Friday, 27 December 2013

Maori folk pop with a hint of Hawaii: The Fabulous Howard Morrison Quartet (1960)

Although the fabulous Howard Morrison and his quartet were all New Zealanders playing traditional Kiwi songs, there’s a definite Hawaiian feel to this four-track EP. It seems obvious enough why they would take this stylistic route; Hawaiian music was huge in the sixties, these fellow denizens of the Pacific must have felt a kinship with its culture, and why not take advantage of a musical trend while you can? 

The songs on the EP all showcase the strong multi-part harmonies of the fabulous quartet and are all sung in their native Maori tongue. My favourite is the upbeat closing track, Haere Haere Ra E Hine, which features some sweet, reverby sixties guitar playing.

Label: La Gloria
Released: 1960

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Our man of many trumpets: John Robertson and his Multi Trumpets – John Robertson (196?)

John Robertson was a classically trained trumpeter, originally from New Zealand, who emigrated to Australia in the fifties or sixties. Despite a strong reputation as an orchestral player, he also cut a few popular LPs such as this exotica/Latin record from the mid-sixties. The reference to ‘multi trumpets’ seems to simply refer to Robertson using multi-tracking of trumpet lines and accompanying himself on most tracks – fairly standard practice, I would have thought, but I guess you’ve got market your instrumental trumpet LP somehow.

Most of the information I’ve been able to find about Robertson has been from a conversation on a trumpet forum from 2005. They’ve got some solid information about Robertson and some good stories such as this one about the musicians who were playing at Sydney’s famous Trocadero jazz venue: One of their numbers had each musician playing some novelty trick... Robbo's gimmick was to hold a high C for 16 bars revolving the trumpet on his lips, while the band played chords underneath. Apparently all the Sydney musicians would crowd in to see him do this act - couldn't believe the lack of mouthpiece pressure. And [trumpeter] George Dobson commented later about these days saying each night he (still seated) would be covered in 'a fine spray of spittle as Robbie (standing) went into act'!

Anyway, John Robertson and his Multi Trumpets is a fine set of instrumental standards played with great skill by Robertson and arranged beautifully by Thomas Tycho. The first track to really make an impression on me was Sugar Plum Cha-cha, an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s piece of (more or less) the same name. Yes, it’s twee as fuck, but the bass and percussion is swinging and it’s ultimately quite a well executed interpretation.

Label: RCA
Released: 196?
Players: John Robertson: Trumpet and flugelhorn
Thomas Tycho: Musical director and arranger
Don Andrews: Guitar soloist on La Spagnola


Friday, 18 October 2013

Bach + koto and shakuhachi + jazz trio = J.S. Bach Is Alive And Well And Doing His Thing On The Koto – Tadao Sawai et al (1971)

This rather unusual and improbably named LP marks the moment that I realised I had been neglecting the ‘classical’ bins at the record fairs. I’m not a huge fan of Bach – he’s a bit too chromatic and conventional for my tastes – but I couldn’t go past an album of his music being interpreted by traditional Japanese instrumentation supported by a jazz rhythm section.

How/why did this get made? God only knows, but I suspect that it was conceived and produced by the Japanese players who thought it would be an interesting musical exercise but that it then later made its way into the hands of an American label who thought that the only way to market such a chimera would be with a wacky angle and silly record cover. (As you can see, the cover depicts a gentleman in full baroque regalia whimsically nursing a koto in a traditional Japanese room. It's basically a direct appropriation of the cover concept for Switched On Bach.) The liner notes continue this light-hearted theme with a faux interview with Bach himself who muses on his works, gives his approval to this new interpretation of his music and cracks a few very corny gags. The LP appears to have been released in an earlier incarnation in 1969 with the (slightly) less silly title “A New Sound From The Japanese Bach Scene”.

Despite the label trying to sell this set off as a bit of a joke, the music itself is very well produced and skilfully played. The fusion of the disparate elements of Bach, Japanese traditional and jazz works seamlessly and it’s actually a very congruent listen overall.

