Santana / Shaman

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Like its predecessor, “Supernatural,” released in 1999, Santana’s “Shaman” no doubt was an attempt by Clive Davis to replicate the success of the former album. This 2002 release is another disc that I’ve heard in my effort to hear all of Santana and the solo projects from Carlos Santana (1947-), in a more or less chronological fashion. I’ve made this effort because I believe it’s intriguing to chart the sounds Santana has been making since the late 1960’s, which is when Carlos Santana began fusing Blues with Latin and Afro Cuban music, with his early configuration of musicians.

It’s interesting how Santana’s music has often reflected and been influenced by certain Pop/Rock trends through the decades. Although his “band” has probably changed personnel more than any other major group, I’ve found that like one of his idols, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana has always been able to enlist the services of topnotch musicians including many from Davis’ stable, such as Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock.

I suppose that my favorite Santana era was the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s. At that time, his Woodstock band and subsequent immediate bands incorporated Jazz elements, as heard on “Caravanserai” (1972), “Welcome” (1973) and “Borboletta” (1974), thereby pushing the envelope of this type of music. In other words, these are the ones that matter the most to me. This isn’t to say that Carlos Santana didn’t produce other fine music, both as a solo performer and with his Santana band, but somehow, it wasn’t as “vital.”

Nevertheless, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed all of his albums to a greater or lesser degree, even when they’ve ventured into pure Pop territory. This is simply because I’ve found that even the “worst” Santana albums contain at least two or three really good songs. I’m often pleasantly surprised by the array of personnel employed, the use of a wide variety of instruments, and the interesting tone colors which can ensue. I’m not a listener who likes Carlos Santana’s albums simply because of his unique and beautiful guitar sound; although, this is often a major factor. The fact is that his playing is just one ingredient of some very good music. However, I will say that I can’t think of any other Rock guitarist who places such a high premium on beauty, for its own sake. In other words, his music is rarely less than “pleasant,” even if it occasionally degenerates into the commercial Pop drivel.

This brings me back to “Shaman.” If anything, like its lengthy predecessor, this approximately 75-minute album should be known as a “Carlos Santana” album versus a “Santana” album, as there is no clear sense of an actual band at work here. It’s a disc of collaborations with many different Rock/Pop/Hip Hop artists, which Clive Davis obviously thought would appeal to a broad listener spectrum, and thereby follow in the sales and awards footsteps of “Supernatural.” Although always a strong guitar presence and a great artist on his own albums, Carlos Santana has only four writing credits out of the 16 tunes on “Shaman.” By this yardstick, “Supernatural” should also bear the “Carlos Santana” versus the “Santana” moniker.

Is this album nice? Sure, and I genuinely liked songs such as “Adouma,” “Foo Foo” and “Aye Aye Aye.” Many of the other songs performed by Seal, Michelle Branch, Chad Kroeger, and even Placido Domingo (!) will appeal to some people more than others. In the main, I wasn’t too crazy about them. This was a VERY slickly produced effort, and something of a stylistic hodgepodge.

As I said earlier, at least here, Carlos Santana made “nice” music, but seemed bent on playing it safe. I’ll continue to listen to any of his albums I haven’t heard, to gain a complete picture of his artistry. As long as I don’t set my expectations too high, I’m sure that I won’t regret the effort! I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that even at their worst, “Santana” or “Carlos Santana” albums always give me some satisfaction.

 

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Péter Eötvös / Three Sisters / Kent Nagano / Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon

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First of all, I’d like to say that this is a fantastic recording of Péter Eötvös’ first major work for the musical stage. An earlier piece, “Radames,” from 1975 was a chamber opera. “Three Sisters” is based upon the Anton Chekov play of the same name which concerns the Prozorovs, a family sinking into a dull and monotonous life, over the course of four years.

