Tuesday, October 29, 2019

CD Reviews: William Parker/In Order to Survive & Whit Dickey/Tao Quartets





William Parker/ In Order to Survive
Live/Shapeshifter

Whit Dickey Tao Quartets
Peace Planet/Box of Light

(AUM Fidelity) www.aumfidelity.com

This pair of two-CD releases from AUM Fidelity continues the label's unwavering devotion to freely improvised music that finds its strength in group interaction and deep communication. One album chronicles a live evening with bassist William Parker's quartet In Order to Survive, the other gives drummer Whit Dickey - a longtime sideman to people like Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware - the opportunity to lead two different quartets.

Before long, William Parker might start to rival Ron Carter as the most-recorded bassist in jazz. If that's a slight exaggeration, the bassist is still one of the busiest musicians around, playing in groups of various sizes and helping to drive the Vision Festival with his wife, Patricia Nicholson Parker. In Order to Survive is one of his longest-lasting bands, having formed back in 1993. While the drum chair has shifted a little and the frontline once included trombonist Grachan Moncur III, the band has always included Cooper-Moore (piano) and Rob Brown (alto saxophone). Hamid Drake handles drums for these two sets, which were recorded at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn to celebrate the release of their previous album, 2017's Meditation/Resurrection.

Both discs of Live/Shapeshifter feature continuous, nearly hour-long performances, banded into separate tracks. Disc One is considered a suite, "Eternal Is the Voice Of Love," which is subdivided into five movements. Brown's unique alto voice acts as a beacon during the opening section, "Entrance to the Tone World." His style recalls Jimmy Lyons, Cecil Taylor's longstanding musical partner, in that Brown has the traditional jazz vocabulary down pat, but shuffles it around in a way to shape it into something different that makes him hard to ignore. He really takes off during the fourth movement, "A Situation," only then digging into some of the horn's noisier tricks.

Parker lets everyone drive here, but he also changes directions a couple times by going into some heavy bass vamps. When he shifts to shakuhachi mid-way through the set, it brings some strong contrast to the music. Likewise, his bowed melody in the final section, "Birth of the Sunset" creates something that is equal parts rugged and lyrical.

Disc two features distinct tracks which still segue together. "Demons Living in the Halls of Justice" shows that even when IOTS doesn't work with band grooves, they can each operate on parallel grooves that work together. However Parker and Drake do some fine interlocking work in "Drum and Bass Interlude" as well. It's only when the vocals come up, in the track named for the band, that the energy flags. The sentiment of the lyric is inarguable: "In order to survive/ we must keep hope alive." But for 14:45, Parker, with help from Dave Sewelson, repeats the words ad nauseum, with little room left for instrumental breaks. It becomes an endurance test. Or something better experienced live.

Whit Dickey admits that he drums with his eyes closed, as a way to help focus on his performance. It's a testament to his skills that he can excel at an instrument that requires specific physical contact. Dickey doesn't play with flash and bombast, preferring to churn and stoke fires from behind. As such, Peace Planet, the first set of the double set, sounds like could have been lead by Rob Brown or pianist Matthew Shipp. Behind them, joined by William Parker, Dickey adds color to the music with cymbal crashes and tom work. This quartet of longtime musical friends get involved in many four-way discussions. "Seventh Sun" finds Parker playing a walking bass line in the early part, but in the final minutes it almost becomes a ballad, at least in terms of tempo. "Suite for DSW" pays tribute to David S. Ware with a varied set of moods that never attempts to outwardly imitate the later tenor giant, but to reflect on his deep spirit.

Box Of Light also includes Brown, but this time Michael Bisio handles bass and trombonist Steve Swell rounds out the quartet. In the liner notes, Dickey describes this set as the rollicking Yang to Peace Planet's flowing Yin. The drummer sounds more aggressive in the presence of the two horns and Bisio's wild bass. He even takes a solo in "Ellipse: Passage Through," starting with cymbal washes and rolling through his whole kit. After an rich bowed solo from Bisio, the horns reemerge very much in sync with one another. The music was created spontaneously but Swell's skill at drawing out Brown's thoughts makes it feel like a composed work. In "Jungle Suite," Swell also gets in some great muted effects on his horn.

