Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rediscovery: Bert Kaempfert

Bert Kaempfert (1923-1980) was one of music's greatest tunesmiths. Largely forgotten today, he has actually contributed a great deal to the popular musical canon. He was responsible for the likes of "Danke Shoen," "L-O-V-E," "Strangers in the Night," "Spanish Eyes" (originally called "Moon Over Naples") and probably another dozen songs that anyone who has ever heard music could hum. None of these tunes really rank highly in my high estimation of the man, but all go far to prove that he really did have a way with a tune.

He was also responsible for The Beatles' very first recordings. Yes, The Beatles. Yes, really, The Beatles.

This guy is the epitome of lounge music or bachelor pad music or easy listening or whatever you want to call it. But something separates his music from the hordes or other lounge acts of the time. His tunes are probably what attracted and captured many listeners as far back as the late 1950s.

Kaempfert used simple little tricks, like basic bass lines on electric bass (unheard of back in the day), and some of the most sensuous arrangements for horns and strings ever heard - equally delivered with utter simplicity. He favored brass. Many of his songs put a trumpet or a trombone in the lead and he often featured some of the best practioneers of the horns in the front of his orchestra. Still, everything sounded so remarkably simple. And utterly catchy.

Bert Kaempfert is someone you either love or hate. For example, my mother-in-law, Irene, loves his music, particularly the tracks noted below. That's because I recorded most of these songs for her to listen to. She loves Kaempfert's "happy beat" and I can't think of a better way to describe it than that. My father-in-law, on the other hand, hates this stuff - especially when Irene forces him to listen to it. Don't know why. It's wonderful stuff. Even the cheese is pleasing. The tracks noted below are definitely keepers.

That Happy Feeling (aka A Swingin' Safari - Decca, 1961-62): Bert goes to Africa! How bad could it be? Really, pretty good. It's a lot of fun. I'm not sure Miriam Makeba, et. al. would approve. But it's hard to deny how infectious this music is. The title song pretty much, pardon the pun, apes "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," but its infectious groove is impossible to get over. It was also used as the theme to the TV show The Match Game from 1962-67. Also here is "Zambesi," "Tootie Flutie," "Black Beauty" and "Skokiaan." Plus, "That Happy Feeling," "Market Day" and "Happy Trumpeter." All in all, this album is a real winner. See below for "Afrikaan Beat," which first appeared on this album.

Afrikaan Beat (Decca, 1962): Contains the wonderful title hit, which first appeared on That Happy Feeling album above and was wisely and successfully used in the 2002 Jack Nicholson film About Schmidt (great horns and great strings!). That film's composer, Rolfe Kent, is the contemporary equal of Bert Kaempfert in many ways, contributing great scores and luscious songs to many films such as this one, Sideways ("Wine Safari"), Thank You For Smoking and Matador among many others -including the cable TV show Dexter - although, criminally, many of the soundtracks to these films and shows are never devoted exclusively or even mostly to Kent's fine music.

90 Minuten Nach Mitternacht (Terror After Midnight) (Polydor, 1962): Bert Kaempfert's soundtrack to a 1962 German psycho thriller is a rather jazzy affair offering several highlights including the particularly charming "Let's Bowling" and the ever delightful "Mexican Road" (great horns, great strings and great electric bass!). Both of these songs would be much more popular if they'd shown up somewhere else. They rank among BK's best work.

Living It Up! (Decca, 1963): The party album. This collection of jaunty, mostly up-tempo tunes - up-tempo for this kind of thing anyway - heaps with all kinds of fun. Features "Gentleman Jim," "Dutch Treat," "Two On A Tune," "Living It Up" and "Easy Going." And listen to how Bert Kaempferts up "In The Mood" for evidence of a delightful musical signature.

That Latin Feeling (Decca, 1964): An utterly tremendous album from start to finish. This one aims for something between the Tijuana Brass and Bossa Nova, both popular sounds of the time, and succeeds surprisingly well. Features the gorgeous "The Bandit (O' Cangaceiro)," one of Bert's finest-ever arrangements, "Chicken Talk" and, of course, the wondrous "Bert's Bossa Nova," which found new life in Nicola Conte's "Bossa Per Due." Also scores: "Sweet And Gentle" (great strings!) and "Mambo Mania" (great horns!). Even "Poinciana" has a hauntingly hypnotic vibe. One of Bert's best.

Blue Midnight (Decca, 1964): Features two hits by Al "He's The King" Hirt ("Java" and "Cotton Candy"), who did his own Kaempfert tribute four years later, Hirt Plays Bert (RCA), which also features a version of this LP's "Red Roses For A Blue Lady." High points: "Free As A Bird" and "Treat For Trumpet" - both spotlighting trumpeter Fred Moch.

The Magic Music Of Far Away Places (Decca, 1965): This album nearly screams silly from the exotica title and its attempt to capture every musical mood on the planet at the time. But it's really an enchanting listen - if you can go from the sounds of Singapore ("On A Little Street in Singapore") to "Hava Nagila" and all bizarre cultural sound posts in between. Features the charming "Mambossa" (originally recorded during the That Latin Feeling sessions and included on the German Polydor two-fer CD of that title). The 1997 Taragon CD also features five bonus tracks including the delightful and previously unreleased Kaempfert compositions, "Latin Strings" and "Happy Whistler's," both from 1964.

A Man Could Get Killed (Decca, 1966): Kaempfert's soundtrack to this James Garner spy spoof launched "Strangers in the Night," which, of course, was made famous by Frank Sinatra. There are several variations of "Strangers" here, if that is too your liking, but the best choice here is the jazzy "Beddoes Shadows" (Garner's character's name is Beddoes) and the partial cue, "Key Note." The American release of this album has a great cover.

Strangers In The Night (Decca, 1966): Released to capitalize on the popularity of the title song - though the album's cover makes you think this is just another lounge act covering another lounge hit rather than the composer covering his own huge hit - this album's best tracks are its Tijuana Brass covers, "Tijuana Taxi" and, more notably, "Mexican Shuffle" (the Sol Lake song from Alpert's 1964 album South of the Border). Also notable here is Kaempfert's "Milica." The same recording of the tune was also featured on Kaempfert's 1967 Decca album Hold Me as "Sweet Maria."

…Love That Bert Kaempfert (Decca, 1968): The decline begins. Rock is selling. Bert isn't. Solution? Rock Bert Up. Sort of. Check out how Bert tries to turn Ellington's "Caravan" into "These Boots Are Made For Walking." This is really where the cheese starts spewing out of your folks' (or grand-folks') hi-fi. It's big band for old-timers who want to be hip. Kaempfert's "The First Waltz" stands out, though, only because nothing else does.

