Celestial to Subterranean: New Music from Opium Moon, Jupiter & Okwess and Hana Vu

For KPCC Take Two’s Tuesday Reviewsday this week we go from a collaboration of international L.A.-based artists to the streets of Kinshasa (via Paris) to a trip underneath our city. Listen to my chat with show host A. Martinez and read my more detailed written reviews, all right here.

The group’s name pretty much gives it away. Opium Moon‘s debut album is the soundtrack to an exotic, hazy, languorous dream, a sensual/spiritual trip into the mystic. “Drunk With the Great Starry Void,” a line from a Pablo Neruda poem used as the title of one of the songs, sums it up nicely.

But it’s not just that. Opium Moon, the album title as well as the group’s name, is a deep and involving meeting of distinctive great talents involving several rich cultural/musical traditions: 

Violinist Lili Haydn is a Los Angeleno whose virtuosity and exploratory nature have been tapped by a vast array of artists from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (she was featured on their “UnLEDded” project) to George Clinton’s P-Funk Allstars to Herbie Hancock to Josh Groban, not to mention countless movie and TV scores and her own wide-ranging projects. Bassist and electronicist Itai Disreali was raised on an Israeli kibbutz founded by his grandfather near Nazareth and in L.A. has developed his own compelling mix of Middle Eastern influences and jazz in the trio Maetar among many projects. Tehran native Hamid Saeidi is a master of the santoor, the ancient Persian hammered zither, and has crossed between Persian classical and modern styles. And percussionist MB Gordy has credits from Frank Zappa to Neil Diamond to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and dozens of film and TV sessions as well.

The Persian-Israeli alliance is at the core of these long, slowly unfolding pieces, original group compositions/improvisations inspired by both folk and classical traditions of the region, the modal dastgāh systems, explicitly evoking the Sufi mysticism and its central poet, Rumi.  

“How Can I Pray When All I See Is the Beloved” has Haydn peeling off some almost casual romantic Viennese classical licks that somehow complement Saiedi’s brittle santoor perfectly. A video for the song “Caravan” (not the Duke Ellington jazz-exotica classic) shows the interactions in detail. But that’s even more dynamic in concert, as you have a chance to see on Sunday at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theater of the New Roads School in Santa Monica, where they will be joined by Iran-born singer and multi-media performer Sussan Deyhim, a challenging and dynamic artist herself.


If Opium Moon is all dream state, come to the small Frogtown club Zebulon tomorrow (Wednesday 7/11) for a jolt of high-octane, central African musical caffeine from Jupiter & Okwess. Originating in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but living in Paris in exile from the civil war-torn country, Jupiter Bokondji and band proved one of the big hits of this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s celebration of the city’s tricentennial and all the cultures that have fed into its vibrant musical life. 

Frantic and frenetic are two words that come to mind with the performances, both live and on the new album “Kin Sonic,” and also fun — Bokondji, who has been creating intriguing takes on the sounds for more than 30 years, is an engagingly dynamic figure and the rest of the band seems constantly on the move, including the drummer Montana Kinunu, who wears one of several lucha libre masks while playing. But this is music tied to strife and exile, and speaks to those issues as it provides escape. A video for the song “Nzele Momi” shows that mix of joy and struggle. 

It’s that mix that has attracted such collaborators as Blur’s Damon Albarn, who plays some keyboards on this album, and violinist Warren Ellis from Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. And those guests in turn help give the music a bit more of a slick sound than what we hear in concert, the settings on the album crafted by French producer Marc-Antoine Moreau (who has worked with various African-originated acts). And through it, Bokondji’s ties to the Kinshasa scene that spawned the distortion-heavy Congotronics and the up-from-the-streets triumphs of Staff Benda Bilili (a band created in the community of disabled homeless people) remain strong. (A 2006 documentary, “Jupiter’s Dance,” spotlights his key roles there.) Whether in Paris or New Orleans or Frogtown, the spirit still connects to Kinshasa.

Hana Vu, photo by Alexandra Adcock

The New York subways have inspired songs through the years. The L.A. subways, not so much. So how about…. oh, never mind. Maybe “Crying on the Subway” isn’t exactly the ode to the Red Line the Metro folks might choose for a promotional campaign. The song, by singer-songwriter-musician Hana Vu, is set on a ride from the Valley to Downtown, subterranean run from that she has described as “purgatorial.”

Apart from that, even many in the transportation department might appreciate it. It’s a rather sophisticated song on several levels, the pay-off of someone who has been working hard on her craft for five years. Which means she started when she was 12 — she’s just 17 now. But the level of creativity and expression is impressive for any age, and worth noting that she created all the music, playing and singing every part, in her bedroom.

Whatever her age, there’s considerable a great maturity in this. But she also allows herself to be a teen, expressing concerns of youth, though the case can be made that these too figure in any age — isolation and inner turmoil in a fight for meaning and connection, wondering what it all adds up to. The EP title, “How Many Times Have You Driven By,” speaks of obsession with a tone of annoyance. And the in set’s most upbeat song, “Shallow,” she runs screaming from fear of getting caught in “wrong turns,” but seems to know that those turns can prove right. Shallow? That’s one thing she is definitely not.

