Here’s a statistic for you–the word jazz is employed to describe six of this month’s 13 specially recommended albums. To a certain extent this is fallout from my Miles column. But it’s also the diligent listener’s response to the new instrumental order crystallized by techno.
ARCANA: Arc of the Testimony (Axiom/Island) Expecting some avant-ambient acid jazz venture, you put it on and wonder why the other guys can’t be this smart. Then you check the personnel and decide it’s because these aren’t actually avant-ambient acid jazz guys–just Bill Laswell indulging his fondness for post-Coltrane saxophone and post-Hendrix guitar. Since Laswell has long explored these tastes with depressingly competent results, however, you transfer credit to the late Tony Williams. But unfortunately, Williams hadn’t been making such focused records either. So, with Buckethead and Nicky Skopelitis ruled out as decisive variables, the secret comes down to this: Pharoah Sanders doing his thing, Graham Haynes being told what his is. A MINUS
MARY J. BLIGE: Share My World (MCA) Her song sense rooted in slow jams not soul, her soul rooted in radio not the church, Blige is a diva for her own time. As befits her hip hop ethos, she’s never soft if often vulnerable, and as befits her hip hop aesthetic, she plays her natural vocal cadences for melodic signature and sometimes hook. Too strong to talk dirty, she leaves not the slightest doubt of her sexual prowess. She redefines the New York accent for the ’90s. And she’s taken two straight follow-ups to the next level. A MINUS
CORNERSHOP: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) What’s so disarming, and confusing, about Tjinder Singh is that he doesn’t have a lot to say. Here he is realizing a historical inevitability a decade or three in the making–namely, an international pop so seamless that its fusion of alt-rock, Punjabi melody, hip hop, and what-all is subsumed into its own song-based catchiness right up to the time Singh reclaims ”Norwegian Wood” for the land of the sitar. And indeed, his lyrics vaguely express the proper liberal attitudes toward the weighty social issues his achievement implies. But there’s no sense of mission, just a handsome dilettante enjoying his easy tunes and found beats; he’s not even trying to go pop, especially. Which is why he has at least the potential to become a naturalizing force, where OMC is just another airplay fluke. A MINUS
BOB DYLAN: Time Out of Mind (Columbia) A soundscape as surely as Maxinquaye or The Ballad of Tom Joad, only more tuneful and less depressive–that is, merely bereft, rather than devoid of will or affect. Lyrically, it splits the difference between generalized El Lay schlock and minor Child ballad; a typical couplet goes, ”You left me standing in the doorway crying/In the dark land of the sun.” So the words are good enough except on the Billy Joel–covered ”Make You Feel My Love,” yet rarely what you come back to–”Highlands” doesn’t approach the Sam Shepardized ’80s epic ”Brownsville Girl.” The hooks are Dylan’s spectral vocals–just his latest ventriloquist’s trick, a new take on ancient, yet so real, so inevitable–and a band whose quietude evokes the sleepy postjunk funk of Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard without the nearness of sex. Special kudos to Augie Meyers, the Al Kooper the world has been waiting for. A MINUS
FOREST FOR THE TREES (DreamWorks) The initial temptation is to gush over how trip-hoppy Carl Stephenson was ere world or underworld heard tell of Tricky or DJ Shadow. But in fact this 1993 recording shows its age, most tellingly by assuming that tunes are a good thing. Stephenson cut his studio chops producing rappers–first the Geto Boys, then the College Boyz, two apparently dissimilar acts whose hunger for hits transcended petty differences. So when he entered the rock world, he saw no reason to believe that texture and melody were mutually exclusive. And if it turns out that this was naive, well, naivete is one thing that makes this obsession disguised as an album so appealing. Finally, we who prefer Mellow Gold to Odelay have a good idea why. A MINUS
