Darrell Scott, Danny Thompson and Kenny Malone – Live in NC (recorded 2003, released 2004)

There’s something about Darrell Scott. This is quite a different proposition from the last album I reviewed that featured him. The formats are different – acoustic duo on that versus power trio on this – and generally this is more overt, predominantly electric, more contemporary and Scott fronts the proceedings by himself.

But there’s  strong similarity as well in the feel of it, in the way that the top notch players are tight but also spontaneous, in the energy of the interplay between them. As I said of that album, and as I’ll say again here, “this is why we have live albums”.

So two live albums featuring Scott, and both times we get to make that observation.

Scott has an interesting multi-faceted career. He’s a successful songwriter, with some of his songs having been big hits for other acts, mostly in a musical area that we might think of as intelligent AOR/country (EG “Long Time Gone” which was a big hit for the Dixie Chicks). He’s also a very strong player on several instruments (catch his show stealing performance in Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy on their in concert DVD) and in demand for session work. And he also records and performs under his own name.

On this live disc (I actually have a hard copy!!!!) he teams up with two other very gifted musicians – and rightly shares the billing with them.

Kenny Malone is a top Nashville session drummer. I think we tend to think of LA as the great centre for studios and studio players, but Nashville is just as important and just as full of great players. Malone is one of the best, and probably one of those players who we’ve all heard many times on other people’s records.

Bass player Danny Thompson is a player of great experience, versatility and considerable technique with an inimitable sound and thrust to his playing. He has a long and varied CV that includes long and notable spells with the band Pentangle, as a sideman to Richard Thompson, in the house band at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club, and most famously of all with John Martyn.  Though he’s a modest man who makes no claim to greatness and won’t allow such tags to be pinned upon him he is one of the giants of his instrument. He draws a distinction between “bass” and “bass guitar” and he plays bass.

Now forget all that (or the bits you didn’t already know)! If you didn’t know who these guys are before you start listening to this album you will soon want to. The excellence is apparent early on when Thompson and Malone work up a mighty, kinetic groove under Scott’s vocals and guitar on the opening “Miracle of Living”. And throughout the musicianship is of a high standard and is exciting.

The shows the album is assembled from were played in small venues in North Carolina. Scott produced and he’s kept the record sounding intimate. You can believe you’re sitting in a bar with a beer in your hand and this remarkable band not far away. The band has great dynamics (why not? They have great everything else) and the recording isn’t too compressed and so allows the music to “breathe”, the light and the shade are preserved.

Scott’s acoustic guitar playing is as skilled and as expressive as his electric playing. The third track “With A Memory Like Mine” (which was included on the live Scott/O’Brien album, but with a quite different arrangement) shows his fluid acoustic playing with the strings ringing most pleasingly. There’s a jazzy feel at times in Scott’s playing. Although he and Malone make their living in Nashville their range extends far beyond the musical genres that city is famous for.

The next track “River Take Me” is a first person narrative from a guy who’s having a bad time of it. Laid off and now the storms are in and the levee’s about to break. Scott’s back on electric and the band uses dynamic range to great effect as the song’s story unfolds. The playing from all three is constantly inventive. Malone gets a drum solo full of clever rhythmic tricks and which leads into a spoken passage from Scott. These sort of changes can be clumsy in some hands, but this band has (as they say in Nashville) finesse up the Wazoo. The track weighs in at 10:12, but you won’t get bored. Scott’s solos are strong without always being loud.

Scott switches back to acoustic for “Helen of Troy, Pennsylvania” which is another demonstration of how power and volume are not the same thing. And after several other fine performances they conclude with a brooding rendition of the old spiritual “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”.

In the late 60s the idea of the power trio arose in rock music. From Wikipedia: “A power trio is a rock and roll band format having a lineup of guitar, bass and drums, leaving out the rhythm guitar or keyboard that are used in other rock music to fill out the sound with chords. While one or more band members sing, power trios emphasize instrumental performance and overall impact over vocals and lyrics… a three-person band [could] have the same sonic impact as a large band but left far more room for improvisation and creativity, unencumbered by the need for detailed arrangements.”

