The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
I'm a bit amazed at my own reaction to this momentous, seven-CD masterwork. Instead of musing about the innovative spirit of the early '60s, the sessions that make up this seminal 1959-61 John Coltrane retrospective made me gaze with renewed wonder at the late '50s. It seems that the historical reading I've always adhered to about the period following Charlie Parker's death in 1955 — the one that has the jazz world running on bebop's fumes until free-jazz alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman appeared with gas can in hand — is a little too glib. Consider the creative ferment that led to the Trane's fully realized albums like Giant Steps or Coltrane Plays the Blues, just two of the cornerstones of this collection: In more ways than one, the Coltrane Atlantics undermine the idea of late-'50s jazz as some kind of cool or hard-bop regression.
First, there's what they uncover about jazz composition. It's not often talked about, but by the late '50s composition had reached a state of autonomy and grace, with the most inventive minds writing their own tunes instead of constructing them from the changes of pop songs like “Cherokee,” as their bebop predecessors had. In the critical bio Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, author Eric Nisenson is quick to point out that Coltrane's early leadership dates on Prestige contain few, if any, of his own compositions — certainly nothing to match “Naima” or “Cousin Mary.” Whether the tenor man's reticence was caused by a lack of ideas or the simple desire to control his own publishing (something unheard of at Prestige), that Trane blossomed as a composer on his first date for his new label suggests he'd been doing much woodshedding, a fact reiterated in an essay by fellow sax man and Philadelphia practice chum Jimmy Heath in the beautiful 74-page booklet accompanying the box set.
The two most miraculous things revealed in Heavyweight Champion, though, are that Coltrane never looked back, and that reissue producer Joel Dorn compiled everything, including a cleverly packaged CD of previously unreleased alternate-takes and an interview with Mary L. Alexander (better known to jazz fans as “Cousin Mary”). It's obvious now that Trane had the complete confidence of his label, which wasn't shaken by the volatile Jim Crow atmosphere that made certain quarters of the jazz community repeatedly refer to this gorgeous music as “angry.” The output speaks for itself, and the box set attests to the two prolific years that contributed greatly to Coltrane's later success.
In the meantime, Trane found two-thirds of his historic rhythm section (pianist McCoy Turner, drummer Elvin Jones); scored a minor hit with a driving version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's “My Favorite Things” (played on the soprano sax, his second love); tested himself with Ornette Coleman's sidemen; and developed the sound and spiritual image that would make him an icon.
— K. Leander Williams
“This music is easily classified under your basic garden-strength-alterna-outback-'Funk-Dat!-rock-n-chock-full-a-lyrical-la-di-da to which you can tap your feet,' Jennifer Trynin writes in her bio. But it only takes a few minutes with her debut, Cockamamie, to realize this self-assessment is dripping with irony. Trynin has just the brute, femme-de-guerre edginess needed to piss on the record industry and its “file under …” mentality. In fact, her contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that the label re-release her self-produced CD without changing so much as a note. The payoff: Cockamamie lacks the usual c.o.d. stamp of commercialism that has helped boil the essence of alternarock down into shapeless brown matter.
Trynin's songs barge in without knocking. Excepting a few smoky acoustic offerings, the Boston-area artist doles out noisy, full-throated rants that reel you in with hooks so pleasantly askew they leave teeth marks. Unlike legions of lady vocalists who pussyfoot around with a 12-year-old's falsetto, Trynin joins the ranks of Chrissie Hynde and Liz Phair — grrrls who aren't ashamed to go low and utilize the steel of their voices. She is equally fearless with her guitar, a centrifugal force that keeps the drums and bass in close orbit.
First and foremost, though, Trynin is a songwriter, with a gift for relentless melodies and clever phrasing. Her delightfully cranky attitude belies a romantic disappointed by the poverty of the world's offerings. The opening “Happier” captures the eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head paranoia that arises in a bleak urban setting: “What could make me happier than sitting right here/ Trash in the walkway and the boys down in the street/ They're screaming bloody murder/ 'Cause that's what you do when you don't stand a chance/ Aren't you the guy who robbed the Store 24?” In “Do It Alone,” she gives her lover a virtual laundry list of things to do when she dies, requesting that he never find a replacement. Still, in the romance-gone-wrong lineup, it's the alternately sluggish and swaggering “Loser” anthems like “Knock Me Down” that win — perfect material for any men-are-lame compilation.
— Shoshana Berger
Jennifer Trynin plays Tues, Aug. 29, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.
Ben Goldberg, John Schott, Trevor Dunn, and Kenny Wollesen
(Knitting Factory Works)
With up-to-the-minute reworkings of bebop classics by Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Tad Dameron, this fine Bay Area quartet (now known as Snorkel) succeeds where so many before have failed. Instead of safe, by-the-book attempts at reliving the magic of 40 or 50 years ago (think Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, etc.), Snorkel takes chances. With open arrangements that afford plenty of creative extrapolation, Junk Genius ventures about as far afield as one can imagine while keeping the colorful contours of the melodies intact.