AUM released a Dickey trio album two years ago, Vessel In Orbit with violist Mat Maneri and Shipp. These sessions with the Tao Quartets offers reasons to go back and find that one. Hopefully it also means that Dickey will continue to work as a leader as well as a sideman.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Rova Saxophone Quartet's show in Pittsburgh


Steve Adams

Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin

Larry Ochs
The Rova Saxophone Quartet returned to Pittsburgh for the first time in 25 years on Sunday, October 20. Pittsburghers had chances to see tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs in the time between, with drummer Gerald Cleaver and guitarist Nels Cline (2017) and with the trio What We Live sometime in the late '90s. But this visit was long overdue.

The Quartet's set in the basement of the First Unitarian Church did not disappoint. Each of the players can produce a wealth of sounds from their instruments, going from chamber group clarity to celebratory squonk in the time it takes to breathe. After 42 years with only one lineup change (which came about a decade into the group's existence), they have a rapport that can be felt as they move through even the loosest material.

The rapport came into play during a group piece titled "NC-17." When I talked to Ochs for a story in Pittsburgh Current, he explained that the composition is based on a set of instructions or directions for each player. Any member of the group can cue a change during the performance, sending the players down a subset of directions or suggestions. The results can vary with each performance. Ochs did a lot of the cuing that night, with soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin beginning the piece before the latter began a duet with Steve Adams, who switched from alto to sopranino. Raskin later got a wild gurgling noise out of his horn. After it built to a climax, Steve Adams commented that even they seemed to be impressed with the shape "NC-17" had just taken.

Another personal favorite that night came with Raskin's "Valley Winter Cloud." It began wild and free, with all four players at different musical angles. Eventually it settled into a baritone melody that could be considered a ballad, with Ackley answering Raskin's lead.

Throughout the night, Ackley's technique slayed the audience, producing a growl that isn't normally associated with the soprano sax but needs to be heard more often. Adams, who wrote a number of the set's tunes, also displayed a killer tone that had grit and razor-sharp clarity. Ochs as well had moments where his sound was vocal and raw. I took earplugs to the show, so my hearing wouldn't be further damaged by four-part altissimo shrieks. Turns out I had nothing to dread.


The evening began with a set by saxophonist Ben Opie and guitarist Josh Wulff. Opie utilized tenor, soprano and alto throughout thir improvisations, really interlocking with Wulff when he played alto. Wulff created some rich textures and leads, occasionally giving the music shape via loops while at other times he kept it free flowing with a blend of pedal effects and rich leads. The guitarist can be seen around town in the prog-jazz/rock trio Smash Your Wagon with Dave Throckmorton, but those two have also raised a ruckus with Opie in their Sound/Unsound project as well.

The Most Expensive Album I've Ever Bought

I've written a few entries where I expressed my feelings about why original copies of albums can have convey more excitement than a reissue. It has nothing to do with monetary value (well, not primarily) or CD vs. vinyl.  The first copies of an album can get you closer to what a musician was hoping to convey to listeners, not withstanding the possible overbearing influence of a producer or the brass at the record label. There is also a fleeting idea that the copy of a record that came out several decades ago also had some sort of impact on a listener at that time - maybe blowing their mind, maybe puzzling them, maybe infuriating them because they didn't understand what was going on. We've all heard stories about opening used double albums and finding the remains of pot in the center where joints were rolled many moons ago. There are all kind of scenarios that could have unfolded while that record was playing.

Back when I was in high school, I used to frequent a local used record store and became friends with the owner. (I even worked there, under the table, one summer.) Among the albums he told me about was one on ESP-Disk' by Erica Pomerance, who he compared to Lydia Lunch, in her less shrieky moments. When he told me this, the CD reissue boom was a good decade away. Some ESP albums might pop up that way occasionally, like the Fugs or Pearls Before Swine and maybe some Albert Ayler if you're lucky. At that time the Base label was reissuing a lot of the more popular items on that imprint as well. Pomerance was not one of them. The only way to hear old, out of print albums like hers was to find them in a used record store, thrift store, flea market or some other place that might qualify as a fluke.