My Way Of Life (Decca, 1968): A little lame. But the stunningly simple and utterly gorgeous "Malaysian Melody" is here. "Soul Time," which is here too, is cute and totally listenable. "Memories of Mexico" has a few fun little moments - even if it could be called "Memories of the way Bert Kaempfert used to music-up Mexican themes."

Safari Swings Again (Polydor, 1976): Meant as a sequel to 1962's A Swingin' Safari (aka That Happy Feeling), there is something oddly charming about this anachronistic and wonderful album. Coming only 14 years after the original, a whole lifetime in music had passed by then. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom owe something to Kaempfert, had all come and gone. But you'd never know it listening to this record. It almost proves the timelessness of much of Bert Kaempfert's music, despite the fact that this would have seemed hopelessly out of date in the age of Saturday Night Fever. Almost every track here is a winner but "Happy Safari," "Soft Shoe Safari," "Limbo Lady" "Walking with Fips" and "Seven Up" stand out. "Fips," which was Kaempfert's nick name, is the best; a recollection of the good old days. Note the interesting touch of Basie throughout.

Tropical Sunrise (Polydor, 1977): One of those albums that does exactly what the title claims it does, but probably about 20 years after anybody would care. Still, this is beautiful music that deserves better. Notable: "Dreams (Sueños)" (a sort of Bossa Bond), "Your Move (Tu Movimiento)" and "Tropical Sunrise," all written by Bert Kaempfert with Herbert Rehbein. Also worth it is Bert's beautifully arranged version of the well-known "Island In The Sun" - absolutely worth repeating.

There were many Bert Kaempfert tribute albums recorded back in Kaempfert's day, but one of the better ones is probably Bobby Hackett Plays Bert Kaempfert (Epic, 1963 - reissued in 2002 on a Collectables two-fer CD with Bobby Hackett Plays Henry Mancini) where the trumpeter waxes rather elegantly over such chestnuts as "A Swinging Safari" "Mexican Market Day," "The Happy Trumpeter" and, notably on "Afrikaan Beat." The album was arranged by Dick Hyman, so you know it swings and Hackett really brings Kaempfert's melodies to life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Philip Glass "Notes on a Scandal"

The music of Philip Glass seems especially tailored for the cinema. The drama and the patterns of tension he embeds in his songs are very much like the stories made for film.

The instinctive use of repetition he employs throughout his music, no matter what it is (Glass has a great body of work outside the medium including operas, symphonies, concertos, etudes, suites, song cycles, etc.), even suggests something especially suited for film.

Considering he became one of the 20th Century's most popular composers and one of the few classical composers who achieved popularity and success during his own lifetime (probably thanks to all the advances of his era's technology), Philip Glass remains one of music's greatest storytellers. He is also one of music's most distinctive craftsmen.

Now approaching 70, Glass has long been recognized as a cinematic artist. One of his earliest successes is for Paul Schrader's Mishima, a most unusual film that is greatly enhanced by a most unusual and perfectly suited score by the iconoclastic composer.

The way Glass aurally conveyed the anxiety of the unknown in Erol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988) was especially commanding and convincing. Rarely has music so influenced a story and, in this case, a true story.

Along the way, Glass classed up several horror films like Michele Soavi's The Church (1989) and Clive Barker's Candyman (1992 and its 1995 sequel), several documentaries and Martin Scorcese's Kundun.

As he entered the new millennium, the composer had finally earned the distinction of being a first-choice film composer, providing memorable, often exceptional, music to The Hours (2002), The Fog Of War (2003), Secret Window (2004) and the otherwise awful The Illusionist (2006).

Here, Glass provides the hauntingly elegant foundation for Richard Eyre's beautiful, near brilliant character study, Notes on a Scandal (2006). It bears all the diverse qualities that Glass so often brings to his documentary, horror and art films - all genres that aptly describe this film.

The film's soundtrack, issued on Rounder Records (!), adds a note by the film's director that perfectly states exactly what Glass has achieved in this score:

"Notes on a Scandal is an adaptation of a novel that tells its story entirely through a first person narrator. No film can achieve the sort of total subjectivity that a novel is capable of. So we wanted a score that would help to enforce the sense of the story being viewed through the eyes of the main character, Barbara Covett (played by Judi Dench). The score (in my view brilliantly) reflects and reveals her interior life, helping to emphasize her self-delusion and her subjective view of events. In addition the music provides a pulse to a story of two women getting drawn, through loneliness and obsession, into an emotional vortex."

It's hard to put it much better than that. Notes on a Scandal is a beautiful piece of work and certainly one of Philip Glass's finest and most distinctive film scores. The structure here could be called "notes on an obsession" and owes something significant to the formality and grandeur of the music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock, namely in Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964), all films which could be said to have some influence on Eyre's film as well.

The music "speaks" in the film almost as loudly as Barbara's voice, sometimes louder. This may register annoyance among casual viewers of the film. But Eyre's point is apparent to any viewer who is drawn in by the mood of longing and loneliness that is otherwise visually established in the film.

Glass's music and Barbara's voice are quite inseparable as the music provides the passion for Barbara's words and also suggests something much greater that her own thoughts can't even comprehend. Like Herrmann's music, the Glass score becomes a character in the film and, like Herrmann, much of it stands strong on its own away from the film.

The 51-minute score CD offers more than a few discordant moments of "uneasy listening," including the odd tension in the otherwise sprightly "First Day of School," the tilted (jilted?) whimsy of "The History," the approaching storm of low strings in "Good Girl," the rumbling arpeggios of "Someone has Died" and the unsure triumph of "Going Home." Each of the titles vividly describes the scenes Glass so faultlessly enhances.

The Herrmann influence is present throughout, most notably on "Invitation," which serves as the film's main theme (and evolves into the disturbing "A Life Lived Together"), with the stately and brilliantly conceived idea of "the hunt" (ref: Marnie), "Courage," which suggests those scenes where Scottie obsesses over Madeline in Vertigo or where Norman watches Marion in Pyscho, and the way resolution or closure is thwarted by suggesting a new obsession in "I Knew Her" (think of how happy many of Hitchcock's endings are, notably the ones in the three aforementioned films).

