Of Tango, Bluegrass, and surf Music...

A Record Reviewer Catches Up On His Backlogged Mail

The Complete American Clav'e Recordings

Astor Piazzolla

Rounder Records

The passing of Argentinean bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla in 1990 received little attention beyond the tango world; there were no full-page New York Times obituaries, none of the countless magazine retrospectives that followed the deaths of Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Zappa.

Indeed, the bandoneon (an instrument similar to the accordion, but more challenging to play and used almost exclusively in tango music) is not an instrument with mass appeal, and Latin-American tango music...well, let's just say that it's not suprising that Piazzolla doesn't have the same sort of following that Prince has.

However, if there was any justice in the world, the name Piazzolla would have a secure place in the pantheon of twentieth-century musical masters. And this three-CD collection of Piazzolla's American Clave recordings (Tango: Zero Hour, from 1986, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, from 1987 and La Camorra: La Soledad De La Provocacion Apasionada from 1989; the set is distributed through Cambridge's very own Rounder Records) serves as a beautiful testament to Piazzolla's genius, featuring almost three hours of some of the most haunting, searching, intensely emotional music of this century.

Kip Hanrahan, in the liner notes to this set, writes that there "are few other cases in modern music of a musician inheriting a musical tradition [tango] growing so moribund in its structure and mannerisms, and growing so stiff in its political implications and social function, who so singlehandedly transformed it into a breathing, complex, sensual and powerful music." Even such generous praise is understated; Piazzolla's impact and importance reach far beyond his work in and influence on tango, moving towards a redefinition of the depths of the emotion that can be reached through music.

From the eerie, lurching dissonance of "Tanguedia III," the first track on Tango: Zero Hour, these discs are true gems. Incidentally, Piazzolla said of Tango: Zero Hour that "[t]his is absolutely the greatest record I've made in my entire life. We gave our souls to this record." It's hard to argue: Tango: Zero Hour combines excitement and full-bodied intensity with a series of lush, mournful tunes that are as painfully beautiful as anything on vinyl.

The American Clave recordings showcase every aspect of Piazzolla's brilliance; it is hard to imagine a music lover of any sort who would not immediately fall in love with the erotic sensibility and impassioned brilliance displayed on these albums. By the time you get to the mournful "Sur: Regreso Al Amor," the last track on La Camorra, (a tune which is a perfect illustration of just how much contemporary avant-guard American artists like Tom Waits have drawn from Piazzolla's work) you will have gone on an aural journey with one of the twentieth century's true musical geniuses.

And as the man says: "Suffer, motherfucker, this is the tango."

Tribute to Miles

Herbie Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony

Williams/Wallace Roney/Wayne Shorter

Qwest Records

Self-respecting jazz lovers easily fall into the trap of bypassing the plethora of jazz tribute albums that have been released recently (heck, two tributes to pianist Bill Evans have come out in the past month alone) in order to focus on what is being produced that is new and fresh. The trouble is, such a person would miss out on a lot of great music: Joe Henderson's last two albums, Keith Jarrett's recent tribute to Miles Davis, Bye Bye Blackbird, Tiger Okoshi's homage to Louis Armstrong, Echoes of a Note, and now, this scorching new set that features four musicians who played with Miles and one who didn't, but admires him anyway. This young trumpet player, Wallace Roney, plays with startling clarity and supreme confidence.

Indeed, Roney is the highlight of this album. From his patient solo during the hyperspeed album opener, "So What," to his uncanny imitation of Miles himself on "All Blues" (harmon mute and all) Roney clearly is in his element. In part, Roney sounds so good because his open sound leaves plenty of room for the rhythm section to strut its stuff; pianist Hancock, bassist Carter and drummer Williams have never sounded better, tight as all hell and at the same time creatively lyrical. Carter's dazzling clarity, Hancock's chord driven, percussive flair, and Williams' inventive and at the same time remarkably structured use of his drum kits serve as the backbone of the album. The results of their interplay make one wish the three of them would release a piano trio album.

The weakest link throughout is saxophonist Shorter, whose searching, jerky sound is beautiful and haunting when set against a rhythm section that isn't quite so busy itself. In "So What," Shorter quotes liberally from Monk and other Miles tunes, using the fast pace of the composition to build continuity between sparsely connected phrases. At times, the result can be dynamic, as in Shorter's quoting of Monk's "Bemsha Swing" near the beginning of "So What;" in other places, Shorter's decisions seem arbitrary and his thinner, reedier sound falls short next to Roney's full bodied and equally intense lines.

The album ends with a live rendition of the Davis original "All Blues," which, like "So What," begins with Carter eloquently stating the theme before the other musicians fall in behind him. Roney here sounds like a dead ringer for Miles, and everything about this song is amazing. Roney's confidence, Shorter's finally effective and haunting mirror, and Carter, Hancock and Williams pushing and pushing on make it hard for the listener to feel anything but blessed that these five very talented musicians decided to pay tribute to a true source of inspiration.