Eötvös (1944-) restructures the play into three “sequences,” each of which relates the same events, viewed from the perspectives of three different characters. Another novel feature of this work is the use of countertenors to portray the women’s roles, apparently to emphasize the timelessness of his conception. Thus, the production has an all-male cast. While this type of casting was a first for me, I soon became acclimated to it. This recording of the world premiere performance was so impressive in terms of sonics and sonorities, that I was distracted from following the phonetic Russian-English libretto. Therefore, I’ll admit that I wasn’t as dramatically involved, as I should have been.

Stylistically, this music has eclecticism within a somewhat avant-garde style, which often moves into expressionism. The use of different individual instruments functioning as doubles for the characters is effective and interesting. Even an accordion is prominently featured.

There are three “listening guides” of approximately eight minutes provided at the end of Disc Two, each of which is available in English, German and French. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered these nice features before, and they can only help! Each guide is akin to a preconcert lecture. Obviously, to fully digest this work, repetitive listening is warranted, especially without the visual elements.

As I mentioned before, this was a live recording of the world premiere and I can honestly say that I’ve NEVER heard a live performance captured so well on CD. It’s a good thing, as the different voices and instrumental textures need to be clear. Conductor Kent Nagano (1951-) led an 18-piece ensemble in the orchestra pit and he was joined by Eötvös himself, who conducted a 50-piece orchestra from the rear of the stage. Both maestros have done a fantastic job.

The singers included countertenor Alain Aubin, countertenor Vyatcheslav Kagan-Paley and countertenor Oleg Riabets as the three sisters, each sounding their “feminine best.” As one of the suitors of “Irina,” Denis Sedov had a particularly resonant bass voice. In fact, all of the singers sang well.

Finally, kudos should be given to the 20/21 series from Deutsche Grammophon which deals with “music of our time.” Releases from this label have been outstanding in terms of recording quality and superior performances. “Three Sisters” is certainly no exception.

Steely Dan: Two Against Nature

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It was particularly nice to be able to watch “Steely Dan: Two Against Nature,” a DVD released in 2000 on the Image Entertainment label and coinciding with their CD release of the same name.

While not well known as a “live act,” I suppose Steely Dan is the quintessential example of a band who serves up well-polished studio renditions of songs drawing from various influences. Donald Fagan (1948-) and Walter Becker (1950-) are the two masterminds and only constant members of the band, which was formed in the early 1970’s. With Becker on guitar and Fagan on keyboards and lead vocals, Steely Dan has always enlisted the talents of top studio musicians, as well as other famous players and singers from the Rock/Pop/Jazz firmament to fill out the “band” on any given album. It’s a formula that has obviously worked well for them, given the results.

The DVD I watched was shot live at New York’s Sony Studios in front of a small audience and featured many of their hits from the 2000’s including “Janie Runaway,” “Cousin Dupree,” “Gaslight Alley,” the title track, “Two Against Nature,” as well as various hits from their 1970’s heyday, such as “Peg,” “Josie” and “Kid Charlemagne.”

While precious little live footage was available from this band, the actual performances were so polished and “tight” that there was little departure from the studio versions. The ensemble included three female backup singers, two saxophonists and single players on trumpet, trombone, bass, drums, and two guitarists. Fagan doubled on keyboards, piano, and Wurlitzer. Trumpeter Michael Leonhart (1974-) sat in on Wurlitzer for “Two Against Nature.” Alto saxophonist, Christopher Potter (1971-), was perhaps the most famous sideman in this lineup of superb players.

Interspersed between the musical numbers were humorous “interview” segments with Fagan and Becker, who grilled members of their current band sitting between them on the couch. The same irony that coursed through their songs was on full display here!

At a running time of one hour and 41 minutes, this DVD featured state-of-the-art sound and fine camerawork. There were no bonus features. It’s definitely a “must” for Steely Dan fans.