By the early '90s, the ZYX label began issuing CDs of virtually everything on the label (except the Fugs, who owned the rights to their music following a bad break up with ESP founder Bernard Stollman). I found a copy of Pomerance's You Used to Think on disc, excited to finally hear one of the strange albums about which I had heard only a few choice words. (Skip Spence's Oar kind of falls into the same category of Unheard Music). 

Like many ESP releases, You Used to Think made me wonder what the hell Stollman was thinking when he decided to release it. The music is ragged folk, with some jazz influences (meandering saxophone and way-busy flute noodling), and some doodly sitar thrown in for good measure. While a new band can convey a certain enthusiasm that outweighs their tentative sound, the players on this record just sound like musicians who are meeting for the first time and can't quite figure out how to work together. 

And there on top of all of it is Pomerance herself, wailing her lyrics like a stereotypical beatnik gal, albeit an articulate one. Two lines into one song ("Julius") she hits an extremely bad note, but continues unabated. When she coughs during another song, she quips, "That's from smoking too much."

The notes in the ZYX release featured interview excerpts with Pomerance, who had moved back to Canada where she was born and became a documentary filmmaker. She admits that prior to catching the subway to one of the album's recording session, she - and her bandmates, presumably - took a hit of LSD. This led to such golden tracks as "Anything Goes," which includes her chanting, "Hello, tello-visssss/ jello...mellovissss-." When someone picks up a pair of bongos (because what's an acid trip without them), she begins sing/chanting like she's evoking a Native American ceremony. 

But that's not the best moment of that track. Acting as the guru of the performance, which falls into silence several times, Erica picks it with the invocation: "Take us to a new site.... with trees."

"Oh, and water," Gail Pollard adds enthusiastically, revealing a New York accent on the second word. "And sand."

"Have you noticed the grains," Pomerance asks, sounding very serious. "They're so immaculate."

Not all of the album sounds that loose. "Burn Baby Burn" puts a poem by Lee N. Bridges to some acoustic folk. It might not be "Subterranean Homesick Blues" but it flows much better than the Fugs' attempt to do the same for Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" on their Virgin Fugs album. The best part of this track comes when a break in the music coincides with Pomerance belting out the line, "And the raaaaaaaaaaaats ate up the pussy cat."


My wife has always been very cool and tolerant with the wild free jazz albums that I've listened to over the years. She admits that in all the time we've been together, she's only asked me to turn off a few things. One was a bad Monkees song. One was Patty Waters. The third was Waters' labelmate Erica Pomerance. I'm pretty sure the request came following the aforementioned golden line from "Burn Baby Burn."

I eventually dubbed "Burn Baby Burn" and the title track of You Used to Think onto a cassette and traded the CD in at the place where I bought it. I finally heard the whole thing and didn't think I'd want to hear it again or keep around for those moments when I'd want to amuse and shock houseguests.

Fast forward to the new millennium, when eBay and Discogs popped up and it was easy to track original copies of old albums. You Used to Think, which I found out was originally credited to just "Erica" on the cover and spine, was a high ticket item, if it could be found at all. It became such a frequent object of my search that the eBay algorithm eventually searched for it down for me with a few keystrokes.

As much as I've mocked it - and made it a running joke in the house, as a purchase that would drive my wife crazy and put us in the poor house - there were things about the album that I did like, in spite of its raggedness. The vocals on the title track, double tracks of Pomerance singing an octave apart, were kind of catchy. Lyrically, the song seems to have a proto-feminist stance in the face of dealing with the free lovin' dudes of the day. "To Leonard From the Hospital" was actually based on a letter to her friend from back home, Leonard Cohen. It would be cool to have the original record someday, I thought, as long as it wouldn't break the bank.

Maybe it would sound better on vinyl anyway.

Back in this last summer, I received a bonus from my place of work, which meant I had a little bit of scratch to do something stupid with. I had gone back and forth in my mind about this album. It seemed ridiculous to buy it if - considering how many things I listen to for work and pleasure -  I would just shelve it after a couple spins. On the other hand, it's such a unique artifact. It's been years since I heard all of it. My tastes have changed so maybe I'll like it.