And that’s what we have here: A power trio. A lot of the interest here results from having “more room for improvisation and creativity, unencumbered by the need for detailed arrangements.” The format leaves each player space to move, and they’re good enough (“enough”?) to take advantage of the space and have the taste to know when to leave the space be. They’re one of the best power trios you could hope to hear, delivering a performance full of inventive playing and genuine excitement.

AFAIK this was a short lived project. Neither Scott nor Thompson seem to me to happy to be stuck in a single groove, and all of them are in demand studio players who would have had very full appointment books. Scott and Thompson played a once off duo show in London a few years ago, but we shouldn’t expect to see a reunion any time soon.

But let’s give thanks that they had enough curiosity and sense of adventure to put this project together despite the logistical difficulties (Thompson uses a borrowed bass) and that we have this album to listen to.

 

The Police – Outlandos D’Amour (1978)

As Punk was winding down in the UK, a clutch of new, smart pop acts appeared who used punk’s energy and attitude as a key plank of their own music and performances. Amongst these and one of the first to put out a record and achieve substantial success were the Police. They were informed by punk but had careers before and outside of punk and thus had a lot of influences to throw into their musical cook pot. Sting had been playing in a jazz-rock fusion band, Stewart Copeland had played for prog rockers Curved Air, and Andy Summers, older than the other two, was already something of  a veteran with a CV that included spells with Eric Burdon, the Soft Machine and the distinctly non-punk Neil Sedaka.

These days when we see Sting swanning around with his band of heavyweight players, his lute and his air of intellectualism, and his seeming disconnection with the realities of the average person’s life it’s easy to overlook that he had to start somewhere, and initially the band, like so many before them, struggled.

This, their first album, was recorded on a very small budget (loaned to them by their manager, Copeland’s brother Miles) using otherwise unbooked studio time to save money. Despite it’s relative simplicity it took them the best part of six months as their deal with the studio meant they couldn’t get long runs of studio time. Indeed when their first single was released they hadn’t finished the album.

That single was “Roxanne”, and initially it sunk like a stone as radio stations declined to show much interest. But it was promising enough for Miles Copeland to be able to get the band a contract with A&M. That deal seems to have not included financing the first album, indeed they didn’t pay the studio on time because they had cash flow problems. The flip side of this is that the band owed that recording lock, stock and barrel which reduced A&M’s take from the royalties. Over the years that must have been a nice little earner for them.

The album catches the Police as a cusp. They are exploring reggae – and there’s an argument to be had that they were the first band to use reggae in an interesting way, to develop it and explore it rather than just produce a sweetened, slightly watered down version for the pop charts – but there’s still a lot of punkish rockers on the disc as well.

The album kicks off with the very non-reggae “Next To You”, written by Sting like nearly everything else here, before breaking into what we would now regard as typical Police territory with the reggae-informed “So Lonely”. That song has a reggae verse and a straight forward rock chorus – a nice nutshell of where the Police where at the time.

The third track is the famous one, “Roxanne”.  The Police were already under fire for being pretend punks, for aping the style but not having the substance, but few Punk acts (even the ones that could play but were keeping quiet about it) could have conceived and executed a track like “Roxanne” with it’s marriage of reggae and tango.

There was more. The first side (this was in the days when music came on black, plastic things a foot across that had to be turned over half way) continued with the jazzy chords and sophisticated structure of “Hole In My Life” and then concluded with the rapid fire “Peanuts” with a deliciously rowdy, breakneck solo from Summers.  The second side kicked off with another punk/reggae hybrid “Can’t Stand Losing You” which is followed by a terrific high energy rocker “Truth Hits Everybody”. What would have been the “other” side all those years ago concludes with “Masoko Tango” which hints at spacious more pieces that would appear on subsequent albums. The other tracks are enjoyable though not as notable as the others, but the performances remain sharp.

Their timing is immaculate throughout and their tightness gives them great attack on the up tempo numbers.

It had been a long time since I’d listened to this album, and what struck me this time was what struck me then, and after the same number of tracks.  There’s Sting’s great pop vocals, the novelty and freshness of the compositions, the great ideas in the guitar solos and Copeland’s drumming – he was flat out the finest drummer of what came to be called the New Wave and his inventiveness, skill and attack make him a compelling and exciting listen, even now when I have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.

