(by Robert J. Tarte and Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 1, 1998)
Two cds which were recently brought to my attention are a complete departure from the usual fare of this column. Robert C. Tarte, who normally writes this column, is on vacation, so the opening is being written by his father, Robert J. Tarte. I am a lover of the big dance bands of the 1930s and 1940s, before Robert C. Tarte was even born. (The same would be true of the majority of his readers.) I feel there is no music to compare with the big band era (except for my second love, symphonic music). I lived through that era and saw the majority of the big dance bands more than once. Before I was 22 years old, I had seen Duke Ellington 14 times. My visits to these bands and my purchase of their records was not for their vocalists, but for the arrangements, the individual soloists, and the wonderful "section work"--brass, reeds, etc.
On Lionel Hampton, Volume 2, The Jumpin' Jive (BMG Music), vibraphonist extraordinaire Hampton has 22 tracks featuring different small combos, using 41 of the top musicians of the 1930s, many of them borrowed from the bands of Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and others. Hampton is on all 22 tracks, either on vibes or on drums, piano or vocals. On two of these numbers, he plays the piano with two fingers on each hand, using the same chording he would on the vibes, substituting the fingers for mallets. There are virtuoso performances by Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, and Jess Stacy and Clyde Hart on piano. A "must have" cd.
The group on Bob Crosby--Great Original Performances, 1937-1938 (ABC Records), fronted by Bing's brother Bob, was made up of "refugee" musicians from Ben Pollack's big band in 1935 after Ben left it. This was the first big band organized to play strictly Dixieland music and the first big dance band formed as a corporate shareholder organization. It was not long before they were called the best "Chicago-style Dixieland" group playing. Personnel included the great Eddie Miller on tenor sax, Bob Zurke on piano, Yank Lawson on trumpet, and Matty Matlock and Irving Fazola on clarinet. This is a delightfully listenable cd.
I first learned to love the big dance bands in high school and junior college in the 1930s in Grand Rapids, MI, when I heard Chicago broadcasts every night of the week from the Aragon and Trianon ballrooms, the Empire Room of the Palmer House, and the Blackhawk. So when the bands went on tour, they had good audiences. People stood glued around the bandstand from three to 40 rows deep, forcing the dancers way out on the dance floor. I recall seeing Ted Weems at the "Barn" in Grand Haven. He introduced his whistler, Elmo Tanner, and his new vocalist, the calm and unflappable Perry Como, who was so new and nervous he clung to the microphone stand with both hands.
Grand Rapids hosted the traveling dance bands at the Armory, the Pantlind Hotel, the Stadium Arena, several country clubs, Civic Auditorium, Ramona Park dance hall and the Regent Roof. Our high school fraternity brought Wayne King "The Waltz King" to the Regent Roof for the then enormous sum of $750 (would you believe for an entire 18-piece band!) or 75 percent of the gross, whichever was greater. We lost our shirts. We did not know that the bouncer, a former policeman, was skimming the till by sending the used admission tickets back down to the box office for resale.
Buffalo, NY, where I worked after graduation from the University of Michigan, had big bands often at the Armory and several other halls, and in "Little Harlem," as well as weekly all-day Saturday drop-in jam sessions at the Terrace, just west of City Hall. The movie theaters had the big bands in stage shows between movie showings. (This was also true of Detroit when I lived in Port Huron in 1939-1942, and of Washington, D.C., where my wife Bette and I lived during World War II.) Buffalo also had the big name bands coming to Niagara Falls hotels, Rochester, Olcutt Beach (where I saw Cab Calloway with my all-time favorite sax man, Chu Berry), Lockport, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and across the river and border at Crystal Beach. When the steel recession knocked me out of a job, I spent the last night watching Les Brown and his "Band of Renown" at Niagara Falls, then drove back to Grand Rapids with 440 78-rpm records (and this was in 1939!).
