Saturday, August 6, 2016

STE*: E.S.T.

I seem to have hundreds of Steves and Stephens on my i-pod, so who said anything about not jumbling it up a bit, which is an apt metaphor, because that is exactly what E.S.T., or the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, did. Nominally a post-modern piano jazz trio, signed to the notoriously serious ECM label, one could be forgiven for suspecting their music to be far too sombre and far too difficult for you, and, at times, you would be right. But at others it can be amongst the most life-affirming use of this most traditional of formats, especially when a scintilla of electronica is added to the blend.

I would be first to admit that I don't know a whole lot about either the band or Esbjorn himself, much above he is no longer with us, having been drowned in a scuba diving accident 8 years ago. So rather than making this a retread of his life and works: you can get that here, I thought I'd just tweak your ears with a snippet or two of his work.
So is it jazz or is it not? Clearly, I guess, yes, but the question merely epitomises the problem with pigeonholing. By applying the label as many potential listeners will be repelled as will be attracted, perhaps many more, jazz often still having a stuffy reputation. So if you recontextualise it as within the classical/electronica interface it still fits. Indeed, with the expansion of this well nigh impossible to truly describe music genre, your Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahms and their ilk, I am struck how prescient of their current output were this trio a decade or more ago. (Here is an excellent article from the Royal Opera House, of all places, which ties to explain this paradigm.) Anyway I'm listening to them as I write and the drumming alone smacks way more of the dance floor than it is supposed to or that you expect. Uncertain if I'm selling this, so have some more music.

Did I say classical? But this is heavy metal, or could be, already defeating my risible attempts to classify. Which is my point. But never is the eclecticism a distraction, nor the purpose. This is no tailcoat riding exercise in hipster posing, as the more orthodox piece below shows.

The 3 songs showcased are, in order, 'Dolores in a Shoestand', 'Leucocyte' and 'Elevation of Love', perhaps demonstrating that his titles are arguably the only impenetrable within his oevre. I hope this briefest of introductions may entice some further exploring. (Hell, if you come to this site, your ears are probably already open, but, if not?) You could do a lot worse than a lazy start with 'Retrospective: the Very Best of E.S.T.'

Buy it here!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

STE*: Steve Tibbetts

Steve Tibbetts: Ur

If you love music enough to read blogs like this, I can almost guarantee that there are a number of times that you first heard a song or an album and had your mind immediately blown. A feeling that you have heard something that was so wonderful, so unlike anything else that you were familiar with, that it stays with you forever. I’ve written about other times this has happened to me, but today I want to write about Steve Tibbetts, whose second album, Yr was a revelation.

Tibbetts is not exactly a household name—he exists somewhere in the never particularly commercial intersection of jazz fusion, world music and ambient music. He is a virtuoso guitarist who painstakingly crafts his albums by overdubbing layers upon layers of instruments, sort of like Mike Oldfield used to do. I remember seeing the album at WPRB—I’m pretty sure someone directed me to it, and from the first listen, I was totally hooked. Our featured song, “Ur,” is the first one on the album, and thus the first one I heard, but they are all great. Beautiful guitar based instrumentals with Indian percussion that moved between soft and lyrical and fast and furious. Each side of the record flowed together as a piece, although there were separate tracks. I really lack the vocabulary to describe the music, so I’m going to steal a quote from a review of Yr from DownBeat Magazine:

Tibbetts overdubs acoustic and electric instruments in a Hendrixian mindscape of production wizardry, often combining up to 20 guitars on one track. He layers the sound into breathtaking guitar choirs and intricate superstructures. His solos are twisting, singing journeys that evolve with the sense of spiritual awakening you’d hear in a Coltrane soprano run. After building to an exuberant climax that nears the breaking point, he supplants it with a plaintive acoustic guitar passage that initiates the next trip. 

If that doesn’t make you want to listen to his music, then you cannot be my friend.

Tibbetts was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but is based in St. Paul, Minnesota. His first two albums were created and self-released. Yr was the second, but the first one I had heard. We had a copy at WPRB that had Tibbetts’ original pen and ink drawing (see above) as the cover—and I vaguely recall that it might have been personalized for the station (although in retrospect, maybe not by Tibbetts).

Later, Yr was re-released, with a different cover, by ECM records, a legendary jazz label known for a particular sound, and for recording its albums quickly. Tibbetts’ first album for the label was done in this manner, and was not a critical success. His later works, done more in his painstaking, time consuming way, were more successful.

I have to admit that I basically lost track of Tibbetts after I left college. I don’t remember hearing that first ECM release, and it wasn’t like there was a place to hear his style of music on the radio, even in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. His output slowed significantly after the 80s, and even more so in the 2000s, with his last album, Natural Causes released in 2010. He has also released two albums with Chöying Drolma, a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

A few years ago, an Australian music site, Guvera, briefly was allowing free, legal, downloads of certain music using a system that allowed the amassing of a huge number of credits for essentially clicking on advertisements. I downloaded hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs during this brief period, which ultimately ended when Guvera decided that it would become a streaming service (probably, because giving away thousands of downloads wasn't a viable business model). It did allow me to download a bunch of Tibbetts’ later music, which all sounds pretty good, although I admittedly haven’t given it a huge amount of attention. And it never again blew my head up the same way it did when I first heard Yr.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Family Bands/ STE*: The Pointer Sisters

The Pointer Sisters: Little Pony


If you only know the Pointer Sisters from their run of hits in the 80s, Little Pony will come as a surprise. This is straight ahead jazz singing, and as good as it gets. It comes from their 1974 album That’s a Plenty, which is mostly a jazz album, but it also features their country hit Fairytale. Fairytale is also the real deal; the song, a Pointers original, was good enough to win a country Grammy and land them an appearance on the Grand Old Opry. They were the first black artists to appear there. By this point in their career, the sisters had also recorded funk and blues.

Can you imagine such a career on a major label today? It couldn’t happen. As much as anything else, the Pointers’ story is about how much the music industry has changed since then. The sisters had varied musical interests and the talent to do it all, but they must have been a marketer’s nightmare. Nowadays, they would be independent artists, possibly self produced. Certainly no major label would want to touch them until they “decided” what they were. But look at them in the video, and you see four women who are happiest not having to decide. They are having a blast, doing what they love.

By the 80s, the Pointers were under increasing pressure to go mainstream, and they did. Their talent was realized in a string of major hits, such as I’m So Excited and Slowhand. But there was a personal price. The group had four sisters at the beginning of the 80s, then three, then two. Much later, one of the sisters wanted to rejoin the group, but was not welcomed back. By the 90s, pop music had moved on, and there were no more hits. They returned to jazz to perform songs from the show Ain’t Misbhavin’ in 1995 and 1996, but June’s health was failing by then. She died in 2006, and since then the surviving three sisters have rarely performed together.

Even in the 80s, the Pointers showed some stylistic range, doing numbers with contemporary R&B, girl group, and rock flavors. But I can’t help wondering what might have happened if their diverse musical interests had continued to be encouraged in that period. Quincy Jones made it big producing Thriller for Michael Jackson, but he came from a jazz background. What might he have done with the Pointers? And what might have happened if they had worked with Prince or George Clinton? We will never know, but I can’t help thinking that the sisters might have been happier, even if they didn’t sell as many records.