Label: RCA
Released: 1971 (Original release 1969)
Players: Tadao Sawai - first koto
Kazue Sawai - second koto
Hozan Yamamoto - shakuhachi
Sadanori Nakamure - guitar
Tatsuro Takimoto - bass
Takeshi Inomata - drums

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Qantas's marketing team get hip: The Kangaroo Hop - Qantas Air Cargo (1971)

How you going to swing down there on the ground? This is the question posed by the hip young man who sings The Kangaroo Hop - a groovy new sound which incongruously extolls the virtues of the usually prosaic business of air cargo. The Kangaroo Hop is featured on a transparent red flexi-disc that I found at last year's Kew Record Fair

The A side has The Kangaroo Hop 'single', a rockin' piece of seventies pop with an exciting male vocal punctuated by a horn section and accompanied by some funky drumming. I've no idea who the players are, as the information on the disc indicates that the song was 'invented, arranged and performed by Qantas Air Cargo'. The B side has a few snippets of the aforementioned song but is mainly taken up by a typical old-style Australian announcer - a man, of course, this is business sweetheart - describing the benefits of using Qantas air cargo for your company. (The best part is the very beginning where he awkwardly repeats the first couple of the lines to the song, vaguely in time with the music.) The Kangaroo Hop was featured in Australian newspaper advertisements in 1971 with pretty much the same sort of copy that appears on the record. 

I often wonder how these sorts of promotional vinyl releases were meant to be received. Some are obviously intended to be played on radio, but based on the presentation of the disc and the nature of the information on the sleeve and B side, I suspect this one was intended to be played by the businessmen themselves. The language positively screams that using Qantas air cargo is modern, groovy and in tune with the times. Although, this does seem at odds with the graphics they chose for the disc of old fashioned ballroom dancers - perhaps they were just stock pictures from a library. 

I love hearing promotional releases from the sixties and seventies of Australia. There's a sort of unintentional honesty to this music which evokes the time they come from with a sincerity and veracity that pop music simply doesn't have. So come on, grab a jet and go with the groovy new sound - it's the Kangaroo Hop! It's the Kangaroo hop!

Label: Private Qantas label.
Released: 1971 (based on newspaper advertisements)
Players: None identified. 


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Viva Elec. Guitar - The Spacemen (1965)

Apparently, back in the sixties there was quite a big wave of Japanese bands inspired by the surf guitar bands of the United States. They called this music 'eleki' and there were many bands playing in this style, until the Beatles and the British Invasion kind of wiped them out. The Spacemen seem to be a pretty obscure proponent of this sound, but hot damn are they good! 

My brother found this LP in a tip shop in Canberra and it's a great listen -  inventive arrangements, ancient keyboard tones and loads of baritone guitar. There's also a kind of 'outsider' feeling to the overall sound of the album, presumably due to the amplified isolation of Japanese musicians in the early sixties who were miles away from the California surf sound to which they were paying tribute. Even standards like Tequila and Caravan, tracks that I thought I might be skipping past, are given exceptional interpretations by The Spacemen and the LP is a great listen from start to finish.

Label: Victor
Released: 1965
Players: Unknown. There are extensive liner notes, but they are in Japanese.


Saturday, 17 August 2013

Nākšu Es - Staburadze (1978)

I’m having some trouble working out the geographical provenance of Nākšu Es (I Will Come). It’s an album by a charming vocal group of multi-instrumentalist Latvian teenage girls that seems to be a private press made for an Australian tour (hence how I found it in an op-shop in Northcote, Melbourne). But there are pictures on the LP from Australia so, did they make it while they were here, or have they toured Australia before? The one source I could find online that mentions Staburadze even implies that they were based in the U.S. or at least toured there, so this LP's origin is still unclear.

Anyway, Nākšu Es is a nice set of vocal, folky songs from circa 1978, mostly recorded as a live ensemble, if not in front of a live audience. The LP starts off a little slow, but there are some great tracks throughout the album, particularly on side two. There is a great cover of Fernando (by fellow northern Europeans ABBA) sung in Latvian and flourished with some nice flute playing. I like the tracks where the arrangement is a little unconventional such as the excellent minor key number, Vīzija which jumps between a slow, melancholy verse and a driving chorus. Another interesting arrangement is Ar Tevi Vien which is almost reminiscent of Estonian band Collage with it’s jazzy piano and rapid, multipart harmonies. Finally, check out the Latvian calypso (!) of Ardiev Vas on side two.