Port Huron was a great spot for viewing the big dance bands. Detroit had the usual stage shows at the Fox, Fisher, United Artists and Paramount theaters, and there were also Eastwood, Westwood, and Jefferson Beach amusement parks. The State Fair, on 8-Mile Road, featured a "Battle of the Bands" on one day each year. Can you imagine Shep Fields playing opposite Charlie Barnet? Flint was nearby too, with a big traveling band every Friday night at the IMA Auditorium. We saw Tommy Dorsey in Flint, where he introduced his new vocalist, one Frank Sinatra, and predicted that he would be a national sensation within six months. Which he was. Also, Bette and I saw Charlie Spivak in Flint the night we became officially engaged.
Across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Sarnia in Canada had the bands coming to Kenwick and to Kenwick-on-the-Lake. Washington, D.C., where we were married and spent four years during World War II, had the usual stage shows at the movie theaters, but many of the big name bands were being wiped out by the draft. But Glen Echo was still good, as well as the moonlight cruises on the Potomac, where we saw Andy Kirk and his great pianist, Mary Lou Williams. There was much activity at Turner's Arena, near Union Station, and also near Howard University at a small hall. Here, at a Fletcher Henderson concert, we saw a small man in a huge raccoon coat roaming the audience, selling half-pints of whiskey for $5 from 30 or 40 pockets sewn into the inside lining of his coat. Several of the D.C. hotels had big dance bands, some on open rooftops.
In Grand Rapids, after the war, the big bands were starting to gradually die out. We did see Louis Armstrong at Fruitport, featuring my favorite trombonist, Trummy Young. There was a double bill at Stadium Arena, featuring Stan Kenton in the first half, where the majority of the audience walked out because he was too "progressive," followed by Nat "King" Cole's group after intermission, where most of the people walked back in! Ramona Gardens was still going strong. We saw Tommy Dorsey there. When Bette told me my mother had said, "Oh, I do hope those two brothers have made up," my laughter almost stopped the music.
Well, that about does it for nostalgia. I think, over the years, I saw 80 to 90 percent of those big dance bands, along with their fabulous soloists, all over the East Coast and the Midwest. What memories they leave behind!
--Robert J. Tarte.
Thanks, Dad! You're a tough act to follow...
Since you're dipping into the past, I thought I'd do the same with a 1995 release I just discovered that captures the golden days of Jewish American radio with On The Air (Shanachie). The New York-based klezmer ensemble Kapelye take us back to the mid-1920s when low powered AM broadcasters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles first began serving an emerging immigrant community with Yiddish-language programming. This immensely engaging disc is segmented into recreated radio shows from seven different stations. Kapelye's reconstructions come complete with dial-spinning hubbub at the beginning of each segment as our anonymous host pauses briefly on static-plagued signals from Appalachia, news about Charles Lingbergh's transatlantic flight and snippets of "Henry Aldrich" before zeroing in on the Jewish entertainment. Each show skillfully weaves typical announcements and commercials of the day with rollicking arrangements of song by Dave Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, Tobias-Herschal others.
Founded in 1979 and still going strong, Kapelye helped spur the klezmer renaissance that continues to this day, and they're creative as ever without straying from the traditional path. Vocalist Adrienne Cooper, last heard guesting on 1997's live Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band cd, Fire, fends off wedding proposals on the "Radio Girl" segment as she segues into the role of "Mystery Soprano" soaring through Joseph Rumshinsky's carefree "Di Primadonna." Eric Berman rips forth tuba solos worthy of the Shmenge Brothers, Ken Maltz is all over the Tarras swingfest "Two Cents Plain" with smooth, rapid-fire clarinet, and Henry Sapoznik, who conceived and produced the project, demonstrates how beautifully the banjo can fit the klezmer repertoire. The skits are as enjoyable as the musical arrangements and include the "Brooklyn Talent Hunters" segment, whose centerpiece is a Mickey Katz-penned Yiddish version of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons" about the perils of working at a delicatessen. Campy yet moist-eyed, On the Air satirizes the gestalt of the American Jewish past while simultaneously celebrating it, demonstrating--as fictional announcer Russell Fleysh might put it--you can have your matzoh and eat it too.
