Comments on Top Reissues of 2014

5. Love, Black Beauty (High Moon)

This came to me only in the (pretty durn unnecessary) deluxe edition late in the year. It’s for Love/Arthur Lee fans, but deserves a nod because it got little notice and because the finest tracks (“Can’t Find It,” “Beep Beep,” “Product of the Times”) are touching or funny or properly reflective. If you know the other work, seek this out. The interview is an interview on a CD. The live tracks have quite poor sound.

4. Various, Bring It on Home: Black America Sings Sam  Cooke

An outstanding crate dig that affirms Sam Cooke was a telling presence in soul all through the ’60s. If I own more than half of these, they sailed right past me. It’s not nothing that one track, “Pow! You’re in Love” by the Falcons, appears on two of my Reissues of the Year. For whatever reason, more consistent than the collection devoted to Otis Redding. For whatever even stranger reason, the collection devoted to Dan Penn is almost a dud.

3. Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano

Though it came out in 2008, this was a major for me this year because more and more Nancarrow here sounds like a composer/innovator up my alley for decades when I couldn’t find him. The curious are directed to earlier posts about these recordings. I have to add that I’ve become very fond of the non-chronological programming across the four discs. That it’s almost a tragedy it doesn’t include all of the piano studies. And that I’m more convinced than ever that treatments of these works without Nancarrow’s supervision will skew too much toward the chilly and cerebral. Or the silly and satirical.

2. Captain Beefheart, Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972

I’ll deal with the controversy right off the top: as usual, Don Van Vliet’s crummiest parallel with his high-school buddy Frank Zappa is that his deeply devoted band members don’t get enough credit or cash as the years roll on. Would it have killed anybody to credit this to “Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band”? That said, I don’t see how Magic Band vets benefit from boycotting this and keeping people from hearing the first flowering of a roots-and-branches innovator finding his own common tongue. You like funk fantasmagoria and pre-punk pokes in the eye? Might want to grab this whole package. The outtakes disc is worthy not wondrous (I’ll take it for the fascinating alternate of the instrumental “Alice in Blunderland” and the ferocious alternate version of “Dirty Blue Gene”). But the three albums themselves sound more wondrous now because …. well, dammit, unique.

1. The Falcons, The Definitive Falcons

What can I say? A kid from the sticks, liberated by blues and soul as much as any changing social mores and chemicals and oncoming exposure to a wider world, wanted to hear where soul came from and the wise guys said here and more or less they were right. The original LPs snarfed from Cheapo Records in Central Square, Cambridge were sacred sides. I didn’t care if you wanted to listen to that classic rock crap or that hippie shit or that punk puss — the Falcons were from a church I declared sacred. And this includes the everything mostest possible. Maybe it’s not for you. (And I gotta say it’s an eternal shame the recordings are generally so lo-budget.) But for me this is a broadcast from heaven.


Top Reissues of 2014

I said the lists would start today so I’m going to shoehorn one in, though I’m too pooped to comment until tomorrow (I blame an outstanding solo/duet concert by trumpeter Nate Wooley and reedman Ken Vandermark).

My lists have entered (this year, anyway) my Old Phart phase — no attempt to be universal or definitive, just shit that mattered most to me as well as I could assemble it for free. Items not from 2014 will require an explanation, however.

This is in rising order, with the bottom item easily the most marginal:

5. Love, Black Beauty (High Moon)

4. Various, Bring It On Home: Black America Sings Sam Cooke (Ace)

3. Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds, 2008)

2. Captain Beefheart, Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972 (Rhino/Reprise)

1. The Falcons, The Definitive Falcons (History of Soul)

More Bows to Misfits

Various, PUNK 45 — Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! (The American Nation Destroys Its Young): Underground Punk in the United States of America, Vol. 1 (Soul Jazz)

{btw, I seem to remember this was praised somewhere in the long waves of Expert Witness comments when it came out a couple years ago — anybody know?}