JANET JACKSON: The Velvet Rope (Virgin) Why do I believe that this self-made object’s mild kink and coyly matter-of-fact bisexuality are functions of flesh pure and simple? That for her sex really is about pleasure rather than power–or even, except as a side issue, love? Because her sex songs are flavorful where her love songs are all cliche, and because her much-berated fluting little-girl timbre whispers innocence even when she’s loosening her new friend’s pretty French gown. So in the absence of total personal fulfillment, here’s hoping she retains her magical ability to feign delight, to fool herself as well as everyone else. A MINUS
JAZZ SATELLITES–VOLUME 1: ELECTRIFICATION (Virgin import) Running the gauntlet of not just fusion but such ignominious genres as Third Stream, soundtrack, and acid jazz, kowtowing to pretenders, meddlers, mooncalves, and schlockmeisters like Jan Garbarek, Teo Macero, Alice Coltrane, Norman Connors, and a panoply of pseudonymous English cyborgs on the order of Divine Styler, this obscurely annotated double-CD is the great lost testament of late Miles–cacophonous, futuristic, swinging-to-spacey variations on everything he thought he was doing between Bitches Brew and Agharta. Connecting up the mind-to-the-wall charge of early Mahavishnu and Tony Williams Lifetime, it ought to demonstrate the obvious to technomancers the world over–raid jazz for avant sounds and leave its beats for hip hop to sort out. In fact, it proved so indigestible that in its native U.K. it vanished without notice. I hear Other Music imports them by the single unit. If you find one, don’t let go. A MINUS
LEON PARKER: Belief (Columbia) A jazz record, indisputably–an acoustic jazz record. But Parker’s commitment to minimal means, catchy tunes, up-front beats, and internationalist percussion suits the soundscape mindset–if anything, ambient wonks may find his structures too clear, his melodies too direct. Moreover, his second album accomplishes these modest but elusive goals so fully that seekers will be compelled to interface with the music as well as the ideas. Which is one idea that’s almost always a keeper. A MINUS
PHISH: Slip Stitch and Pass (Elektra) Kinda restores your faith in humanity for these guys to make like they know the difference between intelligent and pretentious. Page McConnell plays blues, Trey Anastasio plays Jerry, and David Byrne, ZZ Top, and the 19th-century team of Joe Howard and Ida Emerson beef up the fey songwriting. Plus you have to love their long overdue Doors interpolation: ”Mother…I want to cook you breakfast.” B PLUS
SPRING HEEL JACK: Busy Curious Thirsty (Island) What direct connection John Coxon and Ashley Wales retain to dance music is as obscure to me as their precise relationship to contemporary composition. But they mine both modes productively enough to cover over the pitfalls that are always tripping up nonbelievers. I love the way ”Galapagos 3”’s slowly accreted minimalist detail is blown away by a brief blast of ersatz symphony, the way ”The Wrong Guide” opens up a piece of small-group jazz for simulated drums and simulated…bassoon (?) to (simulated) pizzicato percussion, soundtrack orchestra, and anti-aircraft artillery–all of which continue the improvisation for a while. They’re visceral where composition is cerebral and ambient is unmoored. They never fall for rock-techno’s arena-scale gestures or art-techno’s fatal conflation of thinking and mooning about. If any competitors out there can make such claims, their identities are obscure indeed. A
THOMAS JEFFERSON SLAVE APARTMENTS: Straight to Video (Anyway) Ron House makes the sex life of an aging punk in an overgrown college town sound active, raunchy, and not without spiritual rewards–in addition to the professional shank shaker and the prostitute with her leg half chewed off, he fucks several women with truly enormous libraries. He also bids an unsentimental farewell to Lester Bangs and complains about the age of the spectacle. A MINUS
THOMPSON & THOMPSON: Industry (Rykodisc) The second Thompson is bassist Danny, the instrumental interludes of whose North of England jazz-march unit Whatever set off Richard’s six songs in the manner of Charlie Haden or Kurt Weill–with music that intensifies meaning as well as sustaining mood. The songs themselves, all of which attend closely to the title concept, were researched in dying coal mines and the Karl Marx library, among other places, and let’s hope they convince Richard that art is 90 per cent perspiration. It does him a world of good to get out of himself. A MINUS
