Album reviews: Philip Glass, The Band, Georgie Fame, Miles Davis Quintet

Plus Leontyne Price and The Glitter Band

Andy Gill
Thursday 29 December 2016 14:42 GMT
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Philip Glass, The Complete Sony Recordings

★★★

Download this: Glassworks; The Photographer; Naqoyqatsi; Itaipu; Solo Piano

Philip Glass’s career is testament to the values of hard work, diversity and talent, not to mention being in the right place at the right time – in his case, New York in the creative ferment of the Sixties and Seventies, where the seeds of minimalism found fertile ground for development, and an audience open to new paths.

Even so, it was a tough sell, with Glass driving a cab into his forties to underwrite his musical endeavours. The breakthrough came in 1976 with Einstein On The Beach, the first of his “character operas”, included here in its original 1978 recording, its immersively repetitive figures imposing a mesmeric atmosphere over nearly three hours. Its subject matter confirms his wide-ranging interests in such diverse fields as science (here and in The Photographer, a theatre piece about photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge); comparative religion (the opera Akhnaten, about the Egyptian pharaoh who invented monotheism); politics (Satyagraha, about Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance); and the balance of body and mind, in works as contrasting as Dancepieces and Naqoyqatsi, Glass’s soundtrack to the final part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi film trilogy.

The latter, featuring Yo Yo Ma’s cello against a dark backdrop of brooding horns, sweeping strings, ringing percussion and bass incantation, offers a striking portrait of a majestic, timeless landscape – the American southwest – in peril. Glass’s work in pieces like this may be the most distinctive evocation of the Big Country since Aaron Copland, his depiction warily informed by misgivings about the encroachments of industrial progress. This ambivalence reaches its apogee in his largest orchestral work Itaipu, about the Brazilian hydro-electric scheme involving the world’s largest dam: in Glass’s symphony, awe and admiration at the scale of technological achievement are balanced by recognition of the impact on the local Guarani indians, whose creation myth furnishes the text.

At the other extreme, Organ Works transposes pieces from all corners of Glass’s oeuvre for solo organ, while Solo Piano locates perhaps the purest expression of his aesthetic in the simple, tonic harmonies and cycling two-note motifs of “Metamorphosis”. Set alongside the diverse achievements of this impressively wide-ranging 24CD package, they offer confirmation of both the ingenious adaptability and infinite scaleability of Philip Glass’s work: music as condensed as a raindrop, and as torrential as a monsoon.

The Band, The Last Waltz

★★★

Download this: Up On Cripple Creek; The Weight; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Helpless; Caravan; King Harvest

The Last Waltz is one of rock music’s landmark events, a farewell concert which expanded to encompass virtually the entire history of rock’n’roll, via appearances from pioneers like Muddy Waters and Ronnie Hawkins and contemporary legends like Dylan, Joni, Eric, Van and Neil. Meticulously documented by Martin Scorsese, it offers an unrivalled account of a broader cultural moment, before music ebbed back to being simply entertainment. But despite the famous guests, it’s The Band’s show: their performances have a muscularity that speaks of years of roadwork, while the three vocalists' individual leads and distinctive harmonies ensure that every ounce of emotion is wrung from material which, in its sophisticated stew of rock, folk, country, blues and soul, effectively invented the notion of “Americana”. It's a display that shames the paltry ambitions of most bands, and this new 6LP expanded edition is its most apt embodiment, befitting a culture lived through vinyl.

Georgie Fame, Survival: A Career Anthology 1962-2015

★★★

Download this: Yeh-Yeh; Night Train; Seven Power; Everlovin’ Woman; Survival

In the early Sixties, Georgie Fame’s band The Blue Flames became one of the most potent conduits of both American R&B and the new blue-beat sounds heard in Notting Hill’s West Indian community. His repertoire, summarised on the first of these six CDs, mingled Mose Allison cool with Jimmy Smith organ workouts, covers of Memphis grooves like “Green Onions”, and the twitching lope of Caribbean ska instrumentals such as “Rik’s Tune” – the blend of all these elements ultimately securing his debut chart-topper, the infectious “Yeh-Yeh”. Fame’s subsequent course included stints partnering Alan Price, and later as Van Morrison’s trusted lieutenant, while his own releases confirmed a questing musical spirit, never more so than on “Seven Power”, an early-Seventies oddity that finds him declaiming like The Last Poets over electro-funk electronics. He remains the British equivalent of Boz Scaggs, an effortlessly cool repository of blues magic.