Early-ish true punk, with the plus that you haven’t heard all of these unless yer a nut and the minus that, as with most Soul Jazz stuff, rarity overrides quality about half the time. Example: The Hollywood Squares, “Hillside Strangler” has the death-cult cool of appearing before the world knew it was the Hillside Strangers, but it isn’t either as catchy or as wild-and-crazy a gesture as the original serial-killer salute,

“Strangler in the Night” by the Bugs. (A beat-up copy is one of my more prized 45 items.) And I will say that “Let’s Get Rid of New York” by the Randoms (John Doe’s original outfit) and “Your Full of Shit” by X–X really are unfindable.

Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds)

Alright, after 20 years of searching around, I think I’ve finally heard this guy close to the right way. Up front you hear the boogie-woogie blues craziness and twitching Spanish-folk and fractured jazz phrasing in the pianos as Nancarrow wanted them to be configured. At first I was perturbed that the compositions were not in chronological order, but they are designed to be listenable programs (pretty brief for CDs, unfortunately) and though in the midst of trying to boil down all of 2014 I haven’t been able to evaluate how much I agree with the programming, it does flow unlike any other Nancarrow I’ve heard. And it has a fearless earthiness that I anticipated but heard damned little of in other recordings.

So I assert this is the way to check out the player-piano man. (Though I’ll snatch up that old Columbia release if it ever appears anywhere.) It does not gather all his works, excluding a few of his highlights according to those in the know. But his is such tricky, abstruse stuff that every future configuration of it may be quality second-hand at best.

You Learn Something Every Day Dept.: Juan O’Gorman

Iago López’s comment below on Conlon Nancarrow led me to look up the (I did not know how) famous Mexican architect and artist Jaun O’Gorman. So here’s a little scoop on him. I first saw O’Gorman’s work 31 years ago in Mexico City, but while I knew it erased my brain, I did not know who did it (the Central Library building):

Gorman 1

Even better, I see he clearly drew inspiration from Bosch:

OGorman 2

Finally, here’s the only picture I could track down of Nancarrow’s house done by O’Gorman:

OGorman 3


The Mystery of Conlon Nancarrow — Another Shot at Solving Him

This should get you up to speed on who the composer was.

Puttering along with Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future, I was intrigued to find out one of his earliest music heroes was the enigmatic Conlon Nancarrow  (decades ago, Lanier would hitchhike from southern New Mexico to visit Nancarrow’s “bunker-like” studio in Mexico City, where he would hear the player-piano works in their primal setting — so, you know, not a typical experience). Nancarrow emerged from deep obscurity in the ’80s, but by the time I got around to digging for him in the ’90s, he was damned hard to find. I’m not at all surprised he isn’t better known. The biggest puzzle to me is why his sole album on Columbia (from 1969, back when major labels still threw everything off-beat against the wall to see what might stick) has not been reissued along with the torrents of lesser obscurities. The 1750 Arch LPs were done on the original player pianos with Nancarrow’s supervision, then all but vanished within a year or two of being released. Lanier notes that “the digital recordings that are around somehow miss the power of the music.” They are on Wergo, I checked out a couple volumes, and I’m with Lanier — I didn’t like ’em. They sounded arid and harsh, sometimes thick with ideas and reflections, but never the least overwhelming. The reason, however, is obvious — one of Nancarrow’s player pianos was damaged beyond repair, so the Wergo versions were made by double-tracking the piano that remained (i.e., not at all the way the composer intended). There’s a German set of recordings done on regular pianos and various and diverse human-played interpretations around, but I think Lanier is on to something when he says mechanical reproduction is essential to hearing the true Nancarrow Studies. He’s a bit out of touch, though, since you don’t have to scrounge through used-LP bins anymore for the 1750 Arch material. The CD set is reasonably priced and though the Studies are sadly not in sequence and only the works up through No. 41 are included, looks to me like the only existing chance to hear them close to the optimal way. Miles To Go will report back on the results.


(c. 1955)