Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
re: BACH. Lara St. John. Sony Classical. If there’s one word that might describe Lara St. John — it’s “guts.” How many other classical violinists would dare to invite pedal steel guitar player B.J. Cole and Indian tabla master Trilok Gurtu to play on an album of Bach interpretations? The key to understanding this record is in the answer to that question: Lara St. John is not like other classical performers. Instead, St. John is a daring and bold musician who has infused new life into Bach’s music — filling the subtle lines of these compositions with gentle inflections of jazz and world music — a complete demonstration of her wide ranging influences.
re: Bach marks St. John’s initial release on the Sony label (although she had previously recorded three other albums for other imprints to high critical remarks). St. John, who began playing the violin at the age of two, has toured throughout the world and has played with a number of superb symphonies, including the Tokyo Symphony under the direction of Paavo Jarvi. More than anything else, re: Bach shows that St. John has grown into a seasoned and versatile performer who is able to immediately command her listener’s attention — guiding us through time now delivering us from the dead : it’s a drive through the invisible riding this perfect vehicle of music. Standout cuts are marked by “Echo” (with wonderful cello fills by Robbie Jacobs) and “Bombay Minor,” which features St. John’s throbbing and sensual violin set against the heartbeat rhythms of Gurtu’s hand drum.
In re: Bach St. John has crossed many musical boundaries and bridged the gap between the old world of Bach and America in the 21st century, at once feeding new life into this ancient and timeless music. The result is absolutely riveting.
MASTERWORKS EXPANDED EDITION SERIES. Sony Classical. The arm of the Sony empire responsible for classical music is truly an under-appreciated part of the label. However, Sony Classical’s approach to digital recording is revolutionary and the sound that this Direct Stream Digital methods builds is phenomenal — crystal clear and see through, as if the music is being performed on stage in front of you in a concert for one: the notes slowly seeping from the walls of the room and into your pores.
This wonderful resonance of sound becomes readily apparent in the Masterworks Series, a project which features the cream of the Sony Classical catalog, perfectly remastered with new tracks added to many of its most enduring records: marking a chance for a new generation of record buyers to experience the classics of the classical genre.
Masterworks Expanded is the second installment in the series (with plans for an additional 100 records to be released by the end of 2006). Most of the Masterworks selections include their original liner notes, with prices for these CDS surprisingly modest — the idea being to encourage young listeners to explore the worlds that exist outside of Rock and Roll and Metal as they broaden their understanding of the myriad forms of this distinguished music.
And that journey must begin here, for the Masterworks Series comprises the core of the best in classical music from the last 50 years. Each of the records in this series is a veritable masterpiece, but the album “Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring & The Firebird Suite,” featuring Leonard Bernstein/London Symphony Orchestra & New York Philharmonic, is astounding — an inspired and hypnotic performance that is at once appropriate for a wedding or funeral or birthday, the music rising through the halls of the veins like swelling waves, hypnotic and holy and sweet, reducing the bottoms of the eyes to these infinite pools of tears. This is Bernstein’s 1972 London recording of The Rite of Spring; with the New York Philharmonic. Additional tracks featuring Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite (with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic).
Also striking is “Mozart: Symphonies & Masonic Funeral Music” (Claudio Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic, including a riveting performance of Symphony No. 31 in D Major).
HONKIN’ ON BOBO. Aerosmith. Columbia Records. Aerosmith has been, for the last three decades, the classic American hard rock band — their beat driving black and acidic, capturing the instant of bullet cracking through bone. However, Honkin’ marks a return for the band, a return back to the roots of their inspiration. In this album, they cover many classic blues pieces – a statement to Rock and Roll fans everywhere that Aerosmith (much like Jagger and The Stones) was both guided and inspired by the soulful howl of the old bluesmen.
“Rather than try and pigeonhole or categorize the album, we’d just like to think of it as a new Aerosmith album,” said guitarist Joe Perry. “Our fans have always said, ‘We love your new music, but when are you going to make a record that sounds like your old stuff?’ In order to do that, we figured the blues was the best place to start, as it has always been a major influence on us.”
With the bulk of the record recorded in Perry’s Boneyard Studio and in lead vocalist Steve Tyler’s Bryer Patch Studio, Honkin’ sports an unpretentious feel, somewhat like Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes coming through bigger, bolder, louder speakers. Honkin’ is a throw back record, something meant to tell us where these cats came from and why their sound developed as it has. Trust me, after one listen, you’ll be hooked – for there isn’t a bad cut here. The band’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” is a real gem, the edginess of Van Morrison’s version turned up and drawn down until we hear steam pour through the lines in long fists and clots. Also noteworthy is “Jesus On the Main Line,” with that classic Aerosmith cadence (clawing guitars, drum heavy chorus), as every second drives the impulse to move, driving the feet to rise up and shimmy, these dancing leaves in the wind, these voices shining like raw blood at dawn.