Notes on a Scandal is a tremendous film and this soundtrack is an entirely satisfying and appropriately unsettling listening experience.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Frisell On The Side

Guitarist Bill Frisell has frequently recorded as a guest or sideman on other people's records, often going far afield of the jazz he's so well known for (Allen Ginsberg, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Paul Simon, Renee Fleming, etc.).

At one time, Frisell's sideman records were the best way to hear all that the guitarist was capable of. With many of his own records since the mid 1990s displaying strong originals, strong groups and exceptional leadership, that is no longer the case.

But what emerges on so many of his guest appearances is that Frisell is an exceptionally gifted accompanist. He has a way of making other leaders sound like they've never sounded elsewhere, often better.

One also discovers how, even early on, Frisell's playing is so commanding that he can take other people's music and make it all his own. That's not to say he's domineering. No good accompanist can be anything less than democratic. But more often than not he provides the stamp of originality that makes a composition or an idea into a song or a statement.

While there are probably hundreds of discs to consider here, several of Frisell's guest appearances stand out in the crowd. I've tried to keep to the ones where Frisell features throughout most of the program, not just on several tunes on any given disc.

Bass Desires: Marc Johnson (ECM, 1985): Bassist Marc Johnson made a name for himself in Bill Evans's last - and most well-recorded - trio. Young as he was at the time, he proved that he knew the language and had many of his own interesting ideas to add to the mix. Bass Desires furthers that belief. Johnson's debut under his own name is a quartet disc led by two highly distinctive guitars, Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Johnson's opening track, "Samurai Hee-Haw" is immediately memorable and sets the stage for the strong program that follows, namely John Coltrane's "Resolution," (drummer on the date) Peter Erskine's "Bass Desires" and Johnson's "Mojo Highway." Frisell, who had also worked with Johnson on keyboardist Lyle Mays eponymous album (Geffen, 1985), often helms the guitar synthesizer here and contrasts nicely with Scofield. Both guitarists had, at this point, developed a very distinctive identity, which is clearly heard here, and their sounds mix well together. All four participants really buy into the program, making for a most cohesive and interesting collective. They'd reform two years later for Second Sight (ECM, 1987), but unfortunately the lightning didn't strike twice. It seemed more like a collection of strong personalities by that time than the wonderful group effort Bass Desires presents.

Bill Evans: Paul Motian (JMT, 1990): The Paul Motian-Bill Frisell-Joe Lovano triumvirate has been around since 1981 and still exists today. This trio has recorded numerous discs since It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago (ECM, 1984) up to and including Time And Time Again (ECM, 2007) - both oddly titled discs involving time - but none more stirring, consequential and as beautiful as this loving tribute to Motian's former boss (1955-63), pianist Bill Evans. Bill Evans adds another of the pianist's former partners (1979-80), bassist Marc Johnson, to the mix and his warm patterns add something especially breathtaking to the program. Frisell has the thankless task of filling in for Evans as the chordal accompanist (Lovano naturally dominates the heads) and he succeeds masterfully. This is probably the loveliest Frisell has ever sounded. Here he reveals not only an innate understanding of the pianist's remarkably memorable compositions but a great affection for the sensitivity each requires. Only the first two volumes of Motian's On Broadway series (with Charlie Haden on bass) approach the magnificence this trio caught here with Marc Johnson on Bill Evans. Reissued in 2003 on Winter & Winter.

A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing: Jerry Granelli (Evidence, 1992): Nothing in Jerry Granelli's past suggested this interesting, one-off ensemble recording. Despite working with jazzers as diverse as Earl Hines, Ornette Coleman, Denny Zietlin and Mose Allison, Granelli's best-known gig is as the drummer on all of those Peanuts TV shows that featured music by Vince Guaraldi. This concept album, inspired by Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter, about the life of the legendary New Orleans horn player Buddy Bolden, features a stellar cast of musicians including the diverse Julian Priester (who did a lot of recording with Granelli at the time) on trombone, Kenny Garrett on alto sax, Anthony Cox on bass, and the double-guitar whammy of Bill Frisell and Robben Ford (their only recording together). It's a fascinating collective that mixes a flair for old New Orleans jazz with the sensibility of that late-80s downtown sound, despite this production's origins in Seattle at about the same time the town was breaking out as an alternative music hotspot. Again, Frisell is on board with the concept and adds much to the mise-en-scene. He's in the background much of the time, but this is not about who can lead as much as it is about how much can you contribute to everyone else. Frisell succeeds most admirably, driving the proceedings forward most distinctively. But he's really not the only one who does so here. The fabulous line up of tunes includes Ellington's little known "Wanderlust," Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," two takes of Ornette Coleman's terrific "Blues Connotation," Priester's lovely "Prelude To Silence" (where he reminds us that he traversed the bands of Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi) and first-rate Granelli originals "The Oyster Dance" and "Coming Through Slaughter." Frequent Frisell collaborator Wayne Horvitz contributes two compositions as well as several arrangements. The two guitarists are most notably featured on "I Put A Spell On You," which is the apex of this disc's many fine performances.

Going Back Home: Ginger Baker Trio (Atlantic, 1994): On the face of things, this disc may be a surprising inclusion. It certainly was a surprise when it was first released some 15 years ago. But it is probably one of the best ways to experience the purity and poetry of Bill Frisell, the guitarist who knows no musical boundaries. Jazz, rock, thrash, country and folk all blend beautifully in his universe. It does so here too and it took a Ginger Baker album, of all things, to so beautifully catalog Frisell's capabilities. Baker, founder of one the 1960s legendary rock power trios, Cream (with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce), here helms a different sort of power trio, with Frisell and the remarkable and remarkably game Charlie Haden on bass. It's hard to say why this album works so well. Baker certainly is unlike any other drummer Frisell has been recorded with. Consider any drummer Frisell was working with at the time: Paul Motian, Joey Baron, Michael Shrieve or Ralph Peterson. Baker brings a four-on-the-floor rock time-keeping thing to the proceedings with a special fondness for tom-tom fills, nearly rendering the program something of a "Frisell lite" for Frisell fans. But Frisell responds surprisingly well. He is in top form here, delivering one line after another of interesting ideas, driven no doubt by the distinctive and melodic Charlie Haden (who'd previously recorded with Frisell on three Paul Motian discs, a David Sanborn disc and John Scofield's Grace Under Pressure). The disc's most memorable songs are the three pieces Haden contributes ("In The Moment," "Spritual" and, most notably, "Ginger Blues"), two exceptionally rousing covers (Monk's "Straight No Chaser" and Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin") and two songs Frisell revives quite nicely from his 1985 album Rambler ("Rambler" and "When We Go"). The only misfire here is the disc's epilogue, Baker's "East Timor," a real downer that seems to end an otherwise very good album on an off note. The trio reconvened the following year for Falling Off The Roof (Atlantic, 1995), a forgettable and forgotten reprise that needlessly added Jerry Hahn's guitar and Bela Fleck's banjo to several tracks.