Bill Mumy, Vicki Peterson, John Cowsill: Action Skulls Say Hello. And Goodbye?

(Photos by Lisa Margolis)

It was a debut farewell and a farewell farewell Saturday at McCabe’s.

The former was the first, and only, concert by Action Skulls, the trio of Vicki Peterson (the Bangles), John Cowsill (the Beach Boys and, of course, the Cowsills) and Bill Mumy (Barnes & Barnes and a lot of other things, musical and otherwise, including… well, you know.) They’re busy people. Doing more shows would be problematic. So this one, celebrating the recent release of their album, “Angels Hear,” will be it.

The latter was the last show put on there by the venerable venue for its long-time booker and producer Lincoln Myerson.

It was Myerson who made the “debut farewell” quip as he introduced the band while standing, as has been his custom, on the steps leading up to the side of the stage. And re his own leave-taking, off to New Zealand with his fiancée for new adventures, he got ever-so-slightly misty as for one last time he gave his admonishment to the fans to turn off their phones and fully enjoy the music and instructed us all that should there be any emergency we should grab a guitar from the wall and head out the back exit. action skulls-3

“If we like the guitar, we’ll find you,” he said.

Both of these goodbyes get asterisks, though, at the very lease. Let’s just go on record here: Action Skulls will be back. And so will Myerson. His return is a given. He’s planning to be back in town for a stretch in four months, and will continue in a key role, even long-distance, as McCabe’s will be doing various shows throughout the year to celebrate its 60th anniversary. There will be continuity and a smooth handoff to Brian Rodriguez and Koko Peterson, both of whom have worked alongside Myerson for a while now and will take over the duties. Just as it was when Myerson took over from Zacharia Love, who succeeded John Chelew, who stepped up for his original McCabe’s concerts boss Nancy Covey.

As for the Skulls, they and the audience were having so much fun, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t be doing this again. Sometime. Somewhere. They all but said so. With each reference to this being the only show, to mentions of their busy schedules — drummer Cowsill’s in particular, with the Beach Boys seemingly on the road all the time — there was a less-and-less-subtle wink-wink.

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This is clearly a labor of love (well, Peterson and Cowsill are a delightfully wedded couple with rare occasion to work together) and friendship, a mutual admiration society. Cowsill noted on stage that he’d long been a fan of Mumy’s music, which reminds him of his late brother Barry. The band, such as it is, grew organically out of a spontaneous session around the piano at a Christmas party hosted by Mumy’s “Lost In Space” TV sister, Angela Cartwright, a few years back. Sharing love and roots in ‘60s sounds, Mumy recounted at McCabe’s, they played songs they knew, songs they didn’t, and as the session stretched long into the night-morning, and the spirits (not, specifically, the holiday kind) took increasing hold, the selections became both sentimental and sad.

action skulls-8The spirit (if not spirits) of that marked the show Saturday. There was banter galore — teasing, false starts, sideways glances, shoutouts to people in the audience — and a real looseness (the good kind) that powered the music too, mostly the songs from the album, mostly written by Mumy. (Cowsill marveled at his prolificness, while joking that they have much blackmail material in the nearly daily iPhone video demos Mumy, usually in a bathrobe, would send them.) Lead vocal duties were shared, Cowsill, with a very winning voice, naturally sweet and sturdy, taking the larger portion. But not surprisingly the highlights had them singing together, a perfect balance of Mumy’s somewhat gruffer tones blending with his compadres. Bassist Robbie Scharff and keyboardist Greg “Harpo” Hilfman filled out the arrangements , which echoed the ‘60s without even being slavishly retro, from the Byrds-via-the Mamas and the Papas “Mainstream” to the Buck Owens-via-Beatles “Feed My Hungry Heart” (see video below). Even when they veered psychedelic on “The Beast and the Best” — Peterson singing lead and Hilfman given room to stretch on a “freaky” solo — it never got hokey hippie.

As casual as the project may have been, the songwriting is anything but. The best of the bunch have some levels to then, explorations of love and meaning. “Faith Waltz,” Mumy explained, is an admiringly curious look at the earnest, heartfelt beliefs many hold, even if he doesn’t share them. “Standing on the Mountain,” one of two songs with all three getting writing credit, had them trading verses about being in different places, but seeking connection.

action skulls-7And threading through the show there were other farewells, these without asterisks. Loss of various kinds was a running theme of the night. Peterson’s “Map of the World” pays tribute to her late father. “If I See You In Another World” — well, the title tells the tale. And in a mid-show acoustic session, they reprised one of the songs that they had done late in the original Christmas party session, the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” and then honored mutual hero Tom Petty — who Peterson said that she had the thrill of singing with last year — with the departed rocker’s tender ode to his adopted state, “California,” the three of them fashioning luminescent harmonies.

A big farewell was saved for the encore. Rick Rosas — “Rick the Bass Player,” as he was known far and wide — was the fourth member of Action Skulls through most of the album’s making a few years ago, but died unexpectedly in Nov. 2014 at age 65. Rosas, best known for his decades of work with Neil Young and Joe Walsh, has the distinction of being the only bassist to play with Buffalo Springfield (the reunion shows of 2011), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and in Young’s Crazy Horse (he’d taken over for an ailing Billy Talbot for a 2014 tour). Wistfully talking about how much they’d loved having him as part of the band, and how much he’d enjoyed playing with them, the Skulls paid perfect tribute to him with a version of Young’s “Helpless.”