About two weeks ago, the decision was made for me. A copy of the album that appeared to be in good shape had popped up on Discogs. The price was less than three figures, which made it about $40 less than the one I had been wishing on for a long time. I don't need my used records to be pristine. In fact I like when they feel lived in and loved, as long as that doesn't result in serious scratches or skips on the vinyl or heavy shelfware on the cover. This one seemed to have neither, so I jumped.


Last Friday, after a particularly frustrating day at work (for reasons that escape me now), I came home and my wife said there was a record mailer waiting for me. It was a surprise because the tracking info said it wouldn't show up until the following Monday. But there it was in all its splendor.

The ZYX reissue had reversed the black and white colors on the front cover of You Used to Think, for reasons that were never made clear. Maybe it downplayed the fornication happening in the dead center of the photo (go ahead, look at it). The CD had also added the artist's (full) name and the album title to the cover, which sullied the artistic intent of the cover. As you can see from the photos here, the artwork didn't end with the cover. It continued on the labels, which poked a spindle through Pomerance's eye on Side One and popped through her painted face on the other side. I don't think any of this design was recreated in the ZYX booklet, including the dramatic back cover pic. But if I'm simply forgetting it, that means it didn't do her justice.

But how does it sound, one might wonder? Well... it's still pretty shambolic. I'm still puzzled because Trevor Koehler is credited with playing alto sax, but the horn throughout side two sounds a lot more like a baritone, or at least a tenor. Maybe Pomerance should be considered under the same banner as outside musicians like Jandek or Jad Fair. Or maybe she was just a diamond in the rough who could have sounded a little more cohesive if her band had practiced a little more. In some ways, listening to You Used to Think might be the equivalent to eavesdropping on a flock of 1968 Lower East Side musicians who are messing around with song ideas and don't care about cleaning up for major label big wig. Which explains a large part of the beauty of the ESP catalog.

You Used to Think is now the most expensive used album I've ever purchased. (New box sets have been more expensive, for obvious reasons.) One of the most expensive albums in my collection, until now, was another ESP classic, The East Village Other compilation. A few years ago, I received a copy of the reissue, which I reviewed here. It was a fine package (in part because it restored the entire original album unlike other reissues) but it doesn't have half the charm of the original. You can really sense the statement the label was trying to make with it.

The most expensive album I ever bought was a copy of the Pop Group's Y, complete with the lyric sheet. I used to have that during high school but somewhere along the way it got sold to make some grocery money or bill money. Part of the reason it was so expensive was because the seller was in the UK and on top of the cost of the record there was $15 shipping. Oddly enough, within days of purchasing Erica, I received an email that talked about a deluxe reissue plan for Y. Oh if only I had waited 12 years.

Just kidding.

Now I have Erica. It was an investment but it makes me happy.

If you've read this far and are curious about what became of Pomerance, I found a few articles online about her. There aren't many, but this one offer some insight into her connection to Leonard Cohen.
This one talks about the creation of the album.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell - The Adornment of Time


Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell
The Adornment of Time
(Pi) www.pirecordings.com

This statement could probably have been in any of the last couple years, but 2019 has been an especially fruitful year for Pi Recordings. They released the bold, two-disc set from the revamped Art Ensemble of Chicago, a strong disc from Steve Lehman's trio, a bold direction from pianist David Virelles (though that might have come out at the tail end of 2018), a Matt Mitchell set that's equal parts challenging and enthralling. A new Miles Okazaki disc is sitting next to me, demanding to be opened too.

But first, we have The Adornment of Time, a meeting of two artists that had this writer turning into a fanboy and yelling, "Oh boy!" upon hearing about its release. It consists of a single, 64-minute performance that the drummer/percussionist and pianist created spontaneously at the Kitchen in October of last year. (It'll be one year ago exactly, two days after this post appears.) The performance space was completely dark, save for a couple dim lights on both of the musicians and imagining that visual aspect adds to the feeling created by the music.

Upon first listen, the album almost felt like it was divided evenly between the influences of both composers. The first half recalls Sorey's extended compositions with his piano trio, where space and silence serve as equal partners with sound and notes. Around the 30-minute mark, Crispell begins unleashing some aggressive lines from piano, shaping the direction. But a further listen indicated that it's not a simple delineation. Dynamics rise and fall with both players at the wheel, giving each other's ideas the chance to come across.