Label: Private press
Released: 1978
Players: Rita Circene - vocals, flute
Benita Jaundāldere - vocals, guitar
Valda Upenieks - vocals, guitar, mandolin
Skarleta Berkolde - vocals
Rita Grava - vocals, flute
Ausma Līdacis - vocals, guitar

Paul Berkolds - accordion, piano, percussion
Bill Chism - guitar, bass

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Apsilene - Ian Eccles-Smith (2003) w/ interview

This time last year I wrote a post on a great album called Expanse written and produced in 1984 by flautist Andrew Richardson and keyboardist Ian Eccles-Smith. Ian actually said hello in the comments of the post (which was a first) and suggested that I check out an album he recorded in 2003 called Apsilene. I only got around to listening to this atmospheric concept album about a month ago and it’s a very well developed, cohesive instrumental set with a wealth of musical textures and range. I had a chat with Ian via the magic of email about this project and some of his other musical endeavours.

UB: Based on the song titles and the intro on your site, there seems to be a fairly dense but unexplained conceptual element to Apsilene. Did you deliberately intend for this to be ambiguous, or am I just missing some background information?

IES: There is definitely a conceptual element to Apsilene in that it’s a tribute to all the concept albums I've ever enjoyed. Extended solos, complex time signatures and a sound mix that emphasizes the technical prowess of the band (more on that later). To really drive the concept I invented a simple and silly storyline that follows the adventures of a Victorian London gent called Professor Goldstemm who uses the new invention of the London tube system to try to find the lost City of Atlantis, gets lost deep in the bowels of the world and along the way goes mad only to realize in the end that his world is in fact ruled by gigantic lizard kings...well, you get the idea.  I still have the narration floating around somewhere and if I could just get Jeremy Irons people to call me back, I can get it vocalized by him and I'll re-release.

However, as with so many concept albums, though the concept itself doesn't hold up under any scrutiny, the ideas for the music itself were extremely focused and were something I spent over a year creating and crafting.

UB: How did you record Apsilene? Was it primarily a solo project? Could you give me an idea of any particular artists or albums that were influential on the songs and/or the production techniques?

IES: Apsilene was recorded in London - though much use was made of digital recording and editing techniques, all of the music was played and recorded live. Apart from three or four very small sampled loops, every note was a real performance.

Although I played everything, I first had created an imaginary band with each player having their own stylistic characteristics and as I created the parts, I had to stay true to each of these styles (and had no idea of how the combinations would work.)  Drawing on inspiration from people like Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, John Evan, I envisage my own super band playing just as I needed them to - an exercise in power hungry self delusion certainly but one that served a purpose in that it gave me a strong basis on how to craft each musical line.  The resulting tracks which all have their own inner logic and hang together as a coherent whole, despite the fragmented steps that I started with.

Parts were recorded in no particular order, in some cases I created the solo first, and had to then work backwards to ensure the backing parts all worked to support the lead. Working to a nine to five schedule, 5 days a week I created around 30 draft compositions, the aim being to then trim these down based on the quality of each and then further refine.

Being the only person creating this music meant that I lacked an objective view and so to help keep the project on track, Paul Schutze was drafted in to co-produce with me. As one of the only people I know who could understand the complex styling I was trying to capture he helped steer me through the process so that we were able to keep our 70's prog indulgences firmly under control.  After a few months we had all the tracks recorded and mixed and I was able to begin working on the track order and the album edit. Apsilene was designed to be listened to as a seamless experience and our final edit ran for the full length with no gaps. However, as I planned to release this only on the Internet, I then had to slice it up into smaller chunks so that the downloads would be a little more manageable. From there it went onto the Internet, I let a few people know about it and it all grew from there, downloads, interviews and reviews worldwide.