Helpless. A feeling of saying goodbye. A real goodbye.

Joachim Cooder Leads Familial Flights of Fancy At McCabe’s

(Photos by Lisa Margolis)

It was family night at McCabe’s on Sunday. Joachim Cooder sat center stage at the Santa Monica landmark amid an arsenal of electro-acoustic tuned percussion devices and various wired effects gadgets. To his left, seated behind a keyboard console, was Juliette Commagere, to whom he is married. With her — well, in her — was their gestating son, about six weeks from his ETA, and given the name (for now, at least) “Snack Pack” by their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Joachim informed us. Juliette’s brother, singer-songwriter Robert Francis, had opened the show with a solo set of tales both tender and tough, full of musings both mirthful and melancholy.

Oh, and to Joachim’s right, making his concert debut, was a bass player named Ry Cooder, Joachim’s dad. That is, his debut as a bass player. He is, of course, one of the premiere guitarists in a vast range of styles, a treasure of the strings and a living, breathing music library. But he’d never played bass in public before and it presented a challenge — one note at a time, he quipped, so “it had better be right.”

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All of these clan members had played with each other for ages in various settings. Joachim has been a key figure on many of his dad’s recordings, including some with the Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista All Stars, and Joachim and Juliette having had a series of bands together over the last couple of decades, some of them also featuring brother Robert. Saxophonist Sam Gendel, to Juliette’s left this night, was the only one playing who was not a blood and/or marriage relative to anyone else involved on the bill.

So maybe it was no surprise that the songs showcased by Joachim and crew were largely marked by a sense of familial domesticity. In a conversational voice and a stream-of-consciousness manner — a friend afterwards related it to Mose Allison’s patter-poetry style, though maybe with a hippie flow rather than Mose’s bebop Beatnik clip — he sang of idyllic bliss and lovingly amusing home-life. “Calm My Mind” celebrated supportive coupledom. “Gaviota Drive” wistfully recalled early mornings in the seaside home of Commager’s grandmother as he held then-baby daughter Paloma, just the two of them and the sounds of waves lapping the shore. “Elevated Boy” riffed sweetly on something Paloma came up with regarding a mouse doll of hers. And “Fuchsia Machu Picchu,” the title song from Joachim’s new EP, is an ode to the first bit of flora they planted in the yard after moving in to their Highland Park home. When Commagere joined in on harmonies it was truly, well, harmonious. In multiple senses.

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But if he was singing hyper-locally, he was playing expansive-globally. Let’s call the predominant style electro-Congo-Bali blues. At the center of this sonic universe was an electric mbira, a thistle of chiming tines custom-made by San Diego’s Array Instruments. For most of the songs, Cooder started by creating a looped pattern from this, kind of an instant one-man celestial gamelan, sometimes richened with the deeper, earthier tones coaxed from another Array invention, their “organ,” an architecturally arranged forrest of thick nails, each precisely set to produce a specific note in a gorgeously melodious scale.

To this, Cooder père added steady yet fluid bass patterns (the notes were, in fact, right), while Cooder fils and Commager filled some of the rhythms with various hand percussion items. And over it, Gendel blew breathy, understated sax lines, often running his instrument through a tone-splitter to create sort-of animal choruses, clearly evoking the work of inventive trumpeter Jon Hassell, whose ‘70s and ‘80s “Fourth World” music collaborations with Brian Eno seemed to be the primary touchstone for Joachim’s sound-world here. (Hassell guested on Joachim’s 2012 electronics-centric “Love Is a Real Train” album.)

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Even the closing song, a version of influential Appalachian banjo/folk song master Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” first recorded by the Virginian a full 90 years ago, gained vibrance from this approach, though the downcast desolation and despair of the song’s narrator made for a stark contrast to the rest of Cooder’s set. Maybe it’s a way for Cooder to remind himself of how good he’s got it. Or maybe it’s just a great song for a family music night, which is plenty good enough.

joachim cooder-4A little coda: Another member of the extended Cooder family was on the minds of many Sunday, as soul single Terry Evans, who had been a core member of many of Ry Cooder’s bands and recordings since the mid-‘70s, passed away at age 80 earlier that day. Evans had recently taken part on sessions for Francis’ new “Indian Summer” album, and Francis paid tribute, dedicating both his opening and closing songs to the singer.

Only a few years ago, Evans did a concert on this same McCabe’s stage, his combination of sweetness and power as strong as ever — as seen and heard here in this song, video made by Wayne Griffith and Sam Epstein:

Alex and Nels Cline: The Music Of Their Lives

“This is a theme from our past that we’re making up on the spot.”

So said guitarist Nels Cline to introduce one piece in Saturday night’s duo show with his twin brother, drummer Alex, presented by the Jazz Bakery at the New Roads School’s Moss Theater.

And then they did this.

