Rare Gems From The Vaults Reviewed

Three legendary artists reviewed, a double album, a triple album and a seven-disc box set of rare gems.

 

How cool is this? A newly discovered, previously unreleased recording session by jazz colossus John Coltrane! Who would have thought that possible, some 50 years after the premature death of the legend?

Both Directions At Once (Impulse!) – conveniently subtitled The Lost Album – is an album-length session recorded in 1963 shortly before the smoochy John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman album, and shelved for unknown reasons. Featuring the classic line-up of the Classic Quartet (Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner), the conjecture is that the date was simply a warm-up for the Johnny Hartman disc and therefore of little importance.

The idea of a lost album by one of the greatest jazz players of all time holds an incredible allure, but so-called lost albums tend to be disappointing off-cuts. Jimi Hendrix is perhaps the ultimate example of a musical genius whose explosive and too-brief career has been undermined by a lorry-load of meddled-with leftovers and middling demos released subsequent to his demise.

Both Directions At Once was never going to be anywhere near as exploitative given its provenance, but anyone expecting anything nearing the brilliance of his best work will be sorely disappointed.

While Coltrane was an important player in the jazz milieu of the ‘50s and early ‘60s it was his astonishing evolution from the spiritual awakening of A Love Supreme (’64) to the African grooves of Kulu Sé Mama (’65) and the almost freeform extemporisations of Ascension (’65), Meditations (’65) and Expression (’67) that the rulebooks were thrown away and a music of the ages emerged. These are the albums – all of them made within a few short years up to his death in ’67 – for which he’s revered and honoured and the reason there’s a Church Of John Coltrane. These are the records that go way beyond jazz to some spiritual quest, acting on a transformative imperative.

Which is my way of saying that Both Directions At Once will be of huge interest to hard-core jazz fiends; you know the type, guys (and it’s almost always guys) who know every take of a particular track and how long the solos are and all the personnel and engineers and exact recording dates. The new lost but found album is really for those guys, while everyone else will think: hmm, yep, sounds pretty good, next!

Am I being harsh? Probably. But it goes without saying that this album will appeal more to students of jazz and jazz connoisseurs than it will the music fan looking for a hit of profound originality. Coltrane and pals play perfectly well, but this style of jazz fits in perfectly with what was happening at the time without standing out as the greatest ever example of the genre. There’s some swinging stuff here and enough detours from the template to keep it entertaining – the bowed bass on the untitled first track, for instance – and Coltrane blows hard and Jones drums up a storm, so it is upper echelon jazz of its time. But…

But Coltrane’s take on the pop standard ‘Nature Boy’ doesn’t have the same questing beauty as his incredible translation of that Sound Of Music song, ‘My Favourite Things’, and while some of the untitled cuts bear melodies that could almost have been unconsciously cribbed from other popular songs of the day, none of them are really knockouts. Witchdoctor Rating = 6.5/10

And now, directly from the sublime to the ridiculous; ladies and gentleman, Led Zeppelin presents How The West Was Won (Atlantic/Warner). Actually, I love me a bit of Zep, and this document taken from two American gigs in ’72 is as fascinating as it is ultimately fatally flawed.

Originally released early this century, the album has been remastered and recalibrated by Jimmy Page, with a third disc added to the CD iteration and yet more material to the Blu-ray version.

Had John Coltrane lived he may have seen the rise of superstar rock bands and been lured to play to the audience in crossover jazz-rock ensembles. Who knows? We like our most revered musicians to stay pure and Coltrane, through death, gets to keep a clean record. Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, became the epitome of the arena rock gods, and it got to them, destroyed their creativity really quickly, vanquished whatever it was that made them great right at the start.

I get tired of hearing from know-it-all posers that Zeppelin was always shit and all they did was steal from old blues men. Compare any of their blues ‘re-workings’ with the originals and there’s a vast difference; in fact, it’s as vast a difference as comparing Béla Bartók’s compositions with the simple Hungarian folk songs they liberally borrowed from. Led Zeppelin – and Jimmy Page in particular – created a complete architecture, a grand, almost classical construction around those gnarly blues riffs, and utilised the then-nascent electric technology for everything it was worth, making for a sound that is instantly identifiable.

