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Posts tagged ‘Elton John’

Fifty Year Friday: October 1970

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Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin III

Listening to this for the first time in decades it sure brings back many memories! Almost fifty years ago, the basketball season started, and I was selected to always get a great seat for home games and travel with the team to away games (on the team bus) to keep stats for both the JV and Varsity basketball teams. Watching the games was particularly exciting as the best player on the Varsity team was the freshman point guard, who led the team in points, assists, and sometimes, rebounds. Several times he launched a shot in the backcourt to beat the end of a quarter, and more than once he connected. Unfortunately, those baskets only counted for two points.

My next door neighbor purchased Led Zeppelin III shortly after it was released in October 1970, and I recorded his copy onto reel-to-reel tape, and it was soon after that, in the month of Novemeber, that I heard the opening track of the album on the team bus’s radio. It was always a thrill when an album one already had started to get some airplay, even if as a single on AM radio.

This album struck me as being very different than their two previous efforts. Maybe it was just the album cover, but I always considered that this album had more vitality and musical sparkle than the two previous ones. And like its album cover, with an inner rotating wheel, I found this more musically imaginative than the previous two.

Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection

Elton’s third album, and at that time, for us in the States, his second album, was released at the end of October. I remember purchasing the album in January 1971 with Christmas money and carefully following the lyrics with the music. The album is a concept album of sorts: a series of songs with lyrics about the old American West — songs about gunman, the civil war, and so on.

Elton’s music nicely support the narratives of each lyric with all nine of his songs being memorable and substantive. A tenth song, the second track of side two, was written by Leslie Duncan who provided a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and beautiful backing vocals. Gus Dudgeon is to be praised for his production, solid in every way except for the puzzling ocean background sounds added as an apparent afterthought to the Duncan song.

This, in many ways, is Elton John’s best album even though not a single song ever received AM radio play as far as I remember. The album works well as a whole, supported nicely by the visual materials on the outside and adorning the inner-sleeve lyrics. So well, that those songs that are not clearly about the West (including “Come Down in Time” and “Love Song”) get absorbed into the Western theme so seamlessly that the album retains its conceptual integrity. Musical highlights include “Come Down in Time”, “Son of Your Father” with its bouncy piano intro, “Where to Now St. Peter?” and 6 1/2 minute, piano-dominated “Burn Down the Mission” with its brief but magnificent multiple-mood middle-section instrumental.

Genesis: Trespass

Recorded in June and July of 1970 and released in the UK on October 23, 1970, Trespass far surpasses Genesis’s first album in compositional scope and quality. From the first track, we now have Genesis providing the Gabriel-era sounds that made them one of the finest progressive rock groups. The second track “White Mountain” latches on to the listener from the start, showcasing the synergy between Mike Rutherford and Ant Phillips with their distinct partnering of their twelve string acoustic guitars. This work establishes the groups successful approach to music narratives that continued long after Phillips’ departure. The album continues much at the same level of quality throughout with the final work, “The Knife”, originally titled the “The Nice” as a tribute to that early prog-rock group, and lasting up to 18 minutes in concert with extended keyboard work, but pared down to half that length on the album.

Kevin Ayers: Shooting At the Moon

Released in October 1970, Ayers’s second solo album is packed with brilliance including clever songs, gorgeous passages of the Canterbury sound, and intriguing electronics and his own approach to what was often called at the time “experimental music” — a term many composers disliked since they weren’t “experimenting” but applying their musical sensibilities and compositional skills to push conventional musical boundaries. The accessibility of the music may vary, but the quality does not, and if one is up for adventure and appreciates solid musicianship from not only Ayers, but the accompanying “Whole World Band”, which includes Mike Oldfield on bass and guitar and David Bedford on keyboards with a guest appearance by Robert Wyatt on vocals on one track, then this album will provide repeated listening pleasure.

Pink Floyd: Atom Heart Mother

Enlisting the arranging and composer talents of Ron Geesin for the orchestral-rich first side if the album, Atom Heart Mother outsold Pink Floyd’s previous albums, perhaps due to its intriguing Hipgnosis cover. The first side contains the title track, named by Geesin from the content of an article about an expectant UK woman with an atomic-powered pacemaker. Geesin effectively takes the band’s raw material turning into the finest orchestrated prog-rock up to that time (not including progressive, but generally not labeled prog-rock albums, like Jesus Christ Superstar.) The second side contains some interesting solo compositions by Rogers, Wright and Gilmour and then filled out by the novel “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” — primarily a Dave Mason effort that doesn’t fully coalesce.