That little bit was mere prologue. Soon the piece transmuted into something else. And then it transmuted into a series of transmutations, flowing and shifting, passages of power, of delicacy, of fury, of silence … and always of incandescence. And as Nels suggested, wittingly or otherwise, it brought together all of their shared lifetime, expressed vibrantly in the moment. Well, watch and listen. This next video clip is long, yes. You might not stick it out, or you might skip from point to point. But you might not be able to help yourself and wind up watching it through.

For all the spontaneity, this is really live composition. It’s what what these two did through the whole concert, working from themes of various sources  — a couple from the works of late jazz drummer Paul Motian, a few from Nels own work, including a gorgeously rich variation on “You Noticed,” from his most recent album, “Lovers.” And it’s what they’ve done through their whole lives, from when they were kids growing up just a mile or so from this very spot, which Nels amusedly recalled used to be a hot tub dealer.

No matter what they’ve done on their own (Nels, most famously, in the band Wilco for the last decade-plus), they’ve had bands together and contributed to each others’ projects with regularity. When Nels did a concert at Royce Hall last year, Alex was in the band, though so were 17 other musicians. And Nels is among the featured players in Alex’s Flower Garland Orchestra, heard on last year’s stellar “Ocean of Vows” album.

Remarkably, the show Saturday — in part celebrating their 62nd birthday a couple of weeks ago — was only the fourth time in more than 50 years of performing together that they’ve ever done a public concert with just the two of them on stage. They seemed as perplexed by that as anyone in the room.

Each of them made full use of their considerable respective command of their instruments, Alex moving between chiming bells and gongs and thundering drums and cymbals, Nels enhancing and manipulating his nonpareil fretboard skills with a variety of effects both electronic and mechanic. But most profound was the meshing of their playing, the natural complementary dynamics that we tritely but probably truly can credit to their shared genetics, not to mention those decades of working together.

For all the musical wonders with which they’ve been involved, this will stand as a highlight for all on hand to witness it, and hopefully for the two of them who performed it. That won’t be lost even if they make this a more regular occurrence. And let’s hope they do.

Uprising. Freedom. DAMN. 2017 – The Year in Music

Last year, my first candidate for album of the year held that spot to the end — David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” my feelings about it established even before he died just days after its release. This year, again, the first to impress me retained its power through the year, but this is from a young artist just starting to make his mark, Los Angeles’ powerhouse Miles Mosley. His bracing mix of soul, funk, jazz and rock, carrying confident messages of social justice and personal power to affect change, is a fitting topper for a list of releases as forceful, eclectic and singular in their creative expression as this is, from an African women’s collective to an album inspired by African-American slave diaries, from an Anglo-American folk-rock collaboration to a group from embattled Venezuela which until recently had never performed outside of its small village, from a young Puerto Rican-American connecting with her cultural and personal identity to a 79-year-old avant-garde jazz pioneer at once recapping his remarkable career and showing himself still hungry for new challenges. Music reflecting our times? You bet. Music full of fight, not despair. The words printed here about each release come from the most part from reviews I did on KPCC’s Take Two program, though two are from concert reviews — all linked for your full enjoyment. Check out the list, and more importantly, check out the music. (And scroll down to the bottom for the list of impressive near-misses, all very worthy.)

Miles Mosley “Uprising” World Galaxy/Alpha

Miles Mosley’s “Uprising” is only 44 minutes long, but in many ways every bit as epic as Kamasi Washington’s sprawling three-hour jazz excursion, which was of course titled “Epic.” It’s a pertinent comparison since upright bassist and singer Mosley was a key figure on “Epic,” and this new album features much the same ensemble, including Washington himself on tenor sax. For that matter, Mosley’s band, the West Coast Get Down, is the core of the “Epic” outfit, and this album is at the very least a companion work.

This is aspirational, inspirational soul-jazz harking back to some of the great anthems of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the full jazz colorations of the charts giving a signature to these songs, many shaped by a fiery fight for social justice. Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers, the Staples Singers, Bill Withers among others come to mind. Maybe Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, too, in some ways. But also Charles Mingus and Archie Schepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Max Roach, for a start. And while there’s nothing reggae about this, it’s probably no coincidence that the album’s title was also used by Bob Marley for one of his forceful sets.

(Full review, written and audio, from KPCC’s Take Two.)

Rhiannon Giddens “Freedom Highway” Nonesuch

For her second solo album, Rhiannon Giddens takes the title from, and closes the set with, Pops Staples’ classic gospel anthem of the civil rights movement, a perfect epilogue for the songs that come before it. “Freedom Highway” is an album of vivid tales of people and signposts from that often rough road, a journey from the darkest days of slavery, starting with chilling opening song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” to the tensions and divisions that persist today.

Now, if that sounds pedantic, the songs are anything but. This is not a literal history lesson, but a literary one. And it’s told on such a poetically personal level that, though Giddens wrote or co-wrote all but the Staples’ song and “The Angels Laid Him Away” (by Mississippi John Hurt), you might swear that they were adaptations of songs written in the moment and on-site by people who lived inside the struggles.

(Full review from KPCC segment.)

Juana Molina “Halo” Crammed Discs

As with much great music, much great art, there is something disorienting about the music of Argentina’s electro-pop shapeshifter Juana Molina.

