Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Five Musicians I've Learned About Recently

Here are five different musicians I've learned about over the past month.

Maso Rivera - Puerto Rican cuatro player
Maso Rivera was born November 13, 1927 in the Toa Alta municipality of Puerto Rico. He began playing the cuatro at the age of five. The cuatro is Puerto Rico's national instrument, kind of like a cross between a guitar and mandolin, and Rivera wrote over one-thousand compositions for it. In the early 1930's when Maso began playing as a child the cuatro was square shaped and had four strings, but the Puerto Rican cuatro evolved into a viola-like shape with five double course strings tuned in all 4ths BEADG from low to high. Its scale is about 20.5 inches.

I first learned about Maso Rivera two weeks ago when Dust to Digital posted about him on his birthday. I clicked play on the video they shared, liked what I heard, and looked Maso up on YouTube and Spotify. The album I immediately started listening to and loving is called Reyando Con Maso Y Su Cuatro. My first thought was that it reminded me of David Grisman's Dawganova CD from 1995, but then I started to notice the exceptional sound of the cuatro. I had no idea that Puerto Rico has such a rich and distinctive folk music tradition. And I was psyched to learn about the Puerto Rican cuatro and its cousin instrument the tiple doliente!

Omar Khorshid - Egyptian guitarist
I learned about Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid from a Dusted magazine feature written by English musician C Joynes that I read in late October. Khorshid was born in Cairo in 1945. He made several recordings in the 1970's and had a short, successful career before a 1981 car accident took his life. Omar Khorshid embraced the emerging sounds, styles and technologies of his day by adding surf-style electric guitar and synths to traditional Arabic melodies.

Spotify seems to spell his name two different ways, but under the Omar Khorshid spelling I've been enjoying the aptly titled Belly Dance, Vol. 1 and Belly Dance, Vol. 2. Sublime Frequencies, the experimental urban/rural field recording label, has also put out a couple Omar Khorshid records.

Azhar Hussain - Pakistani keyboardist
I don't know much about Azhar Hussain other than he is a Pakistani pianist and composer. Learning about Omar Khorshid had inspired me to seek out other middle eastern sounding music. A search for "folk music of Pakistan" led me to a surprisingly cool sounding album called Folk Music of Pakistan Vol 2. It does not sound like you think it would. No artist names are credited on the Spotify listing, so I did some more research and found out many of the best tracks were by a musician named Azhar Hussain.

That led to a 1970's Azhar Hussain album called Beautiful Land. The full title is Beautiful Land, Folk Tunes of Pakistan Played By Azhar Hussain (Instrumental). The record label EMI (Pakistan) Ltd. is probably worth researching in its own right because of its involvement in Pakistani Airlines PIA Inflight Music which from what I can tell was instrumental music recorded, curated, produced and distributed exclusively for the airline. This PIA music was often funky and exotic. A guy has a whole YouTube channel devoted to it:

Jorge Fontes - Portuguese Guitarist
I know nothing about Jorge Fontes, primarily because there appears to be absolutely nothing about him written in English online. He's only being mentioned because I found an old Jorge Fontes LP called The Best Portuguese Guitar in the two dollar international bin of a dusty used record store. The Portuguese guitar that Fontes plays has the teardrop shape of a large mandolin, kind of like a cittern. It is notable for its unusual Preston style tuning machines, which apparently involve turning the top screw so that a hook can tune the string.

The LP I found plays clean with no clicks or pops and is full of fantastic melodies in a style that sits in-between Spanish and Greek music. Spotify has a only a few albums by Jorge Fontes containing basically the same assortment of tunes as on the old LP I got. With help from Google Translate I've learned that Jorge Fontes was born in Vila dos Carvalhos, Pedroso parish, Vila Nova de Gaia in 1935, and died in 2010. The internet also says that Jorge Fontes performed for 29 years in the Arcadas do Faia and O Forcado Typical Restaurant in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.

Mikis Theodorakis - Greek composer
On the same day I found that Jorge Fontes record, I also found an album called Syrtaki Dance Greece I Love You instrumental bouzouki music by Mikis Theodorakis. A search for Mikis Theodorakis on Spotify reveals dozens of albums, none of them the same as the one I found. The most similar sounding one might be Roots of Greek Music Vol. 5.  