The Strawbs: Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios

The Strawbs “Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios” is a sparkling collection of mostly progressive folk-rock music recorded live in July 1970 at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with an extended rendition of “Where Is This Dream of Your Youth” from the first album and several songs not on their earlier albums. The highlight is the intricate acoustic guitar work and Rick Wakeman’s keyboard work on harpsichord, celeste, organ, and of course, piano. More than just a solid, enjoyable album, it’s necessary listening for anyone interested in the history of progressive rock.

Savoy Brown: Looking In

With the loss of their distinctive vocalist and talented songwriter Chris Youlden to a pursuit of a solo career and Kim Simmonds taking on more songwriting responsibilities, Savoy’s Brown sixth album, Looking In, falls short of their much better fifth album. So why do I even mention it? For that album cover, which always caught my attention when browsing through friends’ and acquaintances’ record collections. To this day it still reminds me of the artwork from the early days of Creepy magazine.

Guess Who: Share The Land

The Guess Who provides another strong album with their seventh studio effort, Share The Land, released October 5, 1970. Besides some AM hits, including the infectious “Hand Me Down World”, there is the interesting “Moan for You Joe” and a foray into authentic-sounding blues “Song of the Dog.” The lengthy last song on side two seems to function as filler material, but the rest of the album is solid.

Fifty Year Friday: April 1970

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Elton John: Elton John

April 1970 continues the early seventies trend of providing strong rock/folk/pop singer songwriter albums with one of the most polished releases of early 1970, and arguably the one of most important, historically: Elton John’s second album, artfully arranged by Paul Buckmaster and produced by Gus Dudgeon.  Originally intended to be a demo of current Elton John and Bernie Taupin songs to be circulated among industry recording artists, bands, producers and execs as a means of promoting the quality and variety of John/Taupin songs available for those looking for songs to add to an album, but due to the recently increased commercial appetite for solo singer songwriter albums, the album was released commercially under Elton’s name — or Reggie Dwight’s assumed name of “Elton John” based on an inspirational combining of the names of Bluesology bandmates Elton Dean and  Long John Baldry.

Released on April 10, 1970, Elton John was relatively ignored until the single “Your Song”, the first track on the album, started getting significant airplay as a single in December 1970.  Like many others, I first bought the third album, Tumbleweed Connection in late 1970 and then purchased the Elton John album, later getting the first album (Empty Sky)  as an import as it had not been released in the U.S.  Interesting it was within a few days of purchasing the Elton John album, that I first starting hearing “Your Song” on the radio, wondering how such success would impact the next album’s quality or direction.

“Your Song’ is by far my favorite song on the album (which due to my teenage stubbornness and anti-establishment stance, might not be the case if I had been exposed to it on AM first) but this is an impressively strong album, with even my least favorite song, a tribute to the Rolling Stones country-rock style tucked away on track four of the first side (“No Shoe Strings on Louise”), being a song of some merit.  It is astonishing to consider that had this album not been released except in limited distribution as a promotional vehicle for their songwriting skills, that Elton and Bernie may have been content to have been behind-the-scene songwriters.  However, due to the quality of the arrangements, songs like “Your Song”, “Sixty Years On”, “Border Song”, “Take Me to the Pilot” and more, its hard to imagine any alternate universe where this album could have been kept under wraps for any length of time.  Today I still consider Tumbleweed Connection to be the best Elton John album, however that may be more influenced by it being the first Elton John album I bought — if I was to recommend just one Elton John album, it would be this one — especially if the tastes of the listener favored intimate or introspective singer-songwriter albums.

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Cat Stevens: Mona Bona Jakon

After a successful first album and a commercially and critically disappointing second album was followed with a near-fatal case of tuberculosis, Cat Stevens ensuing recuperation was filled with time to reflect on life and stockpile thirty to forty songs, some of which were used as material for his third album, Mona Bona Jakon.  One suspects that the realization of the merits of a simpler life is also manifested in the simplicity of the music and the arrangements on this acoustic-based album, with its transparently clear and focused guitar work, double bass, and suitable and appropriate use of strings.