It’s very thoughtful of her, in the English translations of the Spanish lyrics accompanying the album, to provide a compass reference for something that is literally disorienting to some of us, particularly those of us who speak a different language, come from a different culture and, to the point, a different half of the globe. With the translation of the lyrics to the song “Al Oueste (In the West)” she includes a footnote to a line referencing an expectation of sunshine through a north-facing window: “*in the southern hemisphere, the sun peaks out in the north.”

Of course, for those of us not proficient in Spanish, it might be a moot point as we wouldn’t have caught the reference in the first place. But it underscores the point that there’s plenty else to keep one off balance in this album. And as with the misplaced sun, it’s often things you might not realize are unsettling until you are in the middle of them.

(Full review here.)

Les Amazones d’Afrique “Republique Amazone” Real World

Long before women put on pink knit hats and marched through our cities, a group of strong-voiced women came together to present a forceful message:

Men, listen to us,

This song we’ll sing goes to you

Our troubles and sorrows are our weapons

And we women want to share them with you.

The women who wrote and sang that song, “I Play the Kora,” are a multi-generational, multi-cultural West African supergroup fully deserving of the name they’ve chosen, Les Amazones d’Afrique, honoring the women warriors who protected cultures in that region for hundreds of years.

The words quoted above were sung, in the Banbara language, by Malian artist Rokia Koné, followed in subsequent verses with equally pointed, pain-into-action lines from young Nigerian rebel-rapper Nneka, Mouneissa Tandina, Kandia Kouyate, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia and Mariam Koné (all from Mali) and Pamela Badjogo (of Gabon).

Co-produced by the women with Irish musician Liam Farrell (a.k.a. Doctor L, who previously produced the sparkling Kinshasa outfit Mbogwana Star), the album is dense with intertwined traditional and modern sounds, the serious topics always propelled by spirited music. It’s not looking for pity, but always pushing for progress. So strong is it that the presence of Benin-born global star Angelique Kidjo in the lead singer and lyricist role on rousing opening song “Dombolo” is just a nice bonus, a way to bring a bit more attention.

(Full review from KPCC here.)

Offa Rex “Queen of Hearts” Nonesuch

A couple of years ago, singer songwriter Colin Meloy – best known for his band the Decemberists, sent a fan tweet to the young English folk artist Olivia Chaney, saying he’d love to hear her sing the old, doleful Scottish ballad “Willie O’Winsbury.”

That tweet was the start of a relationship that ultimately culminated in our first selection – the album, “Queen of Hearts” by the band Offa Rex. Here’s a track of the same name.

Offa Rex — the name comes from an 8th century English King — teams Chaney with Meloy and members of the Decemberists. Now, the Decemberists may be from Portland, but they have always seemed to be an English folk-rock group, what with the lilting melodies, mournful fiddles and tales of seafaring adventure and treacherous romance that dotted its early albums in particular. So it’s only natural that Meloy and crew would eventually work with a real English folk singer, and in Chaney they have one of the brightest lights of the revived, resurgent British folk wave.

It’s a great listen of powerful songs and hypnotic performances. Well, anything sung by Chaney is a great listen. Meloy and crew, though, give her settings that take her into new territories as a singer, expand her range, even within a repertoire with which she was already familiar.

(Full review here.)

Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.” Top Dawg Entertainmet

The one album in my Top 10 that I didn’t write about. But so much has been said about this, what more is there for me to say? Lamar may well be pop music’s MVP of this era.

Roscoe Mitchell “Bells For the South Side” ECM

(FROM NOTES FOR REVIEW THAT DIDN’T RUN) The big news about reeds player Roscoe Mitchell should have been the release of this monumental album, a career-capping set from one of the giants of so-called free jazz, an ode to and renewal of the pioneering music he was at the core of with the still-singular Art Ensemble of Chicago going back half a century. Unfortunately the recent news about him has been the apparent elimination of his long-held, highly valued professorship at Oakland’s financially beleaguered Mills College.

But that latter cannot overshadow the vibrant artistry of “Bells,” recorded in concert a couple of years ago with a vast assortment of colleagues and acolytes in various combinations, spurred by the vision and vitality of the leader, who remains remarkably active and productive at 76.

Meklit “When the People Move, the Music Moves Too” Six Degrees

The album title seems almost backwards. Isn’t music supposed to make people move, not the other way around? But the movement referenced by Meklit Hadero, who goes by just her first name, is that of migration — both individuals and groups of people — bringing music with them. It’s both a way that the heart of cultures, the essence of home, come with them. But also the music is a spark for new sounds, new cultures, as people build new homes.

A lot of moving happened with the people and music on this album. Some recording was done in Meklit’s birthplace of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as well as her long-time and current home of San Francisco, but also New Orleans (the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Horns play on four songs) and, primarily, here in Los Angeles, home base for album producer Dan Wilson.

The joyous “You Are My Luck” is buoyant Ethiopianized soul, featuring Los Angeles-based, Ethiopian-born pianist Kibrom Birhame and the Preservation Hall Horns, East African groove goosed with New Orleans street funk. And winding through are some lines of the traditional Ethiopian harp known as a krar played by Messele Asmamaw, one of the three musicians recorded in Addis.

