New music from Charlie Parker, Ruby Friedman Orchestra and The Low Anthem
As record companies have mined the vaults to release everything "legacy" artists ever recorded, the results have been unsatisfying, but this Charlie Parker album is different.
If you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new, you should listen to Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to talk about what you should be listening to, in one short segment. This week, music journalist
Artist: Ruby Friedman Orchestra
Songs: "Fugue in L.A. Minor," "I’m Not Your Friend"
You don’t need to know Ruby Friedman’s life story to get a sense of who she is. Just hearing her, and better seeing her perform, tell enough. Her voice and manner are as bold and brash as her flame-red hair. But she’s telling you anyway, with "Fugue in L.A. Minor," the opening song of her long-in-coming first album, "Gem." Part unflinching biography, part unapologetic confessional, the song briefly accounts various things on her road to this point, overcoming alcohol, having a child and giving her up among them. And she asked God, she tells us, "What am I doing here?" His answer: "Keep singing, well you better!"
It’s quite the curtain-raiser, fitting as what follows has some theatrical punch, Vaudevillian in some spots, Brechtian in others. Well, really it’s Vaudeville-y and Brecht-y, not fully either, or any one thing at any time. Bluesy also applies. Jazzy maybe. But brassy, always. Ethel Waters with a pinch of Ethel Merman — via Dusty Springfield and maybe even some Patti Smith.
If "Fugue" is prelude (bad pun, Bach fans), then "I’m Not Your Friend" is the real opener, and it’s a killer, which is what she claims to be. "I’m not your friend, I killed a man," she sings, almost matter-of-factly adding the warning, "I’d do it again." We will presume that she’s singing metaphorically, but maybe best not to ask. No wonder that the folks behind the steely western series "Justified" found that very tone perfect for the show and used her version of "You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive" (which appears on "Gem") in the season five finale.
Friedman’s been splitting time the last few years between L.A. New York and New Orleans, and the sound her "orchestra" takes on blends the characteristics of the three, at once urban and swampy, at once formal and loose.
Another highlight is a last-minute addition to the album, the powerful "Ballad of Lee Morse." As the title suggests, this is another true story biography, this time of a kindred spirit from the 1920s era Friedman sometimes evokes, a hard-living, hard-drinking Oregon-born singer who became a star in her day before slipping to time and alcohol. Friedman sings the tale with a kind of force that can only come from someone who sees something, or a lot, of herself in it. It’s part celebratory, part cautionary. And all Ruby Friedman.
Artist: The Low Anthem
Songs: "her little cosmos," "In the Air Hockey Fire"
A decade into its recording career, Providence, Rhode Island band the Low Anthem still gets called "folk," even though it never really was at all. Perhaps this new fifth album, "Eyeland," with its restless sonic experimentation and strange interludes, alternately driftingly genteel and jarringly abrasive, is meant as a direct assault on that term.
Or maybe it’s the folk music of a country that exists only in dreams, the same territory Brian Eno travelled in his 1975 wonder, "Another Green World," though here crossed over into from 2016 Rhode Island rather than post-glam England. Oh, and there’s a little side trip to Pepperland in the collage-y "wzgddrmtnrwrdz" (it sounds like it’s spelled) where someone whistles the opening lines of "Yellow Submarine."
Don’t get the wrong idea. It doesn’t sound like Eno (and nothing like "Sgt. Pepper"), but it shares the template of mixing invitingly haunting pop miniatures with odd instrumentals. Co-founders Ben Knox Miller (lead vocals and guitar) and Jeff Prystowsky (voice, drums, bass) and three new cohorts who have joined since the last Low Anthem album (2011’s "Smart Flesh") certainly share Eno’s sense of daring, challenging themselves to put aside preconceptions of what a pop — or folk — album is, of what does — or doesn’t — fit together. And in the process, they challenge us.
The album opener, "in eyeland," starts with a few-notes played on what sounds like a musical saw, a short phrase that evokes the beginning of Mahler’s first symphony (or, for some, the first atmospheric notes of the original "Star Trek" theme). Midway through "ozzie," a snappy little minimalist rocker, the tape (yes, tape it seems) slows to half-speed for a bit before the song returns to normal pace. It’s very Oz-y, speaking of magical lands. "her little cosmos," another little rocker, crackles with what sounds like cosmic rays picked up from distant galaxies. In other places, it is folkie, in a way — "the pepsi moon," for one, is somber, brittle acoustic guitar and understated singing, ornamented with touches of trumpet and various other sounds, a sense of quiet despair conveyed. Or quiet contentment. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which.
Such contrasts and contradictions are key, sometimes explicitly, as in following the glorious, cresting sonic impressionism of "am i the dream or am i the dreamer" with a piece titled "dream killer," relatively straightforward late-night voice and piano.
The closest to a reconciliation of the contrasts comes on "in the air hockey fire," still on the low-key side but with a lovely melody and poetic verses, kind of Belle and Sebastian without all the chamber-pop touches. And here Miller sings what may be the core line of the album: "Time doesn’t seem real as it’s passing." That’s life in eyeland.
Artist: Charlie Parker
Album: "Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes"
Songs: "Okie Doke incomplete," "Night and Day alt take"
As record companies continue to mine the vaults to release just about everything "legacy" artists ever recorded, the results have been often as not unsatisfying. The incomplete and rejected takes filling volumes are just not the equivalent of, oh, Michelangelo’s sketches for the Sistine Chapel. Well, Charlie Parker was a Michelangelo of jazz.
So the false-starts, stumbles, thrown-away solos and alternate versions — mostly new discoveries in the archives — of "Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes" let us see a master at work, ideas evolving by design or trial-and-error on the road to finished performance. We hear pieces, some with just generic designations — "Tune X," "Tune Y," "Tune Z" — develop out of primordial interplay between Parker and such esteemed cohorts as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich into full, and fully be-bopping performances.
But the biggest treasures here may be some sessions less familiar, takes from classic Latin styles with Bird joining Cuban star Machito’s orchestra that open the set and three Cole Porter songs with a big band, taken from a project left unfinished at Parker’s death, that end the two-CD program. Of the former, an incomplete take on "Okie Doke" kicks things off with burbling spirit. Of the latter, the various unreleased and released takes of "Night and Day," "Almost Like Being In Love" and "What Is This Thing Called Love" are great examples of Parker working magic with familiar melodies.
Of course, this is hardly the first time Bird works-in-progress have been unearthed, but the program here will delight ardent jazz fanatics tremendously. What’s surprising is how enjoyable even the fragments are in their own right, even those that are only 15 seconds of an aborted opening, the playing and spirit carrying a vibrant immediacy.
More surprisingly, though, this is also a quite good introduction to Bird, not so much for the be-bop you’d expect, but some of the things a casual or curious fan might not expect.