By David Rolland
By David Von Bader
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
Listening to Bill Laswell remix, reconstruct, and recycle the work of trumpet legend Miles Davis on Panthalassa brings to mind Natalie Cole dueting with her long-dead father Nat King Cole at the Grammys a few years ago. Dead men, of course, have no say over how and by whom they're exploited. But unlike Natalie's video resurrection of her dad, there is no familial connection here -- only aural opportunism by a long-time fan.
On Panthalassa (the title refers to an ancient mythical ocean), Laswell strings together generic keyboard washes and tired world beats with fragments of tunes that originally appeared on In a Silent Way, On the Corner, and Get Up with It, three albums from Davis's vastly influential "electric" period of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Davis's electric music, a challenging mix of rock instrumentation and jazz song structure, shocked jazz purists at the time, and spawned legions of jazz-rock imitators such as Weather Report. The justification for tinkering with such seminal material stems from the fact that Davis's producer, Teo Macero, routinely edited lengthy performances by Davis and his bandmates -- guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Tony Williams, and keyboardists Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, among many others -- into separate tunes.
But stripping elements from the three albums and pasting them together with canned ambiance and sampled rhythm tracks hardly qualifies as an improvement. While Panthalassa may flow better than the records from which it's culled, ultimately it sounds a little too much like Laswell's band Material, a rock band with jazz pretensions.
It may be revisionist history, postmodernism gone awry, or technology run amuck, but Laswell's "reconstruction and mix translation" (as it's termed here) of Davis's music hardly seems fair. When Laswell passes away, he should watch out -- Davis will likely be waiting for him. The story goes that the trumpet player once said he'd like to spend the last few minutes of his life strangling a white man. Maybe that wish can be fulfilled postmortem.
-- John Lewis
A CD-release party for Panthalassa will be held at 11:00 tonight (Thursday, May 14) at Groove Jet, 323 23rd St, Miami Beach; 532-2002. Cover charge is $10.
Austin-based songwriter David Garza has released eleven albums on his own Wide Open Records and has toured the country in support of them for a decade. The result is an assuredness of vision that marks this major-label debut as a small masterpiece.
The music on This Euphoria is tuneful enough to fall under the general heading of pop, but far more nuanced than that tag implies -- it is filled with quirky instrumentals, syncopated beats, and moody tension that Garza conveys by playing his ethereal voice against his sinuous guitar work. The slinky title track matches John Thomasson's bubbling upright bass with Chris Searle's crisp bongo riffs and Garza's dreamy warbling. "Lost" is a wispy lament that showcases Garza on the lap steel, while "Discoball World" shifts the singer into Eighties overdrive, as he wails a feel-good refrain over a revving guitar riff that would be frighteningly at home in a John Hughes film.
Garza is a Mexican American who grew up listening to cumbias, Mexican religious hymns, AC/DC, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It shows. He toys with just about every genre in his dozen selections. He infuses "Slave" with a funked-out reggae beat, then marshals a fleet of violins, violas, and cellos for the somber orchestral maneuvers of "Baptiste." Given the generally dense production, it's a pleasure to run across the acoustic ballad "I Know," which calls to mind the quieter work of John Lennon, thanks not only to its lovely melody but also to Garza's haunting tenor. The jazz lullaby "Flower" brings the collection to an appropriately dreamy close.
Given the lamentable lack of female voices on the insurgent country front, it's tempting to overrate the work of Melissa Swingle and her Chapel Hill trio Trailer Bride. As evidenced on the group's 1997 self-titled debut for Walt Records and the new Smelling Salts (the group's first effort for Chicago's Bloodshot label), Swingle can turn the occasional good phrase, and she has a unique if primitive touch on slide guitar (check out the crudely seductive work on Smelling Salts's "Wildness"). But there are problems. For one, Swingle sings in the tortilla-flat drone of a deadpan boho, which may represent the ideals of honky-tonk insurgency for some hipsters, but for everyone else it's simply annoying. Even worse, as a songwriter she is susceptible to the cornball white-trash shtick embodied by alterna-hokum merchants from Webb Wilder to Southern Culture on the Skids, meaning you get a lot of silly, cornpone songs that are based more on Hee-Haw-style cliches than on the way people really live and think.
Certainly Smelling Salts has its redemptive moments -- the despondency in the stark, tension-filled ballads "South of the Border" and "From the Rooftop," the downright weird instrumental "Fighting Back the Buzzards," which features Swingle on saw (!), and the sonic punch of "Show Bizness," the only time the otherwise flaccid rhythm section of upright bassist Daryl White and drummer Brad Goolsby come close to anything you could call a groove. Still, Swingle best nails her own limitations -- which is to say the limitations of her band -- in "Bruises for Pearls," on which, in a refreshingly honest admission, she bemoans her own inability to sing on key. At least she is aware of the problem. Wonder if the insurgent hipsters will care? (912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613-4339)