Backed by the Guinness Book of Records, Sonora Matancera claim the title of world's oldest pop group at 72 years continuously performing, though fellow Cubans Septeto Habenero boast 75. What's a few months when timeless music is in the making? Proving the pudding is the terrific collection Live on the Radio 1952-1958 (Harlequin), which sounds so fresh it could have been recorded a mere 40 years ago. The outdated quality is half the charm of one of the premier ensembles to take the Cuban son and run with it, stretching out by adding piano, horns, rhythmic variations and borrowings from big band swing to help create the genre that once took Africa by storm. In fact, it's impossible for me to listen to this disc without thinking of early Congolese recordings by Grand Kalle, Franco and other master builders of soukous.
Live on the Radio contains countless wryly arranged gems, including "El velorio" with funeral commentary from the deceased, the "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" horn quote on "El demonio en el batey," and "Cero codazos, cero cabezazos" ("No hits with the head or elbows") offering warnings from the referee of a boxing or wrestling match. Sonora Matancera's commercial output in the 1950s was confined to 12" 78 rpm records restricting the band to about three minutes playing time. But these performances are taken from 16" 78s distributed to Cuban radio stations, giving the players more room to improvise. The looseness of these live one-shots also lets the rare fluffs sneak through, such as an out-of-key horn part here or a botched vocal line there, adding an exciting air of immediacy. It's definitely worth the bother of seeking out this British/Czech import which is distributed in the States by Sterns.
Ruben Gonzalez is the Lee "Scratch" Perry of Cuban acoustic music, part nutcase and total certified genius too overwhelmed by his own talent to plow safe performance ruts. On the Afro-Cuban All Stars' super-session A Toda Cuba le Gusta (World Circuit/Nonesuch) the septuagenarian pianist is all over the place. His "Alto Songo" solo spot is outrageous enough to eclipse the feat of bringing together four generations of vocalists each vying to outdo the other in a high-test son montuno: Raul Planas, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, and Jose Antonio "Maceo" Rodriguez. Guest guitarist Ry Cooder charges in with an off-kilter and witty electrifed solo, but Gonzalez ups the ante with nutty one-note obsessiveness before skittering abstractly across the keyboard, though this is downright tame compared to the elbow chord attacks of "Amor Verdadero" resembling a mallard waddling across the 88s. Just when the unsuspecting listener might think a half-deteriorated inebriate was given a charity gig, once the dust of these solos settles Gonzalez filigrees right back into the chugging groove throwing off beautiful salsa-type melodic clusters. Not for nothing does Ry Cooder call him a "cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat." While he toes the line for much of this disc of classic Cuban rural music in a nightclub mood, he gives convention a wide berth.
Gonzalez is less contentiously playful on Introducing Ruben Gonzalez (World Circuit/Nonesuch) but still endlessly fascinating. Performing with a smaller ensemble than on Toda he has narrower leeway to stray from the rhythmic centerline, especially when his duties of anchoring the beat allow minimal anarchy. Button-bursting joy rather than hilarity carries the day here, and the joy is more than sufficient. Recorded live to tape with no overdubs, Introducing delivers plenty of Gonzalez' brand of piano tightrope walking as his inspired improvisations push the tunes away from Cuban standards to embrace snippets reminiscent of lounge music tinkling, King Oliver-era jazz, Gerschwin, classical piano music, pop, nursery rhymes, Scott Joplin, you name it, cramming more far-flung quotes into a single song than Indian filmi--but flowing the whole pastiche together with impeccable intuition. Songs have even more of a retro cocktail club sound than Toda, or at least try to keep within that framework with Gonzalez' discursive energy spilling all over the edges. Nudging him in both directions is a quintet of percussionists, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, an occasional vocal chorus, plus Richard Egues supplying flute on the lovely "Tres Lindas Cubanas." My favorite cut, the guaracho/son "Mandinga," uses most of the preceding to highlight Gonzalez' best waterfall-style improvisations nailed by the perfect easy-going yet intensely gripping Afro-Cuban beat.
