free improvisation

REVIEW: Frank Zappa – Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981)

 

FRANK ZAPPA – Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981, 2012 Universal/Zappa remaster)

This is the first time I’ve ever seriously tried to write a Frank Zappa review; a daunting task indeed. I rely heavily on the excellent booklet inside the 2012 Universal/Zappa Record reissue of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. For example, an advertisement for the album tells me that it was originally issued (in 1981) as three mail order records. You could buy them at once or separately, and they were individually titled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More, and Return of The Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.  Then they were later re-released as a 3 LP box set.

ZAPPA_0006I also like how the spines of this series of remasters are all numbered, so you can easily file them in chronological order. That’s how I file my albums (alphabetically by artist, then chronologically by album). These three records were 31, 32, 33. For shits and giggles, I separated the tracks from this 2 CD release into the original 3 LP running order. My logic was, this gave the listener (me) a more “original” listening experience, as I took coffee breaks between “records” to collect my thoughts.

The whole Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar set is a collection of instrumental guitar solos.  Many of these are taken from live performances of other songs, but presented on their own, sometimes with humorous dialogue sprinkled in between.  All solos are by Frank, although giants such as Steve Vai and Warren Cuccurullo are behind him on rhythm guitar.  Frank’s playing is diverse (it better be if your album is an hour and three-quarters long) and interesting at all times.  I’m not a guitar head, I can’t sit here and tell you, “Oh right now he’s playing the such-and-such mode in the key of whatever.”  I can just tell you when my jaw hits the floor (frequently).

Rhythmically, “five-five-FIVE” (the opener) is one of my favourite tracks.  The internets tell me that the time signature is a repeated sequence of 5/8 + 5/8 + 5/4.  On top of that are some exotic and mindblowing Zappa tones.  I was hooked on the first time.  The next one, “Hog Heaven” is slower, a respite.  Zappa remains the architect of electric guitar sounds you just don’t get to hear every day.  I also love the aptly named “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression” which does indeed have a vaguely Santana vibe.

Other highlights included “Ship Ahoy” which I’m not even sure how to describe so I won’t.  “Pink Napkins” is a jazzy jam session with Eddie Jobson on keyboards that hits just the right notes.  The 10 minute closer “Canard Du Jour” is remarkably by being sparse, without wasting precious playing time by being boring.  It is aided and abetted by Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, a treat indeed.

I think I’ve said enough.  I paid nine freakin’ bucks (Sunrise) for almost two hours of Frank Zappa playing guitar.  How is that not one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made?

4.5/5 stars

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Gallery: Kathryn Ladano – “Evil Kirk” recording session

Use the embedded player below to hear a sample of “EVIL KIRK” by Kathryn Ladano, featuring yours truly

The initial concept was Kathryn’s.  She liked that Star Trek the original series had a lot of audible bass clarinet in the music.  Often just before a red shirt was about to die, you’d hear a bass clarinet melody…and then ZAP!

We decided to add a vocal element.  I compiled some of my favourite Captain James Tiberius Kirk quotations, and Kathryn had a general direction for the music but otherwise she improvised.  We performed it live in four takes at Wildrid Laurier University’s Seminary building.  A couple effects were added in mixing and voila — “Evil Kirk”!

Buy it at kathrynladano.com , amazon.ca or iTunes

Photos:  Martin LePage

Further reading:

CONCERT REVIEW: When Styles Collide (April 5 2013)

I’ve known one of these artists for 40 years, the other since she was born.  Rob Szabo is a childhood friend, and Kathryn Ladano got all the musical talent in my family!

563656_10152710710545468_886971882_nWhen Styles Collide:

MIX Music Series Concert #2


Musicians:

April 5, 2013, the Button Factory, Kitchener Ontario

Sponsored by NUMUS Concerts

Mix 2 posterA lot of rock fans can get into more cutting edge music, things a bit more challenging.  Many of us have ears already opened, by progressive rock giants such as Deep Purple, Dream Theater, and Frank Zappa.  When some of the region’s best musicians from various genres gather together to improvise live with an audience, it’s gonna be interesting.  The basic concept of When Styles Collide was to bring together players from different backgrounds, and see what happens.  Although some songs are pre-written pieces, all of the performances contained music made up entirely on the spot at one point or another.  Some are completely spontaneous.