OK… the novelty aspect is dimmed now because after all this time we sort of know what to expect from the Police, though the punk beginnings may have been lost in the mists of time. Truth was I was struck in all sorts of ways when I first heard this album. I’d been helping out at the wonderful Boogie Barn club in Hillbrow whilst trying to make a career (and, I thought, money) as a music journalist. The Boogie Barn was a beacon of a light in a Johannesburg that was loud and full of action but where nearly all the playing venues had cover bands playing disco hits. Musicians playing their own music didn’t have a lot of options, and the Barn, in the late 70s and under the management of Bob Anderson (who started operating there so that the band he managed would have a place to play) was a valuable outlet for those who wanted to play original and inventive music and for those who wanted to listen to it.

There was a weekly jam night at the Barn, run by the DJ/sound man Des Wooldridge who had a small studio in the basement of his house in Bez Valley. Different players would get up and jam, and if Des picked up something interesting he’d let that particular combination run longer and then invite them back to his home studio to record.

There were some reggae-influenced musicians with ideas but no band attending these jams, and I’d got an idea into my head about a reggae/new wave hybrid with, I kid you not, vocals in a high register. That hadn’t quite happened at the Boogie Barn, but you could connect the dots of what was going on there and cut to the chase. When I heard Outlandos d’Amour it was all over. Somebody else had not only had the same idea but had made it happen and got a record deal.

Drat!

But despite them having somehow pinched my idea I liked the record a lot. It was the same basic recipe that I’d imagined but very well executed and with lots of interesting detail even though the recordings are the bare bones trio with not a lot of overdubs.

The rest is history. “Roxanne” (which was not so much banned as ignored by the BBC) was picked up by radio stations in the USA in early 1979 and the Police toured there (driving themselves in a rented van) and returned home to find their single finally climbing the charts there. Before the year was out their second album was out. It was paid for by the profits from Outlandos and thus still beyond record company control and ownership, it further developed their exploration of reggae and it was a smash hit and a nice little earner.

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This (released 2012, recorded in 2005 and 2006)

Scott and O’Brien are not household names. If you want a demonstration of how there is no justice in this world then see the previous sentence.

Both of them operate in the world of Americana. O’Brien is from the folkier end of that genre. Scott is wider ranging, more contemporary. Both are high quality players on multiple instruments and accomplished singers. Both of them have had their songs recorded by other artists. Both have had interesting careers with albums under their own name as well as collaborative work with others.  Scott is an in-demand session player. Both are based in Nashville and their kids even go to the same school – yet they haven’t often worked together.

This album is compiled from shows they gave in 2005 and 2006 as fund raisers for the school their kids attend. They performed as an acoustic duo. The results are quite electric.

The playing and singing here is out of the top drawer. Most of the time Scott is on guitar and O’Brien on mandolin or octave mandolin (a longer scaled instrument tuned an octave below the standard mandolin)  but they each play other instruments – always with plenty of skill. The duo format gives them space to fill and also space to stretch out.

The real magic of this album lies in the mix of tightness and spontaneity. They drive each other on complement each other with inventive playing and harmonising which gives the performances an exciting and joyous spark. This is why we have live albums: to capture the extra energy that flows between and from the musicians in a live setting.

The material is a mix of their own and covers of (amongst others) Hank Williams, Gordon Lightfoot and Gary Davis. Particularly interesting is O’Brien’s “Mick Ryans’s Lament” with a stirring melody that could have come out of Ireland two hundred years ago and which examines the irony of anti-imperialist Irish republicans fighting in the army of an expansionist USA. Scott’s “With A Memory Like Mine” is both a show case for his banjo playing (fully as skilled and exciting as his guitar work) and a protest in the shape of a parent’s lament against a war which could be Vietnam or the Persian Gulf.

Repeatedly they crank the excitement levels up with great playing and wonderful musicality. The one false note is O’Brien’s son taking the stage for a spot of hamboning – but then these shows were school fund-raisers. But this is a trivial shortcoming – this is an album full of wonderful performances with an over arching mood of great pleasure being taken in the human business of making music.

Usually a lot better than this? I’d really like to hear that.

NG La Banda – Veneno (1998)

I have never played cricket. But I believe that you can learn a fair bit about cricket (or pretty much any sport) by watching in an inquisitive way. So early on in my cricket watching days (which started several years after I had got through school without playing a game of cricket) I figured out that Graeme Pollock was a cut above: It was easy to see the effort that each player had to make to send the ball crashing into the boundary fence, and easy to see that with Pollock the apparent effort was rather less. It looked like he was hardly swinging the bat, but the ball would hit the fence like something out of a cannon (you could also see that he preferred 4s to 6s and that he didn’t plan to score a lot of runs that involved actual running).

