SINGLE SERVINGS: JOHN LEWIS, STRIPPED

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John Lewis: I Can’t Get Started
From 7″ (Pacific Jazz, 1950s). Also on Essential Jazz Masters

I don’t buy much jazz these days but I couldn’t pass this 7″ up when I came across it at the Groove Merchant. There are few things in the world I love better than a jazz ballad standard, stripped down to a couple of players. “I Can’t Get Started” is already a hauntingly gorgeous tune to begin with and Lewis – musical director for the MJQ – does a simply lovely job here on piano.

IT’S RAINING WHALES: RAY ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE

Ray Alexander Technique: My Special One
I Don’t Bite
From Let’s Talk (Harlem Sound, 1970)

Arguably one of the best independent label soul releases of the early 1970s, the Ray Alexander Technique was lead by guitarist Alexander and despite being a solidly soul/funk album, most of the musicians who played on here seemed to come more from the jazz world including organist Billy Gardner and pianist George Stubbs. If the credits are to be believed, the vocalist isn’t Alexander but Chris Bartley, formerly of the Ad Libs and someone with a few 7″s to his name prior to rolling with The Technique. Edit: according to musician Ron Mack, who posted in the comments, Alexander also sang lead with Chris Bartley singing backup.

The single off here was “Let’s Talk” which came out on 7″ and the LP features both the vocal and instrumental version but to be honest: it’s just not my bag even though it’s a perfectly serviceable mid-tempo funk cut. Instead, like many, I instantly gravitated to “My Special One” and its luscious opening guitars and piano. It’s very lo-fi which somehow enhances the song, reminding me a little of Guitar Red, albeit without the synths.

Right up there with “My Special One” is the mid-tempo crossover track, “I Don’t Bite” (always a good opening line when kicking game to someone).

Oh, and did I mention how kick ass the album cover art is?

IN THE JUNGLE, BABE

My latest KCET piece is on the new spate of record stores that have opened in L.A. over the last few years, many of which are out in my neck of the woods on the eastside. Of the batch, my favorite has been the Record Jungle, Andy Perez’s spot out in Montebello. As I suggest in the piece, it’s got an old mom-and-pop feel to it but Andy knows his soul, funk and Latin records on par with the best, upper-end boutiques. His is like the best of all worlds and over the last year or so, I can always depend on the store for both stuff to strike off my want list as well as the weird and unusual. Here’s a sampling of what I mean:

Orquesta Casino: El Boogie De Bertha
From S/T (Dicesa, 197?)

The first time I ever visited the store, Andy hit me off with this album: a disco-era LP that included a Spanish-language cover of Jimmy Castor’s “Bertha Butt Boogie.” That’s when I knew I had found the right store.

Eddie Encinas: Guantanamo Mambo
Mambo Oriental
From Presenta a sus Latino Moderno (Discos Corona, 196?)

Discos Corona was a local, L.A. label (itself an off-shoot of Crown/Modern) dedicated to West Coast Latin bands. In that regard, they were relatively unusual for a genre mostly based out of the New York (and to a lesser extent, Florida) area. There’s somewhere around 6 dozen Discos Corona titles and much of it isn’t that remarkable but Eddie Encinas and his band had at least two strong Latin dance titles, especially this one which features a pair of awesome, vibe-filled mambos. Despite the label’s local roots, Discos Corona titles aren’t that easy to turn up here and I had been looking for either of Encinas’s LPs for a minute. Andy knew that and made a point to hold a copy for me. Now that’s service!

Wayne and Marin Foster: Same Kinda Thing
Satisfaction
From To-Get-It Together (Happynest, 197?)

Now we’re back to unusual. Best as I can tell, this was a private press, vanity album by a pair of San Diego-based private/wedding band outfit. They’re still around. “Same Kinda Thing” is a Foster original and while the singing is a poor man’s lounge singer, it does have a surprisingly funky arrangement to go with it. Then there’s the big band take on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” This won’t make anyone forget Jagger but once again, it hits has fine instrumentation moments, especialy around the 3.5 min mark. As a bonus, we have a special note from their singing coach in the liners, where he shares that “I have never been more proud of any student than I am of Wayne and Marin.” So much positive energy!