(Full review here.)

Betsayda Machado “Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree” Odelia

“Debería ser ron.”

That was one of the percussionist-vocalists of Venezuela’s Parranda El Clavo, on stage with remarkably accomplished, expressive singer Betsayda Machado in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Magnin Auditorium Thursday night. He winked impishly to the audience as his words were translated — “It should be rum” — by the group’s manager, Juan Souki. It would have been rum, had the show not been moved to this indoor room (no alcohol allowed) from the outside courtyard due to the monsoon that had swept through unexpectedly earlier in the evening, altering plans for the closing night of the Skirball’s 2017 Sunset Concerts series. Water would have to do for this occasion, that occasion being a little ceremony to bless a CD, that CD being the debut recording of Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo, that debut coming a full 30 years since the ensemble started performing at celebrations and ceremonies in its small, rural village of El Clavo.

It was big moment, a little solemnity following what had been an boisterous, exhilarating, audience-shaking performance of traditional songs going back generations. The first run of CDs had only arrived earlier in the day. The musicians were clearly moved and a little overwhelmed— not a shock, given that until last year, the ensemble had never performed outside of El Clavo. That’s right, 30 years in the village, and now on a North American tour of more than 30 cities, and a CD in hand, titled “Loé Loá – Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree.”

(Full concert review here.)


Hurray for the Riff Raff “The Navigator” ATO

“Do your best, but fuck the rest. Be something.”

Alynda Segarra delivered many core, poignant lines fronting her band Hurray For the Riff Raffat the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge, but that may have been the core-est. It came in the song “Pa’lante,” the show’s epic closer and emotional climax — the same position it holds on the new album, “The Navigator.” And it pretty much sums up the essence of  the album: a concept set tracing her journey as a 17-year-old leaving her Bronx home, train-hopping around the country before landing in New Orleans, and now at 30 retracing it in a prodigal journey to tie who she is now to where she came from.

The song’s title, she explained by way of introduction this night, is a colloquial exhortation to “move forward,” associated with the Young Lords, a Spanish Harlem-originated Puerto Rican gang-turned-quasi-militant cultural action group of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. And in the course of the song, dramatically quoting from Nuyorican poet/activist Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” she calls out “Pa’lante!” to a vast cast: “To Juan, Miguel, Milagro, Manuel… To all who came before… To my mother and my father… To all who had to hide… To all who lost their pride… To all who have had to survive…” To all who have struggled to find their place in the world, who are struggling now. To all fighting to know and hold identity, whatever that means, whatever shape it takes. The riff raff. Hurray. “Be something.”

(Full review of the March concert here.)


NEAR-MISSES (in no particular order)

Jay Som, “Everybody Works”

Chicano Batman, “Freedom is Free”

Joe Henry, “Thrum”

Aurora Nealand, “Monocle”

Lila Downs, “Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo”

Chuck Berry, “Chuck”

Aldous Harding, “Party”

Terrace Martin presents the Pollyseeds, “Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1”

Thundercat, “Drunk”

Randy Newman, “Dark Matter”

Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Dreams and Daggers”

Bianca Rossini, “Vento do Norte”

Ibeyi, “Ash”

Benjamin Clementine, “I Tell a Fly”

Sam Amidon, “The Following Mountain”

Tyshawn Sorey, “Verisimilitude”

Robert Plant, “Carry Fire”


The Blind Boys of Alabama Tell It


(Photo by Kathleen Schenck)

Why can’t all Christmas music be performed like this?

Well, not every act doing Christmas music is the Blind Boys of Alabama, here joined by Texas folk-blues artist Ruthie Foster and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Legacy Horns on Sunday night at the ornate Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles for a stop on the group’s annual Christmas tour. Presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, this was not your run-of-the-mill holiday concert.

No Frosty. No Rudolph. Heck, no Santa! This was CHRISTmas music. “White Christmas” was about as secular as it got.

“Go Tell It On the Mountain,” as heard in the video, is only sort of Christmas music. Yeah, it’s about the nativity and does show up on some seasonal music albums (it was the title song of the Blind Boys’ 2003 album of such), but really it’s a 19th century African-American spiritual, a forceful gospel declaration of hope and spirit that transcends any specific time of year.

As such it doesn’t stand apart from much of the Blind Boys repertoire, or that of gospel as a whole, where a good deal of the songs are about the joy of Jesus in the manger, and a good deal of the rest are about the sorrow of Jesus on the cross — and the joy of his resurrection.

So while the Blind Boys, the group formed at the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in 1939 and still fronted by founding member Jimmy Carter, did devote about half of its set to Christmas songs Sunday, it’s not like the rest of the show wasn’t tied to that as well.