“We didn’t record a blues album,” Tyler muses. “We recorded an Aerosmith album. Everything Aerosmith has ever done has been influenced by the blues. This time around, we just brought [that] influence a little closer to the surface.”
Allison Scull of Dunsmuir (an old railroad town at the upper arm of the Sacramento River Canyon) has been singing since she was a small child. One listen to her debut CD, ALLISON ST, and you’ll come to understand why.
The songs on ALLISON ST were written during an eight year span beginning in 1990 and recorded in Ashland, Oregon in 1998. ALLISON ST, named after an actual street in Ashland where Scull went to college, is comprised of 10 songs — and are absolute gems. By combining different instruments (bouzooki, dhotar, congas, ragtime banjo, saxophone), Scull has built a bridge between traditional acoustic music, light rock and jazz. And the results are truly startling.
There are many highlights on ALLISON ST, including the contemplative “My Room,” and the hauntingly beautiful “La Seine” (the lines of this piece unfold across invisible waters at dawn as the love-torn narrator walks along a river in France) – the music, skillfully guided by Scull’s deft and delicate voice, calling to mind the young Mary Travers. The centerpiece of ALLISON ST, however, is “Sips of Coffee,” a short and simple poem delivered alternately in English and French as the bouzooki (a Greek mandolin) mixes perfectly with Scull’s guitar to fill in those soft spaces that linger between silence and words.
When Victor Martin began playing music as a youngster, he originally passed up the saxophone “because it had too many keys.” He chose the trumpet instead (it only has three keys), but soon found himself unable to play it. Discouraged, intent on giving up the study of music altogether, Victor was handed a saxophone by his mother who demanded he stay in the school band.
Thirty-five years later, Martin has become one of the most accomplished horn players in Northern California. Martin, 46, is featured on ALLISON ST and has been playing with Scull for almost 3 years. Tall and muscular, he blends the physical stature of King Curtis with the range of the late great session man Steve Douglas.
Aside from playing with Scull, Martin contributes regularly to the Mount Shasta R&B band “Sound Advice.” He also played alongside Grammy award winning saxophonist Joe Henderson at the Sacramento River Jazz Festival in 1992, a concert he regards as a high-point in his career.
With one thing or another, a couple of years have slipped by during which I didn’t see Allison Scull and Victor Martin perform live. Previously, I had enjoyed their music and was aware that they were growing, both musically and in the craft of their performance.
They’ve been busy, these past two years.
They performed at Tom O’Hara’s Stage Door, a beautifully laid out Espresso and Wine place (with the architectural planning and work done by Tom himself) in the listening room, Tom’s home for jazz and blues musicians and already a significant part of the Mount Shasta scene.
Obviously relishing the opportunity to perform for the hometown folks in such a setting, Allison and Victor were joined by Bill Vallaire on bass guitar and Mike Whipple on percussion. Vallaire proved a perfect match for my expectations of what a good bass guitarman should be; you didn’t notice he was there until he stopped, and you suddenly realized the subtle power of his contributions. Whipple added a slightly Carribean beat to the songs with a style reminiscent of Widespread Panic’s Domingo Ortiz. He was feeling his way in the first set, sometimes stepping on Victor’s saxophone bridges, but by the second set had settled in comfortably. In the final two songs, the brilliant Rick Garrett, apparently a surprise sit-in, took over guitar duties from Allison, playing intricate, soaring riffs.
But it was Allison and Victor’s night. Allison has gained confidence, both in her stage presence and her craft, looking relaxed and losing herself in her music, putting her heart into the mixture of songs from her solo CD, “Allison Street” and her joint album with Victor, “From the Back Burner” and such standards as “Autumn Leaves.” Her singing shows influences of Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday, with the Continental breathiness of Edith Piaf – the result is a unique mixture of warmth and sophistication. Allison has broadened her vocal range, testing herself, learning, and at the same time, learned how to express her heart through her singing for the live audience.
Victor loomed genially beside her, his sax and his vocals an arresting mix of smoky, velvet tones and passionate drive, an amicable volcano. He, too, has broadened his range and clearly enjoys testing and exploring his both his voice and his instrument, with startling and successful results. I get the feeling that Victor has been listening to Coltrane and the Bird – and learning. It’s hard to believe that when he first teamed up with Allison, he didn’t envision himself doing vocals, because his is a rich, powerful voice that, like his sax, is smooth and deep until he decides to cut loose. Like Allison, he has tested his abilities and broadened his abilities, gaining confidence, with stunning results.
Allison and Victor are an arresting contrast, both visually and musically, and the combination is rich, unique, and remarkable.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.