Locomotive tracks like “Tempus Fugit,” “Koko,” “Shaw Nuff,” and the definitive “Bebop” chug forward with a manic post-punk energy, the communication between Ben Goldberg's snakelike clarinet and John Schott's sprawling six-string tentacles coming close to ESP. More intuitive interplay resounds when drummer Kenny Wollesen fires machine-gun snare rolls into Schott's electric barrage during the explosive beauty of “Cheryl.” “Hot House” begins as bassist Trevor Dunn dives into a heavy pizzicato solo, progressing full throttle as Goldberg and Schott languidly introduce the melody. It sounds almost as if two songs are being played at the same time, a difficult and unusual structural device that Snorkel adroitly explores in concert.
Despite the abundance of inspired solos and on-edge arrangements, Junk Genius is ultimately about the songs — and the bebop book hasn't sounded so fresh since back in the day.
— Sam Prestianni
Ben Goldberg plays with reed master Ellery Eskelin & friends Wed, Aug. 23, at Beanbenders' Berkeley Store Gallery; call (510) 528-8440.
… And Out Come the Wolves
A pop-culture pundit once cheekily referred to Rancid as “the Sha Na Na of punk.” While discussing the myriad ironies implicit in the Punk Revival was a favorite topic around the critics' cooler last year, this East Bay foursome are perhaps the only proponents of the nouveau punk cabal to merit further discourse. The very piety with which they cling to the aesthetics of yore — both musical and cosmetic — calls their authenticity into question: Are they roots radicals or retrogressive reactionaries? Anarchists or atavists? Old school stalwarts or opportunists? All of the above? The answer depends on whether you consider punk to be forever intrinsically linked to the seminal blip that spawned the whole mess, or whether you subscribe to the broader notion that punk is best defined as an agent of rebellion. Or both.
… And Out Come the Wolves, the follow-up to 1994's big-selling Let's Go, won't do much to quell the queries; this year's model is alarmingly like last year's. Tim “Lint” Armstrong continues to spew tales of urban decay, social schisms, and personal chaos in his best London-via-Cali quasi-cockney, while his cohorts (guitarist Lars Frederiksen, bassist Matt Freeman, and drummer Brett Reed) dutifully back him up with standard-issue, Maximum Rock and Roll-approved slash-and-burn fury.
But if you think the recent ballyhoo passed Rancid by without sinking into their spiky domes, think again: The title is, ostensibly, an extraction from Jim Carroll's spoken-word contribution to “Junkie Man” (also spelled “Junkyman”), but it might just as well refer to the circus of speculation that revolved around their ascent into the public eye. On “Journey to the End of the East Bay,” Armstrong laments that “too much attention unavoidably destroyed us.” On “Disorder and Disarray,” the sentiment is considerably stronger: “Business man come shake my hand/ Show me numbers that I understand/ Now I'm crucified, crucify me.” Sure they're concerned — check out Armstrong's shielded posture on the front cover. Or perhaps it's just a parody of the Minor Threat album that bears a remarkably similar graphic. Who knows?
Wolves does show some signs of progress. Fans of Operation Ivy, Armstrong and Freeman's previous claim to fame, will appreciate the ska-inflected numbers like “Old Friend,” “Time Bomb,” and “Daly City Train.” On these tracks, the band's musicianship supersedes all else, nearly rendering the ideology issues moot. It could be just another regression, but one hopes the band is taking one step backward in preparation for taking two forward. Only time will tell, though, if Rancid will live up to their potential or live up to their name.
— Tim Kenneally
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
(Big Bad Records)
Your bank teller is using her face as a tackle box and old punk songs sell automobiles. For many “aging” punks (those who hit puberty before '81, that is) life took an ugly turn when “alternative” went Top 40. My advice to you? Buy the sharpest suit you can find, shine up your two-toned wingtips, learn a few dance steps, and swing, you dogs!
As Big Dad Voodoo Daddy frontman (and former Ill Repute man) Scotty Morris has said, “There's more sweat on the dance floor at one of our shows now than in any of the pits I remember.” Besides, with all the combat boots on the street these days, a sharkskin suit gets you more shock value than spiky hair.
BBVD is among the finest of the new-swing set. Unlike most of their counterparts, they do not merely rehash old classics (though these songs should appeal equally to connoisseurs). Bubbling with infectious humor and vitality, the self-titled, self-released disc is comprised almost entirely of fresh original songs that stick in your craw for days. The quintet's musical prowess allows them to wander with ease between the big movie sound of Mancini, the bright landscape of Dixieland, and the rhythmic textures of Latin jazz for a fun-loving romp through dark, smoky bar rooms and lonesome towns — complete with bongos, train whistles, and an abundance of maniacal laughter. BBVD gives you the best of both worlds, a fun substitute for both the Offspring and Louis Prima.
— Silke Tudor
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy plays Sat, Aug. 26, at the Deluxe in S.F.; call 552-6949. Also Sun, Aug. 27, at Blues in S.F.; call 771-2583.