as well as work by Magazine, New Order and Happy Mondays.

Further reading / listening

 

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow Produced by George Martin

When George Martin was 49

This week, we lost the world’s oldest pop genius, George Martin. His brilliance radiated beyond The Beatles.

In 1975, his name appeared in the producer’s credits of one of the finest instrumental albums ever: ‘Blow by Blow’ by guitarist Jeff Beck.

By way of tribute, I’d like to share the two songs that Martin both produced and arranged: the frenetic Scatterbrain and the lushly orchestrated Diamond Dust.

 

George Martin Jeff Beck Blow By Blow

George Martin The Beatles Yoko Paul Ringo RIP Apple

Four Die-Cut Sleeves To Die For

The die-cut sleeve is very much alive. To prove it, I handpicked four jaw-dropping pieces of evidence from my record cabinet.

Scissor seventies: early die-cut sleeves

First off, some … background. One of the most famous die-cut sleeve examples – and one of the most ambitious record sleeves altogether – is surely Led Zeppelin’s double album ‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975).
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Designer Peter Corriston cut the windows out of two New York tenement buildings, exposing well-known faces like Lee Harvey Oswald and Laurel & Hardy on the inner sleeves as well as (printed on the insert) the letters that form the album title. Read all about it on Dangerous Minds.
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Also check out the amazing die-cut sleeve of ‘In a Glass House’ by Gentle Giant (1973) on Discogs: “Album comes in a gimmix cover with the center part of the jacket front side being transparent foil with black print on it; there is a printed cardboard insert that provides the remainder of the cover image.”
More recent examples show a more minimal approach to die-cut sleeve design. Let’s cut to the chase.

1. Bowie – The No Inner Sleeve Die-Cut Sleeve

Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: David Bowie
Title: ‘Blackstar’
Label: ISO Records, Columbia, Sony Music
Year of release: 2016
Designer: Barnbrook
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: in the wake of Bowie’s death, much has been written about every detail of his life and artistry, including the meaning behind the die-cut sleeve design of ‘Blackstar’. But let’s keep it simple. London agency Barnbrook designed a pitch black gatefold sleeve, with shiny pieces of stars at the bottom of the front sleeve, and above that, a big cut-out star.
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
There is no printed inner sleeve, only a thick transparant plastic sleeve that holds the actual record. Prices for this limited edition clear vinyl edition skyrocketed after the Starman left Planet Earth. It has already been sold on Discogs for 409.10 euro! Insane, but it’s a magical thing!

2. The Durutti Column – The Sandpapery Die-Cut Sleeve

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: The Durutti Column
Title: ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’
Version: FBN 114, UK
Label: Factory Benelux
Year of release: 2013 (originally 1980)
Designer: James Nice / Peter Saville

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Die-cut sleeve design: the first pressing of this 1980 album was distributed in an iconoclastic sandpaper sleeve, famously assembled by the members of Joy Division. This 2013 reissue pays tribute to that version, albeit with bigger respect for neighbouring record sleeves in your collection.

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

The outside sleeve is off-white. An old Factory Records logo by Peter Saville was cut out and accentuated by the orangy grinding paper that’s paisted on a white inner sleeve. The inner sleeve provides additional information on its remarkable design.

One word of advice: always keep the actual record at a safe distance from its sandpaper sleeve. You might scrape of some great guitar bits!

3. Goat – The Triangular Space Tunnel Die-Cut Sleeve

Goat - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: Goat
Title: ‘Commune’
Label: Rocket Recordings
Released: 2014
Designer: Chris Reeder
Goat - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: Swedish band Goat pushes things to a psychedelic level. Inside the cut-out triangle of the golden outer sleeve, a mind-altering space storm of red and blue seems to be raging, going in circles or coming straight at you, depending on how you insert the inner sleeve. Goat - Die-cut sleeve
As a bonus, this Rocket Recording edition – nomen est omen! – contains eye-catching ‘red with blue splatter’ vinyl.