 

Mozart: The Symphonies / Trevor Pinnock / The English Concert

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The complete Mozart Symphonies by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert is a fine set of 11 CDs, particularly for those who prefer 18th Century music performed on “authentic” instruments. I say this because by the early 1990’s when this set was recorded (1992 to 1995), performance standards for authentic instruments were heightened. Since that time, they have no doubt further improved. When compared with many other highly respected “period” ensembles of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the English Concert left little to be desired, especially in reference to certain basic factors, such as intonation and tone production. After hearing the performances, it’s easy to adjust to the different timbres of these instruments. Personally, I found nothing to be lacking.

The ensemble was led by Pinnock (1946-) from the harpsichord. Notations regarding the sections of the orchestra were listed in the accompanying booklet, with the string sections varying from a minimum of five first violins, four second violins, two violas, two cellos, and one double bass for the earlier symphonies (Written when Mozart was either eight or nine-years old!), to a maximum of eight first violins, eight second violins, four violas, four cellos, and three double basses for the later ones. Of course, the winds also varied according to Mozart’s specific requirements.

Although the last numbered symphony was “No.41,” I’ve learned that this did not mean that Mozart only wrote 41 symphonies. In fact, as explained by musicologist, Tim Carter (1954-), the earlier symphonies may not have been by Mozart at all, as his father, Leopold (1719-1787), may have occasionally “helped” his son.

Furthermore, as with Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the numbering of the symphonies did not necessarily reflect their actual chronology. Many of the early symphonies didn’t have numbers at all and were listed instead as “Symphony in F Major K.76,” or “Symphony in D Major, K.95,” etc. There was no “Symphony No.32,” since it has been determined that with exception of the introduction, it was written by Michael Haydn (1737-1806), a friend of Mozart.

At any rate, there are 48 symphonies in this set, ranging in length from “Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major,” with a running time of six minutes and 41 seconds, to the 39-minute, 32-second “Symphony No. 41 in C Major K.551,” also known as the “Jupiter,” composed in 1788.

To my ears, I have found that regardless of the genre, Mozart’s compositions dating from his earliest years to his mid-teens are well-crafted and nice. As a rule, they don’t make much of an impression on me. However, by his late teens, he was a master, and his depth of feeling and overall compositional skills continued to increase, until his premature death at age 35. Using the symphony and string quartet genres as examples, I believe Mozart’s works could easily rival or even exceed the best efforts from Franz Joseph Haydn, in terms of overall ingenuity and brilliance. In addition, we should also remember to attribute Mozart’s initial inspiration or “templates” for these pieces to Haydn.

I can highly recommend this set, even to those accustomed to hearing Mozart’s more famous later symphonies performed on “modern” instruments.

 

 

Ella and Basie: The Perfect Match ’79

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“Ella and Basie: The Perfect Match ’79,” is another DVD in the “Norman Granz Jazz in Montreux” series. Released during 2004 under the Eagle Vision label, it’s fine example of this meeting of musical forces. Behind Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) were the Count Basie Orchestra and the Paul Smith Trio, coming on the heels of her recent album collaboration with that trio.

Although this disc was billed as “Ella & Basie,” Count Basie (1904-1984) didn’t appear until about 55 minutes into this 73-minute concert. The piano duties were primarily relegated to Paul Smith (1922-2013).

Clearly, Ella was the star of this show, which was filmed at the Montreux Casino. Boy, did she put out! At age 62, her vocal powers showed scant signs of aging and her instrument was put through its paces across a wide range, singing and scatting. Near the end of this disc, she traded forces with the Basie trombonists and tenor saxophone players. Her voice still had that wonderful “girlish” quality that I liked so much; however, I’d never seen or heard her perform in such a broad range of styles in a single show. Funny as this might sound, if anything, Ella’s voice sounded more “powerful” than in her heyday, during the 1940’s and 1950’s. She appeared to have fun with Basie’s ensemble which was so famous for its ability to “swing.”

