HERBIE HANCOCK – Head Hunters (1973)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

File it under Jazz I Like. Oh, did I mention yet I like it very much? File it under jazz I Like Very Much.

Not just jazz actually. Jazz Fusion. But let’s not pick nits. Or fuck ants; as the Dutch expression goes.

Oh, OK, file it under jazz fusion I like very much, if you like. It’s a kind of jazz, isn’t it?

Under the shower I listen to classical musical. That’s good for the hygiene; physical as well as mental. And every once in a while, quite often in fact, I hear some piece of music that is if not exactly a piece of shit then at least a piece of music that does not exactly turn me on. Gives me chagrin. Usually the announcer tells me it’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when it is finally finished.

In the 80’s there was a movie about Mozart called Amadeus. In It young Wolfgang encounters a monarch who tells him he doesn’t like the music because it contains “too many notes”. To which the composer replies, very wittily, “Which notes exactly would you like me to remove, Sire?”.

Still, I think that was a wise king. Or at least he made a valid observation.

I don’t hate Mozart. In fact I love his Requiem. Very much. Fact is however that he wrote an awful lot of music that leaves me totally cold. Pieces that to my uneducated ears sound like futile exercises in cleverness. Aptitude tests. Series of meaningless notes that do not resonate with me at all.

My attitude towards jazz is somewhat the same. While I respect the tradition and the musicians and I’m fond of the mythos of the story of jazz the music is often boring or, worse, annoying, to my ears. All these bloody notes! Solo’s! All this emphasis on prowess. Chops! A very childish word: “chops”.

The same issue I have with some more technically inclined progbands. Trying to impress me. Well. Liberace had chops too.

Noodling. There’s some noodling I like but that’s more an exception than a rule. I don’t mind Jimi Hendrix’ and Miles Davis’ noodling at all. I like Fripping to some extent and was shocked to discover a couple of weeks ago that I actually liked one of those Yes albums, can’t remember which one. But that had a lot to do with the bass parts. (Definitely not with the singing.) Neil Young can noodle into my ear anytime. But I don’t know if that has anything to do with chops. Him and his old black sounding like a shot and leaking can of paint that comes tumbling down the slope in the morning. In these cases it’s the tone and the colour that I love.

But generally speaking I’m not fond of noodling.

Also I have this prejudice that jazz fans often have unpleasant, snobbish and presumptuous attitudes. But that’s not exclusive for jazz. Classical people can be very condescending as well. And maybe I ought to stick my hand in my own bosom. Could be I’m a poprocksnob.

Oh shit, I’m just reading the news that Lemmy has died. On the radio they’re playing the so called Top 2000 of All Time as voted by the Dutch public. I’ve just learned that my fellow countrymen think “We All Stand Together” is one the 2000 best songs ever made. No mentiön of Lemmy playing bass in the big hereafter, so far.

That makes me see red. I must be a snob.

I don’t want no sugar in my coffee.

So, I was just saying that a mild case of aversion to jazz because of the emphasis on virtuosity and solo’s and, more irrationally, because of the snobbishness associated with the genre.
Thus I frankly steered mostly clear of the genre, with a few exceptions like Miles Davis, whose tone I love (especially on Sketches of Spain) and vocal jazz like Billie Holiday. & I have an album by one Sydney Bechet that I like for some reason.

I was scared upon learning that I had to review a jazz album. Well OK, a jazz fusion album if you like. Headhunters by Herbie Hancock. Fear of noodling.

Then I put on the thing.

And it was a relief. I was fine & unharmed.

Of course, I could have known that I was gonna be alright with Hancock. So far I know only one piece of him, Rockit, – the jazz / hip hop fusion thing- , and I did like it.

What have we here? A very influential jazz fusion album. Referenced, listed, sampled a lot of times. Fuses jazz and funk and some African rhythms. It uses a lot of keyboards (clavinet and analogue synths mainly), saxophone and other wind instruments, various percussion instruments and it has fabulous basslines. No vocals.

Chameleon, the first track starts off with a really fat synthesizer bass line and it is very funky. An equally fat and pleasant keyboard sound is applied and there are a couple of breaks in the piece where the synthesizer sounds as if a space ship is landing. Or taking off. No, on second thought it is definitely landing. However, the bass, alternately synthesizer and conventional electric rules. By the way, according to Wikipedia there are no guitars on Headhunters but do I hear two rhythm guitar parts on Chameleon?

