Monday, October 25, 2021

Random Record Reviews, Volume 5

’70s Jazz:

About twenty years ago I abruptly became a jazz geek, and obsessively started collecting jazz lps, to the point that I accumulated a few hundred of them. But it was specifically ‘70s jazz I was into, ie electric jazz. My two favorite subgenres were cosmic jazz (now known as “kozmigroov”) and jazz-funk, the latter the funky, occasionally Blaxploitation-esque jazz that I’d become aware of thanks to the Pulp Fusion CD releases. At the time I had cheap plastic fantastic automatic turntables, and I knew that I was missing out on the full sound of these records. But by the time I’d upgraded to a “real” turntable (a Pioneer PL-518) and gotten a much better cartridge (a Nagaoka MP-110), I’d lost my interest in jazz. 

Well, just as abruptly as way back then, I’ve become a jazz geek again. This time though, instead of hunting online or in shops for “new” records, I decided to randomly pull out records from my own collection and give them a spin on my new setup. The following are my thoughts on the ones I’ve played, with links to where you can hear some of them online if you are so inclined. I’ve also included the pedantic info of where and when I got them, and how much they cost me, if only to gauge how prices have changed over the years. Please to enjoy! 

1.Joe Henderson: Black Is The Color 
Milestone, 1972 

Reviewer DW at the Kozmigroov Connection site states that this is “the holy effin’ grail of this era,” and one can certainly see his point; Black Is The Color is one of the most out-there “jazz” albums ever, filled with more sonic trickery than even Herbie Hancock’s three “Mwandishi” albums. Per a note on the back cover, saxophonist Henderson relentlessly overdubbed each song with a variety of instruments and textures, resulting in a supreme head-trip of an album. I’ve always found it interesting that by the time the rock groups were moving away from psychedelic and into more rural pastures a la The Band, the jazz musicians and soul groups were starting to get far-out. And in most cases they went further out than the rockers ever did. I mean, just check out Miles Davis’s Agharta (1975), the high water mark of the entire kozmigroov era: a relentless onslaught of heavy psychedelic jazz-rock…and recorded live at that! 

Rather than the heavy metal onslaught of Agharta, Black Is The Color is more of a sonic din of swirling overdubbed noise, with Henderson’s distorted sax wailing in the murk. Sure, it can get a little strident and atonal at times, but other times it’s lost in the chaos of overdubbed “electrobleepage aplenty,” as DW so memorably put it.  Parts of Black Is The Color could be the soundtrack for a bad trip. Here is the entire LP uploaded to Youtube. 

My copy is the 1973 repress, with the solid red label. It’s a good pressing, nice and deep soundstage, and centered as well – ie no annoying “background echo” like you get with off-centered pressings. I ordered this one from in 2012, a “Very Good +” copy which per the sticker on the plastic sleeve cost me seventeen bucks. Money well spent! I’m not sure if I even played it on my old cheap-o turntable; I was probably afraid I’d damage it. But man it sure does sound great on my current turntable; I liked this album so much at one time that I even got the remastered CD. One of these days I should compare it to the vinyl. 

2.Bayete Umbra Zindiko: Seeking Other Beauty 
Prestige, 1973 

Now this is one heavy, wah-wah crazy album. This is one I seriously wanted on vinyl, it just took me a while to find a copy. I first discovered Seeking Other Beauty when I got into jazz in a major way, around 2005 or so…an MP3 rip of a scratchy copy I downloaded off some blog somewhere. To say hearing a mint-condition copy of the actual vinyl is a more rewarding experience would be an understatement – this album rivals Agharta as one of the heaviest pieces of cosmic psychedelic heavy metal jazz-funk. And there aren’t even any electric guitars on it! What sounds like fuzz-wah guitar is actually Bayete’s heavily treated Rhodes, but it might take a listen or two to even realize this. The album’s heavier, funkier, and more evil than early Funkadelic. 