As usual, Jazz historian and critic, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) provided an informative introduction to this disc, and the bonus features included a portrait of impresario Norman Granz (1918-2001), as well as photos and drawings of famous Jazz artists.

This DVD was a great pairing and should be essential viewing for Ella Fitzgerald fans.

 

Richard Strauss / Eine Alpensinfonie / Herbert von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic

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I just finished watching “Eine Alpensinfonie” on DVD, taped at the Berlin Philharmonie in 1983 and released under the Sony label, as a part of the Herbert von Karajan “His Legacy for Home Video” series. This Berlin Philharmonic performance was given in observance of All Souls Day, and originally posthumously released under Karajan’s own Telemondial label in 1991.

First of all, this magnificent piece of music was composed by Richard Strauss between 1911 and 1915. It was his last tone poem and in my opinion, his greatest one in many respects. In purely instrumental terms, this work is an effective depiction of the ascent and descent of a mountain. Beginning with night just before dawn and ending with night after sunset, the signposts of roughly 12 hours are reflected in the score; i.e., “Night,” “Sunrise,” “The Ascent,” “At the Summit,” “Calm Before the Storm,” etc. What happens in between, as well as the two “Nights” which serve as bookends, is one of the true marvels of music, in terms of orchestration and imagination.

As with other Karajan films under his artistic supervision, he was the main subject of the lens. Truly, he is one of the more interesting conductors to watch sculpt and shape the music with his hands. In fact, I don’t think anyone can best Karajan where sheer “fervor” is concerned.

That being said, there are so many interesting and unusual instruments in this piece which should merit expert video attention; therefore, I believe the camerawork comes up short. Although the typical side view shots of the woodwind and brass players were dramatic, they needed to be supplemented by full frontal views revealing the breadth and depth of the entire sections. Fortunately, newer productions of works such as this one do a better job.

I should digress momentarily and mention that I am in possession of a Dover edition of this score, in which certain musical signposts are numbered. I will refer to these numbers below:

In addition, there are questionable musical choices in this performance. For example, why did Karajan not place the “hunting horns from afar” offstage as instructed in the score, beginning five bars after 18? The desired effect was lost, as the extra players were clearly visible onstage. Anyway, when all of the horns played, the camera shot of the entire orchestra denied us a chance to see their efforts. What a waste!

Later, after reaching the summit, four trombones enter in G, C and G in octaves before 80 and are not sufficiently fortissimo, as indicated in the score. Therefore, when the four trumpets (Karajan used five) DO come in at 80 playing at the proper blazing fortissimo, they overpower the trombones, instead of matching their volume. When the six horns enter with their majestic tune four bars after 80, only four of them receive the well-deserved attention from the camera. This is yet another instance of injustice to the piece. The enormity of this tone poem needs to be seen as well as heard.

Speaking of missing instruments, where was the Heckelphone? Why wasn’t the wind machine shown during the storm sequence? Oh, that’s right–Karajan appeared to have opted for a recording of wind instead. This was perhaps another example of his desire to be on the “cutting edge” of 1983 technological developments!

Despite these gripes, I was still able to enjoy the magnificent playing by the Berlin Philharmonic. However, this piece requires teamwork from all parties involved and this DVD contains many challenges including recorded balances, which could have been repaired during the postproduction process. Since Karajan was the artistic supervisor for this DVD and presumably had “final cut” authority, I have to place most of the blame for these transgressions on his shoulders.

Nevertheless, there is some great and inspired music making on this disc and you should check it out, by all means. But you should also watch other DVD performances of the piece, to get a “bigger picture.”

As this is one of my favorite pieces of music, I admittedly am more critical of this release. I could go on and on…

Zappa Plays Zappa / Dweezil Zappa

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Rarely have I watched DVDs which satisfied me on so many levels as “Zappa Plays Zappa,” a two-DVD set released in 2008 on the Muppy Productions label. In fact, my mind was blown on so many levels that it was hard to find the right superlatives!

