November 19: Jorge Ben, Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, Getz/Gilberto, Gotan Project, Machito, Os Mutantes, Suba

¡Hola amigos and welcome back to 1001! This week, it’s freezing outside but blistering hot in here, as we cast our ears over some of the South American albums on the list. There’s slightly too many to fit on just one update, so look out for the occasional smattering of Latin sounds in the weeks and months to come, too.

Jorge Ben, ‘Africa Brasil’ (link)

Ben is a Brazilian musician of Ethiopian descent who released this album during a creatively fertile time in the late 70s (this one released in 1976). Combining clavinet-heavy funk and samba percussion, this subsequently sounds pretty great even to a tone-deaf limey like me. Other musicians were clearly paying attention too: ‘Taj Mahal”s melody would later appear, unauthorised, in ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy?’ The summer holiday vibe is one of the most enjoyable things I heard this week.

Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, ‘Siembra’ (link)

Blades is a Panamanian singer and songwriter, and Colon is a Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) arranger and orchestra leader. This is one of four collaborations between the two, none of which I’d ever heard before, and it came out in 1978. Essentially it’s a samba album with elements of jazz and rhumba, with cinematic-sounding horns. It’s the deviations that make it though: ‘Pedro Navaja’ throws in street noise, police sirens and lines from Neil Diamond’s ‘America’, ‘Maria Lionza’ starts with booming piano dischords and Burundi beats, and the bassist throws in a fretless funk solo whenever he gets the opportunity. Blades’s songwriting and Colon’s arrangements are both equally important to this unusual, captivating album.

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, ‘Getz/Gilberto’ (link)

This imaginatively-titled album features saxophonist Getz paired up with vocalist and guitarist Gilberto, who occasionally brings in his wife Astrud to provide the vocals. The album also features usual suspect Tom Jobim, who contributes piano and his song ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, sung by Astrud and a standard from then on. The album is tasteful, minimalist bossa nova which sounds almost exactly the same as the other Getz I heard, ‘Jazz Samba’. Music for an August sunset.

Gotan Project, ‘La Revancha del Tango’ (link)

The 1001 has a bit of a soft spot for ‘Clothes Show’-style acid house muzak and this album feels like another example of that: it’s 808 State-esque, with Latin percussion and just a hint of accordion preventing it from going all the way into novelty hit cheese. For me, the album works better as ambient background sound: it rarely fades all the way into the foreground. Oddly, this album is younger than I thought, as it came out in 2001, making its early 90s vibes seem curiously retro. Spotify listeners be cautioned: the album has an extra 30 minutes worth of remixes.

Machito, ‘Kenya’ (link)

Machito was a Cuban bandleader who described his sound as Afro-Cuban jazz, coupled by its cover full of spooky tribal masks:

kenya

‘Kenya’ is energetic, branching off into lengthy percussion jams (on ‘Wild Jungle’) and occasional jazzy solos (such as ‘Congo Mulence’). As it’s 100% instrumental, or maybe because all the best stuff is at the start of the album, the novelty kind of wore off for me a while before it finished.

Os Mutantes, ‘Os Mutantes’ (link)

Here’s a band who seem to be highly regarded in certain circles, but who I’d only previously known for The Bees’ ghastly cover of ‘A Minha Menina’. The original turns up on this album, and it turns out that the Bees replicated it virtually note-for-note: it’s just as annoying in its original form. Yes, I pretty much hated this album, which is never more than a second away from doing something irritating, whether that’s the kitchen sink throw-it-in arrangements or the lengthy deviations into twatting around or fading out then back in TWICE ON ONE SONG. Kind of like if Sgt Pepper-era Beatles decided to do a kids’ show soundtrack, but only had a week to work on it. Os Mutantes are regarded as spearheads of the Tropicalia movement, but this album felt anathema.

Suba, ‘Sao Paolo Confessions’ (link)

A moody hour of electronic dance music which, despite its name, does its best to circumvent cliched Latin sounds. While Suba himself is Serbian, the album maintains the Latin theme, covering a Tom Jobim track and adding a carnival loop to the downtempo vibe of ‘Samba da Gringo Paulista’. I listened to this while doing some writing and while it never jumped out, it was also never obnoxious.