This in fact might be the great lost jazz-rock album; I don’t mean jazz-rock in the “fusion” sense of later years, but a melding of the heavy progressive vibe of the early ‘70s with jazz sensibilities, plus the occasional vocal. Actually there really aren’t “vocals” per se, just the titles of some of the songs are shouted repeatedly until it takes on a hypnotic effect. And have I mentioned yet that Seeking Other Beauty has the most fuzzed-out monster bass anywhere ever? The fuzz-bass on this LP is insane, nowhere more notably than on the mindbending 10-minute epic “Don’t Need Nobody,” the definite highight of the album. Other tracks are nearly as heavy, and the album closes out with a long soul jazz number that backs off on the heavy wah and fuzz effects. Carlos Santana clearly dug the music of Bayete (aka Todd Cochran); his live album Lotus (1974 – another one I have on vinyl) features a cover of “Free Angela,” from Bayete’s previous LP (which was much more of a jazz affair than this one). 

There was only one pressing of Seeking Other Beauty, so it’s accordingly rare and overpriced; I spent $33 for my Near Mint copy at back in 2010, and I know I never even played it on my old setup for fear of damaging the vinyl (though studies indicate that those plastic turntables, despite the high tracking force and conical stylii, don’t really damage the grooves). I usually don’t spend nearly this much for vinyl, so Seeking Other Beauty was one of the few times I actually paid a bit more for a record…and it was certainly worth it. And thirty-three bucks is a bargain compared to how much copies go for now, it appears. 

3.The Cannonball Adderly Quintet: Pyramid 
Fantasy, 1974 

This is one of the last jazz LPs I bought, in June of 2016, before my interests finally moved on, but man did I want it, and had wanted it for a while – the first track on the LP, “Phases,” is such an awesome chunk of kozmigroov funk…if ever there was the theme song for a Blaxploitation sci-fi flick, this would be it. Produced by David Axelrod (more on whom anon), Pyramid has this sort of far-out vibe throughout, melding kozmigroov with jazz-funk. This is another I ordered from, a “Very Good +” copy of the original pressing that cost me fifteen bucks. Of the jazz records I’ve played on my new setup, this is the one where the difference in sound quality was most immediate; on the Pioneer with Nagaoka stylus there is a definite impact with deep bass that my old Audio Technica AT-LP60 couldn’t hope to match. 

I’ve mentioned Dusty Groove quite a bit here, and I started ordering from them in 2001 or thereabouts. They’re based out of Chicago, and I’d never thought of visiting their brick and mortar store, but then in June of 2016 my wife had to go to Chicago for work, so I went along and planned to visit the store one day. As it turned out, I walked to Dusty Groove with none other than Len Levinson, the day of course being the one where I got to meet him in person. On a personal note, that was one helluva far walk, folks. I told Len my plan to go there, and he was like, “Let’s walk there.” So we walked and talked…sort of like the two protagonists in Jean Dutourd’s 1963 novel The Horrors Of Love, which I’d recommended to Len some years before and which he ended up enjoying. But man we just kept walking. I often asked Len if he wanted to get a taxi or get on a bus, and he was like “nope, it’s a nice day to walk.” I looked at it on a map later and, from the hotel to the store and back again, we walked a little over six miles that day. And as it turned out, the Dusty Groove store was a lot smaller than I thought it would be…and had the exact same selection as their online store! In other words, no special “discount bin” section or anything… 

Well anyway, I’d ordered Pyramid along with some other records before the trip, but selected “in store pickup.” So this is one I got while I was there, among some others – I recall Len looking through the bins and marvelling over the prices of some of the records. He also told me he had a ton of jazz LPs at one point but had gotten rid of them, stuff that would no doubt be worth a pretty penny today. (He also stopped off at a cowboy clothing store on the walk and bought himself a nice cowboy hat!) Okay, at this point I’ve written about everything except the record in question. Axelrod was known for spacy production that included deep bass, plentiful drum breakbeats, and sci-fi synth soundscapes, and that’s abundant in Pyramid. But it never divulges into crazy, out-there, rhythmless muck, as for example Black Is The Color sometimes does. It’s for this reason why I think I’ve always been more into jazz-funk than kozmigroov; I like rhythm more than experimentation. 