Somewhat more laidback, but still very danceable is Watermelon Man, the second track which happens to open with the coolest thing on the whole record, a rhythmic whistling pattern that’s played on beer bottles. (At first I thought it were flutes and was amazed that I liked it because the flute is the instrument I love least and dread most. It sounds wet, breathy, breathless, shrill and panicky. I always fear that a big lump of saliva will fly into my ear. Or worse. I don’t want no flutepersons climaxing near me. Most unsavory alas.) (But it turns out they’re not flutes after all.) Anyway: nice!

The third piece, Sly, is the one I have the most problems with. It starts out promising enough wih a beautifully fluid melody line but then it turns into a very frantic jazzy drum based piece which doesn’t have a memorable hook and is mostly given over to, yes, a lot of soloing on various instruments. I don’t abhor it and now that I hear it for the third time I’m getting used to it a little bit. Still I could do without the solo’s. Not my favorite.

Vein Melter, the 4th track is. Very evocative name by the way, especially when you read it in and think it is German which I mistakenly did at first. I have no idea what or who Vein Melter is in German but I would like to. Don’t know what is meant by it in English. Vein Melter is simply beautiful. It has a slow march tempo and it sounds mellow, sinister, introspective and lyrical at the same time. Once again it has a great bass line.

Probably many people assess new music by way of association with music that’s already known to them. At least I do. I can hear a lot of echoes of Headhunters in post-punk music without being able to quite put my finger on it where it’s influences show exactly. A Certain Ratio? Shriekback? Maybe I will find out tomorrow.

If it’s intention of this most alas game to spread new good music among the participants then in this case the goal is achieved. As I said before, I like it a lot. I consider a purchase.

KING SUNNY ADÉ – Isele Yi Leju (2013)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Well, I like it.

I find it difficult to put in words what I like about it. It’s JuJu, a genre of music which I know almost nothing about except that it’s a form of African pop music from Nigeria and King Sunny Adé is one of the most renowned artists therein.

So: a non-review.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been living in a redecoration job that’s gotten completely out of hand – let’s say a demolished and leaky bunker with too many personal belongings in it for comfort. And shaky shaky wifi. And the occasional headache caused by ammonia fumes. So that’s how I listened to this album. It is good music to do some housepainting to. Though my helping hand Franz Ferdinand disagreed; he said it annoyed him. Then I had to put it off; to humour him. Anyway; I dug it but I didn’t have time to read up on the subject, let alone review the album.

The music is characterized by grooves of polyrhythmic drum and bass playing (all kinds of different traditional percussion, I suppose) very fluid and clear mulitple guitar lines and call- and response type of singing; the unobtrusive and very sweet, melancholic voice of Adé taking the lead. Of course I don’t have a clue what they’re singing about.

Adé had a moment of fame in 80’s when a couple of his albums, Synchro System and Aura, (maybe there were more) were released on Island and distributed worldwide to general positive reviews. I missed out on Synchro System, heard it at a friend’s place and bought Aura instead. So that’s how I knew about King Sunny until now. Typically I never heard more than these two albums, my attention moved on, and I think that’s exemplary for how many western listeners listen to “World Music” – from hype to hype.

Isele Yi Leju contains recordings from before the Island years. I suspected that Adé’s sound on the Island albums was adapted to a large extend to what western audiences demanded. Also because the rhythmic patterns are not dissimilar to those used by Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel, to name but a few. However, this is not the case, apart from the obligatory 80’s stereoids treatment on the drums the sound is mostly the same.

There’s also a large resemblance to traditional Surinamese music, Kawina and Kaseko, that you hear a lot if you live in Amsterdam (as there are many people with a Surinamese background here).

This is music that is better experienced in a live setting or at a party – great for hip-shaking. When heard in the background it can become a bit monotonous at times. But the painting comes along nicely with this album. As long as Franz Ferdinand isn’t here.

You should try to redecorate my apartment for a change. See how you like it. Anyway, I have work to do. Fixing a hole.

VERSHKI DA KORESHKI – Vershki da Koreshki (1996)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Man, this is even harder to review than the Peter Tosh album was. It’s basically just moody jazzy throat singing. I think I’d go batty if I were to listen to this all the time, but it’s rather neat to listen to every once in a while.