Rob Szabo is a well known singer/songwriter and producer (his production helped bluesman Steve Strongman win a Juno award in 2013 for best Blues album).  Szabo is also a hell of a guitar soloist.  On another side of the musical spectrum is bass clarinetist Kathryn Ladano.  Even though the two have known each other for over 35 years (essentially all of Kathryn’s life since they were childhood neighbors), they’d never actually played together before.  Also present was Kathryn’s frequent collaborator and bandmate from the Digital Prowess days, Jason White.  The quintet was completed by Brandon Valdivia on the traps, and Brent Rowan with some smoove saxophone.

A cool spy drama from the early 60′s would make a great backdrop for the first performance (Rowan’s “By Chance”).  Mixing exotic rhythms with hypnotic patterns, sax and drums dominate.  Szabo rocked back and forth to the music before breaking out into a jazz-tinged solo.  Then it’s Ladano’s turn to lead, with some contrasting highs and lows.  The crowd broke into spontaneous applause — something rarely seen at an experimental music geek event such as this, at least in my experience! (I’m told this is more common with jazz crowds.)  They then rolled into an Ian Paice-style drum solo, before coming back to the main riff of the song.

The second piece, “A Side of Me” is one of Rob’s songs, led by a mournful riff, before Jason White joins him.  This is a vocal number, with Rob Szabo’s expressive vocals.  It sounds like it exists somewhere in early Radiohead, before they got too carried away with themselves.

Then it’s a slow jam (“Sketch 1″ from Valdivia), perhaps from that same 1960′s spy drama.  But this is the scene where our spy’s had too much to drink and he’s wandering around some dark alley after a heavy rain.  This is followed by “Rorschach” named for the classic vigilante from The Watchmen.  It’s a more chaotic jam, perhaps reflecting the character’s on-the-edge life.  Some seriously eerie sax and bass clarinet keep you on the edge, while the percussion is a distant thunderstorm.

Rob said “Incandescent” was written during a period of heavy touring.  It’s one of Rob’s best tunes, melodic and melancholy, but with an occasional glimmer to let you know he’ll be OK.  The band seemed to be having fun jamming behind him.  Brent Rowan’s sax solo was appropriate and stunning on its own, but then Jason white took the lead with some fluttering piano awesome-sauce.

The band closed their first set with an improvisation, a rhythmic jam.  It’s really cool to see and hear the music build, like waves.  You can catch glances back and forth, the musicians communicating by eye, but most of the time they seem well ensconced in their playing.  It’s also cool to know that the music never existed before this moment, and if it wasn’t for the recording equipment, it would also be lost forever just after that moment.

The second set began rhythmically, with a catchy instrumental jam (“Sketch 2″).  There were solos from the wind instruments, and a constant background of interesting and sometimes exotic rhythms.  Rob Szabo laid down a guitar part that looked really really hard; his eyes concentrating on a music stand in front of him, his hand making giant leaps up and down the frets!  A cool drum solo was also captivating.  Kathryn explains:

“The two Sketches do have some basic material that we are following.  That’s why you hear a lot of melodies repeat. It features a small amount of notes and a basic structure that tells you how often to repeat, and when to solo. That’s how we’re able to end together, because it tells us that too. Despite the structure, the two Sketches are still very free and allow us to each do our own thing a lot of the time.”

“Good Son” is from Rob Szabo’s Sore Loser, part of a double EP.  The band didn’t obstruct the quiet song, but instead accented it.  I enjoyed Jason White’s complimentary piano lines.

The jazz-funk of “Funk” (good title) rocked, like a sweaty version of “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”, saxophone taking center stage.  Then, surprisingly, a spoken word piece.  Szabo put down the guitar and exchanged it for the microphone; the words were Nietzsche.  Jason White wrote the music, which he called “Fierce Fighter”.