U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY STAGE BAND: NOT YACHT ROCK

WindandSongAlbum small
Naval Academy Stage Band: Channels
Kool and the Gang
From Wind and Song (USNA, 1970)

Jazz purists may hate the late ’60s/early ’70s with a passion for all the funky big band that got recorded in that era…and they’d have a point insofar as a lot of crappy music was being made. But occasionally, you’ll come across something that now seems cool despite itself and while we may not consider – today – a military band being particularly funky, in 1970, it seems like the Navy was willing to give the sound a go. These two tracks are from a double LP put out by the U.S. Naval Academy, featuring different outfits. 3/4ths of the album is straight up military band and/or glee club songs but the 4th disc is reserved for the Academy’s stage band. These dudes may not have been the Kashmere Stage Band or the cats out of NTSU but believe me: I’ve heard worse.

The cover of “Kool and the Gang” is pretty big band-y and not terribly interesting even if the drummer sounds like he’s having himself a decent time. But I liked “Channels,” which seems to have been an original composition. The song sounds like something, had you actually heard it at the Academy, would probably sound avant garde enough to leave folks scratching their heads. It’s dark, a bit dissonant at times and at :53, the percussion session gets to let loose and that drummer starts in on the trap set, followed by the guitars, a little organ and then the full brass section and suddenly, this song gets really quite good. I don’t think it’s a crazy reach to say that it could have been something in the Axelroad/Adderley wheelhouse.

(P.S. I’m going to try to play catch up with a ridiculous number of records that have been on the back burner for months now. We’ll see how far I get before the gas gives out but just be forewarned).

TRIBESMAN ASSAULT: DUB DRUBBING

Tribesman
Roots Underground: High Times
Makka Root
From Tribesman Assault (City Line, 1977)

It may seem ironic for someone nicknamed “O-Dub” but this is one of the first dub albums I’ve actually acquired. For whatever reason, despite my deep appreciation for Jamaican music and a particular love for rocksteady, I never really “got” dub. On paper, it doesn’t make sense why I wouldn’t be all up into it: deep basslines, atmospheric effects, stripped down rhythms. I can’t really explain it and maybe I simply decided, years ago, “I don’t get dub” and left it there. It’s probably time for a reevaluation.

One shouldn’t judge a record by its name and cover but let’s see: the group is called Roots Underground. The album, Tribesman Assault. There’s a song on here called “Disco Reggae Rocker” and one called “Shotgun Skank.” Seriously, how was this going to be anything but amazing?

Might as well just start with A1, “High Times,” which should be played at high volumes, preferably in a residential neighborhood. Deep dub meets one of the heaviest breakbeats I’ve ever heard, plus those ill fills. It’s good stuff, no doubt, but to be honest, the song that hooked me into trading for this LP was the next song.

I am a straight up sucker with this kind of bright, rocksteady rhythm, especially with the interplay between the rhythm guitar and the piano. I love the groove on here; so cheery but with a twitchy rhythm anchoring the whole affair. These two are my clear favorites but the rest of the album isn’t slacking; incredibly, consistently great tracks. Very dangerous stuff as now I”m suddenly curious about the rest of the Wackies catalog from this era.

EVERYDAY I’M SHUFFLING: RON FORELLA…MOVES!

Thom Janusz: Memories of Georgia
Crystals
From Ronn Forella…Moves! (Hoctor/Luv N’ Haight, 1970s/2012)

One of the best reasons for seeking out original vinyl copies of old dance-instruction records has to be that they almost always have some kind of handwritten annotation on them, and when you’re far enough down the record-nerd rabbit hole to be buying old dance-instruction records, the realization that the heaviest track on the album—the facemelting breakbeat apocalypse with the acid-pitted wah-wah and the bass and the whatnot and the so on and the so forth—has been labeled in meticulous, teacherly ballpoint “CONNIE’S WALK-ON MUSIC” or “JAZZ ROUTINE—MS. KRAMER’S CLASS” is a realization that provides some necessary perspective, I think.

Namely, it’s a good reminder that these records were tools. They were records for people to dance to. And not in the way we usually mean when we say that; not “commercial records put together in particular ways with the intention of encouraging people to dance.” No, these were dance records in the most literal sense imaginable: records for people who were getting paid to teach other people how to dance and who needed music that—before it was anything like interesting, or creative, or personable—was conducive to them doing their job.