On top of that, the group’s first three albums represented an evolution almost as striking as Coltrane’s from the evil proto-blues of the first album through the exquisite psych/hard rock of II to the Viking howling and folk ruminations of III. Three albums, three years, but then they just got too big too fast. The ruination of formerly great rock bands has occurred hundreds of times since, but Led Zeppelin is still perhaps the ultimate symbol of a group whose enormous popularity spoiled them.

How The West Was Won finds them right on the precipice, and while some of the performances are fiery and Plant’s singing quite remarkable, there’s a sense of fatigue and boredom around the large number of older songs they obviously felt they had to perform.

The thing that kills most of my enthusiasm for the album, however, is that at every opportunity available, Page considers it his job to insert guitar solos, and even on the beautifully concise ‘Immigrant Song’, he just can’t resist the opportunity to turn it turgid. Page was an excellent session guitarist prior to Led Zeppelin and could always turn out a tasty lick, but there’s something really wanky about his soloing here. Easily the worst moment here – and it’s an eternity at 25:25 – is the epic version of ‘Dazed & Confused’. This song packs a punch on the first album with its spooky descending chord sequence but this live version is a monument to indulgence, with what seem likes a decades-long of sawing back and forth on his violin bow solo.

And to make matters worse, straight after that is a version of the John Bonham drum vehicle ‘Moby Dick’ that goes on for 19:20! Bonham was an amazing rhythm machine and one of the funkiest rock drummers ever, but his idea of a solo is about as scintillating as watching Fred Flintstone crack two pebbles together.

So that’s an almost totally wasted second disc, followed by a version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ at the start of Disc 3 that goes for a bloated 20:59 and fails spectacularly to conjure the psychedelic sexuality of the studio recording, then flails into a series of redundant (if fun) rockabilly and blues cover versions. (I read somewhere that Page deleted one of these covers as featured on the 2003 version of the album, so I guess devoted fans need to own both versions).

There are moments on How The West Was Won that still sound thrilling: the hot blues of ‘Heartbreaker’, that hard-rocking ‘Black Dog’ behemoth, a stirring rendition of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, the minor but great boogie of ‘Bring It On Home’. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is how well the group mirrored the essential performances of the albums, despite the primitive technology of the time.

But really, it’s the first three Zep albums that matter. After that, despite moments, their music is poisoned by the group’s fame. Power corrupts, celebrity ruins, and of all the great rock bands, Led Zeppelin are a prime example of how wrong it can all go in comparatively little time. Rating = 5.5/10

A much more worthy and entertaining dip into previously unreleased archives comes from Frank Zappa, and collects seven CDs in a box that completely records his three-night ‘residency’ at LA’s Roxy club in late 1973.

The Roxy Performances captures one of the most-loved of Zappa’s ensembles, and expands on the highly thought of Roxy & Elsewhere double live album from ’74, minus the overdubs.

While there are still sad losers who consider that the only Zappa that’s any good is that of the Mothers Of Invention circa ’66 to ’69, over the years the group immortalised on Roxy & Elsewhere – featuring George Duke (keys), Tom Fowler (bass), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute, vocals), and the extraordinary percussive threesome of Ralph Humphrey (drums), Chester Thompson (drums) and Ruth Underwood (miscellaneous percussion) – has become a firm favourite amongst fans. The reason is rather obvious: this group is musically amazingly dextrous, but also has personality. There’s a sense of genuine fun here that was a somewhat lacking in a few of Zappa’s other line-ups. It’s also one of the few Zappa line-ups where the music was genuinely funky, even as the funk was fed through Zappa’s specific compositional aesthetic.

This is a great set for anyone who wants to hear what a live band can sound like at the top of their game, and enjoys hearing a documentary recording of whole gigs, including intros and outros. Playing over several nights to a fairly intimate crowd, this is a version of Zappa that seems to be somehow warmer and more forgiving than elsewhere in his career. It’s as though he’s found the perfect band and there’s so much genuine enjoyment that he forgets his job to be the stern taskmaster.

