Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturdaynight Sundaymorning: Chip Young, Carrie Rodriguez,Sofie von Otter, Elvis Costello

Chip Young, Carrie Rodriguez
Sofie von Otter, Elvis Costello

I used to buy Mojo magazine very regularly.  My favorite feature was to be found on the very first pages of every edition. The same set of questions would be posed to three singers or figures of popular culture. The first record you ever bought? Who, besides yourself, you wanted to be? What do you sing in the shower? Your favorite Sunday morning record? Your favorite Saturday night record?

The answers are revealing not only of the person’s musical tastes but personality foibles. Some give irritated answers, “I don’t sing in the shower, thank you!”. Others, wax lyrical about the obscure or pedestrian leaving a lingering smell of BS.

It is Saturday night here in Australia. Tomorrow is Sunday.  Here are my current answers to a couple of those questions.

Saturday night record: Chip Young and Carrie Rodrigues The Trouble with Humans.  Unabashed, eloquent, wry, joyfully sung country duets by one of the better combos of voices to come together in recent years. They sing as if they were born to do so, together. They understand each other intuitively and bring the same playful intensity to the music, most of which is by Mr Young, himself.  Their voices blend and bounce off each other just perfectly. Her’s is aching. His laconic, and tired.  Perfection!

Sunday morning record: Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello For the Stars. This record came out more than a decade ago and sank with barely a trace. Deemed a bit pretentious and too ‘constructed’ by rock critics and too ‘lame’ by classical critics, it fell between the cracks of the labels in the record store.  Costello is very much the driver but his voice is only heard on a couple of tracks, giving the honors to the Swedish opera star, van Otter. The material covers a wide range of writers (Tom Waits, Costello included) and while this record will not get your blood racing who needs/wants that on a Sunday morning?  It is music to sit with in quietness and a cup of coffee. Especially in front of a window with a nice scene to gaze upon.

            Track Listing:
            (Saturday night)
            01 Don't Speak In English
02 Memphis, Texas
03 All The Rain
04 Curves & Things
05 The Trouble With Humans
06 Oh Ireland
07 Fall
08 Laredo
09 Dirty Little Texas Story
10 Confessions
11 I Need A Wall
12 We Come Up Shining
13 Find Me A Killer

            Track Listing:
            (Sunday morning)
            01 No Wonder
02 Baby Plays Around
03 Go Leave
04 Rope
05 Don't Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder)
06 Broken Bicycles/Junk
07 The Other Woman
08 Like an Angel Passing through My Room
09 Green Song
10 April After All
11 You Still Believe in Me
12 I Want to Vanish
13 For No One
14 Shamed Into Love
15 Just a Curio
16 This House is Empty Now
17 Take it With Me
18 For the Stars

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sin City Devils: Jay McShann and Big Joe Turner

There is a movie from the late 70’s called the Last of the Blue Devils about the Kansas City jazz scene.  Kansas City is one of those iconic American towns, like Memphis, like Chicago, like New Orleans, where a white redneck mayor’s machine held sway and enforced the law as if they were characters in a James Elroy novel.  Man the place was wide open. Sinful! Anything went down ,in KC. Such phrases were used by those who passed through or worked in the town.

Jay McShann

I saw the film when it first came out and fell in love with the music. The film documents a reunion of some of the city’s giants who were nearing their 70s and back together for the first time in many a year. Count Basie, Joe Turner and Jay McShann featured prominently and I was particularly taken by the rousing rendition of Shake Rattle and Roll, one of the tunes that vies for status as  the ‘original rock n roll’ song. Big Joe Turner was shouting it out, rolling his wide hips and sweating like a coal miner a kilometre under God’s fair earth.  Jay McShann was giving him the bum’s rush by banging out a frenetic boogie-woogie beat on the piano. Everyone was laughing and hooting the two ever more elated heights. 

A few months later Jay McShann came to the University and I got to meet him back stage and thank him for his music.  He was a fat jolly shortish guy with puffy hands but slender fingers. He was soft spoken and self effacing. He signed a copy of the album I share tonight, Big Apple Bash.

Here’s a link to a great interview with Jay in which he talks about how he came to KC and got to become one of the greatest boogie woogie pianists of all.  Charlie Parker, got his start with Jay’s band and for that reason McShann’s own aura has been somewhat diminished by his star pupil’s revolutionary conduct.  But he’s a wonderful player of the ivories and has a warm friendly bluesy voice.  One of my favourites!