The Cercie Miller Quartet

Stash Records

Local sax master Cercie Miller opens her debut album leading her own quartet with the standard "My Shining Hour;" her energetic rendering of this oft covered classic promises good things to come. Cercie screams her way through the song, as her band--Bruce Katz on piano and organ, Dave Clark on bass and Bob Savine on drums--falls perfectly into place behind her, combining their tight rhythmic sensibility with subtle flourishes. By the time the song fades out to the strains of a still smokin' jam, it is clear that this is a band whose members are comfortable with their own voices.

The rest of the album does not disappoint: Cercie's clear, confidentlines, remarkably rich sound and often gritty playing drives the band on throughout, whether in the organ-accompanied tribute to saxist Stanley Turrentine, "The Blue Note," or when mixing with guest trumpeter Tiger Okoshi on "Fax Your Life" and "New O."

Dedication features six Cercie originals among its eleven songs; these serve as proof that Cercie clearly feels as comfortable writing as she does leading a band. Drummer Savine contributes the whimsical "Mr. Chuckles," and four standards round out the album, with the gorgeous Richard Rogers ballad "If I Loved You" showing how delicately meticulous a player Cercie can be while maintaining her richness. Miller's compositions display an understated maturity and a wonderful sense of both space and texture.

This album is a gem of a debut. Fortunately for us, Cercie and her quartet seem to have a long, locally based career ahead of them, and if they keep releasing music like that featured onDedication, jazz lovers will be all the richer.

Rock Instrumental Classic, Vols. 1-5

Billboard Pop Memories, 1920-1950s, Vols. 1-6

Rhino Records

These two new compilations by therecording industry's re-release standard-bearer,Rhino Records, offer up just what we have come toexpect from Rhino: intelligently structured andselected compilations that highlight an aspect ofAmerican music that has often not been addressedon its own. While the Rock InstrumentalClassics volumes are more satisfying than anyof the Billboard Pop Memories, both arestrong sets that will please anyone who wouldconsider buying them anyway.

The first two instrumental discs, one dealingwith 50s and one with 60s, are good and fun, butnot great. Most of the tracks log in at adisappointingly short two minutes, and some of theselections seem devoid of any musical explorationat all. Still, each disc contains some pearls: theDuane Eddy (with his Twangy Guitar) tracks on the50s disc kick ass (the disc also contains"Tequila" of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure fame), andThe Rebels' "Wild Weekend" from the 60s disc makesyou want to shuffle on down to your local frathouse (or wherever it was that college-types wentto party in the early 60s). The two Lonnie MackSouthern boogie tracks are superb, featuring greatstraight-ahead guitar work.

The best disc of the set is the 70s volume,featuring classics such as van McCoy's "TheHustle" and treats from Elo, the Average WhiteBand, Earth Wind and Fire, and Billy Preston.Preston's "Outta-Space," the second track on thisalbum, features a thick funk groove underneathPreston's organ and key work. Oh yeah, there's agreat instrumental version of Led Zeppelin's"Whole Lotta Love" with King Curtis screaming outRobert Plant's vocal line on his sax, producing aprophetic marriage of funk/soul orchestrationswith heavy metal.

The Soul disc mainly features tracks that werereleased during the 60s R&B explosion, and whilemany of the tracks on here are great (check outthe thick, laid-back groove featured on southAfrican trumpeter Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in theGrass'" the best track on the disc--from theopening deeply grooved cowbell to Masekela'sinfectiously funky trumpet lines, this songgrooves hard) many others are uninspiring anduninteresting.

High points on this disc include the"Cannonball" Adderly's mournful ballad "Mercy,Mercy, Mercy," and the four tracks by Booker T.and MG's (the only band that reallydeserves the label as `the hardest working band inshow biz'): "Green Onions" (which was named whenbass player Lewis Steinberg was asked to think ofthe funkiest thing he could), the molasses-thick"Hip Hug-Her," the ghetto-blues soundtrack to the1969 movie Uptight, "Time is Tight" and"Hang `Em High," an organ-driven remaking of thetheme song for the Clint Eastwood spaghettiwestern of the same name.

The high camp value of a Booker T. and the MG'sremake of an Eastwood-Western theme is maintainedfor the duration of the unflinchingly retro surfdisc, a collection of surfer instrumentals thatwere released between '60 and '63. Like all thebest that camp has to offer, this disc is morethan just an amusement item: the burning guitarwork and unstoppable rhythms that mark classicssuch as the Cantay's "Pipeline" and the Surfaris'"Wipeout" (check out those killer bongos!) serveas the backbone for this disc. The two tunes bysurf-guitar master Dick Dale are predictablystrong, as Dale deftly powers his way through histrademark, riff-based style.