The Sound Of Summer Running: Marc Johnson (Verve, 1998): This exquisite album is still a most remarkable achievement. Not only is it unquestionably one of the best jazz discs of 1998, it still stands today as one of bassist Marc Johnson's finest efforts under his own name. It is instantly memorable and lingers long after it's finished. It also boasts the fascinating two-guitar frontline of Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny in what was their very first collaboration (the two appeared on the 1987 Bob Moses album The Story of Moses but not together). The program is as picture perfect as it is pitch perfect. Johnson's quartet, rounded out by the ubiquitous and infallible Joey Baron on drums, delivers a sort of folksy Americana that Frisell had been successfully exploring since Have A Little Faith and which Metheny showed a marked affinity for on his then recent Beyond The Missouri Sky with Charlie Haden. All seven of Johnson's originals are breathtakingly gorgeous and delivered lyrically by all concerned. This is a remarkably cohesive foursome, each listening to the other and offering only what moves the mood of the melody along. If there is a sound of summer running, these four have certainly found it. Like his best work, Frisell doesn't stand out here so much as beautifully blends in. That's true of his three associates here too. Johnson crafts his songs to each of the strengths of both guitarists - and let's face it, Baron can do anything and do it well - though "Summer Running" seems especially meant for Metheny and "Porch Swing" seems especially geared toward Frisell. Metheny contributes one original here ("For A Thousand Years") and Frisell offers two, "Ghost Town" (which later became the title track to Frisell's 2000 solo album) and "The Adventures of Max and Ben."

Romance With The Unseen: Don Byron (Blue Note, 1999): One doesn't get too many chances to hear Frisell in a straight jazz setting and this is among one of his finest. Clarinetist Don Byron leads an excellent quartet here with Frisell on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and the always superb Jack DeJohnette on drums. Frisell factors in two previous Byron discs, Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra, 1991) and Music For Six Musicians (Nonesuch, 1995), and Byron himself can be heard on Frisell's own Have A Little Faith and This Land (both 1992). Romance is one of Byron's more cohesive efforts and that might be due to the focus Frisell provides as something of co-leader. Elsewhere, Byron tends to traffic in his eclectic tastes and talents and the effect is something like a Jackson Pollack splatter painting. It's all over the map; some of it is quite good, some of it is easily dismissed. Here, his energies are concentrated and clear. And it works well. It is straight jazz in the electric sense, and probably one of the strongest recordings that came out of the genre that year. The quartet covers two Ellington pieces here, Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap," The Beatles' "I'll Follow The Sun" and six very interesting Byron originals with such interesting titles as "Bernhard (sic) Goetz, James Ramseur and Me" and "Basquiat." Bassist Gress and drummer DeJohnette contribute markedly to the disc's wonderful cohesion (this was Frisell's first recording with the drummer and the two would go on to record The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers together in 2001, and both are featured on McCoy Tyner's recent Guitars).

Far From Enough: Viktor Krauss (Nonesuch, 2004): Bassist Viktor Krauss, a regular member of sister Alison's touring band, is better known for the country and pop acts he's accompanied such as Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, Tom T. Hall, etc. He first appeared with Frisell on the guitarist's 1995 disc Nashville and has been a constant fixture in Frisell groups ever since. On this album, Krauss - in the first disc under his own name - assembles a small group that sounds suspiciously similar to a Frisell group, prominently featuring Frisell on guitars, Jerry Douglas on slide guitar, Steve Jordan on drums and sister Alison on occasional, mostly background, vocals. The 12-song program will sound very familiar to anyone who has picked up a Frisell album in the last 15 years or so. It's hard to say who influenced whom, but Krauss's playful and intoxicatingly melodic album flirts with folk and country idioms as well as jazz and rock - much like Frisell does on those albums where Kruass is featured. This disc is dominated by Krauss originals, several of which stand out, such as "Philo," the lovely guitar-bass duo of "Playground," "Sunday Afternoon Man," "Split Window" and the title track (co-written by Sean Smith and Michael McDonald!). Robert Plant's "Big Log" is beautifully rendered here as a feature for Alison Krauss, appealingly reminiscent of early Cowboy Junkies (several years before Alison's recent duo album with the former Zep man). Frisell establishes a perfectly haunting mood on this number and, elsewhere, he reveals his knowledge of and/or fondness for 70s rock ("Grit Lap," "Tended" and "Side Street"). Intriguingly, Frisell cannot help but drive the sound here. But he does not dominate the proceedings either. As before, Frisell, commits himself to being a part of the team, even though Krauss could be forgiven for turning the reigns over to the guitarist. Frisell contributes spectacularly here, but not loudly or gregariously. There is not one note out of place. Even Frisell's improvisations seem perfectly formed. Everything he plays absolutely belongs and contributes greatly to the spectrum of sound Krauss sets up.

Another recording that probably should be included here is Frisell's power trio recording, Strange Meeting (Antilles, 1987), with bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson in a one-off grouping called Power Tools. Had I not lost this now out-of-print CD somewhere along the way, I would most certainly count this among Frisell's most notable sideman appearances.

Also: Just So Happens (Postcards, 1994) by Gary Peacock with Bill Frisell, Down Home (Intuition, 1997) and We'll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) by Joey Baron with Arthur Blythe, Ron Carter and Bill Frisell, Play (Atlantic, 1999) by Mike Stern with Bill Frisell on four tracks only, 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone, 2005) by Jenny Scheinman (great solos by Frisell on "Song of the Open Road," "Suza" and "June 21") and Guitars (Half Note, 2008) by McCoy Tyner with Bill Frisell on three tracks only.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Mudge Boy

Writer and director Michael Burke developed The Mudge Boy as a Sundance project, where the film had its initial screening in 2003. It's a simple story of a small-town boy, Duncan Mudge (Emile Hirsch), who at 14 has recently lost his mother and must fathom the world on his father's farm in a very rural Vermont backwater.

Duncan has a pet rooster he calls Chicken, which, of course, makes him a laughing-stock outsider in his small town, where being "normal" is more important than, well, anything else.