Mikis Theodorakis was born on the Greek island of Chios, in 1925. In addition to popular songs such as "Zorba the Greek,", he wrote symphonies, cantatas, ballets and operas. He also composed the soundtrack for the movie Serpico. I suppose the album I found in that shop contains instrumental versions of songs he had written that were hits in Greece. It contains some fantastic melodies, but I'm not sure if Theodorakis is the one playing bouzouki on it or not.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Favorite Albums of the Decade, 2010's: 2010 to 2019

This is not an attempt to name the biggest or most important albums of the last decade. I'm too old to care about that. These are just the ten albums that I rank the highest from the years 2010 to 2019.

Listening methods and habits changed pretty significantly during this decade. Spotify became the new norm - an endless supply of albums, artists and tracks to check out. At some point I learned how to let my ear take the lead.

Here are those ten favorites in chronological order.

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (2011)
Fans waited eight years for The Harrow & the Harvest, and were then delivered the best album of Gillian Welch's career. Refined yet boundless.

Tommy Guerrero - Lifeboats and Follies (2011)
Highly influential DIY instrumental grooves from a guy originally know more for his skateboarding than his music. Not overly complex, but extremely enjoyable. (This style of music was a big part of my listening the last decade. Khruangbin's The Universe Smiles Upon You could also have represented).

The Murphy Beds - The Murphy Beds (2012)
A duo: guitar, mandolin(s) and/or bouzouki; two voices in harmony. Simple, catchy, and beautifully played.

The Sadies - Internal Sounds (2013)
An artistic equal to the previous decade's Favourite Colours, The Sadies struck gold again with Internal Sounds. Punk campfire tribal rock.

Xylouris White - Goats (2014)
Debut album by this unusual collaboration between Cretan lute player Giorgis Xylouris and rock/jazz drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). An in-the-moment musical conversation as two masters listen and respond in real-time while the tape is rolling. Something entirely new.

Atlantis Jazz Ensemble - Oceanic Suite (2016)
Spiritual, modal, North American jazz with an ear toward Europe and Africa. Meditative and introspective music meant to elevate the soul. Yes there is a love supreme.

Jake Xerxes Fussell - What in the Natural World (2017)
There's beauty, strangeness and savagery in these songs, telling of devils, dangers, ghosts and mythical monsters. Fussell chooses to interpret his "old-timey" repertoire on electric guitar instead of acoustic, and it works.

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - An Angel Fell (2018)
This is my jam. The rhythms and melodies traversed over the course of this album's hour are patient, cosmic and spread far out. A further highlight are the tones band member Sandra Poindexter is able to summon from her violin.

Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell - The Maid with the Flaxen Hair (2018)
Two guitar legends, the sixtysomething Bill Frisell and the thirtysomething Mary Halvorson meet (for the first time on record) on the high, common ground that is Johnny Smith. What could have easily turned into a competitive battle of notes is actually the exact opposite. The two guitars blend in a delightfully cooperative way that is way more calming and far less noisey or flashy than one might have expected. The more closely you listen the more you are rewarded.

William Tyler - Goes West (2019)
If there's no tension, can there be release? William Tyler's beguiling instrumental melodies bask in the now while also peering ahead at something just out of reach, just off the screen, marching, but sometimes jigging, on the edge of Americana.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Weirdo Music and Horror Books

Wow. I haven't posted anything since July. Partly because I haven't felt like sharing anything. And also because it's been like seven years since blogging was relevant.  Hello 2012. And I know in advance that what I'm about to write about is going to be in the first person with most sentences beginning with the one-letter word of "I", like this one that you're reading. Only one person wants to read that. An audience of one. Me.

Well, we're well into Fall; the time of year where I traditionally ramp up my music listening and book reading so I can cram for the year end. I enjoy making lists and my lists of the year's best albums and best books read are my favorite types of lists to make. These will be put together by mid-December, so this is just an appetizer.