Fatal Mambo's eponymous new disc (Tinder Records) lacks the shock-of-the-new of 1996's Rumbagitation, but that only means the French band transmutes their frenzy into straight ahead momentum. Except for the accordion fueled "La Tete a Gaston," the galsa (Gallic salsa) retires to the back of the tour bus, and the novelty-song tendency is replaced by silly voices cropping up in a seriously overcharged Latin groove owing much to the restless ghost of Perez Prado. Not conversant in French, I miss the punning, jokey lyrics, though the grabbag of foreign influences from flamenco to rai to retro rock is as obvious as a front row seat on a whoopie cushion. Did I mention these jokers can really play?
One of the best compliments I can pay to Jamshied Sharifi on A Prayer for the Soul of Layla (Alula) is that his synthesizer seldom sounds electronic. More often than not you'd think you were hearing exotic ethnic acoustic instruments. He clones a wood trumpet on "Tariqat," which also features soulful chants by Moroccan musical alchemist Hassan Hakmoun plus furious drumbeats by Simone Haggiag and Benjamin Wittman. On "One Who Plants a Tree" Sharifi's synth first impersonates a vernacular oboe, then an accordion--on "Salt Road" a shepherd's horn crossed with an Armenian duduk--and on "The Art of Remembering" it subtly shifts between wind and bowed instrument timbres.
Boosting Sharifi is a roster of performers on authentic acoustic instruments, mostly middle eastern and West African in keeping with the tone of this wide ranging but still carefully focused disc. Guests include Hakmoun (sintir), Haig Manoukian (oud), Ole Mathisen (Bedouin harp), and nicely layered percussion by Wittman and others. Sharifi knows how to keep lots of variety in his music and is generous in his pick of vocal stylists, from Paula Cole's soulful vocables on "Ammeh Kimmia" to Mamak Khadem's Bulgarian-flavored warbles on "Ma'na", and the processed choir of Miyuki Sakamoto and Micki Richards that fleshes out "Remembering." A few cuts have an ambient feel, but even these avoid movie soundtrack-itis thanks to vibrant arrangements which offset the dreaminess quotient.
A dab of ambient music flutters around the bottom of another disc of Mideast-inflected music. Assarouf (Triloka) is more straightforward than Layla in offering songs in the purely traditional style of North Africa's Tuareg culture. Algeria's Baly Othmani, backed by the Baly Vocal Ensemble (who else?), contributes strong compositions reflecting the yearning and restlessness of nomadic life with evocative singing and oud mastery so strong the first cut makes good on the cliche "he could have phoned it in" as Othmani deposits a solo on Steve Shehan's answering machine. Virginia-born guitarist Shehan leaves the structure of Othmani's beautiful pieces intact, augmenting them with percussion plucked from his globetrotting through Africa and Asia. Anomalous touches of Malaysian gongs on "Azouiegh illougan" or balafon on "Tannamert n'yalla" fit in as well as the Arizonan crickets on "Taddeghal tara" or Gede Uloh's ghostly Indonesian rebab on "Maiga dagh toughdahin." And fear not the keyboards nor the fender bass. Shehan carefully adds just enough punch and atmosphere to enhance the emotive force of Othmani's performance.