Various Artists, Action Time Vision: A Story Of Independent UK Punk 1976-1979

★★★

Download this: New Rose; I Can’t Stand My Baby; Action Time Vision; Psycho Mafia;

Trying to accommodate the entire corpus of independent UK punk in one box is a fool’s errand, like picking too broad a subject for Mastermind: there’s always going to be something you can’t cover – and the myriad bands’ adherents are so fanatical they won’t forgive you including, say, The Prefects’ “Things In General” rather than “Going Through The Motions”, or Joy Division’s “Failures” rather than “Glass”. But this 111-track set does a commendable enough job, reflecting the extraordinary creative tumult happening behind the headline crap about gobbing and safety-pins. This was a generation eager to get some purchase on the future, and keen to express discontent with sometimes dangerous issues, as in Angelic Upstarts’ “The Murder Of Liddle Towers” and Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device” – records which also bear witness to the way regional ambitions were liberated by this wave of punk autodidacy from the music industry’s metropolitan hegemony.

Miles Davis Quintet, Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5

★★★

Download this: Freedom Jazz Dance; Circle; Orbits; Nefertiti; Fall

With his second great quintet of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Miles Davis effectively mapped out the course of jazz for the next two decades. The group’s “post-bop” innovations brought fresh ideas, as when the horns simply repeat the theme of “Nefertiti” without solos, whilst the rhythm section improvises around them. On this latest of the Bootleg Series, we get to hear that eureka! moment as it happens: Freedom Jazz Dance features the entire session reels for tracks from Miles Smiles and Nefertiti, complete with studio dialogue, enabling us to hear Miles discussing and directing the music, ironing out details. It’s 12-13 minutes, for instance, before the band get round to starting a complete take of “Freedom Jazz Dance” itself; while the point when they all seem to realise, as one, what to do with “Nefertiti” is a moment of pure, transcendent joy.

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Leontyne Price, Prima Donna Assoluta

★★★

Download this: Pace, pace, mio Dio; Ritorna vincitor!; Habanera; Vogliatemi bene

Though acclaimed as the outstanding soprano of her generation, Leontyne Price restricted herself to just a few notable roles, most of them included in this box of ten operas. It’s a parade of imperious elegance: her 1964 “Pace, pace, mio Dio”, from La Forza Del Destino, exhibits the emotional sweep which had Herbert Von Karajan leaping onstage to accompany her at a 1955 audition, while her “Ritorna vincitor!”, from a 1970 performance of Aida, is utterly beguiling. Despite her facility in the part, she refused to perform it as her NY Met debut, persuaded her first appearance there should be as a lady, not a slave. Some critics weren’t keen on her habit of “swooping” up to high notes, reflecting her gospel upbringing; but in the earliest of these recordings, a 1963 Carmen with Von Karajan, it’s that exact quality which brings such an elegantly sultry sway to the “Habanera”.

The Glitter Band, The Albums

★★★

Download this: Twisting The Night Away; Goodbye My Love; Love Street; Sympathy For The Devil

Pity the poor Glitter Band, progenitors of a distinctive, chunky sound, but sidelined by historical association with the indefensible. Originally devised by producer Mike Leander, their sonic blueprint is captured on this 4CD set: crisp, aggressive drums and handclaps, fattened by fuzz guitar and rasping saxophone, with vocals condensed to football-terrace chants or cheesy retro-rock croons. It’s a formula that works brilliantly on “Twisting The Night Away”, but flops badly in subtler surroundings. Copying contemporaries like Mud and Showaddywaddy, their first album Hey! mixed rock’n’roll covers and originals, but by the follow-up Rock’n’Roll Dudes they were writing all their own material, including their biggest hit “Goodbye My Love”. Punk killed them off, but not before they made the transition to slinky disco-funk with Paris Match, a yacht-rock oddity stranded between the two eras in which it might actually have found favour.

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