Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jon Lord (1941-2012): the Centerpiece of Deep Purple

Jon Lord, the innovative keyboard player for Deep Purple (and with Whitesnake, among collaborations with other musicians) passed away last month.

I'm here to focus on his work with Deep Purple.

I was fortunate enough to see Jon Lord and Deep Purple perform in 1985, which at the time featured a reunion of the Mark II lineup with Ian Gillan (vocals), Ian Paice (drums), Roger Glover (bass), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), and Lord (Hammond organ & various keys).

This lineup of the band -- its most famous incarnation presented to the world in 1970 with Deep Purple in Rock -- was making a comeback off Perfect Strangers, arguably the band's strongest post 70s studio effort.

The show I saw in Tacoma, WA for the Perfect Strangers tour was one of the loudest and rowdiest shows I've ever attended. I was 16 at the time, and the little skinny fella getting hammered into a sardine on the general admission floor space amongst a pack of older, bigger Harley Davidson-riding gangsters.

Still, the show was amazing, and Lord's keyboard solo was one of the highlights.

Lord lighting the stage on fire!
Lord "emancipated" (his own words, via Sam Dunn's series on heavy metal this last year) the Hammond organ in the world of rock, amplifying and distorting its sound so that it could play a more substantial role as a lead instrument in a rock paradigm. I've concluded that Lord's friendly (and perhaps unfriendly more often than most realize) competition with the egomaniac element of Purple, guitarist Blackmore, helped to fuel and craft the sounds he put through his keys.

Nothing like thumbing your nose at a lead guitarist who thinks he's all that!

Like Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, Jon Lord was the mortar that held the bricks of Deep Purple together, although it may not be apparent to a first-time listener with certain Purple tracks; most rock enthusiasts' ears aren't tuned to hear (or expect) the keys as a centerpiece on a rock record. To truly appreciate the Purple sound, and Lord's work, you need to reframe your ears to bring in the wall of sound coming out of Lord's instrument. We'll dig through the band's catalog and highlight some Lord nuggets (more of that in a minute).

"The greatest honor one can be given is that of 'teacher.'" ~Alex Lifeson
Simply put, Lord was the centerpiece component of the Purple sound, which was (and still is) unique for its time. It's his work on the keys that made the band stand out from its heavy (and better known in most circles) counterparts at the time, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It's widely understood and accepted that all three of these bands are godfathers of the heavy metal genre and influenced a generation of bands.

In my opinion, it was Lord's presence in Deep Purple that makes them stand out from other band's in the day, and made them more dynamic and interesting as a live act. In some instances of songs, Lord was actually heavier than Blackmore's guitar and brings about brainmelters with his sound, with "Hard Lovin' Man" arguably the standout performance of his career. In other instances, his classic training stands out through his delicate decorating of songs such as "Child in Time" and "Woman from Tokyo."

Throughout all of his work, Lord always had a foot dragging behind in the blues, and the influence of the blues on his work is part of what makes the musician's sound so unique in the world of rock.

However, for this Purple fan, I point to "Knockin' at Your Back Door" and "Perfect Strangers" as the best examples of how Lord was the heart of Deep Purple's sound, blending his work on the keys the way the brick layer fills his work in with the Hammond intros to these tunes are just plain cool and slick.

Some Jon Lord moments to check out from the Deep Purple catalog:
  • From In Rock (1970): "Child in Time," "Living Wreck," and "Hard Lovin' Man"
  • From Fireball (1971): "Fireball"
  • From Machine Head (1972): "Highway Star," "Pictures of Home," "Smoke on the Water," and "Lazy"
  • From Who Do We Think We Are (1973): "Woman from Tokyo"
  • From Perfect Strangers (1984): "Knockin' at Your Back Door," "Perfect Strangers," "Gypsy's Kiss," and "Wasted Sunsets"
As complete works, the albums In Rock, Machine Head, and Perfect Strangers are excellent and should be in any rock enthusiast's collection. Also, Made In Japan is an excellent example of Purple's live work.

R.I.P. Jon Lord. The contributions of this talented and inventive man to the world of rock cannot be emphasized enough. His work is forever etched in stone....err, I mean In Rock, of course!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

THE REVIEW CORNER: The Allman Brothers Band's first four studio recordings

Many of you born after 1970 probably never had this band on your radar, but The Allman Brothers Band is totally worth your time and money to check out -- and their first four studio albums in particular. I'm going outside of Live at the Fillmore East 1971, their classic live album....that, of course, goes without saying.

The cover of The Allman Brothers Band's self-titled debut recording from 1969
Their first four recordings go as follows: The Allman Brothers Band (1969), Idlewild South (1970), Eat a Peach (1972), and Brothers and Sisters (1973). The growth of the band over the span of these recordings is a fascinating study....with the hard blues of the first album to the explorations, instrumentals, and extended jams of each later recording.

While their eponymous debut doesn't carry a long string of hits except for "Whippin Post," there's lots of wonderful bluesy numbers on this album that are substantive, resonating, and feature some fantastic guitar from Duane Allman. Highlights include "Black Hearted Woman," "Trouble No More," and my personal favorite on the album, "Dreams," with some of Duane Allman's more experimental picking -- almost like an early effort at tapping or hammer-ons. "Whippin Post," the album's last number, is the perfect closer and hints at the band finding its true voice....a mere sign of things to come.