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Randy Newman: 12 Songs

Also in April 1970, Randy Newman releases his second album, 12 Songs. Replacing the interesting orchestration and sometimes sympathetic characters in the songs with skilled studio musicians (including Clarence White, Ry Cooder and jazz bassist Al McKibbon) and an array of generally unpleasant and sometimes repulsive characters, Newman has refined his approach to be an all out assault of social commentary.  The music is also simpler — blatantly based on standard, cookie–cutter harmonic progressions borrowing generously from blues and country musical components.  Due to its readily accessible music  consistency of character portrayal, and twisted, ironic lyrics, the album was embraced by critics and helped further establish Randy Newman as a significant artist.

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Al Stewart: Zero She Flies

Another artist establishing a signature sound and style was Al Stewart with his release of his third album, Zero She Flies. Each song is distinct and original with “Manuscript” providing the type of historical reflection that would become more common in later Al Stewart albums.  Not included in the original album, but on CD releases as a bonus track, is the personal and reflective “News from Spain”, as good as any of the tracks on the original album.

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Paul McCartney: McCartney

Joining the list of solo singer songwriters is Paul McCartney, releasing his first solo album on the Apple label, McCartney.  Released before Let it Be, the album was accompanied with the news of the Beatles break-up and many fans incorrectly assigned the blame of the break-up to Paul or his desire to be on his own releasing solo albums of which this was the first.

Commercially successful (what Beatles fan didn’t want to get that first solo album after their break up), the album  was overall disappointing for anyone who had previously purchased Abbey Road:  many critics and fans saw this album as concrete proof of how important (okay, instrumental) George Martin was to the overall quality of all the Beatles’ catalog.  The good part was that if one came to the album expecting little (that is one of your friends let you borrow the album after telling you how bad it was), there were some worthwhile moments.  Composed of fragments, not fully-realized tunes, and the properly arranged and realized, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, one can embrace the album for the informality and glimpses of genius.  It seems clear the album had some padding to bring it up to almost 35 minutes, including two versions of one the best tunes on the album, “Junk” — both an instrumental version of “Junk” and the vocal version which seems to have lyrics added after the fact and somewhat haphazardly. I would be fine with just the instrumental version, but one has to give credit to Paul’s vocals which are always a treat to hear.  Overall, not an essential album, but it is an album that is fun to revisit every few years.

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Jethro Tull: Benefit

Jethro Tull released their third album, continuing to refine their sound adding keyboardist John Evan (though uncredited), and creating more intriguing and colorful music than ever.  Many critics were unimpressed with the often off-the-mark Rolling Stone labeling this exciting and engaging album “lame and dumb”, yet fortunately the album did well in both the UK and the States providing Jethro Tull the necessary commercial momentum.  Retrospective reviews would be much more embracing of this remarkable set of vibrant and distinctive songs.

Be sure to check out the Steven Wilson remix of Benefit, a true aural delight that includes  “Alive and Well and Living In”, which was replaced on the US version of the album with the single “Teacher.”

 

Fifty Year Friday: Power to the People, The Giant is Awakened, Empty Sky, At San Quentin, and Charisma

 

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Joe Henderson: Power to the People

Recorded in late May of 1969, Power the Power stands out distinctly from both those late-sixties partly-commercially friendly hard bop albums and the bevy of free-jazz albums being recorded in 1968 and 1969.  It opens with one of the most sensually gorgeous jazz ballads of the era, the beautifully lush Black Narcissus with Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes electric piano providing the appropriate ambient backdrop. Henderson’s tenor work here is stunningly elegant as he shapes his lines with a rare level of delicate control.  And though “Black Narcissus” is the highlight here for me, Ron Carter’s “Opus One-Point-Five” is also particularly beautiful with Henderson’s tone capable of the most nuanced reflection and introspection.  Hancock is on acoustic piano, and Jack DeJohnette’s percussion fits in perfectly.

Despite all this beauty, on cannot overlook the other tracks including an updated version of Henderson’s Monk-influenced “Isotope” that Henderson and Hancock had previously recorded in 1964 for the “Inner Urge” album.  As a Thelonious Monk fan, this resonates with my personal music sensibilities, and so very glad to have both the longer 1964 version and this version. “Lazy Afternoon” swings effortlessly, “Afro-Centric” is hard-edged, modally adventurous hard bop, and “Foresight and Afternoon” omits keyboards with the trio charging into the realm of free jazz territory.  The title track, “Power to the People”, is also adventurous, with a modern hard-bop theme, aggressively inventive improvisations, and sparking electric piano work by Hancock. Now if I had to change one thing about this album, I would have liked to have a second version of “Power to the People” included with Mr. Hancock on acoustic piano. That would be one way to make an amazing album even more incredible!