I know a bit more about playing music than I do about playing cricket, but I still believe that anybody listening with inquisitive intent can start to work out some things about music, and that what you figure out listening to one school of music can be used to understand and appreciate and evaluate others.

Looking at my CD collection you’d pin me down as being most interested in roots music and, in broad terms, “rock”. There’s also a few discs that a good record store in the UK or in South Africa would file under “world music” (and not so good stores wouldn’t stock) and compilations of works by Beethoven. Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan (one of each).

Recent adventures have included (and these would be filed under “world”) Beausoleil and King Sunny Ade. The only example of Cuban music that I have is the one that everybody has: The Buena Vista Social Club. (Now that I’ve created the opening, Y’all can spare me the messages about how you wouldn’t know a Buena Vista Social Club if it bit you on the backside).

Until the last week or so. I’d been reading quite a lot about Cuban music on Wilson & Alroy’s site and having bought some new discs (so to speak, the purchases being on iTunes) that would not make notable changes to the composition of my collection I decided to take a flutter on one of the Cuban bands about who W&A had lots of good things to say – NG La Banda.

And I ran into problems straight away – similar to those I had with King sunny: Their catalogue is large and confusing and much of it isn’t available in the West. There were lots of samplers and none of their top-rated albums. There were few I could get any sort of guidance on, and of those the most likely to impress seemed to be their 1998 release Veneno.

NG La Banda (the initials stand for “nueva generación”) are a dance band, but also innovators (of the hugely popular “timba” style). They are full of musicians with fine pedigrees, and band leader Jose Luis Cortes played with two of the top bands in Cuba, Los Van Van and Irakere. Apparently they are loathed by Cuban intellectuals because of their unabashed appeal to the popular and for their sexist lyrics (Wilson & Alroy note that you may be better off NOT understanding Spanish if you intend to explore the NG La Banda catalogue). However they seem to be both popular and influential.

OK… so what do my years of analytical listening allow me to say about NG La Banda?

They are recognisably Cuban and much more contemporary and “pop” than the veterans of BVSC. Superficially in the same zip code as Miami Sound Machine. But, a couple of listens reveals, they are more polished and there’s a lot more interesting detail in the music.

This music sounds great on headphones. There are multiple percussionists – all of them excellent – spread across the stereo spectrum and playing rapid fire interlocking parts. It gets the ear interested and maintains the interest.

Solos are few and far between, despite the obvious excellence of the players – notably the horn players and the pianist (there is, as far as I can tell, no guitarist). They work mostly as a very tight band with the pianist and the percussionists often playing to polyrythmic effect. There are multiple singers, and they are all excellent – great pitch and control, great timing, great dynamics. The chorus vocals are tight and play well against the lead.

Jikkel! You can’t fault this band when it comes to proficiency and precision. They work well together to produce often dense arrangments. You can be a Cuban-style intellectual and observe that it’s not particularly high brow (even if you don’t understand the lyrics) but that doesn’t rule out skill and sophistication and they certainly have both.

The solos, when they come, are taken by band leader “El Tosco” (“the naughty one”) Cortes. He plays flute. Rock fans may have a certain idea about how flute and flute solos sound – either like Ian Anderson or like boring MOR instrumentals. Cortes is neither – he has a smooth but rich tone, great technique and inventive musicality. He plays very cleanly and with great fluidity.

So I didn’t feel like I’d discovered anything profound, but the playing is fantastic and often infectious and they can really kick up a great groove. The arrangements are often dense, and brilliantly executed. They have range too. Sometimes within the same number. The title track starts off sounding like an AOR pop number with a nearly-but-not-quite-cheesy synth part under a like vocal, but it builds into a great mix of driving piano over shifting, complex rhythms.

The obvious appeal is to the hips an ass (and, if you’re middle aged and listening on the train, the feet) but listen a little more carefully and you find a top notch band executing rich, complex arrangements and changes of musical course with flawless precision.

You can P A R T Y and be sophisticated, though perhaps not highbrow, at the same time.