I confess to having let Spirit, the first American release by Vasen, slide past me a few months ago. As just another exemplary traditional-based music cd by just another exemplary Scandinavian ensemble, it failed to hit me in the face. The new stripped-down four-member version of the Swedish band on Whirled (NorthSide) dealt me a body blow, however. Whirled is dervish music from the frigid zone, and it's not just a matter of intensity since Vasen has always played as if trying to use sonic energy to stave off an ancient curse. If anything, the band occasionally flaunts an acoustic quartet's potential for understatement on "Nitti Pomfritti" (90 French Fries), which uses tick-tock percussion and open space to play up the idea of time dribbling away. As an added bonus, I can actually pick out which member is playing which instrument, more or less, instead of simply assuming the devil is making the ruckus. Nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle), viola, guitar and percussion are the sinister forces at work. But I'm also taken with the good humor of "Kapten Kapsyl," a tune dedicated to the final moments of a bottled beverage, and love the stand-out ferocity of "Shapons Vindaloo" which toys with classical Indian music. The topper is "Tartulingen" which I'm certain has to be about yours truly. "He comes and goes, leaving chaos in this tracks... and now he's back," read the liner notes. I don't know about the chaos part, but there is a distressing inevitability to Technobeat. [http://www.noside.com/]
Wimme's joiks, chants, recitations, groans and trance-state babblings conjure an image of a peyote-zonked shaman navigating the lower astral plane with cast members of Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast. I expected Wimme to be a grizzled reindeer herder clad in freshly chewed animal hides, but when I opened the cardboard sleeve of the Finnish import cd Gierran (Rockadillo Records) I instead beheld a photo of Dilbert's identical twin in big glasses, crewcut and Vulcan ceremonial garb. Wimme's eponymous first cd just issued here on the NorthSide label lightly kindled my interest during its original 1995 Rockadillo incarnation, but the vocals and electronics were too similar from cut-to-cut to move it past my icebox.
But Gierran is a gas from start to finish. If opening track "Iras" with goofy sax and synthesizer power riffs doesn't rearrange your neural net, "Samil" (The Importance of Moss) will scare the genomes from your gonads when Wimme's voice re-emerges after the presumed end of the track and 6:20 of total dead-ass silence. The title cut (Enchantment) has medicine man vocals, frame drum percussion, sax, bass, keyboards and a cool atmosphere, and "Rievssat" (Snow Goose) plus "Vuojan" (Draft Reindeer) are fine traditional joik chants. But who cares, when there's outrageous material like poetic piece "Arvedavgi" that will drive you up Mt. Monotony if your Sami language skills aren't up to snuff, "Oinnahus" (Vision) which pauses to recharge oxygen tanks on the way to Planet Gong, and my favorite of the batch, "Boska" (Angelica archangelica), sporting enough warped phonemes and vocal shenanigans to bring a smile to a Romulan. [This and other Finnish cds via Digelius Music, http://personal.eunet.fi/pp/dighoe/]
The void left by the passing of qawwali great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan left me thinking about his back-up musicians who were usually lost in the glare of his extraordinary talent. The Supreme Collection, Volume One (Caroline), a two-cd set of early performances, offers an opportunity to appreciate the strength of the musical Party. Worth mentioning first are the vocalists, who not only keep up with Nusrat but shadow him so closely they seem like multi-tracked versions of himself. Many times when I'm positive Nusrat has launched into an ecstatic sigh, his voice suddenly emerges elsewhere. "Mazaa Aa Gaya" reveals the harmonium players' art as well as anything on this set. (Sorry I can't refer to the musicians by name, but personnel credits for these performances are missing.) A lovely short solo launches the track, and not unlike Tex-Mex conjunto, the keyboardists constantly switch between ornamenting the piece with patches of melody and helping project the rhythmic charge. But it's the nimbleness that amazes me, for as soon as Nusrat launches into one of his Urdu scat singing feats of daring, the harmonium echoes, anticipates and otherwise supports the vocal acrobatics as if by telepathy.
While the Party percussionists lay down a beat of plain cloth without much flash, their predictability provides a needed comfort factor. Especially in the extended duration of these 17-minute-plus songs, the aggressive vocals and keyboards are cumulatively exhausting. So it's nice to dip down to the backbone of the pieces and let the tabla and handclaps temporarily refresh me before another jump into the onslaught of unearthly joy. Farewell, Nusrat. Thanks for the amazing body of work, and may your deserving ensemble locate another gig. [www.caroline.com]
For the Sufi savant in another context, investigate Star Rise (RealWorld/Caroline), a collection of remixes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's work with Michael Brook. Reinterpreting pieces from Mustt Mustt and Night Song is a posse of young Asian musicians who might have served the cause better by beginning with Nusrat's traditional tracks rather than Brook's meticulously engineered productions. Might as well throw artifical sweetener on top of sugar. It's an enduring testament to Nusrat's genius that his mighty voice rises above the drum machine confinement. [www.caroline.com]
Just released in the Southern Journey series of Alan Lomax's American field recordings is Volume 8, Velvet Voices, Eastern Shores Choirs, Quartets, and Colonial Era Music. Collected here are the fruits of Lomax's travels in April and May of 1960 to Virginia's Eastern Shore, the Georgia Sea Islands and Arkansas tracing the remnants of early African-American folk music idioms.
