The one thing I really like about Tom Taylor's eclectic blend of jazz, rock, baroque and bluegrass is that it's damn hard to tie down. As local sax-man Mark Rose aptly noted, Taylor's music is like the Colorado weather, as soon as think you know what to expect, it changes.
Taylor shifts among mellow marimba melody lines, neatly harmonized chamber arrangements and madcap electric-guitar leads so deftly, you'd swear these instruments were all just made to be played together.
Case in point on Taylor's first CD release, The Crossing (Summit Records, 1999), is the tune "Big Basin Breakdown," a piece Taylor began writing more than two decades ago when a camping trip went seriously awry. (The Reader's Digest version goes like this: forgot sleeping bag, friend steps on guitar, woke up next day to hangover and dead car battery, hitchhiked home, mom hands him draft notice. Voila! Musical inspiration.)
Anyway, what started as a guitar-pickin' tribute to a trip gone bad is now a fully orchestrated chamber piece that begins with a soft fugue, performed here by the Kronos Quartet, and ends with the violins, marimba and mandolin pumping out a bluegrass-style breakdown. The mandolin, by the way, is played by none other than virtuoso David Grisman.
Another fave is "Swamp Fox" for its murkier, minor key, and a romping progression that slowly builds into one of the more rockin' deliveries on the CD.
Another highlight is the title track, because it uses the bassier marimba notes to create a very cool rhythmic riff that backs up some really nice electric guitar playing by Taylor and some soaring rock violin played by Erik Golub.
Because I'm not a true fan of the cool-clean jazz sound, I tend to yearn for a somewhat rougher, less-precise sound than featured on The Crossing. (And I confess: As a 12-step member of Marimba Anonymous, I tend to prefer the crisper sounds of guitar, mandolin and violin over the marimba for melody lines. But that's just me.)
Most folks will find plenty to like on this CD, whether you like your riffs tight and in-uniso, or if you like a looser, improvised counterpoint. If you like classical and jazz spiced up with unconventional pair-ups and orchestration, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by the work of this local musician made good.
New Music for Bowed Piano
New Albion Records
Back in the day, I might well have referred to Stephen Scott's New Music for Bowed Piano as excellent "head music." Any possible drug references aside, the term was used to describe an album that wasn't so much for the body, but for the vast, non-physical universe between the headphones.
It's sounds a little silly, I admit. But the more I think about it, the more the term seems an apt, if not overly school-dude-ish, categorization of this CD, a reissue of Scott's first ever recording of bowed piano music (New Albion, 1999).
Like Scott's most recent release, Vikings of the Sunrise, an epic musical homage to early Polynesian seafarers, this release also serves as a wonderful soundtrack to the unfettered imagination.
With fewer literal clues than the more narrative Vikings, the pieces on this reissue nevertheless boast a trademark of great head music: an evolving orchestration that seamlessly leads the listener to uncharted places within the old infinite noggin.
The expansive aural patterns that Scott creates are far too engaging to be dismissed as simply meditative, however. More than in his later CDs, Vikings and Minerva's Web/Tears of Niobe (also on Albion), one can easily hear on New Music some of Scott's direct influences: the rhythmic evolutions of minimalist Steve Reich, and the rising patterns of African drumming.
The melodic lines and harmonic gestures in this CD evolve more slowly and less dramatically than in his later works, perhaps due to the fact that Scott was still very much inventing the rudiments of his medium when these pieces were created. But the result is no less affecting, just a bit more atmospheric than later works.
The music is created, by the way, in a most unusual manner, using a chest of unexpected musical tools. Small sticks are scraped against the strings like small cello bows; nylon fish lines are pulled under piano wires like dental floss around a tooth, yards of duct or surveyors tape are similarly used to tickle the underside of the deep, sonorous bass strings.
All this stroking and pulling is done by a six-piece ensemble, whose members perform the music by scurrying around the exposed belly of a Steinway, tickling and prodding the instrument's innards like so many med students trying to save a dying patient.
One of my favorite pieces on this release doesn't rely on an ensemble, however. In 1982, Scott began working with instrument builder Alex Stahl to create a "device that would allow a soloist to 'bow' several strings of a piano simultaneously with electromagnets," according to the album's liner notes.
In essence, any strings that aren't dampened are allowed to vibrate in sympathy with the magnets, creating a softer, more ethereal bowing sound. On New Music, Scott performs "Resonant Resources" using the technique, and the result is a beautifully delicate piece full of subtle overtones and interesting effects. I hope Scott experiments with this technique in future compositions.