Next week: as we reach 700 albums, we’ll be looking at some of the albums on the list which have a number in their name, and trying to contain our disappointment that 5ive aren’t on the list.

Status update: 693 albums listened to (69%), 308 remain

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October 30: Jazz special – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd, Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk

Jazz is kind of the final frontier in non-classical music. It was the genre all the hip cats loved in the 1950s (Kerouac vividly describes how exciting he found it in ‘On The Road’), but in my lifetime, it’s been either a staple of TV backing music or a fringe genre of avant-garde experimentation. I know little about the genre and own none of it (unless you count Fela Kuti) so time to learn some more about it.

John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’

Coltrane was Miles Davis’s sax player before becoming a band leader in his own right. Here, him and his quartet play a suite which is essentially just one long song, characterised by discordant piano, clattering drums and soloing from Coltrane. The best part of the album is the opening of ‘Acknowledgement’, where the main riff climbs out of a swarm of cymbals only to be submerged by a chaotic sax line. Mike Garson (among many others) was taking notes on the piano style here, but it’s a deliberately obscure piece. While it’s certainly a striking album, it wasn’t one that I feel compelled to revisit.

Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’

‘Bitches Brew’, which I listened to at the very start of the project, was pretty much unfathomable to me, so time to try and approach him from a different angle. ‘Kind of Blue’ is more accessible, essentially allowing Davis and Coltrane to solo over Satie-ish piano rumblings and rhythm section. It’s an easy introduction to the modal jazz style which Davis lost interest in later in his career.

Duke Ellington, ‘At Newport 1956’

Ellington and his band were on their downers at this point, reduced to playing ice-rinks, but turned their career around with this exciting live album. Well, I say “live album”: 40% of this album does indeed come from the live performance, the rest was clandestine studio fixing and counterfeiting. Hey, look at the big fat phoney! Anyway, big band style jazz like this must have been incredibly exciting to the audience who were there (or who weren’t there as the case may be), as much as it doesn’t seem desperately thrilling now. Some of the atonal trumpet squeals sound like something off a Public Enemy backing track: I was surprised to learn the Bomb Squad hadn’t sampled them.

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, ‘Jazz Samba’

This does-what-it-says-on-the-tin album launched a bossa nova craze in the early 1960s United States, and features saxophonist Getz and guitarist Byrd recording Brazilian standards with two bassists and two drummers as if they were a stadium rock band. The augmented rhythm section doesn’t overpower the set, though, as this is led by Getz’s husky tenor sax. It’s easy enough on the ear, which explains this style of music’s later devolution into muzak: Getz would later record ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, practically the dictionary definition of lift music. Best track here is a melancholy cut unsurprisingly named ‘Samba Triste’.

Keith Jarrett, ‘Koln Concert’

The second of two live albums on today’s list, this one is a recording of a concert of solo piano improvisations played on a knackered piano (due to a venue flub). This doesn’t exactly sound like the most exciting thing ever, right? Yet I found this album pretty charming. It has jazzy and bluesy sections, of course, but there’s also flavours of classical (shades of Rachmaninoff) and almost new age. Surprisingly, as much as it’s non-confrontational, this is one of the albums I enjoyed most this week.

Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’

While many jazz albums have the band leader front and centre, this is less the case with Mingus, a double bass player and occasional pianist who leads from the back, meaning that the solos are democractically split between sax, trumpet, guitar and piano. Partially composed as a ballet (!) and recorded as an octet, this album features horn section cacophonies, whiplash transitions of themes and mood and a raunchy strip-joint vibe throughout characterised by the wah-wah trombones. This is a bizarre album which is not for the faint of heart, so of course I loved it. I also checked out ‘Mingus Ah Um’ but while good it lacks this album’s unpredictable weirdness.

Thelonius Monk, ‘Brilliant Corners’.

Monk was a pianist whose tricky compositions were a pain for his band to perform and record: the title track here took 20+ takes for the poor musicians. The complexity of that track is the most interesting thing here, followed by the celeste on ‘Pannonica’. It’s hard to judge this on its own merits given the ubiquity of hard bop, though.

Next week will be REQUESTS WEEK so if you’d like me to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’) an album of your choosing, pick from the list here

Progress update: 323 listened to (32%), 678 remain