The Adornment of Time begins casually with an exploratory exposition marked by knocks (possibly from the piano frame), low toms, bells and a few stray piano notes. Sorey and Crispell take their time getting their bearings and it gives listeners the chance to get inside their minds while this happens. When the 21st minute is almost totally silent, save from some drum taps that can be heard only when the volume is cranked, it creates suspense instead of impatience for something more tangible to happen. The payoff comes eight minutes later when Sorey pounds a drum head and Crispell aggressively digs into some two-handed chords.

While that level doesn't last throughout the rest of the piece, there are turns and shifts in the structure as it moves. When Crispell begins scraping the strings of her instrument, it almost sounds like it could be Sorey playing some percussion, if he wasn't already using two hands on his kit. In the final minutes, a gale-force rumble starts building in the bottom range of the piano. Although Crispell moves into the upper range, this isn't a mere climax for the sake of ending the set on a wild note. It's a little deeper than that.

The disc ends before the audience applause happens. More than hearing that, it would have been interesting to see the expressions on the performer's faces as they finished. Thrilled smiles, surprise? We can only imagine, the next time we cue up the disc.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Ravi Coltrane and Mike Watt In Pittsburgh Within Days of Each Other

On October 5, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet blew into town. It marked the first time that the saxophonist came to town with his own band. He appeared with the Blue Note 7 at the Manchester Craftmen's Guild in the mid aughts and twice he was scheduled for the Pitt Jazz Seminar, though he only made it once, due to a last minute cancellation in 2017.


Coltrane, who is the son of the late John and Alice Coltrane, has been playing saxophone professionally for around 20 years. If the family name has helped him get his foot in the door, he has worked hard in the meantime to be his own person on the tenor saxophone, and doesn't try to copy anything his father does. He also plays soprano sax, but he also is getting stronger and stronger on the sopranino, an instrument that he told me can be hard to play due to its intonation issues. I could hear that in last week's performance at the New Hazlett Theater, but if some of the notes were a little out of tune in the traditional sense, it lent more edge to the music, much like Eric Dolphy's high notes on the alto did.

The quartet consisted of Coltrane, Orrin Evans (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Kush Abadey (drums). They opened the set with "Cobb Hill," a composition by Coltrane's friend and frequent collaborator, trumpeter Ralph Alessi. (They recorded this song on Alessi's Wiry Strong album in 2011.) Everyone was playing at the top of their game. Coltrane explored the whole range of his tenor. Evans started his solo in the middle range of his piano, going on to lock into some taut grooves. Douglas proved why he is a force of nature on his bass. Abadey locked in with the bassist, in the first of many moments when he nearly stole the show.

I've made several references to Coltrane's sopranino playing since the instrument is so rare outside of AACM-related circles (and '70s Jethro Tull albums, when Ian Anderson played it). A question about it helped start off a good interview with him a few years ago, which was referenced in my preview in Pittsburgh Current prior to this show. So not only did I feel vindicated to see him bring it on stage, his second tune of the night was a bold piece of the bebop canon, Charlie Parker's "Segment." Coltrane was clearly putting a lot of effort into the tiny instrument, working though the occasional intonation issue for an inventive solo.

They followed that with "For Turiya," a piece by bassist Charlie Haden (Coltrane's mentor during college) which was dedicated to, and played with, Ravi's mother Alice. While the band rolled in a rubato feel behind him, Coltrane dug into some long tones that had a languid, meditative power that indeed evoked his mother.

Evans, Douglas and Abadey provided strong support for Coltrane, and each got plenty of room to stretch out, elevating the saxophonist's performance even further. Evans strikes the piano with one of the most distinct attacks in jazz, creating a sound that makes him easy to spot. It makes me think of McCoy Tyner's approach to the keyboard, and that has nothing to do with who the saxophonist is onstage. That was a feeling I had when seeing him with Sean Jones.