Kathryn wrote “I Told You So”, a tricky little number that employs some of her favourite bass clarinet tricks.  It also seems to dance around the main rhythm to “Sunshine of Your Love”.  It’s pretty lyrical and out there, very cool and weird.  The band ended with a final Szabo song, “Police Report” that evolved into an extended jam.  Rob’s echo-y guitar solo ended the show on a particularly noisy, rock n’ roll note.

4.5/5 stars

Set 1:
1. “By Chance” by Brent Rowan
2. “A Side of Me” by Rob Szabo
3. “Sketch 1” by Brandon Valdivia
4. Improvisation by Kathryn Ladano, Brent Rowan, and Brandon Valdivia
5. “Rorschach” by Jon Maheraj (arranged by Jason White)
6. “Incandescent” by Rob Szabo
7. Group Improvisation
Set 2:
1. “Sketch 2” by Brandon Valdivia
2. “Good Son” by Rob Szabo
3. “Funk” by Brent Rowan
4. “Fierce Fighter” by Jason White
5. “I Told You So” by Kathryn Ladano
6. “Police Report” by Rob Szabo (leads into a final group improvisation)
Some photos by Martin LePage

REVIEW: The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Thanks Aaron for hooking me up with this CD.

STONES 1

THE ROLLING STONES – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967 London/Decca)

It would be lazy for me to compare this album to contemporaries of the band. It would also be lazy to use the old outdated “psychedelic” adjective to describe this music. I can think of numerous other adjectives: challenging, rewarding, inventive, chaotic, grimy, majestic.

Andrew Loog Oldham had quit his post as the band’s producer and manager, leaving the Stones to their own devices.  It sounds as if they explored every possible indulgence (musically and otherwise).

Their Satanic Majesties Request takes some of the musical expeditions that The Rolling Stones had completed on Between The Buttons (think “Ruby Tuesday”), and turns that on its head. Mix in ample supplies of chemicals and a total fearlessness, and a belief that what they were doing was total brilliance, and what you get is Their Satanic Majesties Request. This album surely must have convinced parents that Satan himself was possessing the hi-fi.

Light on guitar, rhythm and blues, Their Satanic Majesties Request is still among the best Stones albums if you can penetrate its purple smokey haze. Doing so will reveal an album constructed in layers, and peeling back these layers will release melodies and instrumentation that will keep you enthralled for years, as you keep coming back to this album. Is that Mick asking, “Where’s that joint?”

I’m fond of the opening track, “Sing This All Together”, which sounds (at times) like a cross between the Beatles and a James Bond theme.  I’m sure some fans were wondering, “Where’s the guitars?”  They’re on there, used sparingly but effectively.  “Citadel” has guitars; grimy, dirty guitars, chugging out distorted chords under Mick’s dreamy melodies.  This one reminds me of early Alice Cooper, who I am sure was influenced by this album.

Bill Wyman sings lead on “In Another Land”, the watery vocal track sounding like it was recorded in another land.   “2000 Man” is as catchy as anything else the Stones produced, with neat lyrics that must have seemed so forward-thinking in 1967.  I love the guitar melody, and how it sounds like a completely different song on the choruses.  “She’s A Rainbow” is a perfect pop song, as brilliant as “Ruby Tuesday” if not moreso due to Charlie Watts’ relentlessness.  Meanwhile, “The Lantern” happily meanders along, amidst what sounds like out-of-tune guitars and horns.  Likewise “Gomper” wanders about, loads of sitar invading the eardrums, and lots of other stuff I can barely identify.

“2000 Light Years From Home” is a good one, loaded with Brian’s mellotron, again sounding perpetually out of tune.  Fortunately Charlie keeps the song moving forward, his timing always perfect.  Then, “On With the Show” brings us back in time to a simpler age, Mick affecting an accent for this fun retro piece.