And I guess these records are mostly still considered tools, esteemed both by producer-type dudes who see the sampleability in their strong and anonymous rhythms and by non-producer-type dudes who listen to them and think, man, some producer-type dude could totally sample that.

Within this sensibility, the fact that these records almost never actually get sampled for anything is secondary to the fact that they totally could be. This obsession with potential is the faith of the sample nerd (broadly defined, anyone whose entrée into collecting old records was driven to some significant extent by newer records that had sampled them [c’est moi]), and it has spiraled outward to become surprisingly influential; the listening habits and buying habits of people who came up chasing records that were in any way akin to those sampled in the rap records of the late eighties and early nineties have been the secret mover behind at least one whole generation of the record-dude ecosystem.

It makes sense that out of this matrix would emerge the reissue of Ronn Forella…Moves!: a modern subculture rooted in the theoretically sampleable indirectly midwifing an old dance-instruction record that is only theoretically danceable.

As you’d expect from a dance-class record—especially one called Moves!—every cut has a lot of movement. But listening to it, the music here doesn’t seem to move the way a body moves, or would move; rather, it moves the way thoughts move. It’s progressive, moving endlessly, incrementally, in ways that only make sense intuitively. Throughout its restless shifting, it becomes less and less possible to imagine what a human, physical expression of this music could even look like. Granted, these limitations of conception might be ones that I’m projecting onto the work as one who is much more of a listener than a dancer, but considering the mindset that both gave rise to this reissue and by which it is most likely to be received, I think that’s all right. That this record ultimately seems too subtle, too interior to drive the kind of action it was originally meant for might sound like a big deal, but in our little corner of the world, it ends up being not all that problematic.

Because if Moves!’s interior quality complicates any convincing evocation of outward physicality, it’s the same thing that makes it a more compelling listen. There’s a couple of clunkers on here (“Hippo Mancy” and “Wild & Wonderful,” both of which I might have tried to sell myself on as “hectic chase-theme funk!” back when I was younger and more charitable, but which today I can only hear as proggy jogs to nowhere but some of this stuff goes far.1

The current beneath “Memories of Georgia” is of lyrical guitar and Fender Rhodes, pushing each other through constant and subtle variations. They buoy and corral a wet, effected second guitar that forever rides the thin edge of turning into something mean, keeps threatening to razor out of its tenuous Ernie Isley-esque sense of control and just beast out into the void. This guitar seems to occupy a different sonic plane than its governors, and the two parties’ tense transactions across this space highlight one more thing that keeps Moves! off the marley floor: It’s really kind of a headphone record. Up close, there’s a distance in the sound, a dimension of the recording that flattens when you play this thing out loud.

After a frankly banging drum and bass intro that comes with much of what you undoubtedly came to get, “Mithra Plane 2” edges into slow tremolo soak, waterlogging its high palisades of dark guitar and leaving the sound haunted and leaning. The guitar toughens up a minute in, but never shakes that mournfulness. The break roars back in towards the end, angrier than before, piked and prodded out of the way and into the red by overheated keyboard distortion. There’s a brief return to the theme, then all vanishes in flange.

“Sculptures” begins inside a glass globe, brittle and wintry. Guitar, triangle, electric piano, and martial tambourine twinkle hermetically, their wary glow the very view of a snowstorm seen through a slit window next to a carrel in a dark corner of a distant floor of some blocky, dolmen-like university library. Not unpleasantly, you are sealed within and the squalling world is sealed without. But after about a minute and a half, something cracks and all the peace gets sucked out through the fissure. Faster than you can believe, the music recedes into the whitening distance on a scramble of worried guitar. You cannot follow, but nor can you stay.