Still, this disc is probably not worth the 12bucks to anyone who isn't seriously into surfmusic or a serious rock and roll historian; afterall, how many times are you really going to listento an hour of surfer music?

The six volume "Billboard Pop Memories" is thebrainchild of world-renowned record researcherJoel Whitborn, and it is hard to argue with eitherthe song selections or the track-by-trackdescriptions of their place in the history ofmodern music. Every track on here is a classic,and most for good reasons, and there are those ofus who genuinely treasure having Judy Garland's"somewhere Over the Rainbow," Duke Ellington's"Mood Indigo," and Dean Martin's "Memories AreMade of This" on one collection.

The tunes range about half instrumentals, halfvocals. This is just the type of collection thatRhino has come to excel in producing, withpredictable Eddie Fisher tracks thrown in withVaughn Monroe's deep baritoned "Riders In the Sky(A Cowboy Legend)," (complete with Vaughn'smournful "Yippie-eye-ays") and Peggy Lee's fakeSpanish-accented "Manana (Is Soon Enough For Me.)"

The most disappointing aspect of thiscollection is the shockingly short lengths of theCDs. Considering that Rhino is asking people toshell out 15 bucks for each of the six volumes ofthis collection, they could have afforded to makethe discs more than the half hour they clock inat. Indeed, this type of ill-fated decision seemsat odds with most of Rhino's compilation packages,which are consistently well-researched,well-produced and well-packaged.

Welcome to the Cruel World

Ben Harper

Virgin Records

Ben Harper has all the signs of a youngstar who is about to make it. He's young--24--goodlooking, intense, and talented. On his debutalbum, welcome to the cruel world, hedisplays a remarkably developed songwriting style,putting his personal imprint on traditionalfolkish melodies. While his arrangements are notentirely similar to anything else going to today(Harper plays a triad of acoustic instruments: thedobro, the acoustic guitar, and the Weissenborn, ahollow-neck lap slide guitar) it is easilyaccessible enough to reach a wide audience.

Harper is being promoted big time by his label,and for once, a big-name record company seemsintent on pushing someone with real talent andsomething to say. The dripping slide that opensthe album's second track, "Whipping Boy," an oldChris Darrow tune and one of two tunes that Harperdid not pen himself (the other being theinfectious "I'll Rise," to which poet Maya Angeloucontributed the Iyrics) sets the intensity at ahigh level that is maintained throughout thealbum. As Harper wails: "Well you can needme....But don't you lead me/I won't followyou/Liston here/ I don't fear/ I don't want to beyour/ Whipping boy" in a voice that is at oncerestrained and totally unafraid, he backs himselfup with slivery slides punctuated by intenselysharp plucks and pulls.

While Harper seems to be consciously shunningthe pretty-boy superstar image, he is a musicianto watch, and Welcome to a Cruel Worldis astrong first album that deserves all the attentionit gets.

Tony Rice Sing and Plays Bluegrass Tony RiceRounder Records

Many people seem to have a visceralreaction against bluegrass: it's hick music theythink, or cowboy music at the very least. Theyseem to feel that banjos, fiddles, and mandolinsshould have been relegated to the trash can ofhistory.

Now, I have my suspicions that these peoplehave never actually heard a bluegrass album, or atleast not one that is as manifestly wonderful asTony Rice's latest release, Tony Rice Sings andplays Bluegrass.

Rice has moved Fluidly back and forth betweenthe more traditional bluegrass featured on thisalbum and the experimental, instrumental musicoften epitomized by mandolinist David Grisman'sDawg music. Rice was the guitarist in the classicGrisman quintet of the 70s, and his own entirelyinstrumental Backwaters is one of the mostexquisitely beautiful albums ever recorded.

This album is a sort of look back at thehistory of bluegrass, featuring classic bluegrasshits of the 40s and 50s played by some of the topacoustic musicians of today. Every track is asperfect as one could hope. This album was recordedcold with no rehearsals or predeterminedarrangements, and the excitement and vitalitypractically burn their way through the songs.

While Rice' mind-blowingly fast and perfectlyclear finger-picking style pervade every song,some of the tracks stand out. Rice's solo on"Ain't Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" amazesthe listener with its speed; at the same time itsounds as if it would retain all of its sparklingbrilliance and originality even if slowed down tohalf the speed. The album's opener, "I've WaitedAs Long As I can" highlights both Rice's lead andrhythm playing and his band's rich harmony vocaltechniques.

So if you don't listen to bluegrass, thinkabout exploring some new possibilities. If youwon't even do this, go screw.BEN HARPER playing the dobro