Duncan's grief over the loss of his mother - who, it is hinted at, was probably pretty troubled herself - forces him to take her role in the house, cooking for his father, pretending to be his mother and occasionally wearing her clothes - something which disturbs his father (Richard Jenkins) beyond comprehension.

Duncan forms an uneasy alliance with an older boy, Perry (Thomas Guiry), who alternates an unpredictable bullying nature (he's regularly beaten by his father) with a certain kindness and attention to Duncan.

This is Duncan's world and, despite the beauty of the landscape and the seeming kindness of the people, it's a harsh, sad and lonely place for all concerned. As Duncan, the extraordinary Emile Hirsch conveys this awareness and the confusion in simple looks that reveal deep hurt, unspeakable pain and aching, unsolvable loneliness. It is a riveting performance and, ultimately, a most moving one.

There is one scene in particular - a notorious scene that is too often wrongly called "the rape" - where Duncan's tears say more than we'll ever know. Hirsch, who I first noticed several months ago in Milk, despite having seen him in The Dangerous Life Of Alter Boys (2002) serveral years ago, is magnificent in such moments.

He can paint a map of emotions on his face, though his character, who probably doesn't even understand the emotions, is the only one who will ever even know these emotions are there. The range of emotions he expresses in a few brief moments of a showdown with the local toughs toward the end of the film is something to behold too.

Richard Jenkins, as Duncan's father, Edgar, is sensational; expressing confusion and anger for things he can't even begin to put words to - and doesn't. It's a beautiful and touching performance. He offers more than a few tremendously poignant scenes here as the disaffected father. The two that stand out for me include the moment when a group of local kids come by the farm to ask if Duncan can hang out with them and, later, when he discovers Duncan wearing his wife's wedding dress. I was also affected by the very brief lamp scene ("your mother would've wanted you to have this"), which ends on a sadly comic note.

Guiry is wonderful, too, in a role that could have gone any number of ways. The way Guiry plays Perry seems just right, especially as he and Duncan "discuss" kissing. It's also a heartbreaking scene. Guiry's anger and madness seem sadly too real.

The film, which deserves a far better title, also boasts a marvelous chamber score by composer Marcelo Zarvos. This is a new name to me, but Zarvos also did more recent scores for What Just Happened (2008) and You Kill Me (2007) and two films I have actually seen, The Good Shepherd (2006) and Hollywoodland (2006).

Zarvos's website - which looks painfully out of date - claims the Brazilian composer mixes world music, classical and jazz together in something he calls "world chamber music."

That is probably an ideal description for the music of The Mudge Boy too. While the film offers rock-sounding source music, Zarvos's music graces the score throughout, so perfectly reflecting the heart of darkness beating beneath the idyllic landscape. While chamber music is hardly new to film, I was reminded, for some reason, of Mark Lawrence's lovely score to Frank Perry's 1962 film David & Lisa.

The music here is beautifully scored for piano (Zarvos), two guitars (Andy Barbera, Mark Stewart), violin (Cenovia Cummins), two violas (Junah Chung, Ralph Ferris) and cello (Dorothy Lawson). It's always simple, evocative and as touching as the film.

These are some unrepentantly beautiful pieces disrupted by the occasionally off-key direction or the slightly off-kilter rhythm: a very jazz-like approach to classical music that never sounds like either jazz or classical music. I'd call it musical poetry.

Unfortunately, while Zarvos has gone on to some higher-profile film work that has accorded his music with official soundtrack releases, a soundtrack release of The Mudge Boy has never happened - and, at this point, is unlikely to ever see the light of day - unless the composer himself is allowed to issue the music on his own.

I hope that's the case. This Marcelo Zarvos soundtrack should be heard as much I think The Mudge Boy should be seen.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Frisell Frazell

If anyone deserves a compilation, it's Bill Frisell. In fact, he probably deserves more than a few. This prolific guitarist has recorded so much that even the most ardent fan would have trouble keeping up with his output. But compilations are a tricky business and especially confusing to anyone wondering whether they already have such and such or so and so by someone as well recorded as Bill Frisell.

Frisell's latest compilation, The Best Of Bill Frisell Vol. 1 - Folk Songs is the first that attempts to sum up his voluminous Elektra Musician (1988-91), Elektra Nonesuch (1992-94) and Nonesuch (1995-present) recordings - about the time he started performing the music which gives this set its title.

In an effort to determine which of these pieces I already had, I put together a mini-discography to assess what is here (bless anyone who attempts to compile the complete Bill Frisell discography):

Is That You? (1990): "Rag" (track 5 - the first and best of the versions of this song Frisell has recorded).

Have A Little Faith (1993): "Have A Little Faith In Me" (track 10).

Nashville (1997): A wondrous album - "We're Not From Around Here" (track 4), "Mr. Memory" (track 11).

Gone, Just Like A Train (1998): "Raccoon Cat" (track 2), "Verona" (track 7) and "Ballroom" (track 9).

Good Dog, Happy Man (1999): "The Pioneers" (track 5), "Shenandoah (for Johnny Smith)" (track 8) and "Poem For Eva" (track 15 - Frisell also covered this song again on Ghost Town).

Ghost Town (2000): "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (track 1) and "Wildwood Flower" (track 12).

Blues Dream (2001): "Slow Dance" (track 13).

The Willies (2002): "Sugar Baby" (track 3) and "Sittin' on Top of the World" (track 14).

This is a marvelous collection. The folk theme is ideal and serves Frisell's direction more than adequately. Lord knows, another few discs of Frisell's like-minded themes could be successfully compiled in addition to those exclusively covering the blues, jazz standards, country and western, pop and R&B hits and the guitarist's stunningly beautiful originals ("Keep Your Eyes Open" from Nashville is just one such example).

The "folk" idea is something that's made so many of Frisell's records in the past two decades as interesting as they have been. Despite the critical disparagement Frisell has suffered from so much of the jazz community for taking this path, the guitarist - one of the most original and wonderful guitarists to ever grace music without borders - has found a direction that makes sense and makes him as wonderful to hear over and over again.

It's also worth considering the 2000 soundtrack to Gus Van Sant's film Finding Forrester. I happened upon this knowing there was no commercially available recording of Frisell and Wayne Horvitz's incredibly wonderful "Weepy Donuts" theme for the end titles of Van Sant's 1999 film Psycho and discovered, unfortunately, that most of the music here has been issued before as well.