While every song has melodies and instrumentation coming out the wazoo, it surely is “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” (not to be confused with “Sing This All Together”) that is the centrepiece of this bizarre journey into the unknown. 8 1/2 minutes long, and never really going anywhere, some might consider this a waste of vinyl. On the other hand, those that have studied free improvisation will get inspiration out of this bizarre arrangement.

Brian Jones continued to experiment with multiple instruments including sitar (hey, it was the 60’s). Guests include Lennon and McCartney, Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane, Nicky Hopkins, and future Led Zeppelin bassist / keyboardist / string arranger John Paul Jones.

The original LP featured a lenticular cover gimmick, as well as a maze inside that can never be solved.  How quaint!

Next time somebody comes up to you and says, “Yeah, this new band that I like, they sound really Stones-y,” then respond by playing “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” and ask if this is what they meant. Watch the looks on their faces.

In the end, the Stones decided to return to their blues rock sound on Beggars Banquet, which was probably the best way to continue to have a viable career.

4/5 stars

KMA REVIEW: Kathryn Ladano – Open

This review is a re-press from keepsmealive; please drop by their site too! 

Kathryn Ladano – Open

Kathryn Ladano - Open. Now available.

www.kathrynladano.com

Miles Davis was once quoted as saying “…I’ll just walk into the ocean and die, if I lose my tone.” All musicians, whether they admit it so freely or not, are seeking that elusive tone that defines them. Granted, Kathryn Ladano has a slight advantage in that the bass clarinet has not been an instrument of choice for most musicians. But therein, also, lies the challenge, and she handily tames the beast. Her tone is clearly the product of long practice, natural creativity and, most importantly, soul.

Part soundtrack to, perhaps, a playfully dystopian horror film, part sound/texture experiment, but all done with intention and purpose, Open reveals mastery behind apparently random strings of notes. For those conditioned by mainstream jazz and pop to expect chordal resolutions, most tracks on this record will not satisfy. And fair enough. From the outset it’s musically made clear that Open is not here to hold your hand. But play it through, especially on quality headphones, until your understanding of the pieces (if you’ll pardon the play on the title) opens. Once it does, there are treasures around every corner, in the low growls, the trills and flutters, the engaging uncertainty of what might happen next.

Scattered throughout, other instruments including xylophone, guitar, piano and a double bass, competently attempt to add to the melee. But it’s Ladano’s clarinet that soars. We’re tugged to and fro at varying paces and volumes, always with the understanding that what you find here, through your willing investment of time and thought, is your own discovery. Real jolts come as well, as after the first five truly hypnotic improvisation tracks comes the startling drum crash intro of Art Show (Improvisation), probably the most mainstream jazz-like song of the tracks here. Later, there’s the wonderful silliness of Evil Kirk, complete with spoken word quotations of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk (provided with obvious glee by Ladano’s brother, Mike).

Open will surely not be for everyone, but for those willing to strap in and hold on, it will reveal itself to be the conceptually strong, musically thoughtful record that it is.

INTERVIEW: Kathryn Ladano part 2

Kathryn Ladano, known to Dave FM listeners as the sister of LeBrain (from Stump LeBrain Week), chimed in yesterday with some insightful words about music in general.  If you’re a fan of improvised music, you may have heard Kathryn jammin’ on the bass clarinet on two continents!

We sat down and asked her 10 questions about music. Check out the final five below.

kathrynladano.com

6. What do you think about the state of popular music today?  Is the quality declining or improving over the last 20 years?

I think much popular music today is crap, and by popular music, I mean the stuff we’re hearing on the radio today. There are plenty of really great bands and artists out there, but we’re just not hearing them because they’re rarely played on commercial radio. I think it’s safe to say that the quality of popular music over the last 20 years has really declined. I think there was a time when certain artists were more concerned with evolving their sound and exploring new territory, and today it seems to be predominantly about just creating commercial hits. I think a lot of bands are also guilty of milking their success by trying to keep replicating the same album over and over without putting much care into diversifying or experimenting. However, that being said, i’m not sure we can place all the blame on commercial artists. Record companies obviously want to make money, and i’m sure a lot of artists are discouraged from trying anything different. Ultimately though, how many bands today have a series of albums in which you can hear a very clear, deliberate change and evolution in sound and style? Not very many, and definitely not Nickelback!

