Music Monday: Healing, Live, and Big Thief

As we face another long, cold, hectic week, I thought it wise to start with a bit of music.  

I was saddened to hear the passing of vibraphonist Khan Jamal in last month. His playing with fellow Philadelphia jazz legend Byard Lancaster with Sons of Liberation on their album New Horizons (1972) showed that the emerging New York City “loft scene” of the early 1970s wasn’t confined to that city (for a short review of this album, go here; you can listen to the entire album here). The Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, which was also home to Sun Ra and his Arkestra, made its own contribution to the avant-garde of improvised music. His albums as band leader reward regular listening especially his two 1984 dates: Infinity with Byard Lancaster and Sunny Murray and Dark Warrior with Charles Tyler.  

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I listened around to a bunch of different music this weekend which attending to paperwork and continuing to convalesce (and avoid going out in the cold)!. There were three albums that stood out to me and will get some additional spins over the next seven days.

I’m a sucker for Kahil El Zabar and it was fantastic to hear his new album which features an intergenerational quartet with Corey Wilkes on trumpet (whom I very much like), Isaiah Collier on sax and Justin Dillard on keyboards. The album is called A Time for Healing and it definitely contributed to my slow recovery from a mild bout with The Omicron. It is mellow without being reserved, relaxed without being passive, and have plenty of moments even if this recording won’t rival others in El Zabar’s expansive and impressive catalogue. 

I also had a listen to the album ‘Live’ by the Chris Williams Quintet. According to reviews, the album was created by remixing a several hours of live improvisation. As a result, it offers an intriguing balance between the rawness inventiveness of improvisation and the more polished and processed sound. One of the things that I love about jazz and improvised music is the tension between the immediacy of live performance and the perfectionism of recorded music. Williams album plays with this by blending a range of unusual, looped sounds with some fairly rambunctious improvisation. For better or for worse, the entire thing is repackaged as a 12 minute “Side Aye” and and 15 minute “Side Bee.” I’d like to have heard an album with a bit more room for the improvisation to show through, but with a couple of hours of recording in the can, maybe we’ll get more of a taste for the entire session in the future.

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Finally, I do listen to pop music from time to time and have really enjoyed the new Big Thief album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. I first encountered Big Thief a few years ago on Zu Audio’s blog. I’ve long been a fan of that company’s full range driver loud speakers and my stereo has a pair of Zu Omen Defs paired with Undertone subwoofers (I like to imagine this combination is a bit like Wilson Watt/Puppy but instead of the precise and maybe even analytical sound of the Wilson monitors, more mid-century bounce and tone, but whatever.) I listened to the Big Thief album mostly on my office stereo as I continue to try to come to terms with a pair of custom built field coil driver speakers. These speakers are incredibly vivid and allow me to listen deep into the music, but with my current system they feel just a bit harsh. I’ve always found Adrianne Lenker’s voice could be a bit grating if not reproduced with some care. I was happy to find that the field coil speakers both added some sparkle to Lenker’s voice and continued to demand my attention.

The album itself is long: 20 tracks and a playing time of over an hour. In another day and age, we’d call it a double album. In fact, the diversity of the songs on the album makes it feel like they recorded a bunch of stuff, maybe during the pandemic, and put it all together. Fortunately the songs are really pretty wonderful and what the album lacks in discernible cohesion, it makes up for in overall quality (and, to be honest, quantity). I particular find myself enjoying “Wake Me Up To Drive” and the opening track “Change” where Lenker’s close mic-ed voice forces itself into my consciousness.

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