Three From Bandcamp Friday
And to be clear: New releases of Hawaiian guitar music, the global collaboration Congotronics International and the resurfacing of Milt Ward and Virgo Spectrum's 1977 debut are three out of thousands.
As we were reminded endlessly during the whole Joe Rogan/Spotify kerfuffle, the streaming services are in the database business — which, emphatically, is not the same as being in the music business.
Bandcamp is a database too. But it doesn’t feel like one. In recent years, with streaming services embracing various adversarial positions toward recording artists below the superstar tier, Bandcamp has become a reliable, delightful, easy to use platform for music discovery. Drop in anywhere on the site, and you have to work hard to not have an unexpected encounter. It’s possible to lose hours browsing and listening and, crucially, shopping: On the first Friday of each month, Bandcamp waives the service fee it collects on each sale. Through this effort, the service regularly underscores an important reality of our time: In the streaming era, most musicians struggle just to continue making and sharing their work. Music is essentially free to consume, but it’s not free to produce.
Here are three inspiring releases that found their way into my Bandcamp shopping cart last week.
Those who associate Hawaiian guitar music with idyllic sunsets will be surprised to hear the chipper march-cadence tunes that enchanted American tourists a century ago. Restored from vintage 78-rpm records, these are ensemble works, some with vocals, that share the skittish fast-motion energy of some jazz from around the same period, 1918-1921. These guitarists don’t shred and that’s just fine: Instead, on the graceful “Kawaihau Waltz” by Ford Hawaiians and several tracks by Irene West Royal Hawaiians, they show command of contour and implication and understatement, establishing a performance style that’s been followed — and profoundly stretched — by Hawaiian guitarists ever since.
More marches to be had here, on a high-concept gathering built around two Kinshasa institutions, Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars. During and after the extensive Congotronics vs. Rockers tour in 2011, these groups cultivated impromptu on-the-fly collaborations with Western rockers and other musicians; the live recordings, several included here, led to more organized studio sessions involving John Deiterich of Deerhoof, Matthew Mehlan of Skeletons, Argentinian singer/songwriter Juana Molina and others, 21 in all. Though some tracks nearly get trampled by the happy chaos of a “cast-of-thousands” production, there are joyous refrains and and simmering, coyly shifting rhythms, and outbreaks of ear-stretching worlds-colliding instrumental awesomeness.
Best surprise for last: The rare 1977 album from trumpet master and composer Milt Ward and Virgo Spectrum. This belongs to the brief moment when the horizons for jazz fusion were still open, and musicians were able to slide between worlds without having to “pick a side” — it was no big deal for players to take a bebop gig one night and a more exploratory set with an electrified, percussion-anchored band like Virgo Spectrum the next.
Ward’s crew coalesced in Boston and involved both hotshots from the Berklee School of Music and established artists like bassist Cecil McBee (who crushes throughout) and saxophonists Billy Pierce and Carlos Garnett. The material, mostly written by Ward, strikes an interesting balance between the searching melodies of spiritual jazz, recurring horn-section stabs, steady, rock-leaning rhythms that thrive on repetition, and adventurous but not entirely discordant improvisations.
Inspired by the tunes, these soloists all seem to be reaching for altitudes that became mostly out of reach to humans sometime during the 1980s. There’s technical ferocity coming from the saxophonists, and a surprisingly lyricism from Ward; all of the soloists benefit from the absolutely astonishing accompaniment of keyboardist Delmar Brown, who wrote the most placid piece here, “Morning Glories.”
Just listen to Brown, on electric piano, starting at 4:47 of the opening track “Mr. Cheese.” His task is to support Ward’s solo, but really what he’s doing is framing it — with crisp three and four note provocations, and darting Herbie Hancock-style “what about this?” asides that playfully demand response. As the solo evolves, Brown’s goading becomes more daring, a spontaneous counterpoint built from dense chords and squabbling polyrhythm. It’s a great solo that deserves to be experienced at least twice — once to follow what Ward does, and once to focus on Brown, the wizard in the background.
That one solo triggered a mind-expanding journey through Delmar Brown’s work as an accompanist. Playlist coming Friday.
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