Thursday, January 25, 2018

Lucky Streak When It Comes To Books

I would read at least a book a week as a teenager.  I'm not a very fast reader so that was a pretty good pace for me.  It was mostly authors like Dean Koontz, Stephen King and Clive Cussler.  Nothing all that special about that.

Then in my 20's this pace slowed, but when I did read a book it was by writers like Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut.  The type of stuff a guy born in in the 1970's might read during his twenties.

During my 30's it was more likely to be some type of non-fiction work or short story collection than a 300 or 400 page novel.  These were perused but maybe not always read cover to cover.  This intimidation or aversion toward reading fiction/novels was continuing into my forties, but I may have started to turn it around.

Over the last two months I've read over six books.

Spy Novels: Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews
It had been a long time since I had read books like this but the timely plot of this contemporary series, involving Russian and American spies, broke the ice.  It took a little effort on my part to get into this type of writing style, but once I did I very much enjoyed these books.  I read these back to back, which was about a 900 page commitment, so completing that task in a couple of weeks around Thanksgiving opened the door to a new routine of carving out time for book reading each day, and looking forward to that time.  The third book in this trilogy, called The Kremlin's Candidate, comes out soon!

Failed Novel Turned Memoir: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
I saw this book on NPR's list of the best books of 2017 and decided to check it out.  Twenty-seven year old Nell Stevens placed herself in the not-so-idyllic setting of the Falkand Islands with the hope that this desolate place of no distractions would provide the perfect environment for writing her debut novel. What came out is a book about not being able to write that book.

Fantasy: The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden and The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
Traditional Fantasy series have never been a primary genre of interest for me but I’m beginning to think it should be. I have a soft spot for folk tales, and original re-tellings of folk tales, and that’s kind of what The Bear and the Nightingale is. It’s a fairy-tale like story set in 14th century Russia. The domovoi – a house spirit from Slavic folklore – even makes an appearance in this book! The next book in this series is The Girl in the Tower, and I plan on reading it soon.

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic is a stand-alone book of six stories set in the same universe as some of the other fantasy books Leigh Bardugo writes, but are styled to be more like the fairy tales or campfire stories that the persons in that universe might tell.  You don't need to have read her Six of Crows duology or Shadow And Bone trilogy to enjoy these creative tales that feel as if they really could be folk tales from her Grishaverse.

Old Myths and Modern Day Fables: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman and Stories For Nighttime And Some for The Day by Ben Loory
Surprisingly, Norse Mythology is the first Neil Gaiman book I have read, but I absolutely loved it. I’ll be reading more books by Gaiman for sure. These stories were fantastic so it made me curious about how much of that is Neil Gaiman and how much of that is the source material itself?  The answer is a lot of both.  I have since picked up a copy of the excellent Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki by Kevin Crossley-Holland and can tell that Gaiman's versions are very faithful to the original tales (which are always open to interpretation), but he adds just enough flavor and personal style to make it an all-time favorite.

I'm also thinking that Ben Loory's Stories For Nighttime And Some for The Day will be an all-time favorite.  These stories kind of remind me of Russell Edson poems with more narrative arc. They are just as visual as a Jack Handey Deep Thoughts.  Some have described these short stories - approximately a thousand words each - as fables for the modern world.  Loory does have a very soothing, almost childlike writing style that can sometimes mask the darkness and anxiety lying beneath the surface of these dreamlike delicacies.  I just started his new book of stories called Tales of Falling and Flying and it's equally as good.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to turn the TV off, avoid the internet, put down the mobile device, and simply spend an hour or two reading a book.  I hope this trend continues.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Five Albums To Check Out If You Like A Go Go by Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood

John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood and John Scofield
We're coming up on 20 years since the release of John Scofield's April 1998 jazz-funk jewel A Go Go.  Scofield's backing band for this session was Medeski, Martin and Wood, who at the time were at an early peak in their career, coming off a string of three now classic studio albums: 1993's It's A Jungle In Here, 1995's Friday Afternoon In the Universe, and 1996's Shack-man.

Here are five other CDs to check out for fans of A Go Go:

Unspeakable by Bill Frisell
This 2004 album by guitar genius Bill Frisell is perhaps his funkiest; the one most similar to what MSMW fans might be used to.  Like Scofield, Frisell is from that crop of baby boomer neo-jazz guitar gurus that also includes Pat Metheney, Marc Ribot and more.  With its heady production and one lasting melody after another, Unspeakable is a good introduction to Bill Frisell for those who might not already be familiar with him.  Other Frisell albums worth your time might include The Willies, The Intercontinentals, and Big Sur, to name just a few.

A Town Called Earth by The Greyboy Allstars
Until today, it had been years since I listened to this recording, but I was instantly taken back two decades upon returning to this soul-jazz long player.  I think I bought this around when it came out - 1997 - and must have listened to it a lot back then because years removed it still sounds very familiar.  Fans of A Go Go may already be familiar with A Town Called Earth, but if not then move it to the top of your list.  Organist Robert Walter will fill any keyboard cravings and Karl Denson's mixture of sax and flute serves as an enticing lead instrument.

Blue Breakbeats by Grant Green
This compilation is culled from tracks recorded in 1970 and 1971 -- the height of Grant Green's funk period.  Critics may have preferred his more straight ahead earlier work, but funkiness like this may be what Green is most known for today.  Grant had a tasteful style that relied more on feel than a blazing display of notes.  Interestingly, he almost never comped chords and instead simply chose to drop out when other instruments were soloing.  For fans of bands like New Mastersounds, Soulive and Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood,  Blue Breakbeats is a great place to start or end up.

Hooteroll? by Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales
While other 1970's jazz-rock fusion albums can sound dated, Hooteroll? has held up quite well.  This musical partnership with adventuresome keyboardist Howard Wales is an outlier in the Jerry Garcia catalog.  For one thing it's instrumental.  Secondly, rather than being based around folk-melodies or conventional song structures, Hooteroll? feels more like studio improvisations built on loose themes or ideas.  Here you will find the groundwork for 90's jamband groove, with the addition of horns that help elevate this to the realm of soulful jazz.

Local Warming by Laika and the Cosmonauts
Laika and the Cosmonauts was a guitar, organ, bass and drum quartet from Finland who performed for about 20 years starting in the 1980's.  Laika's sound is similar to what you might call surf rock, but their radical compositions and far-out melodies also qualify them as acid-jazz.  If you were surprised by or made aware of any record mentioned here, I hope it's this one.  I can't remember how I first got turned on to Local Warming, but I definitely got it soon after it first came out.  It was one of my favorite albums of 2004 and has remained a favorite ever since.

Honorable Mention:
B'gock by Fuzz
1-800-WOLF! by WOLF!
The Nashville Session by The New Mastersounds
Inner Fire by The Souljazz Orchestra
Live in Tokyo by Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians
The Word by The Word
Must Be Nice by Soul Monde
Lanquidity by Sun Ra
Dogs by Nolatet
Gateway by John Abercrombie