Avant-Pop… and Space Ghost

I took a trip out to my city’s antique mall this afternoon for the first time this year. When I arrived I was surprised to find two They Might Be Giants singles featuring exclusive tracks which were only otherwise available on the 1997 oddities compilation, THEN: The Earlier Years. (The set is fantastic – an absolute essential tour of the duo’s earliest recordings.)

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But the greatest value of my trip was, as always, my conversation with my favorite vendor, Bob the Record Guy. He always knows what titles to pull for me. I chatted him up for his knowledge about the music scene between 1976 and 1984, particularly the better parts of new wave, essentials of no wave, post-punk, avant/art-pop, and gothic/ethereal wave classics. He was happy to make a number of recommendations and sent me home with a few albums to get me started.

I confess that many of the artists and albums listeners take it as read that I would know are entirely new to me at present. Born in ’81, I was a touch too young for it all the first go-round and by the time I hit the age of history-combing musical discovery in college, the all-consuming craze was experimental electronic, ambient, and post-rock music. So while I’m well-versed in late-60s/early-70s synth music and 90s indie pop, my knowledge of that seminally developmental decade in between is limited to my memories of MTV flashback syndication and of dollar bin comp cassettes of 80s radio pop. (And damn it, I’m sick and tired of “Always Something There to Remind Me.“)

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Terrible cassette I purchased at a Lechmere department store in 1992.
From what Bob had immediately available, he sent me home with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1984 LP, Junk Culture, (with a startlingly-clearly labeled one-sided 7″ single). While the band’s first four LPs showcase OMD at the best, I was happy to pick up anything for starters.

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But it was the next record I was given which became my favorite discovery of the day. While discussing no wave and other manic, atonal music of the 80s, Bob pulled out a copy of Lounge Lizards’ Big Heart – Live in Tokyo (1986). He explained that, while the album is certainly a far cry from the aggressive dissonance of albums like No New York, that it might serve as a fitting introduction to 80s exercises in what Ornette Coleman termed, harmolodics.

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For those unfamiliar, wiki says, “Harmolodics may loosely be defined as an expression of music in which harmony, movement of sound, and melody all share the same value…” resulting in music which “…achieves an immediately open expression, without being constrained by tonal limitations, rhythmic pre-determination, or harmonic rules.” While I am well-acquainted with standards of free/avant-garde jazz, (I have many of the essentials in my record library), what I didn’t realize was how this philosophy had been embraced by Sonny Sharrock and utilized in his composition of the theme to Adult Swim’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Bob brought up the track as an example of harmolodics and spun several tracks from Big Heart which sounded quite similar to the theme. While the first two selections from Big Heart fall a bit flat, those patient enough to go deeper into the record will find that it is arguably the best effort of their catalog.

Home from our outing, I’m surveying my finds of the day and looking forward to more discoveries of albums I should have listened to ages ago. Bob also recommended that I explore the cassette-only label, ROIR (Reachout International Records) founded in 1981 for more great music. Thanks, Bob!

Journey into Jazz

Inspired by a lady-friend jazz-fan (who found Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music captivating upon first listen!), I decided it was time I ventured further into the world of jazz.  Until now I had steeped comfortably in my hot kettle of Miles Davis’ electric period and Sun Ra’s psychedelic avant-garde trips like Space is the Place.  I was ushered into this flavor of fusion by Herbie Hancock and his electro-funk jazz classics like Headhunters, Thrust and Sextant.

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But I knew full-well that the 50 years which led up to these electric freak-out albums were rich with milestone recordings which demand to be heard.  Every “must-hear” jazz list is brimming with albums from 1922 to 1970, so I went to work compiling a list of albums to introduce me to classic jazz.

I constructed a starter-set of 65 essential jazz records from 1925 to the 1970 and have been experiencing them one record at a time.

I explored resources such as r/jazz’s sidebar of essential jazz, I conducted an RYM search for highly-rated LPs in the jazz genre from 1920-1965, and at the recommendation of some friends I ordered a copy of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette.  I was delighted to find a first-edition available for $1, so I ordered it right away.

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Beginning chronologically, I sampled The Hall of Fame 5-disc collection of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens (1925-1930), The 24-disc Duke Ellington Centennial Edition (1927-1943), and the undeniable jazz classic – Ellington at Newport (1956).

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I enjoyed the fast-paced bebop stylings of Dizzy Gillespie.  It had a similar energy to what I would soon hear on Coltrane’s Giant Steps (1960).  Blue Train (1957) and A Love Supreme (1965) followed shortly thereafter in my first-listen journey.

Next on the recommended list was The Quintet: Dizzy Gillespie / Charles Mingus / Charlie Parker / Bud Powell / Max Roach – Jazz at Massey Hall (1953).  The album is clearly one of the finest examples of a live jazz recording – a collaboration of the biggest names in jazz at the time of the session.  It adds a great energy to the room when it’s played, and I’m certain that I’ll be revisiting this disc often.

From there I picked up four of Charles Mingus’ most memorable recordings – Blues & Roots (1959), Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963) and the classic – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, also from 1963.

But what really grabbed me at first-listen was a strong fascination with the more experimental free jazz LPs like Ornette Coleman’s boldly-titled releases including The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Free Jazz (recorded in one single take in 1960), Change of the Century (also from 1960) the spacey Science Fiction (1971) and Body Meta (1978).  From Coleman I branched out further and listened to Eric Dolphy’s 1964 classic, Out To Lunch.  As avant-garde as it is, the album has quite a mellow feel and I left it on repeat for three full plays through.

I already have 75 Sun Ra albums ripped from vinyl in my library, but I have yet to really explore them beyond The Heliocentric World and Space is the Place.  Now that I’m really getting into jazz it seems appropriate that I add his library to my listening list as well.

Bill Evans’ albums between 1958 and 1961 were next on my list, along with Cannonball Adderley’s Something Else (1958), the Complete Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Sessions, Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto’s 1963 classic, Getz & Gilberto, and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane from 1961 (recorded in 1957).

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That disc secured my certainty that I needed to hear more from the biggest names in jazz, so I was very happy to find a 54-disc archive of Ornette Coleman, and three 24-bit vinyl rip discographies of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and of Thelonious Monk.

I have no doubt that I’ll enjoy the Ornette Coleman library, and I will wait a few days to receive my copy of The Penguin Guide to Jazz… before sinking my teeth into the 24 bit vinyl archives of Coltrane, Ellington and Monk.  (A fella could get lost in there without some direction.)

The autumn season has two paid weeks of vacation in store for me, and I plan to spend them reading, researching, and listening to these ~250 new records and will have a blast picking out a handful of titles for which I’ll order original pressings to finally expand the jazz section of my library.

Fall is coming – warm your home with beautiful music!