The centerpiece of this exciting disc of mainly gospel groups and choirs is a selection of a cappella songs by the Bright Light Quartet from the Northern Neck, Virginia fishing village of Weems. These songs, based on sea chanteys, are melodically direct but complicated by syncopated interlocking vocal parts that unearth the roots of classic pop groups like the Ink Spots, Coasters, Mills Brothers and the street corner doo-wop performers of the '50s. Pushing the clock back further, Lomax also reconstructs as accurately as possible the African-American music of the Colonial era, relying heavily on Ed Young of Mississippi, virtuoso of the cane fife, an instrument thought extinct until Lomax encountered Young--plus Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings and four-string banjo player Hobart Smith. The banjo and fife duets oddly juxtapose the familiar Revolutionary War fife sound with a slow and static banjo style. Though the performances on Velvet Voices were collected nearly four decades ago, the presence and definition of the recordings are extraordinary, a tribute first to the considerable technical sensitivity of Lomax and second to Steve Rosenthal's sound restoration. Listening through headphones is to step into the middle of a gospel group nestled in an arc of handclaps.
For storytelling songs check out Volume Seven of the Southern Journey series in the Alan Lomax Collection, Ozark Frontier, Ballads and Old-Timey Music from Arkansas (Rounder). Though they lack the captivating dynamics of Volume Seven, these songs potently combine British ballads, 19th century minstrel compositions, mountain banjo and fiddle music and pre-phonograph pop music circulated by songsheets. Recorded by Lomax in 1959, the material is finely honed by such sensitive performers as Almeda Riddle, with her Iris DeMent-style lilt, Neil Morris (father of balladeer Jimmy Driftwood), and Ollie Gilbert, whose shy rendition of the old Child ballad "It Rained A Mist," rooted in Chaucer's "The Prioress' Tale," unexpectedly spins a chilling story of child mortality blamed on ritual murder by non-Christian "outsiders" of the day.
The first Caribbean Voyage entry in Rounder Records' ever-expanding Alan Lomax Collection is an odd one. Brown Girl in the Ring presents 62 short game and play songs from Trinidad, Tobago, Dominica, St. Lucia, Anguilla, Nevis and Carriacou. In small doses, the songs have charm, though none will ever be confused with anything more complex than a nursery-rhyme type of ditty despite the convoluted origins of many as revealed by the 40-page accompanying booklet. For the full story, including social commentary hiding behind the lines of deceptively empty lyrics, look for the companion 224-page hardcover book. Published by Pantheon and compiled and authored by Lomax, J.D. Elder and Bess Lomax Hawes, Brown Girl in the Ring contains lyrics, music, play instructions, notes on origin and cultural significance, a spate of essays and several detailed maps. Handsome and fun to read, it's also the only scholarly book I own that includes the sheet music to "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Anthologies of ritual music have always puzzled me. What to do with them? Using circumcision rites as a backdrop for reading crime novels or blaring honey gathering songs from my car cassette deck while cruising for fast food is just plain wrong, plus the rather grating nature of these pieces consigns them quickly to the esoteric recesses of my disc collection once I've fulfilled the educational requirement. But the ellipsis arts label gives me ritual music I can use with Shaman, Jhankri & Nele--Music Healers of Indigenous Cultures. Beautifully recorded with therapeutic you-are-there production that posits the listener right under the healer's cowry-shell rattle, Shaman bulges with fixes tailor made for my home apothecary.