         Track Listing: (Jay McShann)
         01 Crazy Legs and Friday Strut
02 Georgia on My Mind
03 Dickie's Dream
04 Ain't Misbehavin'
05 I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water
06 Blue Feeling
07 Jumpin' the Blues

As is the Boss of the Blues, Big Joe Turner!  What a voice! What music!  I’ve listened to this album hundreds and hundreds of times. The Kansas City sound is here in perfection. Boogie woogie piano thanks to Pete Johnson, greasy trombone and rat-a-tat drumming!  Wow. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The premier blues shouter of the postwar era, Big Joe Turner's roar could rattle the very foundation of any gin joint he sang within -- and that's without a microphone. Turner was a resilient figure in the history of blues -- he effortlessly spanned boogie-woogie, jump blues, even the first wave of rock & roll, enjoying great success in each genre.

Turner, whose powerful physique certainly matched his vocal might, was a product of the swinging, wide-open Kansas City scene. Even in his teens, the big-boned Turner looked entirely mature enough to gain entry to various K.C. niteries. He ended up simultaneously tending bar and singing the blues before hooking up with boogie piano master Pete Johnson during the early '30s. Theirs was a partnership that would endure for 13 years.

The pair initially traveled to New York at John Hammond's behest in 1936. On December 23, 1938, they appeared on the fabled Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall on a bill with Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Count Basie. Turner and Johnson performed "Low Down Dog" and "It's All Right, Baby" on the historic show, kicking off a boogie-woogie craze that landed them a long-running slot at the Cafe Society (along with piano giants Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons).

As 1938 came to a close, Turner and Johnson waxed the thundering "Roll 'Em Pete" for Vocalion. It was a thrilling up-tempo number anchored by Johnson's crashing 88s, and Turner would re-record it many times over the decades. Turner and Johnson waxed their seminal blues "Cherry Red" the next year for Vocalion with trumpeter Hot Lips Page and a full combo in support. In 1940, the massive shouter moved over to Decca and cut "Piney Brown Blues" with Johnson rippling the ivories. But not all of Turner's Decca sides teamed him with Johnson; Willie "The Lion" Smith accompanied him on the mournful "Careless Love," while Freddie Slack's Trio provided backing for "Rocks in My Bed" in 1941.

Turner ventured out to the West Coast during the war years, building quite a following while ensconced on the L.A. circuit. In 1945, he signed on with National Records and cut some fine small combo platters under Herb Abramson's supervision. Turner remained with National through 1947, belting an exuberant "My Gal's a Jockey" that became his first national R&B smash. Contracts didn't stop him from waxing an incredibly risqué two-part "Around the Clock" for the aptly named Stag imprint (as Big Vernon!) in 1947. There were also solid sessions for Aladdin that year that included a wild vocal duel with one of Turner's principal rivals, Wynonie Harris, on the ribald two-part "Battle of the Blues."

Few West Coast indie labels of the late '40s didn't boast at least one or two Turner titles in their catalogs. The shouter bounced from RPM to Down Beat/Swing Time to MGM (all those dates were anchored by Johnson's piano) to Texas-based Freedom (which moved some of their masters to Specialty) to Imperial in 1950 (his New Orleans backing crew there included a young Fats Domino on piano). But apart from the 1950 Freedom 78, "Still in the Dark," none of Turner's records were selling particularly well. When Atlantic Records bosses Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun fortuitously dropped by the Apollo Theater to check out Count Basie's band one day, they discovered that Turner had temporarily replaced Jimmy Rushing as the Basie band's frontman, and he was having a tough go of it. Atlantic picked up his spirits by picking up his recording contract, and Turner's heyday was about to commence.

At Turner's first Atlantic date in April of 1951, he imparted a gorgeously world-weary reading to the moving blues ballad "Chains of Love" (co-penned by Ertegun and pianist Harry Van Walls) that restored him to the uppermost reaches of the R&B charts. From there, the hits came in droves: "Chill Is On," "Sweet Sixteen" (yeah, the same downbeat blues B.B. King's usually associated with; Turner did it first), and "Don't You Cry" were all done in New York, and all hit big.

Turner had no problem whatsoever adapting his prodigious pipes to whatever regional setting he was in. In 1953, he cut his first R&B chart-topper, the storming rocker "Honey Hush" (later covered by Johnny Burnette and Jerry Lee Lewis), in New Orleans, with trombonist Pluma Davis and tenor saxman Lee Allen in rip-roaring support. Before the year was through, he stopped off in Chicago to record with slide guitarist Elmore James' considerably rougher-edged combo and hit again with the salacious "T.V. Mama."

Prolific Atlantic house writer Jesse Stone was the source of Turner's biggest smash of all, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which proved his second chart-topper in 1954. With the Atlantic braintrust reportedly chiming in on the chorus behind Turner's rumbling lead, the song sported enough pop possibilities to merit a considerably cleaned-up cover by Bill Haley & the Comets (and a subsequent version by Elvis Presley that came a lot closer to the original leering intent).

