Steven N. Jacobs
In Mark Turner’s fifth album, Dharma Days, he displays his eclectic breadth of taste in jazz music and his great skill and virtuosity in the art of playing the tenor saxophone. Although the album showcases nine of Turner’s own compositions, the album is as much led by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel as it is by Turner. Like most contemporary saxophonists, Turner’s work is greatly influenced by John Coltrane, especially Coltrane’s post-bop period. The first and third songs, “Iverson’s Odyssey” and “Myron’s World,” respectively, are especially indicative of this fact. In the true spirit of post-bop, “Iverson’s Odyssey” contains long, rambling, experimental yet speedy jams passed back and forth between Turner and Rosenwinkel. “Myron’s World,” on the other hand, recalls an earlier, less experimental period during Coltrane’s career yet still sounds progressive due to the combination of drawn-out, mournful notes from Turner’s saxophone and the speedy and complex improvisation from Rosenwinkel’s guitar. “Deserted Floor” begins much more like a traditional blues song—slower, with a heavier bassline—but then progresses into a more contemporary sounding composition. In “Casa Oscura,” the album reaches its peak—Turner’s saxophone and Rosenwinkel’s guitar effortlesslyfuse to form one broad, rich sound and then seamlessly break away from one another to trade off jams in an interesting musical dialogue.
This is not the type of instrumental album that you can play as background music. The overall tone and emotion given off by Turner and Rosenwinkel’s complex improvisations to the casual listener is one of tension, almost panic. Just as the music is layered, so is the inherent emotion and attitude. A certain level of effort is required to understand the feeling behind each song, but the outcome is rewarded and fans of contemporary jazz will enjoy this album. However, those listeners who are accustomed to the slow, deep and easygoing style of blues may find Dharma Days abrasive and lacking in hooks and melody. In either case, this album has the potential to broaden the listener’s musical horizons if listened to with an open mind.
—Steven N. Jacobs
Sound Go Round
The self-consciously retro album cover for Dressy Bessy’s Sound Go Round looks like it came out of your Mom’s record collection, and the band itself seems to want to drift back to an easier, earlier time. The shot of them in the liner notes enjoying a park in autumn recalls Simon and Garfunkel, and the mounted police in the background seem ready to bust up those kids and that infernal hippy music. Unfortunately, the band with the rhyming name lacks the musical wherewithal to back up their allusions. Their songs drift towards the repetitive, as their tepid lyrics go swirling down the drain again and again and again.
Several tracks start out with promise. “That’s Why” gets the rhythm moving, with Tammy Ealom’s untuned vocals musing over a happy-go-lucky guitar riff. The lyrics, as whimsical as Dressy Bessy’s name, could easily be fun: “Oh my / He’s shy shy / guess that’s why / He’s bye bye.” But the song goes exactly nowhere. The rhythm guitar cycles through the same riff, the band playing on automatic pilot until a bridge takes them back to where they started. And that’s on one of the good tracks. Don’t even ask about “Fare Thee Well,” which grates like cheddar cheese. For a rookie band, I would suggest that someone learn lead guitar. But a group with as many albums to their name as Dressy Bessy must be going for some deliberate effect. The singing only adds to Dressy Bessy’s troubles. Liz Phair can get away with gravelly vocals, leaning toward the tuneless. She does it right, making it sexy and mixing it up. But Phair never tried it with two-part harmony. It’s the uneasy polyphony between Ealom and her back-up that makes the off-pitch vocals on tracks like “Just Being Me” such an uncomfortable experience. Ealom isn’t gravelly, but the song begins to drone when the harmony doesn’t click.
You may be able to enjoy Sound Go Round. By the second time, you may start to like it. But give it away before you listen a third time, lest the unendingly cheery album deliver a relentless headache.
—Benjamin D. Margo
John Scofield Band
“John Scofield wants his audience to know that [despite evocative tune titles] he has not used drugs or alcohol since 11 July 1998” read the liner notes to the jazz guitarist’s Überjam—an appropriate admission since the album has all the trappings of an experimental drug-fueled trip. With Hindu-themed artwork, haunting strains of sitars and a profusion of distorted, screeching guitars, Scofield’s latest jazz-funk fusion feels much like an experimental album from the ’70s when Miles Davis brought fusion into popular consciousness.
On this album, Scofield’s grand experiment is to introduce a second guitar, complementing his own with a rhythm guitarist. The fusion combines funk with electronica, eastern influences and hip-hop into the scope of the album.
But it never seems like eclecticism for its own sake. Amidst the cacophony, Scofield is still the most important element; with rhythmic onus shifted elsewhere, he’s given considerable freedom to improvise. His playing emerges cleanly from the mix and runs fast, daring and wide, forging a raw sound that’s simultaneously unsettling and engrossing. But his best moments, as in “Ideofunk” and “Tomorrow Land,” are when he slows down his fingers and mellows his sentiments. Eclectic as the day is long and with virtuosity to spare, Überjam is yet another noteworthy marker on Scofield’s journey from jazz to funk to jazz and back again.
—James A.M. Crawford
Once upon a time, nine hungry emcees prowled through a war-ridden concrete jungle and tamed the people with their flawless lyrical shadowboxing technique. Entire cults rose in worship of their new discipline, which some extravagantly christened “horrorcore.” For a moment, the world was united under the sign of the yellow phoenix.
But times have since changed: The art of mic-slaying has been driven underground by plastic gun-toting, golden-toothed infidels draped in gloss and glitter. The horrorcore style has become as clichéd as the old kung fu movies from which it was spawned. Gone is the grimy street noir of Wu-Tang Forever; on Iron Flag, we instead have more party jams (“Soul Power”), gangsta crooning (“Back in the Game”) and traditional boom-bap (the DJ Premier-esque “Rules”). It’s an admirable try and not without its high points. These include the sounds of a widescreen street battle that open the album, the positively deadly ninja star whizzing by your head in “Radioactive,” and a wonderfully ambiguous verse from Ghostface Killah (“America / Together we stand, divided we fall / Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war!”). It could either be a ferocious battle rhyme or a sly mockery of the belligerently patriotic Americans that want Osama’s head on a stick. Iron Flag was warmly embraced by fans, simply by virtue of its relative consistency and the absence of the earth-shatteringly whack Cappadonna. However, one thing is clear: the Wu belong in the shadowy, dust-ridden depths of the city. Without a trace of moodiness or grime, they sound sadly out of place. And though every emcee is in top form—particularly Inspectah Deck and GZA—the chemistry is gone. In the chorus to “Uzi,” the crew chants “Y’all dudes is whack / Face it, the Wu is back,” but in retrospect, this sounds like a desperate plea from a lost beast.
—Ryan J. Kuo