But still, it’s not for everyone. As with Coltrane’s ‘lost album’, there are multiple versions of individual songs and although there are minor variations in their performance, sitting through the whole package in one go can get a little repetitive. Having said that, the box is a very reasonable price and it’s also available to stream, so there’s no obligation except amongst the most devoted to devour the whole box in one big chunk of time.

The recording has cleaned up really well, and even though the percussion is said to have been recorded in mono only, there’s a generous and exciting spread of drums and mallets across the sound field, so either they’ve done some post-production ‘fake stereo’ on the drums or my old ears are faulty. The original idea of the three-night residency at The Roxy was to record it all for a potential TV show, but the equipment misfired and while the audio recorded okay, the picture was fatally out of synch with the sound.

Some of the songs are unique to this set and the original Roxy & Elsewhere album: the likes of ‘Pygmy Twilight’, ‘Cheepnis’ (Zappa’s ode to 1950s b-movies), ‘Penguin In Bondage’, the nostalgic ‘Village Of The Sun’, and the insane epic musical fun of ‘Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church)’. There are also songs from his then-current Overnite Sensation album (‘I’m The Slime’, ‘Montana’) and a few from what would prove to be the most popular album, 1974’s Apostrophe (‘Cosmik Debris’) as well as a few songs that wouldn’t end up making it to vinyl for a few years, including an in vitro version of ‘Inca Roads’ and the lush ‘RDNZL’. In addition, there’s a brace of songs from the Mothers Of Invention era, including jazz-rock classic ‘King Kong’ and completely rearranged versions of early material like ‘The Idiot Bastard Song’ and ‘Uncle Meat’.

Highlights for this seasoned Zappa listener include the between-song adlibs, including the statement that ‘’Pygmy Twilight’ is about “chemical alterations and the corruption of youth” and his description of ‘Cheepnis’: “Really it’s shit but it’s great art.” Then there’s the preamble to ‘Montana’, where Zappa talks about how the part where Tina Turner’s voice on the record is sped up is going to be performed live by the bass player! Or his comment before one of the versions of ‘Cosmik Debris’: “This goes out to that short, fat little guru”. I wonder who he was referring to? Or ‘Be-Bop Tango’: “It’s actually a perverted tango. This is a hard one to play, and that’s why I don’t play on it.” Then when the band botch the start and a cow-bell rings: “The cowbell as a symbol of unbridled passion, ladies and gentlemen.” Well, I suppose you have to be there, or at least be listening to the music, to smell the aroma.

Then there are those little nuggets, like ‘T’Mershi Duween’, a brief (1:56) piece that never appeared on an official Zappa product but assumed legendary proportions due to what we can now hear for ourselves in its brilliant composed percussive score and performative chops; or all 13:22 scintillating minutes of Ruth Underwood percussion vehicle ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’

There’s some wild stuff here for Zappa veterans. On one of the versions of ‘Dupree’s Paradise’, for instance, the 21:26 is filled up with an astonishing jam session that includes spacey synth, crazed horn interjections, very funky beats, silly laughing breakdowns and even a bass solo, plus some random spitting from the horns.

To finish up with, most of the sixth disc and all of the seventh disc contain rehearsals for the Roxy shows, and these are particularly interesting for dedicated fans, as they include genuine practice sessions for parts of songs and other random dialogue. They perform a truncated version of ‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’ (which didn’t make it to the Roxy performances) during which Zappa talks about how it’s “just like Tina does under her wig when it gets damp and itchy”. Huh?

As great as much of this set is, I’d recommend immersion for a maximum of 40 minutes at a time, partly because there’s a lot to absorb, but also partly because of the song repetitions fatigue can quickly set in. It’s a shame that on CD the performances have been edited to spread across the discs rather take up one disc each, but I guess that’s due to the time limitations of the format.

My one real disappointment is with the sound of Zappa’s guitar, which is quite low in the mix and considerably less piercing than on most of his studio or live albums. But then, once again, The Roxy Performances shows a bandleader in an unusually relaxed and generous frame of mind who seems more interested in showing off his amazing ensemble than his own finesse at the fretboard. Witchdoctor Rating = 8/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

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