Spearheaded by Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil, this project was apparently inspired by his desire to share more of his father’s music with the public. Suffice it to say that he has done so in a manner which would have made his father (1940-1993) very proud.

During a nine-minute bonus feature interview found at the end of Disc Two, Dweezil (1969-) indicated that one of the biggest challenges was to find the right group of musicians to complete the project. He did!

Dweezil assembled a group of seven other players and singers who appeared to be able to perform anything, including classics from his father’s oeuvre including “I’m the Slime,” “The Torture Never Stops,” “Zomby Woof,” and “Montana,” just to name a few. Disc Two also contains “Cheepnis.”

These live performances were probably taped from concerts in Portland and Seattle during 2007. At a combined running time of nearly four hours over two discs, viewers and listeners definitely won’t feel cheated.

Another nice feature was the participation of three musicians from the “old days,” who had played these tunes with Frank. Lead vocalist and tenor saxophonist, Napoleon Murphy Brock (1945-) was one of the aforementioned eight members of the core group. Guitarist Steve Vai (1960-) and drummer Terry Bozzio (1950-) joined in at different points during the shows, bringing the total number of players to 10.

Frank Zappa’s music defies easy categorization. I suppose that it’s a heady amalgamation of Rock, Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, and Pop, which forms a zany, irreverent, satirical, yet always “entertaining” type of music. It’s also music which places extreme demands on the players as individuals and as an ensemble, with frequent meter and key changes. I sometimes feel that it’s as if Frank wanted to see how many technical “hoops” his players could navigate. While impressively executed, I can’t honestly say that I’m “moved” by it, in the main. No matter. The privilege of seeing this music played this well is its own reward. I can recommend these discs to anyone who appreciates great playing, not to mention Zappa fans.

Although the Fret Cam on Dweezil’s guitar didn’t add much in my opinion, this was a topnotch production with fine camerawork, including the use of split screens. In addition, there were choices available between PLM stereo and surround sound.

This set is a true feast for the eyes and ears, and I give it the highest possible recommendation. I’ll say it again: Papa Frank would have been proud!

 

Branford Marsalis Quartet: Coltrane’s A Love Supreme – Live in Amsterdam

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Years had passed since I’d heard John Coltrane’s 1964 recording, “A Love Supreme,” with his classic quartet. Naturally, it would have been ideal to hear it again before watching a 2003 rendition from the Branford Marsalis Quartet, performed at the Bimhuis Jazz Club in Amsterdam.

This 2004 DVD release under the Marsalis Music label provided a sort on seminar on this work, in the sense that all of musicians interviewed discussed the piece as they saw it and “felt it.” In addition to Branford Marsalis (1960-), the performers included Joey Calderazzo (1965-), Eric Revis (1967-) and Jeff “Tain” Watts (1960-). Also interviewed were Michael Brecker (1949-2007), Charles Ned Goold (1959-), David Sánchez (1968-), and Miguel Zenón (1976-).  However, the longest discussion on the disc was Branford Marsalis’ interview of John Coltrane’s widow, Alice (1937-2007), which exceeded 30 minutes. Although her ramblings were not always eloquent, the recollections she provided of her husband were priceless.

The actual performance of approximately 48 minutes was impressive, with particularly noteworthy contributions from Calderazzo and Marsalis. I felt that this set admirably captured the piece. This is the kind of Jazz which “matters,” as it both challenges and inspires. Check it out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

 

McLaughlin, De Lucia, Coryell: Meeting of the Spirits

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“McLaughlin, De Lucia, Coryell: Meeting of the Spirits” is a 55-minute DVD of a 1979 concert given at Albert Hall. By this time, these three guitar heavyweights were already legends in their respective fields: Coryell and McLaughlin in the Jazz/Rock/Fusion genres, and De Lucia in Flamenco. This “summit” was an acoustic one which was obviously amplified, consisting of songs such as “Lotus Feet,” “Guardian Angels,” “Entres dos Aguas,” and the eponymous “A Meeting of the Spirits,” among others.

