Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat

White-boy soul on another level, and so much better than Steely Dan’s last output, this is High Donald Art.

My disappointment with Everything Must Go seems fully justified and warranted now that I’ve heard Morph the Cat. Quite simply, Morph is everything that Everything should’ve been. It’s better, slicker, smoother and heaps more fun than the Dan cut. Like Adam says, Fagan’s solo works sound more like Steely Dan records, as opposed to Becker’s solo ventures; leaving one to conclude that Fagen is the greater shareholder in the Dan equation. Which is not to say that Morph sounds like a fully realised Dan album, it just meets more of the Dan expectations than Everything did.  Continue reading “Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat”

Grant Burge {Barossa} 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon

An elegant and rounded Barossa red from Cameron Vale. Crack open the cheese and gather your tasting notes for a fine drop.

From the tasting notes on the label: “Rich ruby colour… complex nose, earthy eucalypt, mint dark chocolate… Elegant palate, generous dark berry fruits & savoury leather supported by well structured tannins & integrated fine-grained French oak… Excellent weight & persistence.” Continue reading “Grant Burge {Barossa} 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon”

John Coltrane – Ballads

Albums with ballads and standards are often overlooked in the jazz canon because they are less exploratory, but this makes them more revealing and contrapuntal.


Something I’ve carried over from my Miles studies is the habit of measuring a jazzman by his facility and strength with ballads. Especially standards and slow tunes. It’s the basic premise of musical modesty: the master returns to the simplest, most familiar songs to display economy, soul and superior technique. Or rather, call it musical musical wisdom: the master who’s at home in all formats as well as being a radical technician and explorer in his dayjob. I’m thinking of Miles in the depths of sickness and Fusion, breaking down and playing an old ballad, from an old-school place in the heart, where the genius is at home. Continue reading “John Coltrane – Ballads”

Perdomo Criollo 10th anniversary Figurado

Let’s take a good 45 minutes to visit Perdomo Country. Cigar cutter? Check. Hooch? Check. Typewriter? Check.

These are my smoke in progress notes. This Perdomo Criollo has a smooth attack, almost extremely long in its light smoothness, like a long pitch or curve ball. I haven’t tasted this kind of smoothness since some sweetened americans from a while back. The draw is even and reliable; and its construction very strong — the salt & pepper ash could hold on for half the smoke I think. After the first couple of minutes I’d say it’s low on nicotine count, not the hardest-hitting smoke and light on flavour — maybe I was expecting a bit more flavour off the bat or a more robust contour. The first quarter hasn’t really taken me anywhere yet. Not that I expect every cigar to be a flavour journey, first class and express — but the overall palette is a bit more elusive, slower to build. Continue reading “Perdomo Criollo 10th anniversary Figurado”

Robert Wyatt ― Maryan

One of Robert’s great, subtle, riverine songs.

There is a special, resonant magic that happens when a song’s lyrics and melody mingle and merge. Take the gently meandering poetry of “Maryan” off the Shleep album. The lyrics unroll and bend with the melody like a river unrolling to its delta. There’s a tonal consistency to the song, a timelessness like a drone with downstream force ― addressing only its own flow (cue Wagner’s Rheingold prelude). It’s a beguilingly complex-as-simple song structure that comprises a long melodic verse, and some equally long instrumentals over basic but unexpected chord changes. There is no chorus, and then the verse is repeated ― the last word ‘Maryan’ stretching and rising in extended harmony. But it’s one of the longest verse-melodies in the business ― I think only Prince’s “7” comes close in duration ― and there too a distinct chorus is lacking, unnecessary. The lyrics and words pitch and bend to conform with the colourful melody just as the sound and vibe of the song remain harmonious with the natural setting.  Continue reading “Robert Wyatt ― Maryan”

Prince ― Diamonds and Pearls

I miss P so much… we all have to be a little extra funky now – to pick up the slack.

I can say, without equivocation or pimply hyperbole or puffed-up superlative, that “Diamonds and Pearls” is one of the greatest pop songs of all time. No question. It’s got it all: funky tight rhythms, catchy melodies, affecting and natural choruses, light but definitive hooks and the surest pop touch (the kind of pop mastery that Prince would barely shrug his shoulders at). Chintzy synth lines, call and response harmonies, soul-pop vibes and trademark Prince guitar licks. Add the supremely tight & varied changes ― indeed, about four times the amount of changes you’d expect in a regular hit, including a major key change and turnaround. And it never seems to waver for a second, every part interlocks and leads to the next, every drum fill & lick sits tight in the groove ― it’s perfectly crafted and flowing. It’s an ecstasy of tight song arrangement… with slick and layered production values and ferocious bottom and snare attack. I remember an interview with Michael B saying they nailed it in a single take in Japan or someplace; which, considering how long it’s taken me to get the bass part down, is testament to superior musicianship. Listen to the subtle bass-behind-the beats play from Sonny T at 1:20 (‘Which one of us is right…’) to about 1:40 ― supremely funky and deep in the pocket. The pompous key change to D# at 2:06 leads to tight funk at 2:24, repeating the opening bass riff. Sonny’s work is amazingly nuanced at every point; it’s not until you play along that his pacing and emphasis come out clearest. Compared to the rather straight-ahead “Cream”, “Diamonds and Pearls” has all the intricacy of a Swiss timepiece. Pure pop with deep grooves and soul stacked on top. Catchy as all hell. Saccharine and sincere. Bright and sassy with a silken trim: pure Prince.