UB: I did a post this time last year on Expanse, an album on which you collaborated with flautist Andrew Richardson. Could you tell me about that production and your part in recording that LP?

IES: I co-wrote Expanse with Andrew over the course of a week, in his house in St. Kilda. We created a simple studio in a couple of rooms, had an 8-track tape machine, a couple of keyboards (seem to recall Andrew had a Roland Jupiter 8, whilst I dragged in my Memory Moog and DX7).   Some of the music we wrote together, a few tracks were things I'd already written prior and rearranged to include Andrews flute work (i.e. Brolga, Tiddalik) and a few were Andrews compositions that I added the keyboard parts to.  The concept was entirely Andrews, I was simply enjoying the writing /arranging on what for me aged 22, was a pretty exciting project. At the time my style wasn't as ambient as Andrews and I recall trying to add in a lot more edgy samples and field recordings, whereas Andrew was after something simpler and more true to his concepts (and quite right he was too).

UB: Are there any other recordings that you have worked on that we should keep an eye out for (particularly vinyl releases)?

My only other work (apart from some film soundtracks) that may be interesting is Clubbed to Death, my first solo album (a selection of dance tracks featuring vocals from the leading serial killers of our time): oddly, and in hindsight, it’s a good companion piece to Apsilene, and certainly worth a listen.

You can download Apsilene for free on mp3 here or wav here. The other bits of music mentioned in the post can be found at Ian's website.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Living Soil - CSIRO, Tony Gould (1982)

My never-ending quest for documentary soundtracks, particularly from Australia, continues. Here is a gorgeous short film, The Living Soil, produced by the CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in 1982 and scored by Melbourne jazz pianist Tony Gould. You can find the music from the film on Chronicle: Orchestral Music of Tony Gould, available on CD from the excellent local label Move Records or on iTunes.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Grand Canyon Suite triple post - Ferde Grofé, Eugene Ormandy, Tomita (19??, 1958, 1982)

And from Antarctica, we conclude our geographonic tour in the northern hemisphere, specifically, America’s Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon Suite composed by Ferde Grofé from 1929 to 1931, is a majestic, colourful and above all accessible piece of music which to a modern listener evokes elements from soundtracks, classical music and jazz. The Grand Canyon Suite covers a huge amount of dynamic range, transitioning from quiet shimmerings of celesta, strings and reeds depicting the canyon sunset to galloping trumpets so manic they intersect somewhere near Gershwin at his liveliest and Carl Stalling. This piece is probably the most well-known of the symphonic works I’ve looked at over the last few posts and has been played by many, many ensembles over the years. I’d like to look at three such LPs that I have happened upon in op-shops and a record fair.

Ferde Grofé and The Capital Orchestra. This is an old, scratched Capital 10” record I found in an op-shop in Northcote. I haven’t been able to find any information on this particular release in any of the usual places. Although the sound quality is pretty bad due to the condition of the record, I include it for historical relevance of this version being conducted by the composer.

Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. This is a beautifully recorded performance of the suite released sometime in the sixties (I think - the recording has no date anywhere on it*). This is the LP I probably listen to the most of these three as it is very faithful to Grofé’s own interpretation but with a far superior sound quality (and the disc is in much better condition, which doesn’t hurt). This LP was my first exposure to this piece - I was going through a phase of obsessively consuming nature documentary soundtracks and found this in an op-shop in Healesville. I saw the title and the lovely photo of the Grand Canyon on the front and thought it might give me a similar buzz.

*EDIT 4/05/2016 - According to Discogs it's probably 1958. 