4. Steven Wilson – The Girls Behind Bars Die-Cut Sleeve

Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Artist: Steven Wilson
Title: ‘4 1/2’
Label: Kscope
Released: 2016
Designer: Carl Glover
Photographer: Lasse Hoile
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: this release features a sober grey outside sleeve. Four and a half strips of cardboard are cut out, which nicely references the album title.
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
The two women that peep through the ‘bars’ are on the inner sleeve, captured in a magnificently coloured photograph, that brings to mind the even more intense, heavily filtered pictures of war-torn Congo by Richard Mosse.
Amazing, isn’t it? Which records would you add? Tell me!

Meet Donny McCaslin: star of Bowie’s ★!

Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?

In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:

Closer-than-close-knit

Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.

When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)

Eno, Fripp, Grohl

Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).

And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressure vocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).

So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.

Not “Bowie with jazz combo”

Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.

As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.

McCaslin’s star is rising

Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.

At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★

Steven Wilson on Discovering Music

Steven Wilson on discovering music

A few days ago, Steven Wilson played the Montréal Jazz Festival in Canada. During a public interview he shared some passionate words about discovering music. As well as the treasure he most recently dug up.

I’ve been on the road now for four months with this band. And the last thing you want to to do when you get home is going to a show. It’s like going to the office. But I do still – voraciously – devour music.
[…] The thing about the history of music is: just when you think you’ve heard everything, something else will come along and surprise you. And I think also your musical taste changes as you get older. Things that didn’t make sense to you as a teenager suddenly click.
[…] I’m always amazed by how much fantastic music is available and still there to be discovered. Even at my age. So i’m still very curious and passionate about discovering music I’m not familiar with.

Steven Wilson is notorious for listening to everything from the most delicate pop to the most brutal noise. You can tell by browsing through his playlist archive, an virtually inexhaustible source for great music. Where did Wilson pick up this wide-ranging musical taste? Like so many people, he listened to his parents’ records:

You know, my parents were very electic in their musical taste. I grew in up in a house where we’d be listening to quite serious intellectual rock music, but then also to Abba and The Carpenters and The Bee Gees. And I still … to this day I love pure pop. When it’s done beautifully …

On his latest discovery:

I was listening to an old jazz album by a guy called Les McCann, ‘Invitation to Openness’. Early seventies Atlantic jazz record, very inspired by Miles. Kind of ‘In a Silent Way’. And again, that was just a record I was introduced to only the last few weeks. And I’ve completely fallen in love with it.

Thanks a lot for the tip, Steven. I safely transferred the album to my Discogs wantlist!

Eureka - The Explorer's Guide to Discovering MusicEureka - The Explorer's Guide to Discovering Music

Eureka! The Explorer’s Guide to Discovering Music

Discovering new music is one of the great thrills in life. I know I won’t stumble upon a ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Skylarking’ every day. But I’m always either fixing holes in my record collection or reaching out my antennae to find gripping melodies, off-kilter sounds and downright musical iconoclasm.

Some sixty years ago, you needed a traveller’s mind, a portable tape recorder and preferably Lomax for a last name. Today, you can become a music explorer operating from the toilet! Well, most of the time.

Guiding light

I’m not referring to more haphazard ways of discovering music, like sitting by the radio and wait endlessly for a refreshing tune, or randomly picking songs on Spotify. No, you better have a guiding light, some guarantee that you’re at least looking in the right directions.

The following tips reveal how I’m unearthing music. Now and in the future. Use what you like and do let me know what you discover!

Never a dull moment!

1. Dive into your parents’ or uncle’s record stash. Ask what they grooved to when they were young. And join them on a trip down their memory lane. Chances are you’ll find more obscure titles than ‘Rumours’ or ‘The Joshua Tree’.

In fact, this is how I experienced my big bang. At the age of 9, I played my uncle’s copy of Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits’. Things expanded from there.

2. Flip through a music or genre book or encyclopaedia. ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’, ‘The Great Rock/Metal/Psychedelic Discography’ by Martin C. Strong, ‘The Rough Guide to the Best Music You’ve Never Heard’, ‘Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’ by Rob Young, Allmusic.com, …

And check out the editorial picks and the albums behind the stories. Fascinating stuff!