7. What do you think the role of computers should be in music today?  Some people feel they rob the music of a live feel, due to the ease of making corrections and adding tracks.

I actually think computers can play a very interesting role in music today. There are some interesting programs out there such as Max/MSP which allow a performer to combine their acoustic sound with the electronic and be able to manipulate it on the spot. I think this can create a lot of interesting sonic possibilities and can really enhance a performance. I’ve played around a little with electroacoustic composition, such as my piece “Open Strain”, and I think for me, the joining of live, acoustic sound, and processed, or pre-recorded electronic sounds is what I enjoy the most, both as a performer and as a listener. That being said, I have been to concerts in which all you’re watching is someone sitting at a laptop, and visually, it’s just not very interesting. When I go to a live performance, I want to see the artists displaying some kind of expression, and sitting at a laptop just doesn’t do it for me.

8. What popular bands today are carrying the flag for intregrity in music?

Radiohead is for sure doing this. Their sound has evolved so much from their first album to their last, and you can tell that they are actively exploring new territory and are not simply concerned with producing commercial hits. I think it’s great that they have maintained such an impressive level of success and popularity too – obviously there is still a large market out there for more progressive music that perhaps record companies are neglecting to acknowledge. People will always disagree about what you should be more concerned about – creating music for yourself, or creating music for the public. For me personally, I think I create for myself first, and the bands I admire the most are the ones that appear to also take that approach.


9. Is it possible to make a living simply out of creating music anymore?  Or has that day come and gone?  How does one do this as a viable living?

It is, but it certainly isn’t easy. Times have definitely changed though and artists are relying more and more on social media to promote themselves. You don’t need a record label anymore to release a CD, and many artists are doing their own recordings and promotion. There are a lot of great sites out now too that help promote independent artists such as reverbnation and soundcloud which allow artists to build their fan bases gradually without big money behind them. Also, I know of several artists who are funding their albums with fan donations. I think the big problem though is time. It takes time to promote yourself and tour, and get your name out there – and it’s difficult to have both an income and the necessary time to work on your craft. People do it though. Ultimately if you’re determined enough and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, I think it can be done.
10:  Some bands like Radiohead have taken the unusual step of giving away albums (In Rainbows) for free digitally.  What do you think this does to the value of music?  And do you prefer have an album digitally or physically?

I think Radiohead wanted to try something different in response to the changing music industry. When that album was released, I went out and purchased a physical copy without a second thought. I personally still much prefer to have a physical album in my hands. I continue to go out and buy them and build my collection. Yes, I use itunes and own digital music, but the vast majority of my digital music collection is duplicated in physical form. I have very conflicting ideas about all of it. On the one hand, I think Radiohead offered their album for free as a way of countering piracy and trying to control the value of their music. But on the other hand, it takes so much time, energy, money, and resources to create one track which is only valued at 99 cents on itunes. As a buyer, i’m happy to pay that small amount to get a song that I want, but as an artist, I only receive 75 cents or less when someone buys one of my tracks. It’s worth it if people buy your tracks constantly, but in my genre, that just isn’t reality. I make more selling copies of physical CDs, but that isn’t what most people want anymore. *

INTERVIEW: Kathryn Ladano part 1

Kathryn Ladano is a name you might not have heard before, unless you caught Stump LeBrain Week on Dave FM, or you’re a fan of free improvisation.  She’s the sister of LeBrain, is a world-class bass clarinest player, but originally came from a rock background.  We sat down and asked her 10 questions about music.  Check out the first five below.

kathrynladano.com

1. What were your earliest musical influences?  I know you listened to a lot of John Williams, pop music, and hair metal like Bon Jovi.  How do you go from that to a 10 minute improvisation on bass clarinet?

