The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles
The Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas
[Other Minds, two discs]
4 stars (out of 4)
There is a whole room in "Wish You Were Here," the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's superb tribute to the bursting and virulent avant-garde energies of Buffalo culture in the 1970s, devoted to some of that era's singular musical milestones.
One of them is "Men," the first movement of Carl Ruggles' "Men and Mountains" recorded as part of Michael Tilson Thomas' epochal first complete recording of Ruggles' works. You cannot imagine how magically apt it is that the art museum famous for its leviathan collection of massive canvases by the fiercely individualistic Clyfford Still would now -- even in headphones in such a small way -- be celebrating the music of the composer who may be Still's closest equivalent in our music: Ruggles, whose violent, craggy, rhapsodic dissonance and immense musical gestures find almost a direct, if unintentional, corollary in the gigantic canvases of Still.
Still was far more prolific in his artistic life than Ruggles, who labored long and intensely on each piece. Nor do their eras coincide. (Ruggles was 28 years older, a contemporary of Ives and Varese. He'd virtually stopped composing during Still's most fertile years.) But if you listen to Ruggles and then stroll the distance to the gallery's current exhibit of Still paintings, you will be encountering an eerie and incredible artistic brotherhood.
This truly miraculous set of American music recordings has, somewhat incredibly, never before been released on disc. It was recorded by Thomas with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for Columbia Records and released in 1980. Ruggles was a major project of Thomas at the time, who had just recorded Ruggles' major masterpiece "Sun-Treader" -- his musical "Moby Dick" if you will -- with the Boston Symphony. He was influenced by his old California mentor Peter Yates who had come to Buffalo to be the chairman of the Buffalo State College music department.
What's somewhat mind-blowing is that Thomas was the grandson of a grandee in the Yiddish theater and Ruggles -- along with Varese -- had been publicly anti-Semitic in a previous era in which Aaron Copland seemed to define American symphonic music and Leonard Bernstein was the most prominent conductor of it. That fact, among some others, undoubtedly slowed down anything that even resembled Ruggles' post-Thomas absorption into America's symphonic mainstream but of late recordings have multiplied.
What Thomas did three decades ago remains unique. And in Thomas' current "American Mavericks" series in New York City, Ruggles' "Sun Treader" is still a key performance.
A good argument could be made that the initial multirecord vinyl set was the most important recording project ever undertaken to that point by the BPO and is, under current circumstances, likely to remain all of that for the foreseeable future.
The music combines dissonant melody and dissonant texture (as John Kirkpatrick says) in performances that preserve some lacunae in favor of their overall integrity. There are other more passionate conductors of Ruggles but none, in all, better than Thomas. In addition to the original notes by Thomas and Kirkpatrick here, there is Lou Harrison's monograph on Ruggles included on the disc along with photos of Ruggles.
A great American musical moment finally available on disc.
-- Jeff Simon
Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad
In These Times
[Controlled Substance Sound Labs]
One of the many things GPGDS appears to have learned over this past several years of touring is that it needs to capture the laid-back but still vibrant energy of its live shows when it ventures into the studio. Happily, this new album might as well be an in-concert document, so visceral is the live feel that permeates it.
"In These Times" erupts from the speakers, simultaneously rattling the sub-woofer with the Dub-centric bass lines necessary for any self-respecting psychedelic reggae outfit, much like the band shakes the floorboards and vibrates the rafters when it takes to the concert stage. (It returns to its favored Buffalo haunt, Nietzsche's, on April 27.)
Bassist James Searl and guitarists Dylan Savage and Dan Keller share the writing here, with Searl's songs -- "Next Best Explosion," "World War" and "Foundation" offering the finest examples -- providing a stirring blend of Bob Marley-like sociopolitical commentary and Gregory Isaacs-inspired Dub bass lines that amply counter the more psychedelic leanings of both Savage and Keller.
It all adds up to an intelligent album that still manages to sound like the soundtrack to a particularly jammin' party. But GPGDS has something to say, too -- these are grooves with a purpose, and reflective lyrics abound, coalescing to form a pastiche of commentary, a snapshot of modern woes. In the GPGDS world view, a good groove is an able antidote to the blues. "Music is healing/so let's rock and let's groove to this feeling," runs the refrain to "Healing."
Amen to that.
-- Jeff Miers
Seeds from the Underground
One of the great jazz records of this already prodigious year. There has never been a time that new Kenny Garrett discs haven't been among the most impressive around and that applies in capital letters to his new disc full of tributes to other musicians. Garrett's tart alto saxophone sound is unique, but then so is the way he applies it to post-Coltrane keening.
Key to the disc, though, are the contributions of Tyneresque pianist Benito Gonzalez and drummer Ronald Bruner. Among those Garrett is paying tribute to are those he says "planted seeds in my life -- directly and indirectly": his musical mentor trumpet player Marcus Belgrave remembered on "Detroit," Duke Ellington on "Du-Wo-Mo," drummer Roy Haynes on "Haynes Here" and Keith Jarrett on "Ballad Jarrett."
There is nothing the slightest bit unusual about its Coltranesque musical language, but the quality of musicianship here is formidable, with power and intelligence intermixed in a way that Garrett has always done but with even more mature authority than before.
No one doubted before that he was one of the great living jazz alto saxophone players, but even with contributing singers and some funk rhythms, he puts records together where nothing gets in the way of first-rate jazz improvisation.
Boys & Girls
If you've been wondering just what happened to the soul in good ol' rock 'n' roll, Alabama Shakes feels your pain. Led by the human volcano Brittany Howard, the Alabama-born band brings serious old school rhythm and blues and soul to its Stonesy garage rock. This full-length debut revels in a rather unhinged, teetering-on-the-brink approach to seasoned tropes.
The sturdy garage racket summoned by guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cickrell and drummer Steve Johnson is akin to the din generated by the Stones during that band's "Exile" period in the South of France, but what makes the Shakes truly tremble is Howard's voice, which is like a bar-scarred Dusty Springfield during "Hang Loose," and a Caucasian Aretha Franklin during "Rise To the Sun." Howard's is an incredible instrument, one that makes up in sheer charisma and visceral force what it occasionally lacks in subtlety and control.
"Boys & Girls" doesn't rewrite the rule book, but it does rejuvenate a medium that has, of late, drifted too far from the shore -- that shore being the foundation of soul music and R&B. A promising debut, to say the least.