Selections include Babaji's northern Indian song to combat depression and fatigue (bet it also works with anxiety), a Kuma Indian song from the San Blas Islands for healing mental illness, Amazon medicine man Dakikiking Don Alejandro's ritual for healing digestive problems, and the more general application song for petitioning the gods for healing from Mexican peyote shaman Mara'akame. I'm cautious about trying Tuvan shaman Alexander Tavakay's song for calling animal helpers for fear of our pet geese breaking into the house. Ellipsis arts is onto something here. I foresee whole cds of indigenous healing music designed to treat individual ailments. A headache anthology could go right through the roof. Sadly, the collection sits a box big enough to hold a National Geographic-size accompanying softcover book, making Shaman too bulky to fit cd shelf or medicine chest.
I've often thought the timbres of the gamelan were chosen to resonate sympathetic notes of physical, mental and spiritual well-being in the listener. Maryland's Robert Macht takes full advantage of this principle on Suite for Javanese Gamelan and Synthesizer (Macht). "Ripples" uses gamelan, assorted percussion and keyboards to create uncluttered layered complexity that projects waves of joy and discovery. Just when you think you've hit your happiness peak, Macht shifts the patterns or introduces new combinations of textures to keep the experience flowing. Blissfully, his synthesizer largely avoids fat washes of sound in favor of gentle eddies or mallet instrument emulations that integrate well with traditional themes. Macht, who studied the court gamelan repertoire in Central Java, arranges, plays and records his compositions with clear understanding of the ensemble process, avoiding the effect of a one-man band adrift in an empty studio. The exception to his do-everything philosphy is a lovely extended piece "Wind Brings Rain," backed by Global Percussion members Barry Dove, Donna DiStefano and Jon Seligman. Suite is a wonderful disc whose pleasures are immediately accessible while harboring deep structural secrets that take repeated listenings to unravel. [6140 Barroll Rd., Baltimore, MD 21209 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
Nature lovers should cherish Utom: Summoning the Spirit (Rykodisc), a nicely varied anthology of music of the Tboli people of Southwestern Mindanao in the Philippines. The utom repertoire is tied closely to sounds and spirits of the Tboli's environment. Some songs strive for a sonic imitation of the area fauna, such as lute-player Bendaly's "Call of the Cicada" and "Flying Woodpecker." The former gets loads of local play--a version for bamboo zither is performed by Lendungan Simfal and Ihan Sibanay, but Sol Ayaw does my favorite rendition. After seeking shelter from an afternoon downpour in a cave, he engages a songbird just outside the entrance in a spirited duet with his violin on this piece and "Cackling mnaul bird." Other songs evoke the atmosphere of the Tboli's natural setting, such as the gong and drum pieces reminiscent of the Muslim Filipinos' kulitan ensembles which ostensibly convey the sound of lapping waves but also project a lovely feeling of intimacy and well-being. Rounding out the collection is "Prized Banana," a bawdy vocal performance by Ye Gas that extols the charms and failing of various gentlemen she has known. And it's not even rap.
If Hapa ain't Hawaii's Beatles, then they're certainly the island's Oasis, and if not Oasis, they're still the raspberries. To almost the same degree that I loathed the sickly sweet slack key of Keli'li Kanneali'i and Barry Flanagan's first local mega-seller, Hapa, I admire the slick pop smarts of the bombshell follow up In the Name of Love (Coconut Grove). From the front cover of a buffed Kaneali'i in indigenous cloth wrap and Flanagan in tartan kilt, both armed with serious armament from the Keola Beamer custom guitar craft studio, to the power chords that kick off disc opener "E Hele Ana E," it's evident no kitchen sink will be spared in this assault on the charts. Hapa hot-wires traditional themes and tunes, inventing a kind of speed slack key as "Pahinui Aloha" zips from ki-hoalu to bluegrass fingerpicking with nary a sliver of Polynesian daylight in between. But the lads' favorite gambit is warm and fuzzy psychedelia. Not content dunking "Leluhuna" beneath an ocean of flanged vocal effects, they knock the cobwebs off a stuttering electric sitar solo reminiscent of Strawberrry Alarm Clock's finest hour. But with all the aural hooks and loop-the-loops by Kanneali'i, Flanagan and their exceptional session musicians, it's the harmonies that keep me from running away screaming as sappy ditties like "Manoa, In the Rain" make you wish they stuck to Hawaiian-language lyrics. But gorgeous vocals elevate phonemes over morphemes, keeping me in pineapple fields forever.