Another cool thing about ‘70s jazz is that older vets like saxophonist Adderly weren’t afraid to let it all hang out and get wild and funky, and that too is apparent throughout Pyramid. But then, Cannonball did that throughout the ‘70s, for example on his 1972 double album Soul Zodiac, with its fuzzed-out guitars. But as with most ‘70s electric jazz Lps, there’s still the “traditional jazz” numbers here, closing out side 2…I swear these were put here to appease the “why must everything be electric?” crowd of the day. That said, the closing track is an incredibly moving piece of music. Otherwise Pyramid is one of the best jazz albums I have, even if it took me a while to acquire it…and also “Book-Ends,” the last song on side 1, opens and closes with a sort of pulsing bass motif that sounds for all the world like the opening section of the theme from Superman

4.David Axelrod: Seriously Deep 
Polydor, 1975 

Axelrod was a producer whose work is very popular with beatheads of today, given the deep bass and open drum breaks that proliferate on the albums he produced. He also released a few solo albums in the ‘70s, this being the most highly-sought of them. And it’s clear why, as Seriously Deep is my favorite jazz-funk album, and definitely lives up to its title. Returning the favor from Pyramid, Cannonball Adderly produces Axelrod this time, but the sound is very much the same, if a little less frenetic and experimental. Rather this one’s all about the deep groove, a veritable proliferation of head-nodding beats and funky bass from beginning to end, with occasional fuzzy electronics. Super cool stuff throughout, and there’s some great fuzzy bass too, and plentiful open breaks, as for example on the track “1000 Rads.” The LP’s comprised of 6 tracks, all but one of them over 5 minutes, each establishing a funk groove and riding it for the duration, with soloing overtop from the assembled cast of all-star players. But it never devolves into pointless soloing a la “fusion,” and the focus is always on the groove. My favorite track is “Ken Russell,” named after the director, which is appropriately soundtrack-like and at times sounds like DJ Shadow a few decades early. 

I first heard this one many years go via an MP3 rip of a scratchy vinyl copy, then later bought the remastered CD on the Cherry Red label. But I had a hankering to get the original vinyl for myself. It took a bit of searching, but I finally found an original US pressing for a reasonable price (and the US release was the only vinyl pressing the record ever received). Judging from the prices Seriously Deep goes for now, this must be one of the more rare and valuable records I have. I got my “Very Good” copy from a seller on back in 2015 for $25, but even then it was a steal – the cover was a little beaten and water-damaged, but the vinyl is okay save for a couple annoying skips on the first bands of each side. Sometimes I see why CDs caught on so well in the ‘80s… And speaking of which, while the Cherry Red CD sounded fine to me, there’s a more open sound to the instruments on the original vinyl, and of course a much deeper bass impact. 

5.Jack McDuff: Magnetic Feel 
Cadet, 1975 

This one didn’t floor me like some of the others on the list, but it’s one I randomly listened to while I was going through my jazz collection so I thought I’d include it. This album is one I hunted down because the title track appeared on Pulp Fusion: Revenge Of The Ghetto Grooves (Harmless Records, 1998), which was the first Pulp Fusion CD I ever bought, probably around 2001 – I got it because it was the only place I could find Dennis Coffey’s “Theme From Black Belt Jones,” one of my favorite songs ever, and a track I’d been obsessed with since I got Black Belt Jones on VHS in college, in the summer of ’94…I even taped the theme song off the video onto cassette and played it on a bus through Japan in the summer of ’95, true story. 