There was another aspect to this show, though, something new for the nearly 80 years that the Blind Boys has been an active group: The group’s own story. Its recent album, “Almost Home,” features songs custom-written from tales told by Carter and Clarence Fountain (the other living founder, though he no longer tours with the group) about their lives. With Carter, closing in on 90, flanked by fellow singers Eric “Rickie” McKinnie (a kid at just 65 who joined the Blind Boys in the early 2000s) and Ben Moore (a decade younger than Carter and a member since 2006), they opened this show with the title song. It’s a powerfully personal ballad in which Carter starts by telling of being put on a train as a frightened child to go off to the school, and then finding friends and singing partners and a purpose in his life, guided and bolstered by faith through good times and bad and looking now to what comes next:

I’ve come a long, long way from Alabama, I’ve been a long time gone. And I’m almost, almost home.

It’s the album of their lives, but also an album of facing death. Now, don’t be all sad about that. They didn’t seem to be. Not only do they have faith that there is more to come after the end of this life, but Carter impishly used it as a come-on in several pitches for the new album, which of course was on sale in the lobby (and otherwise, at this point, only available via a deal with Amazon).

You might want to buy this now, he told the audience. “There might not be another one.” And he laughed, as did we. Later, that impishness came to full flower with the rousing gospel stomper “Look Where He Brought Me From.” Early in it, McKinnie and Moore kept standing and stepping to the beat with increasing ecstatic further, defying guitarist Joey Williams’ attempts to get them to sit and not over-exert themselves. Of course, it was theater, something that’s been part of every Blind Boys show for ages. And soon Carter was in on it too, seemingly unable to contain himself, even doing a spin move, before their road manager finally took him down into the audience, where it seemed he really couldn’t contain himself. This was the climactic excitement we all came to see, and we ate it up. Well, here, watch. Watch all of it — and this isn’t even the complete song:

So yeah, it was as night of life and spirit, of Christmas and of every day. Foster, on the heels of her fine “Joy Comes Back” album, kicked it off in great form. Performing solo with an electric guitar (she has some great chops and should perform this way more), she told stories of her grandmother holding down the Amen Corner in church and her grandfather coming home drunk and relegated to a cot under a big oak tree, sang songs of liberation — spiritual, cultural and personal — with a powerful voice and brought the house down and the audience to its collective feet with a closing, a cappella “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ In Your Face,” video of the last part of that here:

And the Preservation Hall horns — trumpeter Kevin Louis, saxophonist Calvin Johnson and trombonist/joker Freddie Lonzo — kicked off the next portion with a couple of spritely New Orleans tunes, and a little bit of entertaining schtick, backed by the Blind Boys’ sharp band.

After “Pray for Peace,” the whole crew returned for an encore of “Last Month of the Year,” another Christmas-specific gospel turn, keeping some of the momentum going and sending everyone into the night buoyant with the everyday spirit with which the Blind Boys have sung through the decades.

Why can’t all concerts be like this?


Bennie Maupin and John McLaughlin: A (Near) Meeting of the Spirits

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Benny Maupin and John McLaughlin were essential parts of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” band that would reinvent jazz, or really invent a new kind of music. On Friday and Saturday, respectively, each played a concert in L.A. dedicated to their own landmark works from shortly after they left Davis’ employ — a mere coincidence of scheduling, but a wonders-filled chance to compare and contrast two divergent, but related paths of visionary artists, and each show a marvel in its own right.

John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring final concert of "The Meeting of the Spirits" farewell U.S. tour

(Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance)

By Steve Hochman

Friday night, Bennie Maupin addressed the audience at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater underneath Walt Disney Concert Hall, just after completing the first-ever full concert performance of his landmark 1974 album, “The Jewel in the Lotus.”

“It’s like a dream that continues,” the woodwinds maestro said, overflowing with gratitude. “But it continues with you…. You were worth waiting for.”

The next night, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a beaming John McLaughlin echoed that as he concluded what he says is his last-ever U.S. tour with a set largely spotlighting the music of his revolutionary ‘70s jazz-rock-and-beyond Mahavishnu Orchestra groups.

“Good vibes!” the guitarist exclaimed at the start of his set, and later at the end he thanked the fans for getting to be there “with you.”

That coursed through both performances. Maupin, switching between flute, soprano sax and his signature instrument, bass clarinet, led a 10-piece band with palpable joy and appreciation for the fans there to see it. McLaughlin was just as buoyed as he strapped on his custom-built Paul Reed Smith double-neck electric12-and-6-string guitar as his 4th Dimension quartet was joined by opener Jimmy Herring’s Invisible Whip quintet and started the shimmering arpeggiated chords opening his “Meeting of the Spirits.”

It was mutual. It seemed many in both audiences had waited, well, decades to hear this music performed like this. REDCAT bristled with anticipation before that concert, the album’s nuanced power and crackling sense of invention and exploration having gained stature in jazz legend over the years, at least among a diverse array of fans and artists, including L.A. percussionist-composer Alex Cline and writer-director Cameron Crowe, both in attendance this night.

And at Royce, many exchanged memories of seeing the original Mahavishnu Orchestra back when, some in 1974 in this very same room, as life-changing events. This writer saw that group in spring ’73, nearly 45 years ago, at the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara, taken by a high school friend without ever having heard a note of the band before. It still stands as a profound moment, ears opened, head turned around by the power and mystery of the music, unlike anything I’d ever heard before. But this weekend it wasn’t just old folks reliving their youth. In both settings, younger people in attendance were eager to be part of something they’d heard about as history but for which they were born to late to experience themselves.