Few percussionists have the ability or inclination to hold the spotlight on a solo recording, but with his arsenal of tuned tabla drums and prodigious chops, Badal Roy could keep me riveted all by his lonesome. The Bangladesh-born drummer has supported such luminaries as Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John McLaughlin and Bengali folk musician Purna Das Baul, so he's used to meshing gears with top-notch talents. On One in the Pocket (Nomad/Music of the World), Roy explores the many different timbres of the tabla, from the well-water thump of "Geeta's Shuffle," to the pitched tabla tarang of "Bombay Boogie," the gentle percolation of Mike Richmond's bass-charged "Island Song," and the familiar "dang-dut" of "Roda Gigante" anchoring the sequencer-precise Brazilian guitar duo Duofel. But it's the diversity of Roy's collaborators that puts this in the pocket, as Steve Gorn adds dreamy bansuri flute to the title cut and Eastern-flavored soprano sax to "Dadaism," and Amit Chatterlee lends cosmic electric guitar to four songs. Roy balances the forward presence of his drums with the contrasting textures of his bandmates as carefully as he blends genres in this slap-happy, hook-filled disc. [worldmusic.com]
For too many years Texas' Brave Combo has stood alone hoisting the twin banners of virtuosity and a perverse taste in international music. Now The Reptile Palace Orchestra draws a yellow line in the snow outside their Madison, Wisconsin headquarters daring madmen only to take the entrance ramp to Hwy X (Omnium). Dipping into a mostly Mediterannean and Mideastern repertoire laced with a few pop oddities, RPO plays with the druggy determination of a band that doesn't find its legs until 3:00 am after the third handful of demerol. Reinforcing the late-night attitude is a woozy choice of covers that blurs sincerity and irony with deadpan instrumental prowess until you couldn't care less about the distinction--Michael Hurley's "The Revenant" as prom night make-out music, or Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wings" cast as SoCal folk rock ballad. Sonics are of a piece as well, as comfy space around the instruments opens up via signal processing to suggest a reverb-plagued performance in a metal and concrete hockey rink. Most bands crystalize into hardened professionals before they attain Reptile Pace Orchestra's level of stoned ennui, so pick up this ambitious yet half-bored disc of international intrigue while it's still wriggling. [PO. Box 7367, Minneapolis, MN 55407 or www.omnium.com]
Each Christmas I grit my teeth as my wife trots out her cds of holiday
standards from the Nutcracker to der Bingle's rendition of "Silent
Night." In self-defense I try foisting alternatives on her, such as
my favorite seasonal disc, Marta Sebestyen's Apocrypha, which isn't recognizably
Christian, or Bruce Cockburn's bouncy Christmas cd. Next year's addition
will be Nomad Christmas, A World Music Celebration
(Nomad/Music of the World) which should satisfy Linda with recognizable
tunes and keep me relatively sane with its expostulations on same. My favorite
cuts are by oudist Simon Shaheen, who transports "God Rest Ye Merry
Gentleman" and "We Three Kings" to appropriate Middle Eastern
territory with an added jazzy swing, and Duofel, who demonstrate both tact
and inventiveness with "Jingle Bells Brazil" (I can barely type
these titles). Bulgarian a cappella group Folk Scat is less palatable with
its doodly-doo version of "Silent Night," though homeland Christmas
tune "Koledarska Pesen" fares slightly better. Also featured are
percussionist Glen Velez, bassist Mike Richmond, percussionist and label
founder Bob Haddad, pianist Richard Sussman and others. Nomad Christmas
isn't as good as avoiding seasonal music entirely, but it is kind
to the stomach. [worldmusic.com]
[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]
My wonderful dad, Robert J. Tarte, died on January 16, 1999, from a sudden heart attack while shoveling snow. He was always proud of having written his tribute to the big bands, and my gratitude goes out to The Beat editor CC Smith for letting him indulge his prodigious memories.