Tomita. Finally we have Japanese electronic artist Isao Tomita translating this piece with the Plasma Symphony Orchestra ie. numerous Rolands, Moogs, Synclaviers, Yamahas and a Mellotron. The electronic approach works well in the hands of Tomita and his “orchestra” and this 1982 version is surprisingly faithful to Grofé’s original composition. Tomita does bring in some interesting new interpretations of particular instruments from the traditional orchestra however and introduces some great vintage synth tones in their place. The incongruity of an all electronic version of the Grand Canyon Suite was obviously not lost on the cover artist who attempts to naturalise the concept by depicting a canyon on a distant planet in space! Which planet this is supposed to be is unclear, but it is somewhere in the vicinity of Saturn (or a Saturn-like planet) and has some sort of high-tech transparent pyramid in the canyon which appears to be topped by the disembodied head of Strong Bad. This LP is concluded with an electronic rendition of Syncopated Clock, a playful jazzy tune composed by Leroy Anderson.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sinfonia Antartica - Vaughan Williams (195?)

From New Zealand, we move slightly further south, for a musical examination of Antarctica - Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. This piece was adapted from the incidental music Williams’ wrote for the 1948 film Scott Of The Antarctic. The first performance of this sinfonia was in 1953 by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. There is no date anywhere on this LP, but as it is performed by the same ensemble, I’m assuming it was recorded not long after its debut.

Sinfonia Antartica is broken into five movements, all combining elements of soundtrack and modern classical music. The first section (Prelude) starts slowly, with a sense of our team embarking on their great adventure into the unknown. At around the 3:00 mark, things get interesting; we hear the appearance of what the composer referred to as ‘antarctic shimmerings’ of xylophone, piano and harp and an eerie female soprano - sounding as if lifted from a seventies horror movie score - enters the scene. A trumpet fanfare announces the coda, and the orchestra turns its attention to the main melody for the remainder of the section.

The second movement (Scherzo) opens with a whirl of woodwinds and tuned percussion over slightly ominous chords and follows this pattern for the rest of the section. The liner notes inform us that in this section ‘there is the unmistakable sound of penguins’. I’ve listened to this LP a lot and I studied a colony of penguins for my thesis, yet I’ve never been able to discern them on this record. I reckon Scott Goddard is talking nonsense. 

The third and fourth movement (Landscape and Intermezzo) share a band on side two. More antarctic shimmerings can be heard in these movements before building up to a dramatic peak of brass and woodwind. From the liner notes: ‘This is the illusory region of atmospheric and visionary impressions[...] Slowly the landscape reveals itself through the mist and huge outlines appear.’ At around 5:00 (in what I assume is the beginning of the fourth movement) a lovely section of harp, reeds and bass strings is introduced. — At just before 7:00 an organ blasts out of nowhere! Things eventually quiet down and the pace slows; this is the appropriately sombre music which accompanied Oate’s death in the original film score.

The final movement (Epilogue) alludes to all the preceding themes and attempts to wrap them up in a satisfying conclusion. The Epilogue turns the bombast and tragedy up a notch depicting the ultimate fate of our embattled heroes. A wind machine can be heard and the melody from the first movement is repeated. In the final couple of minutes the female soprano reemerges, accompanied by a chorus and more wind machine and nicely evokes the bleakness of the Antarctic landscape.

For other great pieces of music which attempt to evoke the Antarctic, check out Vangelis’s soundtrack to the 1983 film Antarctica and Benjamin Bartlett’s Antarctic Spring and Spirits Of The Ice Forest from the excellent Walking With Dinosaurs soundtrack.

Label: HMV
Released: Mid-fifties
Players: Sir John Barbirolli - conductor
Margaret Ritchie - solo soprano
Hallé Orchestra and choir

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Landfall In Unknown Seas - Lindsay String Orchestra of Wellington (1960)

I’m very interested in the ways that Australasian musicians and composers attempt to recreate their natural surroundings with music. In some cases, as in last post’s Rainforest or John Sangster’s work, this is done in a literal sense with field recordings, bird calls and occasionally abstract evocations of ‘otherness’. These are old continents, but new to the Europeans whose musical traditions we inherited. This lovely recording by the Lindsay String Orchestra of Wellington takes a very different approach; this is the discovery of New Zealand by white men interpreted in modern verse and orchestral strings.