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All compositions by Joe Henderson, except where noted.

  1. “Black Narcissus” – 4:50
  2. “Afro-Centric” – 7:00
  3. “Opus One-Point-Five” (Ron Carter) – 4:56
  4. “Isotope” – 4:53
  5. “Power to the People” – 8:42
  6. “Lazy Afternoon” (MorossLatouche) – 4:33
  7. “Foresight and Afterthought (An Impromptu Suite in Three Movements)” – 7:33

Recorded on May 23 (2, 5) and May 29 (all others), 1969.

Personnel

 

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Horace Tapscott: The Giant is Awakened

Recorded on the first three days of April 1969, released later that year to negligible sales and then not reissued until 2015, The Giant is Awakened is Horace Tapscott’s first album as a leader, with not another album in his name until 1978, by Tapscott’s choice, as he was reportedly disappointed in being excluded from the mixing process of this album despite assurances to the contrary.  Reportedly, Tapscott was particularly dissatisfied with the over-emphasis on the piano, which aggressively stands out whether soloing or providing accompaniment. The two basses could have been brought out more, particularly in passages where one is bowing and the other is being plucked.

The album finds middle ground between standard hard bop and extreme free jazz as nicely exemplified in highly structure and rhythmically-driven “The Giant is Awakened.”  This is also Arthur’s Blythe’s first recording, but his distinct alto playing is evident even at this point in his career as he provides an orchestra’s worth of tension and forward momentum in the first track, preceding Tapscott’s unrestrained and exploratory solo. Blythe also contributes the composition “For Fat’s” with its Monk-like opening theme and its freer contrasting section —  the two themes rotating in a straightforward ABABA form.  The third track,  the relentlessly rhythmic “The Dark Tree” is particularly appropriate for showcasing Tapscott fearless piano technique. The final track, “Niger’s Theme”  begins with a distinct, angular melody that then gives way to Blythe’s almost chaotic, but brilliant, free improvisation, followed by some pungent and highly accentuated piano.  This returns to an extended restatement of the main theme, with a suitable diminuendo bringing an accessible, engaging, and adventurous album to a pleasant but decisive close.

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Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All compositions by Horace Tapscott except as indicated

  1. “The Giant is Awakened” – 17:23
  2. “For Fats” – 2:20
  3. “The Dark Tree” – 7:01
  4. “Niger’s Theme” – 11:55

Personnel

 

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Elton John: Empty Sky

Recorded in December of 1968 through April 1969, Elton John’s first album was released in the UK on June 6th 1969.  Like many baby boomers in the States, my first exposure to Elton John was his self-titled second album, which at the time I purchased it, I believed to be his first.  It wasn’t until a few months after I had purchased Tumbleweed Connection, that I saw Empty Sky in the import section, and as it was at a reasonable price for an import album, $3.99,  I bought it.  I listened to it once, put it aside, listened to it again, but never took a strong liking to it as I had with those second and third albums, which, along with Yellow Brick Road, are what I consider to be the best of his long, productive career.

That said, Empty Sky is still a good album, with well-written lyrics by Bernie Taupin, skillfully set to music by Elton John.  Yes, the second and third albums have stronger songs, and also benefit from the wealth of quality musicians that contribute as well as Gus Dudgeon’s accomplished production — Empty Sky lacks anything approaching “Your Song”, “Take Me To the Pilot”, or “Burn Down the Mission”, does not have the same production values or range of contributing musicians — and appears to be constrained by a lower budget.

My favorite songs are the opening (and title) track, “Empty Sky,” “Western Ford Gateway,” which sounds similar to content from Tumbleweed Connection, and “Hymn 2000,” which would fit in nicely on the second album.  The last track has a jazz-blues section, which would provide a nice ending to the album, except for the intrusion of a collage of snippets from each track that provides a musical flashback — a puzzling approach, but something repeated by both Gentle Giant (“In a Glass House”) and Queen (“Jazz”), with Gentle Giant keeping their snippets to a little under two seconds each, for a total length of nine seconds (not counting the few seconds of shattering glass) compared to the nearly two-minute recap on Empty Sky.  (In regards to Gentle Giant and Elton John, Elton, when still Reginald Dwight, played with Simon Dupree and the Big Sound for a couple of months when their regular keyboard player, Eric Hine, was ill.  The Shulman brothers and Reggie got along great, and recorded Elton and Bernie Taupin’s “I’m Going Home” as mentioned here.)