Coltrane didn't make a big deal out of playing one of his dad's songs, mentioning him quickly before a version of "Giant Steps," which was interesting for the moment during his solo when Evans decided to lay out. More impressive was the encore, a version of "Lush Life" played on the sopranino. In a song like that, where every note counts, Coltrane delivered.

Following the show, I ventured over to Con Alma, a new jazz club in Shadyside that I hadn't visited yet. Thoth Trio was playing, so it seemed like a good night to check it out. Coming through the front door, I felt like I was walking in onto the stage, as the band sets up next to the door. It made me wonder if the Five Spot was this intimate. Luckily a seat opened up at the bar and I eventually parked myself there for the rest of the night. The Coltrane Quartet had the same idea because they showed up later too. Evans and Abadey sat in for a few songs but Coltrane himself did not.


Monday, October 7 was my birthday, #52 in case anyone is wondering. Mike Watt has been hitting Pittsburgh sometime in October since the days of the Minutemen and this year, for maybe the third time in all of that, he did it on my birthday. Last year I had to work when he came, with the Meat Puppets in tow, so I decided I couldn't miss my Bass Hero this time around. Thankfully, my shift was over at 8 p.m., just as the show was starting. That only meant that I missed my co-worker Gordy's band Bat Zuppel open the show. I got there right as Edhoculi were getting ready for their tight, brutal set.

Watt ambled onstage a bit later, with the Missingmen - long-standing guitarist Tom Watson (ex-Slovenly, from the SST salad days) and drummer Nick Aguilar, the latter who would've done George Hurley proud but looked like he was several years too young to be in the club (though he is legal).

They opened with the Last's "She Don't Know Why I'm Here," one of several salutes to the musicians that came up at the same time as Watt and/or inspired his work. Before the end of the night, the trio would rip through Blue Oyster Cult's "ETI," Roky Erickson's "I Have Always Been Here Before" (a super-quiet song that had feedback issues and got Watt cussing) and a ripping, vicious version of the Pop Group's "We Are Time."

But most of the set consisted of Minutemen songs. From all corners of the catalog. Not just "popular" ones like "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" and "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs," but the two songs that followed the latter on What Makes a Man Start Fires and my favorite song from Politics of Time, "The Big Lounge Scene." Turning another year older, and hearing these songs played the same passion and intensity as they were 30+ years ago, it's enough to make a guy get all wistful. That would have happened if the group wasn't so tight, moving from song to song so quickly that I didn't have time get choked up about anything.

Watt of course was amazing. He seemed to be busting Aguilar's chops during the set, or maybe he was just firmly giving him direction. The feedback came during the quiet moments of the set, when the band got extremely quiet. I heard later that the soundman tried to get them to do a quiet song during the soundcheck to tweak things but Watt doesn't do that, sticking with a few particular soundcheck tunes. Oh well, it didn't bother me none.

Figured I'd shoot this for posterity, and leave the hard copy for some other fan who might want it.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

John Coltrane, Meet the New Pornographers. New Pornographers, Meet John Coltrane



Last Friday was a banner day for album releases. In terms of popular creative music, you'd arguably be hard pressed to find two acts that could generate as much anticipation for new releases as the New Pornographers and John Coltrane. That's not some baseless claim either. It's not meant to hold them up to the same measure as someone like Taylor Swift either, who I think might have also released something last Friday. Note the use of the word "creative" there.

Anyhow, I had a day off last Friday so I ran off to Government Center, a newer record store on Pittsburgh's North Side, and snatched up both of these. (I also picked up an empty cover of Peggy Lipton's self-titled album out of the free bin. Although it would have been cool to have the record, the cover alone will suffice, as this link to a previous post will explain.)

Blue World qualifies as a Coltrane "lost session" to some degree, though not quite to the extent of last year's windfall Both Directions At Once. Recorded in 1964, Coltrane revisited a few of his Atlantic tunes as something of a favor to Canadian film director Gilles Groulx. A fan of the tenor saxophonist, and a friend of Jimmy Garrison, Groulx wanted to use Coltrane's music as the soundtrack to a film he was making about two young lovers, Le chat dans le sac. Unlike Thelonious Monk's labored efforts to record music for Les Liasons Dangeruses (which was released a few years ago), Coltrane took his classic quartet into Rudy Van Gelder's studio, banged out eight tracks and Groulx had what he needed.