All autumnal thump and inner space and window-unit chill, “Crystals” is simply the perfect realization of a certain sound. It is the track that makes it hardest for me to not talk like my nineteen-year-old self: Dude, it’s so ill—it’s got huge drums, warm bass, and everything else is just wet, wet, wet, dude…it’s like “Those Shoes” crossed with “Nautilus”…plus it’s got two breaks! Dude! Because like all perfect things, it tends to thwart analysis. Whatever cogent thoughts I have about it are indistinguishable from the visceral response that I, as a mostly former but still kinda unregenerate sample-culture dude, have to the sheer sound of it, to both the actuality of that sound and the possibility of it. When you’ve spent enough years steeped in the pursuit of a certain sonic aesthetic, even if those years are now long past, to be confronted with a flawless example of it is to realize that the thought is the sound and the sound is the thought; when everything in the music lines up just right, on some level what you’re listening to is the working of your own mind. And getting any kind of critical toehold on that can be a little like trying to outrun your reflection.

So, I know what I said back at the beginning, but what something like Moves! really requires is not perspective but an abandonment of perspective. In the end it serves no purpose to try to classify or quantify where this music fits into any broader continuum or its place in culture or why this reissue exists in the marketplace or whether the new vinyl is worth fifty cents per minute. You either believe in this kind of thing or you don’t. Point: How can a faceless, ahistorical, record like this one, a record whose intended utility is mostly unsuccessful and whose potential utility is mostly inconsequential, how can a record like this even matter in 2012? Counterpoint: Dude, it’s so ill, though!

Every subculture has its shibboleths, and while mine probably don’t matter to you any more than yours matter to me, the fact is that every record that works on its intended the way that Ronn Forella…Moves! works serves as a kind of little temple, each one representing Our Thing in perfect microcosm: An energizing place, but a limited one—not a place to spend your entire life; but for as long as you’re inside, and as long as you’re of the faith, the limitations can all fall away, and it becomes possible in moments to believe that everything you need is in here with you.

To listen to the other songs mentioned here, check out Luv N’ Haight’s dedicated page to the album.

  1.  “Wild & Wonderful” also appears on the presumably more affordable Darryl Retter record from 1990{!}, but under a different name and with a thicker mix.

PRIVATE PILE: SHIRLEY NANETTE’S STYLES UPON STYLES

nanette.jpg
Shirley Nanette: Give and Take
Sometimes
Heaven on Earth
From Never Coming Back (Satara, 1973)

Nanette is a jazz vocalist, originally from Portland, OR, and though her own bio says she got her start in 1981, this album would seem to suggest otherwise. It is a most extraordinary LP, one that’s recently been getting heavier mention in select circles after a cache of sealed copies turned up and were quickly sold off (I received mine probably 3rd hand, via my last trip to the Groove Merchant). I’ll just say: I was prepared to feel like the album was overhyped but seriously, it’s really really really good.

Part of it is the diversity of styles on here…Nanette goes from bossa-tinged ballads to a more midtempo, soul/jazz tunes to Northern soul-style tracks to straight up funk songs. It’s like three or four different albums all thrown into one; quite unusual. But more than that, there’s something raw and affecting about Nanette’s performance. These are not hyper-polished songs and for those who can’t take too much “saxy sax,” this may test you at times, but as befits a private issue record, it’s coarse-ness is also part of its charm. “Give and Take,” especially, floors me everytime; I love the vocal arrangement on here. It swings in all kinds of unexpected directions and drops in background harmonies at perfect moments.

I really could have plucked any random assortment of songs off this LP and it would have worked. In this case, I went with my absolute favorite “Give and Take” then threw in the other two to showcase the different styles on here. I have no idea if a reissue is in the works but someone really ought to take it there.

RAYMOND WINNFIELD: WHEN LOVE GOES SOUTH

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Raymond Winnfield: Things Could Be Better
From 7″ (Fordom, 196?). Also on Funky Funky New Orleans 5.

I picked this up on my last trip to the Groove Merchant, in November. The track itself would have been enough to draw my attention…like Funky16Corners described it: “downtempo Crescent City funk.” Indeed, the instrumental version of this appears as the flipside to Ernie and the Top Notes’ funk classic, “Dap Walk” but to me, Winnfield’s vocal version is considerably superior (maybe I just have a bias against the overuse of sax-as-vocal-replacement). Indeed, what sealed the deal for me to cop this NOLA 7″ was hearing Winnfield sing “you always try to pull me down” over and over, to devastating effect. It’s not always easy to pull off a good “end of romance” song but Winnfield nails the vibe perfectly here.