This intriguing and cohesive soundtrack was compiled by the great Hal Wilner (who was also responsible for Frisell's appearance on The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack shortly thereafter) and features several "recollections" of music from Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman as well as Frisell pieces including "Under A Golden Sky" (from Ghost Town), "Coffaro's Theme" (from Bill Frisell Quartet), "Beautiful E." (from Where In The World) and a solo guitar performance of "Over The Rainbow (Photo Book)" that does not appear anywhere else.

I really wish someone would issue Frisell and Horvitz's "Weepy Donuts," a title Psycho-scorer Danny Elfman uses on many of his scores (i.e., Good Will Hunting) and one which finds Frisell and Horvitz beautifully riffing off of Bernard Herrmann's music, on CD. But a full decade on, it's unlikely to happen at this point. There certainly is, however, enough of Frisell's music available to keep anyone interested though.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Album Cover Art

In my web travels, I am always searching for album cover art for one reason or another. So I was pleased to discover Rate Your Music had a whole section devoted to the album cover art of many artists, designers, photographers and illustrators compiled by fans of these artists' work in this field - usually a field that wasn't the artist's primary profession.

My focus here is on those few artists that I was glad to discover had listings at Rate Your Music - no matter how incomplete (I certainly discovered more than I knew about). Check out the site for other artists you know from anything but the album covers they did:

Saul Bass: Perhaps one of the 20th century's greatest graphic designers, Saul Bass (1920-96) was responsible for a slew of timeless, iconic logos (Girl Scouts, Minolta, United Way, BP, Exxon, WEA, AT&T and many others), advertising, film promotions and opening title sequences to many great films. He also directed the interesting bug movie Phase IV (1973) and, allegedly, helmed (or choreographed?) the famous shower sequence of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). My favorite albums here are probably The Man With The Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder and Bunny Lake Is Missing - all films which boasted brilliant opening title sequences by the late, great one-of-a-kind Saul Bass.

Andy Warhol: I first visited the Andy Warhol Museum in my home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about five years ago and while the museum's store sold several CDs that featured covers by Warhol (1928-87), there was no section in the museum that focused on Warhol's album cover art. This seemed short-sighted to me. I specifically hoped to see either Warhol's film poster for Fassbinder's 1979 movie Querelle or the similar cover for the soundtrack album hanging on some wall in the museum. Alas, neither was there. Warhol did a surprising number of album covers, first in the 1950s (mostly jazz titles that seemed more like sketches than art) and then again starting in the late 1970s for pretty much anyone that wanted an Andy Warhol cover. In between, there were his most famous album covers, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967 - the banana) and the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers (1971 - the crotch with the real zipper).

Josef Albers: I discovered the captivating artistry and incredible work of this great German artist of the Bauhaus school (1888-1976) from the very few striking album covers he designed for Enoch Light's Command Records label in the late 1950s. It's utterly amazing that Albers did remarkably little work in the album cover industry (some 6 or 8 albums) - and his work there is like nothing he did elsewhere - yet his album cover designs have been hugely influential and copied many times since. It is the captivating simplicity of these designs, little more than dots and lines and almost always in only two colors (usually black and white), which captures the attention and entrances so much. I have each of these Command albums in a frame at home and I am never at a loss to be completely beguiled by them. The cover above is, perhaps, my favorite: a classical album in a thick cardboard jacket seemingly giving weight to the great work of art I feel it is.

Jean-Michel Folon: This Belgian artist (1934-2005) first struck me on early albums by jazz guitarist Steve Khan (lyricist Sammy Cahn's son). Indeed, most all of Khan's albums since 1977 have featured Folon covers. These beautiful images seem so free-form, so passionate, so dreamy, so hopeful - almost the visual equivalent of jazz (which is why Folon's work seems to grace so many jazz albums). Oddly, when you see a number of these images together, it seems to show solitary individuals balancing on precipices, perhaps not the most positive of images. But, honestly, I feel a certain happiness in these paintings, as if the individuals - or the abstract images - pictured in each seem to be defying the odds against them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

John Holloway / Jaap ter Linden / Lars Mortensen "Jean-Marie Leclair Sonatas"

Violinist John Holloway (b. 1948) has a special fondness for what has become known as the baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries.

He has often recorded the classics of the masters from the period, such as Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann. But he has also taken great pains to focus attention on the music of some of the period's lesser known but not lesser talents such as Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), Georg Muffat (1653-1704), Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768), Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680) and Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764).

While Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann and, of course, Bach, hardly ever did anything not worth hearing, savoring and appreciating over and over again, this period of music - and all of its incredible composers - make for especially thrilling music to discover.

Biber, most notably, is a revelation to this listener. His dramatic and always melodic compositions strike me as something like jazz mixed with the odd-sounding combination of church music and what became 20th century country and western music. There's something very soulful, refreshing - even new - in this music and it takes someone as passionate and caring as Holloway to bring it back to life.

Holloway, whose relationship with Manfred Eicher's ECM Records goes back a full decade to 1999's Unarum Fidium (ECM New Series 1668), has made an exceedingly notable impression with his two Biber-based recordings for the label, 2002's excellent Unam Ceylum (ECM New Series 1791) and 2004's almost-as-wonderful Biber/Muffat - Der Turken Anmarsch (ECM New Series 1837). These are all thrilling discs, made brighter by the ardor and virtuosity Holloway brings to the music.

Holloway's newest disc is the joyful Jean-Marie Leclair Sonatas (ECM New Series 2009), where the violinist reconvenes his brilliant trio of violin, violoncello (Jaap ter Linden) and harpsichord (Lars Ulrick Mortensen).

These three were responsible for 2005's lovely Veracini Sonatas - and it's the same format Holloway used on the two Biber discs. It's amazing how these three instruments can suggest something much greater, much more significant, something more orchestral than you can imagine by three sets of hands. It's even more wondrous when you consider how Holloway's musical endeavors "whisper" music like so much a part of nature.

Remember those ECM ads from the 1970s where the label claimed to be "the most beautiful sound next to silence"? This is exactly what they meant.

Leclair, founder of the French violin school, is highly respected among classicists but he's hardly known at all among listeners today, especially among classic music enthusiasts. As a violinist himself, he brought great authority to his music - indeed, as he progressed, the music became more clever than listenable. He probably was not as successful as his compositions should have allowed him to be. Later in life, he wrote some ballets and operas, none of which were particularly successful. He died - or was murdered, under mysterious circumstances - nearly a recluse, all but forgotten and pretty much lost to the ages.