Well anyway “Magnetic Feel” is the last track on that third Pulp Fusion release, and it was one of my favorites on there. It just took me some years to actually track down the album it had come from…this was another I got from (man I sent those guys a lot of money over the years), a “Very Good +” copy that set me back twelve dollars in 2015. And as it turns out, the title track is by far my favorite on the album. McDuff, often credited as “Brother Jack McDuff,” was an organist, and at times turns out some vintage synth sounds that are pretty cool, most notably on the title track. There’s a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Mess With Mr. T” (from the Trouble Man soundtrack) that’s kind of cool, if a bit easy listening-esque, and also a somewhat cool funky number called “Won’t You Try My Love,” but of course there are the expected “tradjazz” numbers to appease the traditionalists. Overall I can see why Magnetic Feel was a bit overlooked, only scoring this original LP release on Cadet (with a repress the following year), and still no CD release to speak of. 

6.Bobbye Hall: Body Language For Lovers 
20th Century Records, 1977 

I picked this one six years ago, played it once, and forgot about it. But one thing I’ve learned from record collecting is that first impressions rarely count when it comes to music. Some of my favorite albums were ones I didn’t immediately connect with, and this would be a case in point. I recently took this record off the shelf with absolutely no memory of it, played it, and found myself playing it again and again. An astute reviewer on states that this is the sort of album Mike Oldfield might’ve made if he did soul-jazz instead of progressive rock. The vibe is very much like Oldfield, with each track seguing into one another and creating an overall tapestry of sound. The title has you expecting some sort of swank funk a la the latter-day Mystic Moods, but the vibe is more mystical than sensual. With the occasional cosmic harp and wordless vocals combined with hypnotic drums, the listener at times almost gets the impression of floating over the Sahara under a full moon. 

But then, the Mystic Moods isn’t that bad a comparison, as there’s a bit of that sound here; not the Mystic Moods of the mid-1960s, with the orchestral sap remakes of pop hits, but the later Mystic Moods – the funky studio outfit that did albums like Erogenous (1974) and Being With You (1975). Occasionally the tracks on Body Language will sound similar, with a bit more of a jazz overlay; the Mystic Moods meets Miles Davis would be my shorthand description. The cover proclaims “Soul-Jazz from 20th Century Records,” and while this is a jazz record there’s none of the pointless soloing you might encounter in the average jazz record. Again, it’s more about a unity of sound, a flowing suite of songs that evokes a certain mood. Sometimes funky, sometimes ethereal, but always enjoyable. It also sounds great both on headphones and on speakers. The production quality is stellar, and the LP’s been mastered incredibly well, resulting in a full, layered sound (with very deep and funky bass) that rewards multiple listens. 

Bobbye Hall, usually credited as “Ms. Bobbye Hall” so everyone would know she wasn’t a dude, was a jazz drummer…but this is not a drum-heavy album. In fact, there’s nary a break in sight. What’s curious is that she’s credited as “Featured Percussionist” on the back cover, but the album also features Dorothy Ashby, known for her own soul-jazz records. That’s her on the harp which pops up occasionally. But again, there’s never a part where one of the players takes over the song, soloing relentlessly; even the fuzzy guitar which abruptly pops up on the first track gradually fades away, never to return again. And in fact it’s that first track that sounds most like early ‘70s Miles Davis, also featuring as it does a muted, Miles-esque trumpet. Hall’s percussion work peppers most tracks, usually spiralling across the sound spectrum and adding an extra layer to the funkier numbers, like on “Copula,” the third track on side 1 and probably my favorite cut on the album. 

This was one of the best “finds” I’ve made since rediscovering my jazz collection. This is a great album, and highly recommended. But Body Language For Lovers clearly didn’t resonate with listeners of the day, only receiving this original LP pressing. There isn’t even a CD release. Luckily, copies appear to be relatively inexpensive (my Near Mint copy, which I ordered from, cost me ten bucks), and also the entire album’s been uploaded to Youtube.

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