The A side is taken up entirely by the titular track - a combination of original poetry and music by Allen Curnow and Douglass Lilburn respectively. Curnow was commissioned to write a poem for the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand. Lilburn, one of New Zealand’s most prominent composers of the time and a student of Vaughan Williams, was approached to create music to accompany the verse. The poem, read by the author, is interspersed by three movements of a pastoral, modern classical feel. The second movement is my favourite, ‘a dramatic lyric, in rapid short metre and strict pattern recounting the Landfall in New Zealand, the bloody clash with the islanders, and Tasman’s departure.’

Landfall In Unknown Seas is followed up with three pieces by other New Zealand composers. All three are modern classical interpretations of folk music. Cindy: A Square Dance For Strings and Turkey In The Straw are both from the American folk tradition, while Dances Of Brittany was inspired by ‘a suite of Breton popular tunes.’

I have no idea when this recording was produced, but I’d say it was sometime in the early sixties, based on the dates mentioned in the various composers’ bios*. Also, this record is the first I’ve seen on the Kiwi label. According to a blurb on the sleeve, this label used to release ‘New Zealand composers, New Zealand bird song, leading Maori concert groups, records for children and for educational purposes, folk song, language instruction’ - it all sounds very appealing! If you have any interesting records on this label please let me know in the comments.

*EDIT 4/05/2016: I have found a review of this record in the December 1960 edition of Te Ao Hou, from the National Library of New Zealand: 
Te Ao Hou was published from 1952 to 1976 by the Māori Affairs Department in New Zealand Aotearoa. According to its first editorial, Te Ao Hou aimed "to provide interesting and informative reading for Maori homes … like a marae on paper, where all questions of interest to the Maori can be discussed."
Although the release date of this LP was originally unknown to me, I can now assume it was 1960. 

Label: Kiwi
Released: 1960
Players: Alex Lindsay - conductor
Allen Curnow - poet
Douglas Lilburn - composer (Landfall In Unknown Seas)
Ashley Heenan - composer (Cindy: A Square Dance For Strings)
Larry Prudent - composer (Dances Of Brittany)
John Ritchie - composer (Turkey In The Straw)

Monday, 7 January 2013

Rainforest - Andrew Richardson (1985)

Here is another recording from Victorian flautist Andrew Richardson, the man responsible for Expanse and the Sally/Dive single. Rainforest is an ambient, fairly free-form piece which couples solo flute performances with Australian field recordings and a few other accompaniments. It’s a very sparse record and I must admit that I would like to have heard more structure and rhythmic flow. On the few occasions on Rainforest where Richardson does augment his solo flute playing it lifts the material considerably, such as the distant rhythmic rumbling percussion on Dense and the unexpected and brief appearance of a choir section in Shady Rill.

I am always interested in Australian recordings which incorporate field recordings and Rainforest uses this technique well - the fusion between these sounds and the flute playing feels very natural. The recordings are predominantly birds calling, the most obvious species being Rufous Whistler (Pachycephala rufiventris), White-throated Treecreeper (Cormobates leucophaea), Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa) and the Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen). This particular combination of species suggests that these recordings were made in dry temperate woodland in the southeast of Australia - which is actually a very different habitat type to the tropical rainforests that Richardson alludes to on the LP cover.

On the back of the sleeve Andrew writes: Australia is blessed with some of the world’s most magnificent rainforests. This recording represents a journey through one of these beautiful rainforests; and an attempt to make people conscious of these areas of rare and fragile beauty. As mankind is propelled into the Twenty-first Century these regions are unique, and must be saved in their entirety - not destroyed for short-term profit. One of Australia’s dedicated rainforest ecologists, CAROLE HELMAN, describes the Daintree Rainforest in north east Queensland as “one of the world’s most important tropical rainforests, because it is the home of the world’s most primitive tropical rainforest plant families.” The distinguished naturalist, DAVID ATTENBOROUGH, described Queensland’s rainforests as “one of the most breathtaking wild areas in the world, unbelievably beautiful, unbelievably interesting. There are birds, mammals and plants there that are unique. Beyond any dispute it is a treasure.”

Label: A.R.M. Digital
Released: 1985
Players: Andrew Richardson - flutes
Tapes - Jim Moginie
Tapes - Michael Gissing
Bells - Adrienne Overall