Rather than offer an overview of Leclair's sonata output - which forces me to recommend the 2001 CD, Leclair/Locatelli - L'Ange et le Diable CD by The Rare Fruits Council - Holloway chooses here to do five of the 12 sonatas from opus 5, which offer what he feels are the more melodic, less musically showy pieces in the composer's canon.

This is immediately apparent, with the warm and loving delivery Holloway and company provides throughout the disc. Leclair probably wasn't the composer Handel or Bach was. But that hardly renders what he achieved as inconsequential. Each of these four-part pieces is lovely, intellectual and almost spiritual.

While nothing here compares to the jagged edginess of Biber or the stately loveliness of anything by Handel, it is wonderful music delivered most lovingly by one of baroque's most passionate spokespersons, John Holloway, and his incredible synergistic trio.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Jim Hall & Bill Frisell "Hemispheres"

Quite simply, this marvelous two-disc set deserves nothing less than an unexpurgated "wow." It captivates immediate attention and rewards anew upon each repeated listen. It is one of the finest jazz discs produced and released in many a year.

Far too infrequently musicians are able to come together and just make music they want to make. And, more unfortunately, it is not often that record companies give the artists a chance to record music such as this for posterity.

It's sad how often I've heard friends and associates of musician soloists tell me that if you want to hear so-and-so's music, don't listen to their records. That's probably why private recordings (aka bootlegs) are so highly sought by fans. It's usually the only way to hear a musician plying their trade the way they want - and the way they are meant to be heard.

This brilliant "fan-funded" project brings together two master guitarists, Jim Hall (b. 1930) and Bill Frisell (b. 1951), who are working outside their normal units and away from their contracted labels. They are working out of respect for one another's artistry and playing together because they want to - not because it's designed to sell records.

Frisell had actually spent six weeks studying with Hall in 1972, but their paths diverged quite a bit since then, with Hall recording monster discs for the CTI, Horizon and Concord labels and Frisell, well, conquering just about everything and recording a slew of brilliant discs under his own name for the Nonesuch label. This disc marks the pair's first collaboration since their initial pairing on Hall's 1995 Telarc disc Dialogues, which featured Frisell on two Hall originals, "Frisell Frazell" and "Simple Things."

Two more complimentary guitarists are hardly imaginable, the still stunning Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (Telarc, 1999) not withstanding.

This generous two-disc program features one disc of the pair in a duo format recorded at Tony Scheer's house in Brooklyn, NY, over five days between July and December 2007. The second disc features both guitarists with bassist Scott Colley (who was present on Dialogues) and the always wonderful Joey Baron on drums, recorded by Joe Ferla, a long-time engineer for Frisell (especially his recordings with Paul Motian) and whose earliest work was recording Hall's 1971 Milestone album Where Would I Be?, at a New York studio on September 9, 2008.

Frisell brought a bunch of charts to the duo sessions, including Dylan's "Masters of War," with the idea of creating a sonic landscape for Hall to improvise over and within. This is most apparent on the duo's wondrous "Migration" and "Beijing Blues" as well as Frisell's sonorous "Throughout" and "Family."

The pair revisits some of their earlier compositions like Hall's "All Across The City" (which dates back to a 1964 album Hall recorded with Jimmy Raney) and Frisell's "Monica Jane" (which dates back to a 1986 album Frisell recorded with Paul Bley), named for his daughter, who took the black and white photos included in the CD's booklet (Mrs. Hall took many of the color photos in the booklet).

Interestingly, the pair started by playing each piece straight from the chart, then immediately afterwards played a freer version, or inverse, of the piece. This is the version of each piece that made the final cut. Such is obvious in the way the duo smashes and scatters Milt Jackson's warhorse "Bags (sic) Groove" with a swampy blues march and the utterly gorgeous reflection on the Dylan piece.

The quartet disc balances a high quotient of jazz standards, from "I'll Remember April" and "Chelsea Bridge" to "My Funny Valentine" and "In a Sentimental Mood," with group improvisations ("Barbaro" and "Card Tricks," something of a Hall chart dedicated to Baron's ability with cards) and highly interesting Hall originals ("Owed To Freddie Green" and "Hear And Now").

The open improvisations are as "free" or "out" as things get here. But it is unquestionably jazz creativity at its finest. Nothing is less than wonderfully entrancing. These guys, recorded in a circle in a rather small space, so each was forced to listen to and submit to the other (like true jazz interaction often provokes), seems so intoxicated with what the other is doing that hardly anyone seems to be leading and certainly no one seems to be following. It is an amazing amalgam of unified sounds these four present together.

This is the kind of album that makes you want to thank the musicians who made it. As the legendary Hall said on his web site, "(t)he duets are unique - creative - fun - serious - and more." The quartet album is an added bonus that even furthers these brilliant musical directions.

But one must thank ArtistShare and the fan-funded concept for music made by the people for the people. It reminds me of how it feels to have the Barack Obama administration in control now. A real democracy without regard to special interests.

Undeniably, one of the finest releases of 2009, Hemispheres may rank with Undercurrent, Hall's 1962 pairing with pianist Bill Evans, as one of the finest jazz albums of its particular decade.

It's available directly from the ArtistShare label, which offers many other great fan-funded projects from such well-known folks as Billy Childs and Patrick Williams to hugely talented newcomers like harpist Edmar Castaneda.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Kind of Blue Turns 50

Jazz has turned out many essential records. Trumpeter Miles Davis has contributed more than his share of most of them too. But the one absolutely essential jazz record of all time is Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue.

No matter how old you are. No matter what your experience with jazz is. No matter where your tastes in jazz run. There is no better, no more perfectly conceived, no more artistically gratifying, no more satisfying jazz album imaginable than Kind Of Blue. Period.

It is Miles Davis's best selling album. It is probably one of jazz's best-selling records. And one half of a century later, it remains one of Columbia's (now Sony) best-selling discs, which possibly excuses the shameless reissue program the label instituted for the album many years ago, through many varying formats and technologies.

Today, there are no less than four (probably more!) distinctly different versions of this disc available that you could pick up. But no one needs anything more than the album's original five songs, in whatever format one feels is the best way to hear it.

Recorded at Columbia's 30th Street studios in New York City over two sessions on March 2, 1959, and April 22, 1959, Kind Of Blue features some of jazz's all-time greatest players - Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans or, on one number, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb (the only currently surviving member of the band) on drums - playing some of the world's best-known - and original! - jazz themes: "So What," "Freddie Freeloader," "Blue In Green," "All Blues" and "Flamenco Sketches."