Although there are eight tracks, there are only five different compositions. The quartet runs through "Naima" twice. In Take two, Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones eschew the slow tempo of the song for a beat that almost goes against the melody, taking it in a loose direction that Coltrane would explore further in the coming years. Three takes of "Village Blues" appear on the album, each coming in under four minutes and featuring pianist McCoy Tyner as much as Coltrane. The title track is a reconstituted version of the standard "Out of This World," the only track that Coltrane had recorded with this exact lineup, and the only one to appear on Impulse, rather than Atlantic, Records.

The revelation of the set comes with "Traneing In," which dates back to 1957 and the saxophonist's tenure on Prestige. It opens with a Jimmy Garrison solo different than the style that he became known for (out of tempo, with thoughtful double-stops). Garrison, who is usually buried in the mixes of Coltrane albums, plays in tempo here, sounding bright and maybe even a little funky. At 7:38, and one of only two cuts that last more than five minutes, it kicks the band into an aggressive mood after giving the bassist some overdue props.

Coltrane fanatics will surely want to grab this one for yet another glimpse of the amazing quartet. But even casual fans - especially ones who don't revel in the long solos - will find value in the performances. Considering how Coltrane's live performances were beginning to take on longer lengths, Blue World also proves that he could still be concise in a chorus or two.

The New Pornographers set the bar especially high for themselves with their first two albums, which go back almost 20 years. Recently I was making a mix CD for a friend who had never heard them (there are still a few out there, hard to believe) and upon hearing the intro to "The Electric Version," the majesty of that song hit me all over again - plucked chords (a la "Friday On My Mind") over a riff over eight (!) chords that eventually spills into a Beatle-esque climax. No wonder it realigned my universe at the time. And as I've stated far too many times on this blog, "The Bleeding Heart Show" from Twin Cinema is one of the most powerful songs ever, giving me chills when simply thinking about the coda.

Every New Pornographers album since then (as of last week, there are now eight in total) has been at least good, and more often than not, really good. A few years ago it hit me than one thing that wasn't as prominent on recent albums as past ones were the guitars. Not that they've forsaken them, but the group's sound often downplays them in favor to the layers of vocals and the keyboard atmosphere.  A.C. Newman (he doesn't seem to be going by "Carl" on the albums anymore) has made the '80s keyboards sound respectable when combining with his pop smarts, but sometimes the pre-programmed arpeggiated feel of them takes something away from the music. Which is not to say that a so-so New Pornographers can't beat the pants off of most bands on a given day.

In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (their second album for Concord, a label that was once known primarily for distinguished jazz vets like Mel Torme and George Shearing).feels like this might be the strongest set of Newman's songs in a while. It features similar expansive, Sensearound production as its predecessor Whiteout Conditions, even adding a string section on several tracks, but the writing also feels a little sharper. Newman has a very personal way of arranging harmonies, pairing his voice with Neko Case, keyboardist Kathryn Calder and new addition (on album at least) violinist Simi Stone that sounds like no one else. This happens right out of the gate with "You'll Need a Backseat Driver," which like The Electric Version's opening title track knocks you backwards in bliss. Melodically, he also takes left turns at the end of choruses that give the music unexpected boosts.

Dan Bejar, the Destroyer frontman who contributed three songs to most of the band's albums, was MIA on Whiteout Conditions, off recording his own album. He hasn't officially returned to the fold but he and Newman co-wrote "Need Some Giants," which leaves a Bejar footprint due to its catchy riff, complete with a key change in the chorus that's just unsettling enough to be enjoyable. The keyboards still play a heavy roll  throughout, but while the previous album's sound sometimes programmed, In the Morse Code has a more organic feel.

For the first time, the album liner lists what everyone plays on each track. Perhaps it's just a personal preference but it serves as a good guide to how the songs are built. Maybe next time, they'll even include a lyric sheet, although Newman's production does push the words more to forefront this time, anyway. You won't be hearing "Higher Dreams" on the airwaves anytime soon.

Yeah, records are little more expensive these days, but these were a worthy investment.