They were not disappointed.

Both Maupin and McLaughlin approached their classic music with all the verve, vibrancy and imagination that brought it about in the first place. These were not mere recreations of cherished recordings, but re-creation, the acts of creative artists still inspired by great music of the past but also still adventurously seeking new routes, new combinations, new expressions. A title of one of the pieces from the Maupin album serves as a nice motto for the approach of both evenings: “Past + Present = Future.”

Now, astute fans of the particular pasts represented here will get the significance of this two-night sequence — not that each alone merits anything less than adulation. Maupin and McLaughlin were each part of one of the most significant, and perhaps controversial, turns in modern jazz: the band that helped Miles Davis realize new approaches to his music, to music in general, with a series of recordings that included the, uh, milestone “Bitches Brew” album.

So here, through an accident of fortuitous scheduling, it was possible to see these two key figures present their own most profound statements, to compare and contrast. Maupin’s “Lotus,” coming on the heels of his work in Herbie Hancock’s electric Headhunters and Mwandishi outfits, was a largely acoustic exploration, airy yet grounded and restlessly meditative, which is not really such a contradiction in terms. Mahavishnu Orchestra was a largely electric hybrid, loud and raw, yet also centered in a spirituality at once calm and searching.

Both brought expanded lineups, and expanded concepts, to the new performances. Both brought levels of vitality and energy that belied the passage of years. Maupin for Friday’s concert assembled a little 10-member chamber group, including several faculty and alums of CalArts, where he teaches, adding viola (Eyvind Kang), cello (Shana Tucker) and vibes/marimba (David Johnson) to the septet format of the album. The very nature of the music involves the players having space and encouragement to experiment, to stretch, but always in concert with the others. All told, the performance doubled the length of the original album version, not a note seeming wasted or less than essential.


(Photo by Steve Gunther)

It was jazz, sure, but also more. This was explicit in the title piece, which started with young pianist Lindsey Hundley, seemingly undaunted to step into a spot originally held by Hancock, beautifully evoking Debussy impressionism. From their flowed elements ranging from Indian classical music (percussionist Eric McKain creating tabla sounds with an electronic pad) to cool jazz (Johnson’s vibes and the guitar of Jeff Parker, formerly of the band Tortoise, putting personal stamps on traditional sounds). And  the strings brought in experimental/classical music, at times percussive, at times elastic, at times transcending or confounding attempts to fix time signatures and tonal centers, and wondrously so. The leader, generous to a fault, switched between flute, soprano sax and, his signature instrument, bass clarinet, at times joyously parrying with alto saxist Steve Lehman.

The sounds throughout called forth images meteorological — flurries, breezes, roiling storms — as much as musical, though the pioneering global perspectives of Yusef Lateef and Eric Dolphy are clear touchstones, with perhaps the most profound presence being Alice Coltrane’s unclassifiable musical universe, where borders between musics and cultures simply don’t exist. And all this with just one full rehearsal the day before.

On Saturday, the audience had already been treated to full sets by jam ’n’ jazz veteran guitarist Herring and band and McLaughlin’s band before the two units joined forces for the bracing 90-minute finale of this collaborative “Meeting of the Spirits” tour. What preceded was wonderful,  Herring’s combo combining the worlds of jazz-rock a la ‘70s Jeff Beck and the flow of the Allman Brothers (including a fine version of their “Les Brers in A Minor”), and McLaughlin drawing from his very wide-ranging scope (Indian, Iberian, jazz classic and modern) and incomparable talents and touch in electric and electrifying joy. But this last portion was why everyone was here, and expectations were more than met.

While doubling up nearly everything — two basses, two drum sets, two keyboard and, of course, two guitarists, with Jason Crosby’s violin the lone loner — would seem a recipe for a mess, the result was anything but. The drummers (McLaughlin’s India-born marvel Ranjit Barot, who also engaged in some Indian konnakol vocalised percussion, and Herring’s Jeff Sipe) and bassists (Etienne M’Bappé and Kevin Scott, respectively) have developed remarkably intuitive rapport in the course of the tour. One or the other of each pair sat out at various points, and when they all played together they complemented without over-complicating each others’ playing and then, at times, locked together in mixes of power and grace.

It was not as raw and rough as the original Mahavishnu Orchestra could be, but it drew on that and added new aspects and insights, past + present. “Birds of Fire,” the soaring title track of Mahavishnu’s 1973 second album, sported an exhilarating duel of McLaughlin and Crosby trading sparkling improvisations in a quick exchange. (See video below.) There was true beauty in the power as well, with “Lotus on Irish Streams” and “Dance of the Maya” allowing all the musicians space to add their own stamps. And with the “Eternity’s Breath” suite, originally done by a second Mahavishnu lineup after McLaughlin disbanded the first, this 2017 grouping stripped off some of the slicker sheen of the recording to reveal depths.

Judging from a scan of set lists from previous shows on the trek, this was an expanded set, as if McLaughlin and crew didn’t really want it to end. Neither did many of us. But a closing encore two-fer proved a perfect summation, a perfect end to a remarkable two days of concerts: “You Know You Know” and “Be Happy.” We do. We are.