Whenever someone who knows nothing about jazz asks me where to start in the great world of jazz, I don't think twice. Kind of Blue is always right. No questions asked. No second thoughts. Of course, this is the "cliché classic" that others who claim to like jazz will go to great lengths to avoid recommending.

But this is unwise. I always caution the curious that Kind Of Blue hardly represents the entirety of jazz and most certainly does not represent the complex lineage of Miles himself. Yet Kind Of Blue offers many glorious gifts that can help guide someone in the direction of jazz they want to go.

It's indisputably the finest moment jazz ever reached.

Malcolm Jones provides a splendid, heartfelt reflection and appreciation of Kind Of Blue in the February 9, 2009, issue of Newsweek that is absolutely essential reading for one of the music industry's absolutely essential recordings.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Claudio Simonetti at the Disco

Last year, as I was working on putting together a Goblin compilation - which looks as if it will never be released - I discovered that in 1978 keyboardist/composer Claudio Simonetti (b. 1952) left the influential Italian prog-rock combo known for scoring such Dario Argento films as Profondo Rosso/Deep Red and Suspiria to pursue a growing interest in disco music.

My Goblin collection focused more on the group's jazz and dance songs rather than all the hits that usually crop up on the average Goblin set, so this fact - previously unknown to me - was of great interest.

Together with producer Giancarlo Meo, Simonetti pretty much pioneered disco music in Italy, even though, by 1978, they both arrived at the party fairly late in the evening. But the noise they made was worth getting down to. Their first great success was the out-and-out gay group Easy Going, which scored several dance-floor hits with "Gay Time Latin Lover," "Do It Again," "Baby I Love You," "Fear" and "I Strip You."

The gay thing was probably a publicity stunt aimed at disco's most profitable patrons. But in that heady time, there must have been great intoxication among gay men and women hearing anything good about being "gay" or what it's like to be gay in a song with a booty-shaking beat.

Several of the Easy Going album covers have to be seen to be believed. The first, Easy Going (Banana, 1978), pictures two naked S&M types graphically involved in male-on-male sex. The group's second - and probably best - album, Fear (Banana, 1979), looks like the soundtrack to some sci-fi horror film with an illustration of an alien whose crotch is emitting some sort of starlight.

Simonetti went on to do much other great work in disco, from (Meo's girlfriend and sexy Playboy Bunny) Vivien Vee's intoxicating "Give Me A Break" (Banana, 1979), "Remember" (Banana, 1980) and many others to Kasso's "Kasso" (1980), "One More Round" (1980), "Walkman" (1982), "Dig It" (1984) and "I Love The Piano" (1984, also released in the U.S. on Salsoul Records under Simonetti's own name).

There was also the Capricorn song called "Capricorn" (1980) and, perhaps best of all, Capricorn's Simonetti-composed "I Need Love" (1982 - check out how it compares to "Flashing" from Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli's 1982 score to Argento's Tenebre). The electronic classic "I Need Love" was probably the single greatest highlight of all of Simonetti's disco work, with the composer himself (probably) singing his own words with a conviction that he knew how to do it all except get a little love.

Simonetti stayed at it for two more years, deciding to "return to rock" in 1984 - when disco was pretty clearly dead. At this point, he made the occasional solo recording and, like his father, Enrico Simonetti (1924-78), began to devote more time and energy to film scores, beginning with Argento's 1984 film, Phenomena.

He's since scored many other films and, most significantly, many of Argento's films, including the recent catastrophe, Mother of Tears (his scores for Argento's recent Masters of Horror installments, Jenifer and, especially, Pelts, on the other hand, are quite wonderful and now seem to be available on a CD, via his web site).

Oddly, very, very few of Simonetti's disco records seem to have found their way on to an official CD release of any kind. And that's just wrong. Are there any Italian labels reading?

A serious study of Claudio Simonetti's lost disco years (1978-84) on CD would make for an ideal release. Not only would it be a great addition to a disco encyclopedia dominated by too many American clichés, it would be an essential document of Italian disco and the significance the music has had in the canon of the time.

Video: David Zed "R.O.B.O.T. (Erreobioti)"

I had intended the posting above to serve as a brief introduction to this one. But I got a little carried away, as I tend to do, and had to go the full route in explaining the long-delayed wonder of Claudio Simonetti's disco music to new millennium ears.

In attempting to locate Simonetti's disco music on record and failing to acquire many of these records at a price I was willing to pay, I quickly footed it over to YouTube, where posters who have the original records have been kind enough to post these songs for the rest of us disco plebes to hear.

While on my quest, I happened to stumble across a 1980 video by someone I'd never heard of named David Zed, performing a song called "R.O.B.O.T (Erreobioti)," a tremendous electronic dance tune featuring a handsome young singer making robotic moves while vocalizing through a synthesized vocoder.

The tune, which isn't terribly dissimilar from the same year's "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc., alternates Italian lyrics with such English inanities as "On. Off. On. Off." and "Yum, yum, yum, yum" and "Input. Output. Input. Output." and "Work. Stop. Work. Stop."

More interestingly, Zed repeats the English word "Power" through the vocoder in the same way Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli's 1982 theme to Dario Argento's 1982 film Tenebre repeats the similar-sounding Italian word "Paura," which means fear, through the vocoder.

What makes this fascinating is that Simonetti co-wrote Zed's extremely goofy follow-up single "I'm A Robot" ("not a rabbit" says someone in a silly Bugs Bunny voice…W.C Fields is among some of the other comic celebrities who seem to show up in this one) in 1980, so he must have been aware of how simple and effective it was to turn "Power" into "Paura."

It's brilliant too, like the echo-whispered use of "Witch" in Goblin's theme to Argento's Suspiria (1977) and "Mother" in Simonetti's theme to Argento's crazy Mother of Tears (2008), since Tenebre is said to take place in "the near future," which is often scored to plugged-in musical machines of some sort.

"R.O.B.O.T.," or "Robot," is a tremendous piece of electronic dance music and not the novelty this type of music would head toward (Kraftwerk's silly "Pocket Calculator" was one year away) or the type of pastiche crap that Zed would follow this up with.

Now known as a stand-up comic, Mr. Zed as he is now known, wears plastic orange hair and blue plastic suits, making chuckle-worthy pronouncements all the while pretending to be a robot. In this video, the cute, skinny young man sports an old-fashioned tuxedo and his own hair, never cracking a smile or forcing us to either. Here, he makes a robot seem endearingly human. And funky.