With the next three albums, things just keep progressing....the band solidifies its sound through each successive recording. I find the music from this band to have a very soulful and almost wistful edge to their blues from Idlewild South like "Midnight Rider," the instrumental "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," and the funk-tinged "Leave My Blues at Home" -- with some killer drumming grooves.

Eat a Peach kicks off with "Ain't Wastin Time No More," and features highlights such as "Les Brers in A Minor" (with an almost Santana-infused approach), "Melissa" and my personal favorite "Blue Sky" while Brothers and Sisters highlights "Wasted Words," "Rambin Man," "Southbound," and the popular instrumental "Jessica."

You can't go wrong with any of these recordings.....but I believe to get a full perspective of them all, and to give yourself the best possible listening experience, you need to listen to them in succession. That's where the development of the band reveals itself.

What's even more amazing -- and not necessarily evident in the recordings (unless you're a student of Duane Allman & Dickey Betts' styles and can differentiate them) -- is that the band suffered not one, but two casualties during the span of these recordings. Duane Allman, their lead guitarist, was killed in a motorcycle accident during the recording sessions to Eat a Peach, and their bass player Berry Oakley during the sessions to Brothers and Sisters -- also killed from head injuries sustained from a motorcycle accident a mere three blocks from the location of Allman's fatal accident. Spooky stuff.

Still, the music speaks for itself. Yes, I'm sure this is technically considered "Southern Rock," however that definition might be stretched....but when I listen to these boys, I just hear some killer blues by one of the all-time great jam bands. I hear more shades of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Grateful Dead, The Band, and Santana before I hear anything "southern."

The CD version to their first four studio albums are available at Amazon for around five bucks apiece, with the exception of Eat a Peach, which is a double album featuring selected live cuts from the Fillmore East should be able to get outfitted with all four works for under $30.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Secret to the Greatness of Sonny Rollins

Sonny in his heyday
Typically my interest in jazz has been driven and inspired by piano players.

Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Hancock are some of the classic fellas I really like...more contemporary artists would include Matthew Shipp and Jason Moran; pianists who are really pushing the envelope a
nd jazz into new directions these days.

My interest has also involved trumpet players...Mil
es Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lee Morgan, to name a my all-time personal favorite, Clifford Brown.

However, I've never really embraced the saxophone players...and I've never really figured out why.

I think it might be partly John Coltrane's fault...and I say that with unequivocal acknowledgement an
d respect at how Coltrane influenced jazz and how he's one of the all-time jazz giants.

While I
love Coltran's earlier work such as Blue Train and his work in the 1950s Miles Davis Quintet, his latter material takes some getting used to...sorta like getting used to the idea of liking it when the baby wails ceaselessly. I understand with Coltrane it's a spirituality thing that's going on...and while I can appreciate that, I find it really difficult to make it work for me.

Unfortunately, my hit and miss explorations of Coltrane's work made me run from saxophone players for awhile...and especially the sax players out of the 60s, where I'd have the preconceived notion if they were even distantly associated with the avant garde style that was typical at the time, I'd be getting something you'd hear from the sax that was akin to the styles of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, or Albert Ayler...again, I love these guys, but only if I'm in the right mood. Despite being more accessible than these prior artists I've mentioned, Wayne Shorter even skirts the precipice

That's not to say non-avant garde sax players aren't out there, clearly they are. You can noodle through the catalogs of players like Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Henderson, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, or Ben Webster....however while these are fine sax players, I don't necessarily see them as great innovators and as uniquely distinct in sound as the artist of focus in this post. This is just my personal opinion, and I'm sure I'm opening myself up to debate with folks who know more about these artists than I do.

The problem for me, in finding a sax player that appeals to my taste, i
s that classic great ones seem to be fewer and farther between and less accessible on this particular instrument than, say, piano players or trumpeters. I find myself having to go back to the big band material of Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins, however you start getting into sound quality issues with their catalog.

21st Century Jedi Master: Sonny and his sax

Receiving the 2010 National Medal of the Arts award
However, there's one fella in my mind who stands apart from the rest...who has the most interesting and accessible sound of any saxophone player out there and has endured for nearly 60 years -- all the way from the early 1950s to this very day.

Enter Sonny Rollins.

Sonny is the saxophonist who romanticized the instrument. He's the player who inspires that iconic image of the lone sax player practicing under the bridge because he, well, at one time DID practice under a bridge in NYC after being banned from the local club circuit for a number of years (see the Ken Burns jazz documentary for more details).

Sonny can do it all...he can play soft cool sounds to relax to, or he can jam...but he never wails like a baby (at least from what I've heard), thank God...or he can even be silly, which can be interpreted in his deliberate repeated stops at the beginning of "Freedom Suite," or in something like the math-jazz sensibilities and increasing hurriedness in his cover of Thelonius Monk's "Brilliant Corners"...and I've never heard a recording that does something like that.

Certainly his tone and sound are unmistakable. However, most of all, Sonny Rollins has an AMAZING sense of melody, and I believe that's where his greatness lies.

If you want to explore Sonny Rollins, start with Saxophone Colossus, and then move onto Newk's Time or Tenor Madness...but, many of you might already have him on record and you don't realize it. If you own Tattoo You by the Rolling Stones, you can hear him solo on the sentimental classic "Waiting on a Friend," the last track on the recording.

If you find a liking to him, the bulk of Sonny's extensive cannon can be found through his Prestige, Blue Note, and Riverside/Contemporary box set collections -- two of three of which are very reasonably priced, and all worth getting for this iconic saxophone player. I'd then work through his Milestone recordings, and work your way from there chronologically up to the present day.