I heartily endorse this CD, though I also recommend a dark room, some candles and a pair of comfy headphones to take along for the ride.
Dave Matthews Band
Is there such a thing as too many live albums from the Dave Matthews Band? You might as well ask if there can be too many flavors of ice cream. Too many sunsets. Or too many bumps at Mary Jane. Listener Supported marks the fifth live or partially live album from the band and the third complete concert.
Maybe it's over-familiarity, but this most recent album is the least interesting. Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 and Live at Luther College (with Tim Reynolds, 2/6/96) come from a significantly earlier era than Listener Supported's 9/11/99 recording, an arena concert filmed for public TV's In the Spotlight series. The album finds the band at the peak of their popularity, coming on the heels of the band's summer stadium tour, complete with backup singers, if you know what I mean. The larger-venue approach shows up in the less spontaneous performance, and although the band is in top form, there's an edge missing that fueled the adventurous '95 concert, a playfulness lost that characterized the acoustic duets with Reynolds from '96, when Matthews was still breaking through to the mainstream.
Although there isn't much new to offer to songs that have already been offered live on past releases, there are a handful of intriguing new performances offered to listeners, including Boyd Tinsley's "True Reflections," a soft-funk offering whose repetitive refrain is sure to please those who are boggled by the violinist's unimaginative loops. Matthews always brings a new dimension to the songs he covers, and the band's version of "Long Black Veil" is one of the CD's highlights, reviving the song's Celtic echoes while making it startlingly fresh, stamped with their own signature ensemble approach. The album -- and the band -- succeeds on the ability to tweak the consciousness of the listeners, and the band is never more unpredictable and daring than their third recording of "All Along the Watchtower," rekindling the embers of improvisation and exploration that characterize their collective musical instinct.
DMB has long been popular among bootleggers, and the rush of live releases is partly an effort to keep up with the tapers, but it's worth waiting for the band to expand their onstage catalog with material to challenge their inventive nature before saturating the market with live retreads.
So Many Roads
The Grateful Dead
Who'd a thunk all those Deadheads with mayonnaise in their hair, and skull and roses decals patching their jeans would have the kind of money to start hoarding box sets from their grateful gurus? Apparently, they've looked for new work after the parking-lot patchouli business went bust in '95, heeding the bumper-sticker philosophy for the '00s: "Jerry's dead. Phish sucks. Get a life."
There are at least two distinctly polar ways to enjoy So Many Roads. You can pore over the hours of music on the track lists, checking locations (the farthest is Rotterdam, the closest is Red Rocks), band compositions (from Pigpen to Welnick, with Hornsby, Marsalis, et al. along the way), length of song (the shortest clocks in at 2:42, the longest single song is a 20:53 version of "That's It for the Other One") and dates of performance (ranging from a 1965 incarnation as the Emergency Crew to their final concert in Chicago in 1995). Or you can come at it like I did, one song at a time as the discs play in succession, discovering each subsequent track like an unraveling set list at a live show, knowing there's no way to skip to the end of the story before the band, the playwrights in an unscripted drama, capture the moment fresh and unexpectedly. Is there an "Uncle John's Band" coming? Is there anything from those McNichols shows at the other end of the decade?
By the time the Dead kick into "Spanish Jam" on Disk 2, several things are clear. This is not the kind of greatest hits, definitive box set that will please new fans and serve as the standard of the selected songs and as the self-contained musical history of the Grateful Dead. Every cut is a winner, full of interest, both from the musicians and in the listener. It's an excellent, huge, unusually comprehensive addition to the canon, a must-have for completists, but by no means a complete anything.
Dead purists may balk at the departure from the Dick's Picks series, now boasting 15 2- and 3-CD releases of entire concerts culled from the archives. There is something to be said for listening to the Dead in the context of a complete show, as opposed to the excerpts contained here -- many of the cuts are simply jams into or out of songs that are not included in the collection -- but this high-quality product, complete with a 60-page booklet including never-before-published photographs and a half-dozen new essays, is a chronicle of some stellar moments from the stage, the studio and even some rehearsals (who knew?).
Nearly one-third of the material is likely to be virgin territory even to dedicated listeners, and the chance to hear the band taking a first pass at an old folk song most of them hadn't heard in 30 years ("Whiskey in the Jar") or to stretch out on the infamous "Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam" makes it an essential addition to the collection for anyone already versed in Dead lore and ready to drop $60 for an epic fix.