3. Shake the Twitter tree by searching for particular hastags like #psychsoul or #nowspinning (almost exclusively used by vinyl enthusiasts). Whatever niche you like. Did you encounter accounts that regularly share reviews or recommendations? Set up a Twitter list of music sources. That way, you’ll keep the milk of paradise flowing …

Next step: use TweetDeck to create your own music discovery dashboard, with colums for each of your lists and keyword/hashtag searches.

4. Get the most out of Spotify (or Deezer). The platform is loaded with excellent playlists, compiled by users. Just feed the search bar with keywords like ‘mellotron’ or ‘new york punk’ and put your headhones on. Also, try the Discover function. The more you listen, the more accurate the suggestions you get.

And are your friends notorious for their great taste in music? Keep an eye on the right sidebar to get inspired by what they’re listening to.

5. Start a conversation with the record store clerk. Come on, don’t be shy! I understand it’s tempting to just get your records, and get out. But these guys are surrounded by new and reissued music 24/7. So use their knowledge, tell them what kind of records you’re looking for and rush home to discover the gems you bought.

6. Read music blogs and magazines. Hype Machine keeps a list of over 800 handpicked blogs. Me? I like old school magazines like Mojo and Uncut. Because they have it all: great pictures, expertly written, evocative reviews of albums and reissues, in-depth pieces on new and old bands by seasoned journalists, an excellent cd with each issue and … a crossword puzzle.

7. Exchange mixtapes. One of the greatest aspects of any friendship is to discuss music, to meet at the front row for a concert, and to recommend albums. Does that mean you should have your notebook ready every time you go out for a drink? Well, why not?

Better still, ask your friends to put their latest favourite tunes on a cassette, CD-r, MiniDisk, … Before long, you’ll even know the running order by heart and you’ll be tracking down some of the original albums.

Also consider this nerdy alternative: invite your music buddies for a music night, to introduce and share songs that the others musn’t miss. Usually an inebriated affair, I picked up a lot from every single one of the so-called Deurne Sessions!

8. Find out what your favourite musicians are spinning. Sneak into their apartment? That’s one option, but not the one I would suggest. Instead, check if they have a listening now-list going on their website, or a playlist covering their influences on Spotify. In my experience, a lot musicians have a taste that stretches far beyond the style they’re known for themselves. And lots of interviews are sheer name-dropping feasts. Harvest time!

The most epic example of an artist playlist is surely Dan Snaith’s (aka Caribou) Longest Mixtape – 1000 Song for You.

9. Go where other music explorers go. On Last.fm or Discogs, on RateYourMusic or Progarchives, … On all of these platforms you’ll find countless discussions and/or personal lists. Moreover, Last.fm keeps track of what over 58 million users listen to on their computers or mobile devices. Find people with an interesting taste and enjoy their discoveries!

On the artist side of things, a lot is happening on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

10. Dig into musician’s collaborations. If you’d bring together the discographies of everyone who ever played with Miles Davis, you’d have thousands of hours worth of excellent music: by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarret, … Of course, Miles is an extreme example. But you get the picture.

11. Follow records labels very closely. They usually have a very clear concept. Some focus on a certain genre, others only hire bands that bring a unique expertimental voice to the table. If a certain label delivers the goods for you, it will probably continue to do so in the future.

Don’t know where to start? Just look for the label’s logo on the back of your favourite albums, and browse their discography online. Or try it the other way around: Wikipedia has an impressive list of record labels.

Interestingly, there are labels specifically oriented towards uncovering and reissuing burried treasures. Light In The Attic Records, obviously. Their catalog is simply mindblowing. Some personal highlights: ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ by Michael Chapman (1970), ‘Dreamin’ by Donnie & Joe Emerson (1979), ‘L’Amour’ by the elusive Lewis Baloue (1983) and ‘Songs from Suicide Bridge’ by David Kauffmann and Eric Caboor (1984).


Now it’s time to get out there and discover new music. Do let me know what you’ve found. I want to hear it too!