Spotify, Bandcamp and Youtube, as well as tastemakers like Forced Exposure and Mr. Bongo, continue to lead me into unexpected musical territory. One big shift from earlier versions of me is less of a reliance on a particular band/artist, "personality", brand or even genre, in favor of an overall aesthetic. Searching for a sound.... melody with drum machine or exotic "timpani" type percussion as one example, or original compositions based on faux ethnic themes or scales.

Very recently I've been surprisingly receptive to the fascinating world of dusty old field recordings where occasionally I can extract a melody, like from African kwela music. It's fun to take a chance on these types of albums when randomly found in a shop on vinyl. I've also been paying attention to movie/TV/documentary scores of all kinds, especially the diegetic music in the movie Midsommar and the exotic music arranged and composed by Yo-Yo Ma and The Silkroad Ensemble for Ken Burns' Vietnam film.

During the summer I took a detour into Library music and found some gems such as the album Full Circle by Alan Hawkshaw and Brian Bennett and music by I Marc 4. I've also uncovered some 1980's New Age type music that is pretty cool - stuff by Dennis Young, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Nakara Percussions, and a weird Dutch guy named Cybe.

Festival wise I feel pretty locked-in that Big Ears in March and the Richmond Folk Festival in October perfectly bookend two overlapping yet distinct aspects of my musical obsessions. Big Ears with its emphasis on the living legends of experimental music as well as its focus on forward-thinking composers and artists, and the Richmond Folk Festival which continually brings a well rounded and open minded inter-continental view of music as a whole.

A notable holdout from earlier versions of me is Phish. I'm warm on them when they are touring (I don't attend Phish shows that much anymore but I like to listen to the recordings the next day). One Phish jam I've returned to over and over again is the first set Tweezer from 6/21/19 Charlotte. I was actually in attendance for this one. There's a few fleeting minutes in that Tweezer - from about 05:30 to 09:30 if you're keeping score at home - that beautifully represent the peaks that music creation can achieve. I definitely stole a melody or two from in there.

The albums in contention for my best of year list are probably also good indicators of my current music appreciation. These include C Joynes and The Furlong Bray (The Borametz Tree), William Tyler (Goes West), Natural Yogurt Band (Braille, Slate and Stylus), Dire Wolves (Grow Toward the Light), and Jake Xerxes Fussell (Out of Sight). Within those five several bases are covered: a feral smorgasbord inspired by field recordings and genre-agnostic traditional folk (C Joynes and The Furlong Bray), new agey/new acoustic Americana (William Tyler), infectious melodies styled as fake Library music (Natural Yogurt Band), weirdo freakish out-there indie-jams (Dire Wolves), and visionary songcatching (Jake Xerxes Fussell).

I'll spend less text on books, ironically. I started the year motivated to read my usual quirky fiction books. Some worth noting include Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (excellent!), Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, Sealskin by Su Bristow, Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, and Aug 9 Fog by Kathryn Scanlan.

After a late spring/early summer lull I re-energized by getting back into horror fiction for the first time in - I dunno - 2+ decades! I've been on a tear ever since, reading one or two books a week which is a super fast pace for me. This renewed interest was sparked I think by learning of Valancourt Books, a Richmond, VA independent small press that specializes in publishing out-of-print horror novels from the 1970's and 1980's, among other things. I started reading their releases a few months back and haven't stopped since. Through Valancourt I've come to learn of the writers Michael McDowell, Ken Greenhall, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Michael Talbot. To name a few.

I'm not exclusive to Valancourt releases, although I have several more of these already in the queue. I hate the term genre fiction, but this focus on genre fiction has also led me to some contemporary books like The Grip of It by Jac Jemc and Foe by Iain Reid, as well as horror classics such as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's Hell House. I'm hoping to get several more books under my belt before the year end.

I'm still coming up with melodies either somewhat on my own or stolen directly from someone else (the latter is more likely). Fortunately due to my limitations as a musician I'm not really capable of copying or covering a song. It's kind of like a child scribbling while trying to make a duplicate of the Mona Lisa. So while I might know what the original source or inspiration was, the actual notes played might only match up a little bit or not at all. And oh yeah, I got a marimba! That can be heard in the first "video" below called Demonic Possession.

Here are some recent favorites: