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Fifty Year Friday: The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Axis: Bold as Love”

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Recorded in May and June 1967, and released in December 1967, composer, lyricist and guitarist, Jimi Hendrix shows a stunning amount of development since the recordings sessions (October 1966 through April 1966) of the first album, “Are You Experienced?”

The opening of the first track of “Axis: Bold as Love” borders on the puerile, yet to the rescue with the entrance of Hendrix’s guitar at the thirty-three second mark, we are assured of the exceptional.  Based on just the contents of the last eighty seconds of this first track, one can effortlessly make the case that Hendrix says far more in this one brief passage than can be found in Stockhausen’s entire “Hymen” (covered here in an earlier post.)

From there on, this album neatly blends the accessible with cutting edge guitar work and effective “interactiveness” (“interaction” is too weak of a word to use here) between bass, drums and Hendrix guitar.  With “Up From the Skies” we get a more relaxed, self-confident Hendrix on vocals than on the previous album, but still with more advanced and interesting instrumental passage work, indicative of much of his work in his later albums.  “Spanish Castle Magic” picks up musically from where “Foxy Lady” left off. Notable here is the bass/drums musical punctuation which becomes such a prevalent device in progressive rock and heavy metal (particularly Led Zeppelin which Hendrix purportedly never much cared for,  considering them excess baggage — a group that stole from others.  The closest to a direct Hendrix quote on this topic, attributed by Keith Altham and published in Melody Maker, shortly after Hendrix’s death in September 1970, was “I don’t think much of Led Zeppelin—I don’t think much of them. Jimmy Page is a good guitar player.”)

The album continues with “Spanish Castle Magic”, which again shows a more developed and innovative approach then the first album’s excellent “Fire”, including Hendrix adding a backward guitar track  Though the next two songs,  “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Ain’t No Telling” are not particularly musically interesting, the arrangement adds enough life to make them solid dance selections.  And, as consistent through this album, Hendrix lyrics and guitar work take these works well above the ordinary.

“Little Wing”, a beautiful ballad, and “If Six Was Nine” are classics.  “You’ve Got Me Floating” is a positive and upbeat diversion, with Graham Nash and Move band members providing the back-up vocals in the chorus. Introduced with backward guitar, “Castles Made of Sand” provides us with another reflective Hendrix ballad. The next song, “She’s So Fine”, is written by bassist Noel Redding, and is a prototypical English rock song, with a Who-like chorus, and some interesting guitar from Hendrix. The Hendrix guitar solo at the end is just enough to provide justification for its inclusion.

“One Rainy Wish” starts out ballad-like in 3/4 (with a 4/4 and 5/4 measure added to enhance a dreamy introduction), lushful and soulful, then modulates into a heavy metal exuberant 4/4 chorus and then back to the A section with a fade out coda. “Little Miss Lover” includes Hendrix use of a wah-wah pedal, an effect that would be adapted by countless rock guitarists later on.

A craftsman and perfectionist, Hendrix and his vision for this album was somewhat compromised with the objective of producer Chas Chandler, which basically was to get to the final take as efficiently and quickly as possible.  Thankfully, the final track, “Bold As Love” (with lyrics openly confessing that the negative emotions are, unfortunately, as capable of being as bold as love, and limiting us in giving and receiving love) was not rushed — with at least twenty-seven takes, and four different endings tried. The song starts off, casually, then shifts to an anthem-like chorus, with the effective interplay between the verse and chorus — the chorus triumphant, celebrating victoriously, and apparently ending the piece — but instead rather providing the embers for an Olympian coda, which rises like that mythical Phoenix, accompanied by mellotron and transcendental guitar, to provide a majestic finale to a song and an album unlike any other released in 1967.

One may be tempted to ask how musical history would have been different if Chas Chandler had produced “Sgt. Peppers” and George Martin had produced “Axis: Bold as Love.”  But like all such silly speculation (what if Lekeu age 24, had lived as long as Schubert, age 31, and Schubert had lived as long as Mozart, 35,  and Mozart had lived as long as Chopin 39, and Chopin had lived as long as Beethoven, 56, and Beethoven had lived as long as Stravinsky, 88) time is much better spent listening to those musical masterpieces left to us by the musical masters of their time.   “Axis: Bold as Love” is one of those masterpieces.

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Fifty Year Friday: The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour”

in 1968, I went, along with some other junior high school friends to another friend’s house where his dad greeted us by playing us Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture on, what to most junior high students at that time, was a pretty impressive stereo system.  I had had rather limited exposure to classical music at this point, never having been to a classical concert, and only having heard a few complete classical pieces like Ravel’s Bolero, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on a limited-fidelity monophonic system. To hear this Tchaikovsky work not as a snippet in a television commerical, but from start to finish in full stereo, with horns and, ultimately, cannons, commandeering the empty air space around us, left a impregnable impression not just for that day, but the rest of my life.

An equally indelible impression was produced when we later went upstairs and our thirteen-year old host set the needle of his personal phonograph at the start of the first side of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” Now I had heard this song on the radio a number of times, but this phonograph produced better fidelity, and it occurred to me as we got to the end of side one, listening to the incredible “I Am the Walrus”, with its striking string arrangement and Lennon’s unrelenting, upper-register vocal delivery, that this was as unusual, mysterious and as equally vital as the 1812 overture we had heard downstairs.  I couldn’t but make the comparison between these two supremely transcendental works, “I Am the Walrus” and “The 1812 Overture.” Nor was this effect reduced by our young host replaying the end of “I Am the Walrus” for us to clearly hear what sounded like “Smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot.”

This album doesn’t have the cohesiveness of “Sgt. Peppers” or the second side of “Abbey Road,  but the presence of “Strawberry Fields” and “I am the Walrus”, perhaps the only two songs of 1967 that are on par with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, is enough to make this album essential.  There is also the post-summer of love anthem, “All You Need is Love”, which extended the momentum of the love movement for at least an additional eighteen months. George Harrison contributes the psychedelic and eastern influenced “Blue Jay Way”, one of those amazing tracks that we see so often on 1967 albums (for example, see last week’s post on the Byrd’s song “Why”)  that solidly sound Indian influenced and yet does not contain a single sitar or other traditional Indian classical instruments.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of “Magical Mystery Tour” on November 27, 1967 in the US, an album which sold a little under two million copies in the first 30 days of it’s release.

Track and personnel listing at Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Mystery_Tour#Track_listing

  	The Beatles perform 'I Am The Walrus' for the film Magical Mystery Tour.  West Malling Air Station, Kent, England. 20th September 1967. 	Images may be editorially reproduced only in conjunction with the 2012 DVD & Blu-ray / digital release of Magical Mystery Tour. 	Please credit © Apple Films Ltd. 	Promotional and review purposes only.

 

Fifty Year Friday: Aretha Franklin “I Never Loved a Man”, Simon Dupree & The Big Sound “Without Reservations”

Aretha Franklin  “I Never Loved a Man”

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Raised singing gospel and touring with her minister father on gospel caravan tours,  first accompanying his preaching on piano and later singing on his gospel tours from church to church, Aretha Franklin recorded her first album in 1956 at the age of 14, “Songs of Faith”, a album of nine gospel songs recorded live.

At 18, Aretha chose to pursue a pop career, like her close friend Sam Cooke, who she had known when he was in the Soul Stirrers, and signed with Columbia records.  Columbia had little interest of what was best for Aretha, and determined to make her into a commercially viable jazz-pop singer, ignoring her gospel background and making touring and song selection choices for her based on converting her into a marketable and commercially successful commodity — but basically failing at that over the course of recording eleven commercially disappointing albums.  Fortunately at the end of her Columbia contract, Aretha signed with the smaller, independent label, Atlantic Records in 1966 and Atlantic gave her the green light to not only chose her own songs, but determine how she would sing, perform and arrange them.  Now in control of the artistic process, Aretha also composed songs, played piano and brought in her two sisters Erma and Carolyn to provide backup vocals. The result was an artistic and commercial success where Aretha used her full range of talents and drew on her gospel experience to provide a expressive, vital album, distinctive, yet intimately familiar.

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On this new album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”, Aretha combines a wide range of musical and emotional expression coherently, consistently,  and consummately throughout all eleven tracks.  The vocal nuance and subtitles captured here make this album a classic that can be listened to over and over.  This music and singing owe much to the gospel music of Aretha’s cultural heritage, but the lyrics are secular and, like traditional blues, address flawed social and inter-personal relationships.

Tracks like Otis Redding’s “Respect”, the song many people today directly associate with Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” are particularly notable, but one can pick any song on this album to savor the beauty and artistry of Aretha Franklin’s exceptional vocal delivery.  Appropriate musical support is provided, including King Curtis on saxophone.

In addition to this landmark album, Aretha provided us four number one singles on the R&B charts in 1967, two from this album, plus “Baby, I Love You” from her second 1967 Atlantic album “Aretha Arrives” and “Chain of Fools.” Also of note is Aretha’s 1967 recording of Carol King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” written especially for Aretha and appearing on her third Altantic album, “Aretha: Lady Soul” recorded in 1967 and released January 1968.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. Respect Otis Redding 2:29
2. Drown in My Own Tears Henry Glover 4:07
3. I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) Ronnie Shannon 2:51
4. Soul Serenade King CurtisLuther Dixon 2:39
5. “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” Aretha Franklin, Ted White 2:23
6. “Baby Baby Baby” Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Franklin 2:54
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
7. “Dr. Feelgood” Aretha Franklin, Ted White 3:23
8. Good Times Sam Cooke 2:10
9. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man Dan PennChips Moman 3:16
10. “Save Me” Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Franklin, King Curtis 2:21
11. A Change Is Gonna Come Sam Cooke 4:20

Simon Dupree & The Big Sound

It would be just fine for me to completely skip over Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, except for one extremely important consideration: three of the band members (brothers Phil Shulman, Derek Shulman and Ray Shulman) would later form Gentle Giant joining up with keyboardist and composer Kerry Minnear.

The UK was awash with bands of young musicians emulating American Rhythm and Blues.  We all know about the early Beatles, Stones, Animals and Pretty Things.  Few Americans, excepting die-hard Gentle Giant fans, know much about Simon Dupree & the Big Sound.

At some point in the mid-seventies, I had seen a lineage tree of where members of various seventy bands had come from: Keith Emerson of ELP had come from The Nice, Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster and before that Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Greg Lake from King Crimson and before that the Gods — that sort of thing.  Will this “ancestry chart” showed that the three Shulmans came from Simon Dupree & The Big Sound.  I looked in the Schwann LP Catalog for any listing and saw none.  Clearly any albums they ahd recorded were out of print. Doing some further research I found they had one Top 10 UK singles hit, “Kites“, which reached the number eight position.

Years later, in 1988, I was then very lucky to find the single on a juke box in the UK in a pub in Holyhead, Wales while sipping on a pint of local brew and killing time while waiting to catch a ferry to Dublin. I got out some local pocket change and played both sides, listening to “Kites” three times and the B side, “Like the Sun, Like the Fire” twice. Despite the mellotron, xylophone, gong, wind-machine, and actress Jacqui Chan‘s seductively spoken Chinese on Kites during the instrumental passage, I preferred the B side, which sounded closer to very early Gentle Giant and included a bridge with a soulful Derek Shulman vocal and a brief bassoon, oboe and clarinet instrumental section and a final brief marching band coda.  Almost thirty years after hearing this track for this first time, I found out this song was co-authored by the one Shulman that wasn’t ever a part of Gentle Giant, Evelyn King, the elder sister to the Shulman brothers.

Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, based in Portsmouth, home of the Shulmans, was not named after any band member (the band was primarly the three Shulman brothers supplemented by Peter O’Flaherty on bass guitar, Eric Hine on keyboards, and dummer Tony Ransley.) Originally the group’s name was “Howlin’ Wolves” befitting of their R & B style, later changed to the Road Runners, and then finally replaced by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound at the suggestion of a local Portsmouth music promoter: Dupree was the name of an established and well known local family in Portsmouth.

The first (and only) album, “Without Reservations” is only sporadically interesting, partly due to the arrangements and level of musicianship of the Shulmans, and partly as providing insight into what contributions the Shulmans made to Gentle Giant compositions, particularly the first Gentle Giant album and the last three.  (On all their albums, from first to last, Gentle Giant gave song writing credit to their entire band rather than any individual contributors.)

Simon Dupree would continue on for a couple of more years with several attempts to score a second hit after Kites, but with no success. At one point, for a tour of Scotland, they had to replace an ill Eric Hines with an unknown keyboard player, Reggie Dwight (later Elton John, of course) for a tour of Scotland.   Dupree ended up recording an Elton John/Bernie Taupin tune, “I’m Going Home” for the B side of a recording of a James Taylor tune, “Something in the Way She Moves.” For whatever reason, Elton was not invited to remain as part of the band. Perhaps in some parallel universe, there is a recording of “Three Friends” with Elton John on keyboards. Whether that would have charted higher or lower than #197 on the Billboard 200 is open to speculation.

Fans of Gentle Giant can pick up all the Dupree recordings in the CD “Part of my Past” which includes all their studio-recorded tracks, mostly from 1967, with a few tunes from 1968 and 1969. As long as one keeps one’s expectations under check, there are enough interesting moments to make listening to this worthwhile and to further one’s understanding of the important role Kerry Minnear played in what was most exceptional about Gentle Giant and in why the overall low quality of “Giant For a Day” can be inferred to be due to a diminished role for Kerry Minnear, the composer.

Fifty Year Friday: Jobim “Wave”; Zappa, “Absolutely Free”; Beefheart “Safe as Milk”

 

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Jazz fan’s will likely know of Antonio Carlos Jobim two albums with Stan Getz, particularly the first one, Getz/Gilberto containing “Desafinado” and the classic version of “The Girl from Ipanema” with  Astrud Gilberto‘s seductive vocals.    That first album, added fuel to the already burning fiery desire of Americans to hear and dance to bossa nova, and elevated Jobim to a marketable American music business commodity.

“Wave”, released in 1967, became Jobim’s best selling album, providing smooth, comforting music for middle America and many non-jazz record consumers. The music is well-crafted, well-arranged and well-performed with Jobim playing guitar, piano, celeste and harpsichord, Ron Carter on bass, Urbie Green on trombone, and a small string orchestra with french horn and flute/picolo all providing the most mellow dance music possible.   It is not exactly jazz and, in a sense, sets the tone for a genre of music that would be called smooth jazz,  a style not demanding listener attention or involvement, but played for its soothing, relaxing qualities.  Such smooth or background music became prevalent in shopping centers, in restaurants and in many work places that now added such music or substituted smooth jazz for the previously provided muzak. In 1987, Los Angeles radio stations KMET, once one of the coolest, most progressive album-oriented,  FM radio stations in Southern California, changed its letters to KTWV and called itself “The Wave” playing “adult contemporary jazz” becoming one of the un-coolest, most un-progressive stations in the Greater Los Angeles area ultimately influencing other radio stations to take the same path.

Of course, none of the blame should be attributed to this fine Jobim album; it is just worth noting that soon background music became virulently prevalent, irking many musicians that believed music should be actively listened to and not absorbed.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim.

  1. Wave” – 2:56
  2. “The Red Blouse” – 5:09
  3. “Look to the Sky” – 2:20
  4. “Batidinha” – 3:17
  5. Triste” – 2:09
  6. “Mojave” – 2:27
  7. “Diálogo” – 2:55
  8. “Lamento” (lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes) – 2:46
  9. “Antigua” – 3:10
  10. “Captain Bacardi” – 4:29

 

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Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention did not produce either easy listening music or anything that could be considered conservative.   This is the Mothers of Invention’s second studio album and every bit as adventurous as the first including mixed meter and quotes from Stravinsky’s three most famous ballets, “The Firebird”, “Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du printemps”) and Petrushka.  Each side of the original LP can be viewed as a single piece rather than a set of unrelated tracks due to redeployment and relationship of music material.  Humor is a inseparable part of this innovative album that many Zappa fan’s cite as one of their favorites.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Frank Zappa.

Side one: “Absolutely Free” (#1 in a Series of Underground Oratorios)
No. Title Length
1. Plastic People 3:40
2. “The Duke of Prunes” 2:12
3. “Amnesia Vivace” 1:01
4. “The Duke Regains His Chops” 1:45
5. “Call Any Vegetable” 2:19
6. “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” 6:57
7. “Soft-Sell Conclusion” 1:40
Side two: “The M.O.I. American Pageant” (#2 in a Series of Underground Oratorios)
No. Title Length
1. “America Drinks” 1:52
2. “Status Back Baby” 2:52
3. “Uncle Bernie’s Farm” 2:09
4. “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” 1:33
5. Brown Shoes Don’t Make It 7:26
6. America Drinks & Goes Home 2:43

Personnel[from Wikipedia]

Note that there are several additional musicians on this album including Don Ellis on trumpet on “Brown Shoes Don’t make it”

 

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Another less-than-easy-listening album is Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Safe as Milk” which starts from a blues foundation but includes uncommon time signatures and unique instrumental divergences. On one hand, a traditional blues fan might prefer to spend their time listening to a true blues album by someone like Howlin’ Wolf rather than this Don Van Vliet (A.K.A Captain Beefheart) psuedo-blues album. However, despite some superficial similarities in Howlin’ Wolf’s and Beefheart’s voices, and “Safe as Milk’s fairly straightforward first track, there are enough deviations here, musically and lyrically, from other more solid blues albums of the time to take this album on its own terms. Guitarist Ry Cooder, having played with Taj Mahal in the short-lived Rising Sons, makes important arrangement and performance contributions. Historically, this is an important album as it captures a band in transition to a more adventurous style that merges blues, free jazz and art-rock into a genre I could only call head-spinning, head-splitting, free-style post-blues

So even though this is much closer to standard fare than later Captain Beefheart albums, it contains a number of adjustments to standard rock/blues that make this an album worth checking out.  “Yellow Brick Road” borrows the first part of its melody from “Pop Goes the Weasel” but strays off into its own tune with a mix of innocent and suggestive lyrics. “Autumn Child” pushes into both art-rock and progressive rock territory with its Zappa-like opening and changes in meter, texture, tempo and mood.  Electricity” is the stand-out track, with lyrics and music flirting with psychedelia (note the guitar imitating the sitar), blues, bluegrass, and rock, and, once past the brilliant introduction, is very danceable. The rising oscillations of a thermin closes out the song.

 

Whereas one can put on “Waves” (and even “Absolutely Free” under the right circumstances) and delegate it to the background with little trouble, if one does this with some of the Beefheart “Safe as Milk” tracks like “Electricity”, “Plastic Factory” and “Abba Zaba”, they simply become distracting and annoying; however, play this album on a good audio system that can untangle the aggressive texture into individual and distinctive voices and the music flies by and, if not always pleasant, is unexpectedly absorbing and engaging.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All songs written by Herb Bermann and Don Van Vliet except where noted.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do” 2:15
2. “Zig Zag Wanderer” 2:40
3. “Call on Me” (Van Vliet) 2:37
4. “Dropout Boogie” 2:32
5. “I’m Glad” (Van Vliet) 3:31
6. Electricity 3:07
Side two
No. Title Length
7. “Yellow Brick Road” 2:28
8. “Abba Zaba” (Van Vliet) 2:44
9. “Plastic Factory” (Van Vliet, Bermann, Jerry Handley) 3:08
10. “Where There’s Woman” 2:09
11. “Grown So Ugly” (Robert Pete Williams) 2:27
12. “Autumn’s Child” 4:02


Personnel 
[fromWikipedia]

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
  • Don Van Vliet – lead vocals, harmonica, marimba, arrangements
  • Alex St. Clair Snouffer – guitar, backing vocals, bass, percussion
  • Ry Cooder – guitar, bass, slide guitar, percussion, arrangements
  • Jerry Handley – bass (except 8, 10), backing vocals
  • John French – drums, backing vocals, percussion
Additional musicians

Fifty Year Friday: Velvet Underground “The Velvet Underground & Nico”; Nico “Chelsea Girl”

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I am having second thoughts about posting these album reviews of music of 1967 — fifty years ago.

One: it’s not easy to write reviews about music: to describe music in words is an impossible activity, and at best one ends up describing their reactions to the music, which, really, is self-centered, possibly narcissistic, and either self-indulgent or masochistic (writing music reviews can be very painful as one recognizes that keystrokes being captured by WordPress fall immeasurably short of the sound waves that are captured by audio recording devices.)

Two: shouldn’t I be writing about recent album releases? To write reviews about albums already accepted as established classics doesn’t help generate income for the musicians (if they are still alive), encourage them to create more music, or provide the service of bringing  previously ignored music or musicians to people’s attention.

Three: there are others out there writing music reviews that get less visitors than this blog, and yet their reviews are better, more interesting and more informative. When I have visited such blogs, I am shocked to see posts that range from being hours old to months old without a single like or comment.  What keeps them going?

And so I take the time to ask myself, am I providing anything of value to my reader or, if not to my reader, is there anything that I get out of this?  And I really don’t know at this point if any single one of my reviews has caused someone to listen to music they would otherwise have missed out on.  But I do know, once I take the time to reflect on it, that I do get something out all of this: knowing that I need to write something, I am listening to this music differently than I normally would. I am not only listening intently, but with the need to find something I can communicate out to someone else.

During much of my regular music listening, I listen seriously, and I direct my attention directly on the music. I am seated.  I am not dancing, driving, cooking, or watching sports with the sound turned down.  I am a human receiver, trying to absorb and enjoy as much of the music as possible. When I listen to music I am planning to write about, I am no longer in receiver mode, but in explorer mode.  I am looking for places to pitch a tent, clues for sources of water, tracks of game in the vicinity, evidence of past occupants or current inhabitants.  I am reaching out, straining my eyes to see the distance, taking notes mentally; I normally don’t do any of these things when I am listening for enjoyment.

And so knowing that I must write about what I am listening to changes the listening experience.  If it is a digital source, I might even pause, rewind and replay. I find myself looking for strengths and weaknesses in the music instead of taking it on it’s own terms. It’s like the difference between dating someone for the enjoyment of their company and dating to determine an appropriate life partner.

And there is the selection of material.  When I listen for enjoyment, I pick something I am in the mood for, or something I just bought, or something that will provide a unique experience.  When I am writing a post about one of the best albums of 1967, the selection process is limited to that year, and I have to find something that is pretty good and that others will enjoy.  When listening, I ask myself, is this album good enough to mention as a “Fifty Year Friday” album, and if the answer is no, the album has served it’s purpose as a candidate and either I tolerantly listen to the end, or I stop and put on something else.

And to select an album, I review all potential choices: albums in my collection I have heard dozens of times, both as an dedicated listener and as background to other activities, as well as albums that I purchased, and never played — or played the first track — or continued past the first track but made secondary while reading liner notes, reading a book, or doing something else.

And so we come to this Velvet Underground album. I know this is a good group: a very important group in its place in the history of music.  And I was a fan of Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album, at least marginally, having heard it a few times in 1973 and 1974. And so, back in the early 1990’s, when I would buy a few dozen CDs every month, mostly jazz and classical, I saw this in the local mega-bookstore bin,  and not having a single Velvet Undergound CD, and knowing this was supposedly a good one, I immediately bought  it with a few dozen other CDs.  When I got home, this CD had to compete with a previously purchased 18 CD set of Nat King Cole, a Chet Baker CD, the complete Bill Holiday on Verve, a 6 CD T-Bone Walker set, a Captain Beefheart CD and several new classical CDs. Neither the Velvet Underground nor the Captain Beefheart won  me over after the first couple of tracks, so I set them aside, meaning to listen to them soon, but never doing so.

But now, in 2017, looking for worthwhile albums from 1967, I select this previously neglected CD, and listen to it with full attention. And to my surprise, it is a musical treasure.

If Sgt. Pepper’s is the first example of progressive rock, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is the first example of Art-Rock, at least that I know of.  I am not always a fan of so-called Art Rock — it can get on my nerves, but like the genre, free-jazz, when it is done right, it is great — when it is just an excuse for lack of structure, vision, content, it is like so much of the so-called classical “Avant-Garde” (neither classical or particularly innovative) of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s — a waste of valuable listening time.

This album, though, has direction, intensity, texture, form, structure.  There is a sense that there is a canvas with dimensions in space and time that is being systematically addressed with points, dabs, strokes, shades, groupings and contrasts.

“Sunday Morning” is the last song recorded for the album, but it makes sense for it to open the album as it is most accessible and apparently disarmingly innocent of all the songs.  The celesta provides a music-box like introduction, to a peaceful, tranquil tune with lyrics that belie the musical serenity:

“Sunday morning
And I’m falling
I’ve got a feeling
I don’t want to know”

This is a song that could have gotten substantial airplay.  Perhaps it didn’t due to the contrast between the pleasantly serene melody and the disheartening lyrics. Perhaps it didn’t because of Lou Reed’s distinct half-spoken and sometimes imperfect intonation. Or perhaps there were commercial reasons or lack of the necessary behind-the-scenes connections.

The musically bucolic first track is contrasted with a rough, repetitive, blues based “Waiting for the Man.” The lyrics are again bleak, portraying a New York City heroin addict, looking to score from his dealer.

Since music is generally my main focus, let’s get the lyrics out of way.  Lou Reed’s writing is direct, brutally honest, and of its time.  These are not the clever, playful, roundabout lyrics we find in most of the more socially-relevant music of the time. This is a much more accurate, even painful, representation of reality.  Lou Reed connects with life’s realities  rather than just observes or comments on life:

“I’m waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, one, two, five
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I’m waiting for my man

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown?
Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?
Oh pardon me sir, it’s the furthest from my mind
I’m just lookin’ for a dear, dear friend of mine
I’m waiting for my man”

The music here is frantic, with hints of barrelhouse piano transformed into a pounding commentary on withdrawal and drug dependency.  This is not pleasant music.   This is musical drama.

Lou Reed is sometimes flat, and occasionally here or there sharp, but, thankfully, he wavers more like a gymnast maintaining equilibrium on the balance beam, his pitch violations compensated by his confident and appropriate delivery of the text which unfailingly communicates the intrinsic meaning and essence inherent in the words. Not the case with Nico.  At the insistence of Andy Warhol, Nico was added to the band to perform lead vocals on a few of the tracks as well as some backing vocals.  On the third track of the album, the wistful ballad, “Femme Fatale”, the combination of being out of tune and lack of consistent expression erode her voice’s timbral strengths inviting one to consider how much better the album would have been with Lou Reed replacing her lead vocal assignments.

It is with “Venus in Furs” that this album takes off into another musical sphere.  Not only is the focus on the substance, with a given mood and direction deftly and often roughly crafted for each track, but we get a range of music styles — some of that immediate time period and some hinting at the near future.

One can identify the influences in this album: Bob Dylan, blues, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, free jazz (Lou was a fan of Cecil Taylor), classical avant garde, modernism and experimental music (Cale studied with Humphrey Searle, and after coming to the U.S, had ties to Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and La Monte Young), British Invasion, British Skiffle, Indian and eastern music (note the drone and guitar in “Venus in Furs”), and possibly the New York Hypnotic School.  More to the point are the many hints and foreshadowings of future styles of music including minimalism, psychedelic, glam rock, art rock, progressive rock, punk, goth, and grunge.  I will take bets on Velvet Underground having influenced Peter Hamill, David Bowie, PJ Harvey and groups like the Residents (at least a little), Explosions in the Sky, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, U2, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, R.E.M. and countless others.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Lou Reed except where noted.

Side A
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. Sunday Morning Lou Reed, John Cale 2:54
2. I’m Waiting for the Man 4:39
3. Femme Fatale 2:38
4. Venus in Furs 5:12
5. Run Run Run 4:22
6. All Tomorrow’s Parties 6:00
Side B
No. Title Writer(s) Length
7. Heroin 7:12
8. There She Goes Again 2:41
9. I’ll Be Your Mirror 2:14
10. The Black Angel’s Death Song Lou Reed, John Cale 3:11
11. European Son Reed, Cale, Sterling MorrisonMaureen Tucker 7:46

Personnel

On the original album:

Production

  • Andy Warhol – producer
  • Tom Wilson – post-production supervisor, “Sunday Morning” producer
  • Ami Hadami (credited as Omi Haden) – T.T.G. Studios engineer
  • Gary Kellgren – Scepter Studios engineer (uncredited)
  • Norman Dolph – Scepter Studios engineer (uncredited)
  • John Licata – Scepter Studios engineer (uncredited)
  • Gene Radice – post-production editor, remixer
  • David Greene – post-production editor, remixer

For those that want to hear additional Lou Reed compositions from this time period, they can listen to “Chelsea Girl”, Nico’s solo album recorded in 1966 after “Velvet Underground & Nico”, and released in October 1967. The name of the album is a reference to Andy Warhol‘s 1966 film Chelsea Girls, in which Nico starred and includes a Lou Read composition of that same name. Besides Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison making contributions, we also get two Jackson Browne compositions and his guitar on five of the tracks. Jackson Browne was providing back up for Nico’s small venue performances in 1966, and romantically involved with her until 1968.

Nico’s vocals are slightly better than on the Velvet Underground album, but there are still serious problems with pitch and in providing appropriate emotional delivery of the lyrics.  The string arrangements, instrumental backing, and strength of the compositions help alleviate some of Nico’s performance shortcomings.

 

 

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

Side A

  1. “The Fairest of the Seasons” (Jackson Browne, Gregory Copeland) – 4:06
  2. These Days” (Jackson Browne) – 3:30
  3. “Little Sister” (John CaleLou Reed) – 4:22
  4. “Winter Song” (John Cale) – 3:17
  5. “It Was a Pleasure Then” (Lou Reed, John Cale, Christa Päffgen) – 8:02

Side B

  1. Chelsea Girls” (Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison) – 7:22
  2. I’ll Keep It With Mine” (Bob Dylan) – 3:17 Note: this song was recorded by Dylan in 1965 but remained unreleased on any of his own albums until the 1985 Biograph set.
  3. “Somewhere There’s a Feather” (Jackson Browne) – 2:16
  4. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (Lou Reed) – 5:07
  5. “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce” (Tim Hardin) – 3:45

Personnel

Technical

Fifty Year Friday: John Coltrane; Jefferson Airplane “Surrealistic Pillow”

Coltrane1

“One positive thought produces millions of positive vibrations.” — John Coltrane

Coltrane’s left us fifty years ago on July 27, 1967.   He played, improvised, and composed music for a number of essential albums including “Blue Train”, “Bags and Train” with Milt Jackson, “Giant Steps”, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane”, “My Favorite Things”, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane”, “Coltrane live at Birdland” with an incomparable version of “Afro Blue”, the one of a kind “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” album, and the classic “A Love Supreme.” Also of note is the June 1965 session (released in 1970) as the album “Transition” with the title track being essential to fans of  the music contained in a”Love Supreme.”  There is also music recorded in 1967, released years after Coltrane’s death, that could be classified as Free Jazz including “The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording” recorded on April 23, 1967. It’s interesting to compare a 1963 live version of “My Favorite Things” to the 1967 version:

Thank-you, Mr. John Coltrane for the all this incredible music you provided.

Twenty-six year old department store model, Grace Slick, a graduate of Palo Alto High and resident of the Bay area (San Francisco Bay area) after reading an article about one of the local bands, Jefferson Airplane, in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, went to see them live where they played regularly (“The Matrix”, a club on Fillmore Avenue) and was soon inspired to start a band, with her husband, his brother, and three others.  

This band, “The Great Society”, named after LBJ‘s set of programs to address unjust social conditions, soon opened for other more established Bay Area groups including Jefferson Airplane, and eventually attracted the attention of Columbia Records which offered them a recording contract at about the same time that the Jefferson Airplane was looking to replace their female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson.  Mrs. Anderson, an expecting mother, felt that she could no longer tour with the band and take care of a newborn and so gave notice, informing the public, on October 15, 1966 with words befitting any flower-power child: “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.”

Grace Slick left her band, which not being able to continue without her, disbanded, and she joined Jefferson Airplane, bringing with her two particularly notable songs: the Great Society’s lead guitarist’s medium-tempo song “Someone to Love” and her own drug-inspired composition, “White Rabbit.”

Jefferson Airplane embraced both Grace’s powerful singing and these two tunes, which they re-arranged, maybe not for the better, but certainly with greater commercial appeal.

“Surrealistic Pillow”, Jefferson’s Airplane’s second album and the first album with Grace Slick takes advantage of Grace’s high-energy vocals from the very first track, where her background vocals are of more interest than Marty Balin’s main vocals and perhaps the main melody itself. The second track, is “Somebody to Love”, played with more force and at a faster tempo than the Great Society arrangement.

This album also includes a song that Marty Balin wrote originally for Tony Bennett: “I wrote it to try to meet Tony Bennett. He was recording in the next studio. I admired him, so I thought I’d write him a song. I never got to meet him, but the Airplane ended up doing it.” Jerry Garcia plays guitar on several tracks for this album including the short repetitive electric guitar phrase heard here:  


“Today” is followed by the evocative, marijuana-paced (and perhaps marijuana-influenced) Balin composition “Comin’ Back to Me.”

Side 2 starts with “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Second”, more for dancing then listening.  “DCBA” is relaxed and with somewhat puzzling lyrics:

“It’s time you walked away and set me free”

but later

“I take great peace in your sitting there
Searching for myself, I find a place there.”

and then in the middle of this

“Here in crystal chandelier, I’m home.
Too many days, I’ve left unstoned.
If you don’t mind happiness
Purple-pleasure fields in the sun.
Ah, don’t you know I’m runnin’ home.
Don’t you know I’m runnin’ home (to a place to you unknown? )”

“How do you feel” is one of those innocuous feel-good songs that would be comfortably at home on an album by The Mamas and Papas or The Association. “Embryonic Journey” is an excellent acoustic guitar instrumental, composed as part of a guitar workshop in Santa Clara by Jorma Kaukonen three years before he was invited to join Jefferson Airplane band by friend and fellow-classmate Paul Kantner.

The penultimate cut of the album, is the standout “White Rabbit”, rearranged musically to be succinct, focused, rhythmic and eerily similar to Ravel’s Bolero.  No concessions were made lyrically:

“One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all:
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.

“And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call:
Call Alice
When she was just small.

“When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low:
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know.

“When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said:
‘Feed your head.
Feed your head.'”

I think it is at this point in time, more or less, that the commercial interests of the major music labels became more important than censorship of music with anti-establishment lyrics.   During the last eight weeks of summer, it seemed that one could not turn on Southern California AM radio without “Light My Fire” or “White Rabbit” being played at least once in any given hour. As a twelve-year old, I knew something was changing in the world around me as an older culture began to buckle under the weight of newer ideals — even if those ideals were plainly self-indulgent.

“Surrealistic Pillow” ends with a trippy, protypical Haight-Ashbury tune, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, mocking the ascendancy of the boob tube:

“Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile
Nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s part of a colorful time.

“Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes
You wear cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover.

“Her rattlin’ cough never shuts off
Is nothin’ but a used machine
Her aluminum finish, slightly diminished
Is the best I ever have seen.

“Cosmetic baby plugged into me
I’d never ever find another;
I realize no one’s wise
To my plastic fantastic lover.

“The electrical dust is starting to rust
Her trapezoid thermometer taste;
All the red tape is mechanical rape
Of the TV program waste.

“Data control and IBM
Science is mankind’s brother
But all I see is drainin’ me
On my plastic fantastic lover.”

Music can transcend time, be a document of its time, or both.  “Surrealistic Pillow” is indisputably an important musical document of its time. As as listener, you must decide if it transcends time. For those of us that grew up with this music, it tends to take us back in time, which, I suppose, is as valid way as any to transcend time.

Track listing (from Wikipedia)

Side one
  1. She Has Funny Cars” (Jorma KaukonenMarty Balin) – 3:14
  2. Somebody to Love” (Darby Slick) – 3:00
  3. “My Best Friend” (Skip Spence) – 3:04
  4. Today” (Balin, Paul Kantner) – 3:03
  5. Comin’ Back to Me” (Balin) – 5:23
Side two
  1. “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” (Balin) – 3:45
  2. “D.C.B.A.–25” (Kantner) – 2:39
  3. “How Do You Feel” (Tom Mastin) – 3:34
  4. Embryonic Journey” (Kaukonen) – 1:55
  5. White Rabbit” (Grace Slick) – 2:32
  6. “Plastic Fantastic Lover” (Balin) – 2:39

Personnel (from Wikipedia)

  • Marty Balin – vocals, guitar, album design, lead vocals on “Today”, “Comin’ Back To Me” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, co-lead vocals on “She Has Funny Cars”, “My Best Friend” and “Go To Her”
  • Jack Casady – bass guitarfuzz bassrhythm guitar
  • Spencer Dryden – drumspercussion
  • Paul Kantner – rhythm guitar, vocals, lead vocals on “How Do You Feel”, co-lead vocals on “My Best Friend”, “D. C. B. A.-25” and “Go To Her”
  • Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, lead vocals on “Come Back Baby” and “In The Morning”
  • Grace Slick – vocals, piano, organrecorder, lead vocals on “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit”, co-lead vocals on “She Has Funny Cars”, “My Best Friend”, “D. C. B. A.-25” and “Go To Her”
  • Signe Toly Anderson – lead vocals on “Chauffeur Blues” (UK only)
  • Skip Spence – drums on “Don’t Slip Away”, “Come Up the Years”, and “Chauffeur Blues” (UK only)
Additional personnel

Fifty Year Friday: Thelonious Monk “Straight, No Chaser”; McCoy Tyner “The Real McCoy”

 

2evhqIn launching a Google search for lists of Jazz albums of 1967, one finds lists like this that include many fine albums:

1967

  1. Sun Ra: Atlantis (1967)
  2. Gary Burton: A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967)
  3. Sam Rivers: Dimensions And Extensions (1967)
  4. Roscoe Mitchell: Old Quartet (1967)
  5. Bill Dixon: Intents And Purposes (1967)
  6. George Russell: Othello Ballet Suite (1967)
  7. Muhal Richard Abrams: Levels and Degrees of Light (1967)
  8. Archie Shepp: The Magic of Ju-Ju (1967)
  9. Jackie McLean: New and Old Gospel (1967)
  10. Roland Kirk: The Inflated Tear (1967)
  11. Don Ellis: Electric Bath (1967)
  12. John Coltrane: Interstellar Space (1967)
  13. Frank Wright: Your Prayer (1967)
  14. Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Withdrawal (1967)
  15. Peter Broetzmann: For Adolph Sax (1967)
  16. Chick Corea: Now He Sings Now He Sobs (1967)
  17. Miles Davis: Nefertiti (1967)
  18. Don Ellis: Live in 3 2/3/4 Time (1967)
  19. Jackie McLean: Demon’s Dance (1967)
  20. Miles Davis: Sorcerer (1967)
  21. Gary Burton: Duster (1967)
  22. John Coltrane: Expression (1967)
  23. McCoyTyner: The Real McCoy (1967)
  24. Wayne Shorter: Schizophrenia (1967)
  25. Lee Konitz: Duets (1967)
  26. Paul Bley: Virtuosi (1967)
  27. Lester Bowie: Numbers 1 & 2 (1967)
  28. Paul Bley: Ballads (1967)

(from http://www.scaruffi.com/jazz/60.html#1967)

However, notably missing from all such lists (I have seen) is one of the best jazz albums of 1967, Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser.”

Why is this? Why do fairly knowledgeable jazz listeners fail to include an album of such exceptional music?

The clear-cut answer is that Monk is competing against himself.

By 1947, when Monk first started recording for Blue Note, five days after his thirtieth birthday, his style, approach and individual voice were already established, making those Blue Note recordings exceptional statements by a fully mature artist. From 1947 to 1951, many of the most celebrated Monk compositions were captured forever for all of us: “Ruby, My Dear”,  “Well, You Needn’t”, “Round Midnight”, “Evidence”, “Misterioso”, “Epistrophy”, “Criss Cross” and “Straight, No Chaser.”

Over the next two and half decades, as jazz in general continued to expand beyond Bebop with Hard Bop, Cool, West Coast Jazz, Third Stream, Post Bop, Soul Jazz and Fusion, Monk’s approach and stylistic traits remained relatively stable.  In the sixties, Monk was no longer viewed by some as a unique innovator, but rather, just simply unique. The innovation was there — not stylistic, but in playing freshly, honestly, and incisively, continuing to balance silence against sound and expressing himself naturally, logically and directly.  His music still evolved, but slowly. and more in terms of refinement than in alignment with the other changes happening in jazz.

By this album, “Straight, No Chaser”, Monk has established a continued level of excellence — connecting directly and succinctly. That this was one of the best albums of the year could only be overlooked by those comparing this music to Monk’s work from the late 1940’s on the Blue Note label, recognizing the historical influence of that music and finding no such historical significance in this 1967 Columbia album.

The personnel for this album:

Clearly, the quality of the only non-rhythm section soloist (Monk goes way beyond being part of a rhythm section, of course) is going to have a considerable impact on the overall merit and quality of this recording, and Charlie Rouse, at this point, after working with Monk since 1959, has become the ideal tenor sax partner.  In one sense, he is an extension of Monk’s brilliance, and yet he still has his own voice and ideas.

The album I am using for this trek back through time is the LP version without the bonus tracks available on the CD version.

  1. “Locomotive” (Thelonious Monk)
  2. “I Didn’t Know About You” (Duke Ellington)
  3. “Straight, No Chaser” (Thelonious Monk)
  4. “Japanese Folk Song (Kōjō no Tsuki)” (Rentarō Taki)
  5. “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (Harold Arlen)
  6. “We See” (Thelonious Monk)

“Locomotive”, opens the album, slow and steady, initially creating a sound picture of a locomotive chugging out of the station and then giving way to one of those “every note counts” Monk solos, a solo that is cognizant of, and at points includes fragments of, the original melody.  Rouse solos follows with Monk accompanying and the piece ends in typical bebop fashion, repeating the opening section.

The fourth track, “Japanese Folk Song” is particularly of note. On the LP the length is around 11 minutes.  On the CD reissue, the length is listed at 16:42, indicating that the LP version has been edited.  The folk song melody that opens the piece is Rentarō Taki’s “Kojo No Tsuki” (The Moon Over the Desolate Castle), originally written in 1901 as a school-book lesson in “Songs for High School Students”, and later recorded in the 1920’s becoming a well-known tune throughout Japan that was so associated with Japanese nationalism that the tune was banned by the Allies during their post WWII occupation of Japan.

Monk takes the original tune and twists it with syncopation, runs and Monk’s own distinct dynamic approach to striking the keys. Rouse comes in playing the melody eerily evenly on the beat before journeying more distantly away. At the 4 1/2 minute mark on the LP we have the start of an extended, mesmerizing solo by Monk.  (I am guessing this is where the edit is, dropping out a solo by Rouse to accommodate the time limitations of the LP.)  The last 3 minutes Rouse and Monk wind their way to the finish with interwoven, intertwined, Monk-trademark counterpoint before a brief and satisfying coda.

“The Real McCoy” is McCoy Tyner’s seventh album, but please notice that the label is no longer Impulse but Blue Note.  Blue Note Records, founded in 1939, historically seems to be the label that takes artists to their next level and so it is here with Tyner, who had recorded his last album with John Coltrane in 1965 and was not aligned with the direction Coltrane was pursuing.  Tyner: ” All I could hear was a lot of noise. I didn’t have any feeling for the music, and when I don’t have feelings, I don’t play.”

Well, there’s not any dispute about Tyner playing on this album. From the opening upbeat, contemporary “Passion Dance” to the more traditional “Blues on the Corner” spiced with Tyner’s harmonics and his energetic, almost frenetic solo, this is an excellent album.

With Tyner are three world-class jazz artists:

I am often disinterested in the obligatory bass solo (whether that is once each track or even, as in this case, once on an album), but Ron Carter, is always exceptional as he shows here on his solo, in the introspective second track, “Contemplation.”

Elvin Jones was the ideal drummer for the many Coltane albums he is on, and an excellent fit for Tyner’s compositions and Tyner’s playing.

Joe Henderson made important contributions on Blue Note albums starting in 1963, appearing on important albums for Grant Green, Andrew Hill, Horace Silver and Lee Morgan as well as Larry Young’s incomparable “Unity” album. He shimmers and sparkles on this album with inventive, engaging and compelling soloing and ensemble work.

If one compares the quality of Tyner’s piano work to Monk’s, which, of course, really isn’t fair to either artist, Tyner does come in second place in terms of overall musical intensity and economy of expression. This is evident in the exceptional track “Contemplation.” From almost the beginning Tyner includes these short repeated scalar phrases (some would call this “noodling”) which, unfortunately, remind me a little too much of some of the soloing filler of the guitarists in the 1980’s hair bands, and is not so distant to some of the unnecessary busy-ness that one can even find in earlier pianists like Art Tatum.  This is only a slight distraction, and less annoying on repeated listenings of this track; particularly as Tyner treats this as an integral part of the composition and so once one has heard the composition, these quick spurts of adjacent notes become part of the performance’s fabric.

Putting such a minor quibble aside, Tyner has put together a diverse set of compositions. The modal “Passion Dance” is exceptionally vibrant and vital. “Contemplation” is an introspective ballad.  “Four by Five” is an aggressive, wild work starting with a 4 against 5 theme and highlighted by amazing soloing by Joe Henderson. From the Blue Note Liner Notes: “McCoy explains … ‘Four By Five receives its title because the melody is constructed as if there’s a middle -it’s in 4/4 on the outside and 5/4 on the inside. But we improvise as if there weren’t a middle; we improvise only in 4/4’.”

“Search for Peace” is a soothing statement about the value of peacefulness and tranquility.  The album ends with a casual, relaxed blues-based tune, “Blues on the Corner”, nicely wrapping up an album that covers a range of emotions and attitudes, accessible and yet solidly fresh, modern music for 1967 that is as engaging today as ever.

Track listing 

All compositions by McCoy Tyner

  1. “Passion Dance” – 8:45
  2. “Contemplation” – 9:10
  3. “Four by Five” – 6:35
  4. “Search for Peace” – 6:25
  5. “Blues on the Corner” – 6:05

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