My earliest musical influences really don’t have a lot of impact on me today in terms of my professional career.  I mean, I was into the 80’s hair bands and pop music for the most part growing up. However, it’s true that movie music really spoke to me and I was intrigued by the connection between music and visual images.  This is true of 80’s music videos too actually, and I would often (and still do) picture images in my mind when I hear a song.  For movie music, I was fascinated by the fact that a certain musical treatment could greatly enhance the emotional impact of a movie scene.  I didn’t really understand why, but the idea of it really made an impression on me. As a teenager, I realized that it was the “weirder” soundtracks in particular that affected me the most. For example, the opening music of Planet of the Apes did such a great job of making you feel like you were on another planet, and it’s still one of my favourite examples of movie music. However, I think the soundtrack that affected me the most and opened my ears the most was 2001: A Space Odyssey. In particular, the compositions by György Ligeti  — Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, Requiem, etc… I think that early exposure to highly dissonant music and seeing how brilliantly it could enhance a scene in film really opened my eyes and my ears to the experimental, and Ligeti is still one of my favourite composers today.

2. As a listener, what type of LeBrain reader would be likely to appreciate your music?  Is there a track on [your album] Open that is more accessible than others?

That’s a difficult question to answer. If I speak very generally, I would say probably readers that enjoy progressive rock and more avant-garde music would enjoy the album. I tried to throw in everything I could because I wasn’t sure when i’d have a chance to make another one, so the album features a fairly wide variety of sounds and styles. The most accessible tracks are “Something I Can’t Know” (a jazzy sounding trio for bass clarinet, piano, and drums), and “Art Show” (a more upbeat sounding trio for bass clarinet, guitar, and drums). However, the track that has gotten the most airplay is “Further Reflection” (a duo for bass clarinet and percussion that features a very atmospheric opening and minimalistic ending).

 
3. What do you think about “jam bands” such as the Grateful Dead or Deep Purple who often would go up on stage and improvise for 20 minutes with no script?

I think the concept is fantastic! Essentially, this is what we do as free improvisors. You pretty much throw musical genre out the window and just focus on sound, using your ears as your guide. I also really admire bands that can come up with a meaningful and interesting improvised piece that lasts as long as 20 minutes as it can be very difficult to do. When there is no script and no plan, the form and the personality of the piece can be difficult to find, and the more players you have, the more directions there are to take the music. Granted, bands like this don’t always succeed at creating a successful 20 minute improvisation, and it can be a lot for an audience to absorb, but the basic idea of making it up on the spot and just using your ears and your instinct to guide you is something I would welcome more of in popular music. 

 
4:  Bands that do 20 minute jams were extremely popular in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but today they are not mainstream anymore.  Why do you think that is? 

It seemed that there was a lot of musical experimentation and exploration happening in the 60’s and 70’s and for some reason, much of that stopped in the 80’s. I think audiences changed and they wanted different things in their music. Today, I really wonder how audiences would respond if more artists started incorporating long jams and improvisations into their music. It seems that it’s not something that people want anymore, and it’s too bad.  Popular music has changed and I think audiences no longer expect the unexpected – most people just want to hear their standard three chord songs – unfortunately that seems to be all the modern ear is capable of absorbing. Music and popular culture moves in waves though, so I’m hopeful that at some point more experimental live performances will come into fashion again.

5. What should the role of visuals be in live music?

I am personally very intrigued by this concept and that of interdisciplinary art in general (mixing more than one art form together). I think visuals can greatly enhance music as I said before regarding film music, and it’s an area that I have been exploring a lot lately. For example, last year I directed Wilfrid Laurier University’s Improvisation Concerts Ensemble in a performance of a live, improvised soundtrack to the classic silent film Nosferatu. The ensemble created musical pieces within the context of the film that was unlike anything they had done before without visual imagery. I think adding visuals opens doors to new ideas and greater creativity and allows a musician to react and respond to something other than just what they’re hearing.