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All songs written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

Side one

  1. “Empty Sky” – 8:28
  2. “Val-Hala” – 4:12*
  3. “Western Ford Gateway” – 3:16
  4. “Hymn 2000” – 4:29

Side two

  1. “Lady What’s Tomorrow” – 3:10
  2. “Sails” – 3:45
  3. “The Scaffold” – 3:18
  4. Skyline Pigeon” – 3:37
  5. “Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise” – 6:59*

Personnel

  • Elton John – vocals, piano, organ, Fender Rhodes, harpsichord
  • Caleb Quaye – electric guitar, acoustic guitar, congas
  • Tony Murray – bass guitar
  • Roger Pope – drums, percussion
  • Nigel Olsson – drums on “Lady What’s Tomorrow”
  • Don Fay – saxophone, flute
  • Graham Vickery – harmonica

 

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Johnny Cash At San Quentin

Whereas Elton John was just getting to his first album, Johnny Cash was tackling his thirty-first. If you had any relatives in 1969 or the early seventies that were partial to country music, there’s a good chance that this album would be in their collection, and for good reason: it is an exceptionally engaging live album, recorded on February 24, 1969, just two days before Cash’s 47th birthday, and released on June 4, 1969.  Those of us with any memory of 1969, will recall the repeated playing on the airwaves of this live concert’s version of Shel Silverstein’s cleverly-written “A Boy Named Sue”, and the bleeping out of “son of a *****” — how quaint censorship was back then.

Track Listing [From Wikipedia]

Side one
1. “Wanted Man” (Bob Dylan) 3:24
2. “Wreck of the Old 97” (arranged by Cash, Bob Johnston, Norman Blake) 2:17
3. “I Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash) 3:13
4. “Darling Companion” (John Sebastian) 6:10
5. “Starkville City Jail” (Johnny Cash) 2:01

Side two
1. “San Quentin” (Johnny Cash) 4:07
2. “San Quentin” (performed a second time at the audience’s request) (Johnny Cash) 3:13
3. “A Boy Named Sue” (Shel Silverstein) 3:53
4. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley” (Thomas A. Dorsey) 2:37
5. “Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash) 1:29

Personnel

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Lee Morgan: Charisma

With a lineup that immediately ensures a high level of quality, Charisma was recorded in 1966, but not released until May 1969.  Compared to the plethora of free jazz albums being released in 1969, this may seem embarrassingly accessible to more sophisticated jazz listeners, but there is nothing embarrassing about the quality of the musicianship and the level of improvisation. One can scarcely go wrong with any Lee Morgan Blue Note album, so given that everyone must own a copy of his 1963 Sidewinder album with Joe Henderson as well as the 1964 Search for the New Land with Wayne Shorter, Grant Green and Herbie Hancock, it seems reasonable one would be able to find a place in their music collection for an album where Lee Morgan teams up with Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Billy Higgins, particularly when it is also on Blue Note and is this good!

The album starts with “Hey Chico”, one of those mid-sixties blues-based jazzed numbers tailored for AM radio, though it never got such exposure, followed by, what for me, is the gem on the album, “Somethin’ Cute”,  rich in great solos, particularly the alto solo from Jackie Mac. Walton is exemplary on the lovely ballad, “Rainy Night”, and the fourth track, is another of those relatively simple, commercially friendly tunes, upbeat and perfect for the excellent soloing after the initial statement — particularly impressive is Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo.  This is followed by another Duke Pearson tune, with particularly notable solos by Morgan and Walton.  The last track, “The Double Up”, provides a nice symmetry against the opening track, and includes strong solos by Morgan and Mobley and a notable solo by Walton against the horns.  Chambers and Higgins are excellent, with Higgins flavoring these performances with unobtrusive ranges of shading and percussive hues and tints that lie almost below the range of general perception yet significantly contributes to the overall impact.

 

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All compositions by Lee Morgan except where noted

  1. “Hey Chico” – 7:17
  2. “Somethin’ Cute” – 5:39
  3. “Rainy Night” (Walton) – 5:39
  4. “Sweet Honey Bee” (Pearson) – 6:54
  5. “The Murphy Man” (Pearson) – 7:34
  6. “The Double Up” – 6:01

Personnel

 

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