TOWNSHIP JAZZ ‘N’ JIVE (Music Club) Before mbaqanga’s stomping bumpkin intensity swept the townships, small jazz-style ensembles played indigenous tunes with a South African beat you could jitterbug to. This is that music, the same urbane mode cherry-picked so infectiously on the Mandela soundtrack: the swinging jive of the ’50s, when social dancing was a passion in every slapped-together apartheid ghetto. Far suaver than mbaqanga or kwela yet no less African, far simpler than Count Basie or the Mills Brothers yet no less artful, it implied an indoor space even if it couldn’t always find one big enough for its spiritual ambitions. Its matchless buoyancy is mostly a matter of two learned rhythms coming together. But it evinces an unsinkability nobody would ever puncture. A
DUD OF THE MONTH:
EN VOGUE: EV3 (EastWest) Sylvia Rhone isn’t going to pull the plug on her copyright just because Dawn Robinson has decided she’s the reason for her own success. So with yeomanlike help from Babyface, the label has laboriously extracted a hit and some platinum from Rhone’s three remaining charges as they strain for soul and funk as stagily and dutifully as the fabricated bevy of talent-hunt beauties they’ve always been. Sole exception: the Robinson-led Set It Off smash ”Don’t Let Go (Love).” There’s a lesson in that, right? Only what will that lesson be when Robinson’s debut does the dog? B MINUS
Additional Consumer News
Clay Harper, East of Easter (Casino Music): ex-Coolie meets Wreckless Eric in totally improbable guitar-organ garage (”The Next Contestant,” ”Health Food and Homicide,” ”Airport Holiday Inn”); Jimmy King, Soldier for the Blues (Bullseye Blues): Cray’s best in half a decade (”Living in the Danger Zone,” ”Drawers”); Oranj Symphonette, Plays Mancini (Gramavision): reconstructing kitsch for the music of it (”Moon River,” ”A Shot in the Dark”); Spanish Fly, Fly by Night (Accurate): trumpet-tuba-guitar-(drums) improvise ballet score and other variations on ”My Bonnie” (”Movement 3: Sisters,” ”Movement 5: End of the Night”); Dave Soldier, The Kropotkins (Koch): postmodern preblues (”Good Cheap Transportation,” ”Cold Wet Steel”); Coolio, My Soul (Tommy Boy): voice of reason (”C U When U Get There,” ”Homeboy”); Khaled, Sahra (Island): panpop move (”Lillah,” ”Detni Essekra”); Marlee MacLeod, Vertigo (TRG): I don’t know how or why (although she was a rock critic once), but this practical independent’s cadences eerily evoke those of…Trotsky Icepick? (”Me and Shelley Winters,” ”Mata Hari Dress”); the Rolling Stones, Bridges to Babylon (Virgin): still know how to construct, play, and–sometimes–sing a song (”You Don’t Have To Mean It,” ”Flip the Switch”); Dr. John, Trippin’ Live (Surefire): for James Booker and Roy Byrd (”Tipitina,” ”Kin Folk”); Patti Smith, Peace and Noise (Arista): good thing she’s still a little nuts, because funny’s beyond or beneath her (”Whirl Away,” ”Memento Mori”); Aaron Tippin, Greatest Hits…and Then Some (RCA): as prole as Music Row gets (”Ain’t Nothing Wrong With the Radio,” ”Cold Gray Kentucky Morning”).
B-Rock & the Bizz, ”MyBabyDaddy” (And Then There Was Bass, Tony Mercedes/LaFace); David Johansen, ”Alabama Song”; William Burroughs, ”What Keeps Mankind Alive?”; PJ Harvey, ”Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” (September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, Sony Classics); OMC, ”How Bizarre,” ”On the Run” (How Bizarre, Huh!/Mercury); Junior Cottonmouth, ”Physical Stuff,” ”Something Scratching” (Bespoke, Atlantic).
Mariah Carey, Butterfly (Columbia); Graham Haynes, Tones for the 21st Century (Antilles); Orquestra Was, Forever’s a Long, Long Time (Verve Forecast); Phish, Billy Breathes (Elektra); Todd Rundgren, With a Twist…(Guardian); Vanessa Williams, Next (Mercury).
Accurate, P.O. Box 390115, Cambridge MA 02139; Anyway, P.O. Box 82444, Columbus OH 43202; Bullseye Blues, 29 Camp Street, Cambridge MA 02140; Casino Music, c/o Ichiban, Box 724677, Atlanta GA 30339; Gramavision, Rykodisc, 530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis MN 55401; Koch, Music Club, 2 Tri-Harbor Court, Port Washington NY 11050; Surefire, 72 Madison Avenue, 8th Floor, NYC 10016; TRG, 2217 Nicollet Avenue South, Minneapolis MN 55404.