Suddenly, at the age of 43, Turner was a rock star. His jumping follow-ups -- "Well All Right," "Flip Flop and Fly," "Hide and Seek," "Morning, Noon and Night," "The Chicken and the Hawk" -- all mined the same good-time groove as "Shake, Rattle and Roll," with crisp backing from New York's top session aces and typically superb production by Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.

Turner turned up on a couple episodes of the groundbreaking TV program Showtime at the Apollo during the mid-'50s, commanding center stage with a joyous rendition of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in front of saxman Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams' band. Nor was the silver screen immune to his considerable charms: Turner mimed a couple of numbers in the 1957 film Shake Rattle & Rock (Fats Domino and Mike "Mannix" Connors also starred in the flick).

Updating the pre-war number "Corrine Corrina" was an inspired notion that provided Turner with another massive seller in 1956. But after the two-sided hit "Rock a While"/"Lipstick Powder and Paint" later that year, his Atlantic output swiftly faded from commercial acceptance. Atlantic's recording strategy wisely involved recording Turner in a jazzier setting for the adult-oriented album market; to that end, a Kansas City-styled set (with his former partner Johnson at the piano stool) was laid down in 1956 and remains a linchpin of his legacy.

Turner stayed on at Atlantic into 1959, but nobody bought his violin-enriched remake of "Chains of Love" (on the other hand, a revival of "Honey Hush" with King Curtis blowing a scorching sax break from the same session was a gem in its own right). The '60s didn't produce too much of lasting substance for the shouter -- he actually cut an album with longtime admirer Haley and his latest batch of Comets in Mexico City in 1966!

But by the tail end of the decade, Turner's essential contributions to blues history were beginning to receive proper recognition; he cut LPs for BluesWay and Blues Time. During the '70s and '80s, Turner recorded prolifically for Norman Granz's jazz-oriented Pablo label. These were super-relaxed impromptu sessions that often paired the allegedly illiterate shouter with various jazz luminaries in what amounted to loosely run jam sessions. Turner contentedly roared the familiar lyrics of one or another of his hits, then sat back while somebody took a lengthy solo. Other notable album projects included a 1983 collaboration with Roomful of Blues, Blues Train, for Muse. Although health problems and the size of his humongous frame forced him to sit down during his latter-day performances, Turner continued to tour until shortly before his death in 1985. They called him the Boss of the Blues, and the appellation was truly a fitting one: when Turner shouted a lyric, you were definitely at his beck and call.  (AllMusicGuide)

         Track Listing:
         01 cherry red
02 Roll 'em Pete
03 i want a little girl
04 low down dog
05 wee baby blues
06 you're driving me crazy (what did i do?)
07 How Long Blues
08 morning glories
09 st. louis blues
10 piney brown blues

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nefertiti of Soweto: Brenda Fassie

Brenda Fassie

Brenda Fassie died in 2004 of cardiac arrest. But claims that cocaine was found in her blood and that she was HIV positive hung about.  Like Whitney Houston, another talented artist who passed away recently, Brenda Fassie, the continentally acclaimed ‘Madonna of the townships’ (Time magazine, 2001) led a scandal filled off-stage life that kept  many a mediocre journalist employed long past their prime.

She came up to Johannesburg from Cape Town as a teenager when apartheid was still unchallenged.  Her moving hit Black President was banned by the government but endeared her to millions of fans in the townships across the country.  Her fame spread quickly across Africa; her hits I am Not a Bad Girl  and Memeza (among a bevy of others) were immensely popular from Nairobi to Free Town.  She won multiple awards and dominated the charts for all of the 80s and much of the 90s.

She had a fiery, shit-kicking personality which led her to a cocaine addiction, serial affairs and a horrible experience of waking up in a run down shack in Soweto next to the drug addled corpse of her lesbian lover.  Amazingly she turned her life around and went on to record some of her biggest hits in the 90s.

Brenda’s music is 1980s nightclub music. But her voice is strong, the production top class and overall this is a great record of South African pop music. Black President, Jail to Jail, I am Not a Bad Girl, The Lord is My Shepherd…all standouts!

            Track Listing:
            01 Black President
02 Too Late For Mama
03 Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu
04 I am Not A Bad Girl
05 Boipatong
06 Jail To Jail
07 Ngiyakusaba
08 I Straight Le Ndaba
09 Yo Baby
10 Bump Bump
11 Heroes Party
12 The Lord Is My Shepherd
13 Black President [US Remix]