SLAPP HAPPY / HENRY COW – Desperate Straights (1975)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Tracks: Some Questions About Hats, The Owl, A Worm Is At Work, Bad Alchemy, Europa, Desperate Straights, Riding Tigers, Apes in Capes, Strayed, Giants, Excerpt From The Messiah, In The Sickbay, Caucasian Lullaby

A merger. Two bands made this album together, Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. And they were so happy with the results that they decided to merge after that. Maybe more bands should do so. The remnants of the Beatles and the Stones. A recipe for disastrous success.  I think not. It might solve a bass problem though.

Bands as corporations with a lifespan of centuries.

Prog pop. That’s the genre here, I just found out. I just found out this genre existed. So far I only knew of prog rock.

Indeed, do not expect “rock”. Slapp Happy will not “rock you” on this album. A comforting thought when it comes to prog.

The general mood on this album is reflective and cerebral. And it is very artsy.

The first song “Some questions about hats” took me to Weimar. Kurtweilland. Hanns Eislerland. German Expressionism. That sets the tone for most of the songs on this album. The music is largely staccato, with intricate signatures and unexpected melodic twists. The instruments used on these tracks are for the most part acoustic; piano, bass guitar and drums are the main instruments. The arrangements then are filled out with violins, woodwinds, trumpets and the occasional electric guitar and Wurlitzer. Dagmar Krause uses her plainsong voice in a high register and the supposedly poetic lyrics are provided by Peter Blegvad. By the way, to simply state Weimar would be incorrect as I hear different influences in these songs as well, like Canterbury style prog, (free)jazz and John Cage’ compositions for piano, prepared or raw.

I’ll categorize these tracks as avant-garde Weimar chamber pop. In them on first hearing everything sounded a bit askew but once I got used to the sound I found these generally short pieces quite beautiful in an offbeat way. Slapp Happy / Henry Cow obviously knew what they were doing without the apparent urge to impress with prowess. In fact, overall the record sounds quite lean. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an influence on the more melodic post-punk experimentalists like Tuxedomoon and Minimal Compact and even nineties alternative rock acts like dEUS and Tindersticks. It must be my imagination but sometimes the violin parts even remind me of those in “Different Trains” by Steve Reich.

All the non-instrumental tracks, bar one, are sung by Dagmar Krause. Her voice took me some time to get used to. It is more in the European classical / cabaret style than pop/rock. She has a funny german accent and I can easily imagine her singing the “Dreigrosschenoper”. At times though she sounds shrill and quivering, especially in the high register. Witchy and childish at times. On first hearing “Some questions about hats” I thought: “well, surely this must be the wicked witch from the East”. However for the most part she sounds quite pleasant even if she’s no Lotte Lenya. On the contrary in  “Excerpt From The Messiah” she even sounds like Yoko Ono, complete with Onowarblings. Not that I mind one bit, of course.

Not all songs live in Weimar however and there are four that sound quite differently. The title track is a beautiful piano dominated instrumental that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late sixties Beach Boys album. “Strayed” is a poppy, clean guitar driven song, sung by Peter Blegvad, that on first hearing sounds quite conventional until you realize it is actually a bossa nova and could well have been produced in the nineties by let’s say Cake. The aforementioned “Excerpt From The Messiah” (a Händel cover, no less) is the most rockist track complete with distorted electric guitars. Still this is no shit that stinks. It has a great line though: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting”. I suppose that’s about Jesus Christ. Finally the last track consists almost entirely  of slowly ascending lonely notes on the piano and woodwinds without reaching a conclusion. This is music of lonesome foghorns that blow, solitary walks through deserted industrial wastelands and fortified coastal regions or as in my case bicycle rides in the rain through the polder with windmills and pumping stations at night. It works. Spooky.

Do I know some people who would hate this album? Yes I do. Those who do not like art in their music and they are legion. In fact, I intend to use this album to evacuate my birthday party  in December.

It’s a good album though and quite unlike any other I heard so far. If you are exhausted by Zarah Leander, Suzi Quatro, Li’l Kim and Amanda Lear you need this album. Even if it might take you some effort. That’s okay. I do not approve of laziness.

Oh, so  do I like it? I do, even if at times it’s a bit too cerebral to actually love. It is good. This is paletti. Pico bello. Sombrero!

Favorite tracks: “The Owl”, “A Worm Is At Work”, “Desperate Straights”, “Strayed” and “Caucasian Lullaby”.