Beethoven — Symphony #9, 3rd movement

A genial plateau of near-religious, sublime music melding lightness with gravity. Sublime is the operative word ― I don’t generally go for Hegelian definitions of The Sublime, but if I was pressured to analogise the cool, abstracted air of Sublimity and had sufficient leeway of criteria, I’d tick the box marked Beethoven and lock in this Adagio (molto e cantabile). Continue reading “Beethoven — Symphony #9, 3rd movement”

Federico Fellini – 8½

A mad cinematic moment of uncertainty at the height of creative ability and success…

Commencing with the nightmarish traffic shot of silent, hemmed-in despair, and ever after that open to dream, suggestion and imagination, this is the culmination of a kind of cinema we’ll never see again. The era of Cinecitta, of oligarchic producers and fabulous set pieces and swirling arrays of extras, littered with personal recollection, wish fulfilments and fear. And total dubbing. And wholly personal, boyish, poetically inventive direction. I love that his critic-character, besides spouting an endless bilge of intellectual clichés (all of the time), states early on that his film is nothing more than a sequence of disconnected scenes — a film about filmmaking must employ self-criticism at some point, and when he talks about the failure of a scene with the dream-girl at the therapeutic springs, which we’ve just seen, well, it’s significant that it doesn’t deflate the narrative at all. And of course the critic hangs later on (how could he not see that coming). Continue reading “Federico Fellini – 8½”

Duke Ellington – Blues in Orbit

There's a tendency to think of the Blues as an easy genre for amateur guitarists and old black singers with lotsa heartbreak, an all-too-familiar vernacular riddled with cliches and guitar faces.

But jazz did manage to do something amazing with the blues, with swing and the blues together. And it was The Duke who turned the blues into a truly sophisticated art form beyond three chords — into a complex, composed and supremely flexible art form. First he made an ensemble of distinct voices, and then scored them with adventurous elaborations of the blues mood. There’s not a single three-chord progression on this album; just superlative little pockets of blues in and around three minutes in length. Moody chords and warm solos. Hodges in fine, clear form. Nance, Carney, Strayhorn, all in compact/expansive jazz miniatures. Laid-back, lively and amazingly free with the genre, really putting the format out there, composing by tonal band colours with a supreme understanding and mastery and brevity. Not a cliché to be found.

Duke Ellington — Blues in Orbit. 1958, Columbia.

The Necks – live in Dublin

I consider it my patriotic duty to pay witness to the greatest Australian band (in the field of improv) whenever I can.

After more than five years of fandom, I should get frequent Necking points, or maybe even a sunhat. It was a piece of luck that I heard about the gig — there is a small centre devoted to improv music here in Dublin — which in itself is heartening. The tickets were just raffle stubs. I tried to get some colleagues excited and inarested to no avail. But the music, the music. I was kinda keen at one point to catch the opinion of the Germans sitting behind us (Das is Motorik, ja?), but I stopped caring. What’s the point when you’re listening to the sound of creation? The performance contour hasn’t changed much (still in the mode of the last studio and live albums); the improv is startlingly unique every time though actually quite consistent in range: Lloyd’s looping 4/4 riffs, Abraham’s asynchronous drones bordering on mental despair at the top of your head, and the superlative percussion work of Tony Buck — probably the greatest percussionist in his field. You tend to forget there’s more to rhythm and percussion than just hitting things. Tony scrapes, scratches, taps, tickles and trawls an astounding variety of sounds from a limited kit. First cymbals, then a ratchet ‘round the snare rim, a hand (or suspended, or China) cymbal running over the floor tom to make a crusty old machinic sound, a brush of tindersticks tightly packed, now agitating a bunch of brass bells with his foot as though crockery’s being stacked somewhere in the distance — all the while pacing and slowly evolving the pattern and the syncopated growth. The total percussionist as artist, he is. It’s amazing to see a band who not only have immense respect for each other’s musical space and interplay, but who take an almost infinite care with the texture of improvisation. I sat three metres away from Buck in humble thrall. If only writing could be like this, I asked a mind thrown back on itself and which answered It is, it already is when you consider the creation of it. It’s in the care and attention to detail, the controlled permutation, the seemingly organic growth. That tension of control and freedom chaos, the seeming freedom which obscures a complex ability. The joy of ordered play in seeming-chaos — so refreshing compared to the at-times wilful chaos of Dublin. And that charmingly off-guard surprise and casual bewilderment as they walk offstage to the cheering and totally tuned audience. Jubilance at shared creation. Chuffed smiles.

The Necks live at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Dublin, 25.11.04