REVIEW: Herbie Hancock – Quartet (1982)

Not really a part of the Aaron Challenge, but he did turn me onto this album.

HERBIE HANCOCK – Quartet (1982 Columbia Records)

I find it really hard to:

1) review albums outside my comfort zone, and

2) verbalize thoughts about instrumental music.

I will say this.  One glance at the back cover photos tells me all I need to know about Quartet.  The back cover of this CD screamed to me, “Open me now, because I will thoroughly blow your mind.”  Which is exactly what happened.  The Quartet are Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), and Tony Williams (drums).


I fell in love with “Well You Needn’t” at exactly the 5:12 mark.  It’s an incredible performance to start with, bass and drums dueling with trumpet and piano, but in harmony.  At 5:12 though, it’s just momentarily otherworldly.  It’s synchronicity, and Carl Jung would have pooped his pantaloons if he’d lived long enough to hear it.

“‘Round Midnight” is a Thelonious Monk standard, as is “Well You Needn’t”.  It’s a nice laid back smoky barroom jazz, piano occasionally stealing the spotlight from the muted trumpet.  This song has me seeing black & white, like an old movie.  It picks up halfway through, with trumpet un-muted, and drums throwing cool beats out left right and center.

Ron Carter plays some wicked bass on “Clear Ways”.  “A Quick Sketch” is anything but quick, clocking in over 16 minutes long.  It sets a scene, again like a movie.  There’s some intrigue going on.  It’s lyrical, the instruments are telling a story.  “The Eye of the Hurricane” is frantic.  Its swift pace seems to inspire flurries of instrumental genius.

“Parade”, then, is the opposite; it’s quiet and deliberate.  Herbie’s piano is sublime.  It picks up a bit after a couple minutes, and it does contain some pretty manic solos.  This leads into “The Sorcerer”, a 7 minute workout with some blistering Wynton Marsalis trumpet work.

“Pee Wee” is another smokey barroom number, piano fluttering while the trumpet takes center stage.  Then it’s the piano’s turn, and it’s another lyrical moment. The final song is the ballad “I Fall In Love Too Easily”.  It’s now closing time at that smokey bar.  A few patrons remain but tables are being wiped down and chairs put away.  Last call.

At almost 70 minutes, Quartet was a double album.  Now on CD it’s a single disc, and if you can find the time to play the whole thing in one sitting I would strongly recommend that experience.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castle (1998)

Part 3 of the Aaron Challenge:  He has challenged me to get out of my comfort zone.  Together, we will be reviewing some of the albums he bought in Toronto during Record Store Excursion 2012.  I’ve never heard any of these albums before, in fact I know almost nothing about most of these bands.  But I do know I sold a lot (a lot!) of Ani DiFranco during my time at the record store.

Aaron paid $2.99 for this, at Sonic Boom Music.

Check out his review here!


ANI DIFRANCO – Little Plastic Castle (1998 Righteous Babe)

I remember working at the store back in ’98, and the general reception from Ani DiFranco fans to this album was positive, but mildly critical.  There was a vibe that she had sold out for bigger success.  That was just what I was hearing.

Having not heard the previous albums, all I can say is good music is good music.  Yes, the production is lush and not what you’d think of “indy”.  Listen to those mariachi horns on the title track.  Not exactly low-fi.  But it sounds great!  What an upbeat, entertaining track.  Awesome.  Not to mention her guitar work is excellent.  The lyrics seem to be about public perception of what she should and should not be.

“Fuel” is one I’d heard before from Aaron.  I liked that one too.  I like when she’s goofy. This is beat poetry with a backing band.  Normally I go for a lead vocal with melody, but this works due to Ani’s well-composed expression.  From there it’s on to “Gravel”, a fast melodic one with more dexterous picking from Ani.  Another great tune, with melody to spare.    It’s a sparse arrangement, just guitar and voice with some percussion, and that’s it.

Drums introduce “As Is”, a soft pleasant song with barely audible keyboards in the background.  It’s laid back and slightly mournful but also playful, and pretty much perfect as is (pun intended).  “Two Little Girls” is dark, a tale of a difficult childhood.  Ani’s excellent picking, and a bouncy backing bassline, makes it entertaining, but lyrically it seems loaded with pain.

“Deep Dish” is the first song I didn’t enjoy.  It features samples and long spoken word bit, and is very rhythmic.  It did nothing for me, though.  Sorry Ani.  Nothing personal!  “Loom” however is a brief (under 3 minutes) explosion of drums and acoustic picking, more along the lines of what I like.  “Pixie” follows, one I didn’t click with.  Ani sings in a soft whisper, expressive as ever, I just didn’t like the song.  It didn’t have enough melody or punch for me.

A long song, “Swandive”, is a bit of a change of pace since most of the previous tunes were in the 4 minute range.  This one builds slowly.  “I’m gonna do my best swan dive, into shark infested waters,” sings Ani, while picking more of those great guitar parts.  “Glass House” totally changes the pace, with a bouncy wah-wah infested bass melody intro.  This is great.  I didn’t see that coming, nor the weird caterwauling trumpet that followed it!  Ani then whispers the lyrics, underlined by a pulsing bass, with the odd electronic effect.  Then just as you’re getting used to it, the drums kick in, accelerating the tune forward, and the vocals get angry.  Ani is nothing if not diverse, I’m learning, even within one song.

“Independence Day” is a beautiful song, melodic and passionate, slow and pretty.  A hit song in any just world.  The final song, “Pulse”, is another slow builder, with a beat poetry vibe to the verses.  It’s not brief either!  14 minutes!  It sounds a bit like a jam, but I wonder, since the whole album has more of a vibe of being carefully assembled rather than jammed out.

Little Plastic Castle is an excellent sounding album.  The guitars are lush, full and clear.  The snare drum sound is perfect. Production-wise, it’s a total triumph (and self-produced by Ani).  I think the album tends to sag a bit in the middle, after such a fine start, but it’s still a great album.

4/5 stars


REVIEW: Miles Davis – A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)


MILES DAVIS – A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971)

Bear with me, because as much as I love this record and jazz in general, I know very little (technically) about the music. I just know what sounds good to my ears. As far as jazz albums go, this one will be very palatable to rock fans because of the predominance of the electric guitar, especially on the first side, “Right Off”. John McLaughlin plays plenty of cool riffs and funky licks before Miles kicks in with his one-of-a-kind trumpet. Honestly, by the time you get to the end of the track, you will hardly believe that 27 minutes have gone by. It’s that good.  And it grooves, solidly.  Being in a room with this guys must have been a mindblowing experience.  It truly is an awe-inspiring groove that they lay down.

Side two, “Yesternow”, is a slow paced atmospheric piece, over 25 minutes long.  But by the end, it transforms into another one of those surreal grooves.  On this one, McLaughlin plays jagged, mournful and distorted bits over a slow groove. It’s not as immediate as “Right Off”, but some of the playing here (by everybody) is incredible. I love McLaughlin’s wah-wah.

That’s Herbie Hancock on organ, and Billy Cobham on drums.  Incredible.  They are accompanied by Michael Henderson (bass) and Steve Grossman (soprano sax).

As a movie geek, it was a special treat for me to have the late great actor Brock Peters do a cameo at the end, playing legendary boxer Jack Johnson:

“I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world!  I’m black!  They never let me forget it.  I’m black alright, I’ll never let them forget it!”

The album was the soundtrack to a Jack Johnson documentary film directed by William Cayton.  I can’t really go into a deeper analysis of the music (sorry) but there’s a decent Wikipedia article that can do it better than me.

This is a great, accessible album and I strongly recommend this 2005 remastered Sony edition.

5/5 stars