This concert reminded me of one I saw in Los Angeles during the late 1980’s in which Larry Coryell (1943-2017) was replaced by Al Di Meola (1954-). The arrangements were typically structured to allow one musician to solo while the other two provided accompaniment, in an easy display of give and take.

For this 1979 concert, the first two numbers were duos beginning with De Lucia and Coryell, followed by McLaughlin and De Lucia. During the second tune, John McLaughlin (1942-) actually didn’t play lightning fast runs, a rarity in my experience!

The remainder of this short concert featured all three guitarists playing together. As a Flamenco musician, Paco De Lucia (1947-2014) never used a pick, but his speed was every bit as impressive as McLaughlin’s. With regard to solos, I felt that Coryell was somewhat sidelined at this show, as it appeared that the other two musicians received the lion’s share of the spotlight.

The music was typical for this group, combining Flamenco/Fusion/Jazz light genres and tending to stay in one key throughout, with few modulations. However, the pleasant sounds from these master guitarists more than made up for the relative harmonic monotony, resulting in a mind blowing effort overall. Allegedly, Frederic Chopin once said, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a guitar, save perhaps two.” Well, you can make that three!

There was some annoying background noise, but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the disc, and top production standards were used for this DVD. Bonus features included printed bios and discographies of the players, as well as a photo gallery. This disc is a must for guitar aficionados.

 

Beethoven String Quartets, Volumes One, Two and Three / Alban Berg String Quartett

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Ludwig van Beethoven’s 16 “String Quartets” and the “GrosseFuge” (which was the original finale of the Opus 130 Quartet) were composed between 1798 and 1826. These works serve as bookends to his compositional career and serve as a musical “Mount Everest” of the genre. Listening to the entire set provides an opportunity to experience each of them, in relationship to each other. These comparisons also provide a chance to observe the growth and development of Beethoven’s compositional technique. However, they also require an extreme level of concentration from the listener, who ideally should not attempt to hear too many of them in one sitting.

The six-DVD set I heard (three volumes with two discs per volume), recorded by the Alban Berg Quartett in June 1989 was a good one, as each disc contained two or three quartets from different stages in Beethoven’s career. Each disc of these recordings of live performances at the Mozartsaal of the Wiener Konzerthaus was a well-rounded concert, albeit an all-Beethoven one.

I’ve always felt that repeated listening sessions of the Beethoven String Quartets were required, to really get to know them. I believe they have greater intellectual “weight” than those of Haydn, Mozart or Schubert, which go down easier. Therefore, as I mentioned earlier, I would discourage engaging in marathon listening sessions of these works.

On this occasion, the Alban Berg Quartett (1970-2008) consisted of first violinist Günter Pichler (1940-), second violinist Gerhard Schulz (1931-2008), violist Thomas Kakuska (1940-2005), and cellist Valentin Erben (1945-). While they had performed these works in the studio, they also wanted to record live audio and video versions, and the results on these DVDs speak for themselves.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not nearly as familiar with these masterworks as I should be. This was my primary reason for listening to them again, as an integral set. Although I’d heard each of them several times in the past, I’d probably heard only one or two sets, and that was many years ago. I say this, because when wholeheartedly recommending this set, I can’t claim a plethora of knowledge of other available recordings, to play the “comparison game.”

Nevertheless, these performances reflect a near telepathic communication between the players, and it would seem hard to equal and well-nigh impossible to beat them. These discs were topnotch, on all levels.

At the same time, I also believe that this music is too great for one set of musicians and I would encourage others to hear many different interpretations, to gain greater insight. I don’t think that I’ve ever been so impressed by a string quartet, as I have by the Alban Berg Quartett. It was also nice to be able to see as well as hear these fine performances.

My only quibble is technical, as I could hear an occasional bit of “pre echo” from the audio end of these productions.