The New York based Moon June Records has released eight excellent CDs this year, proving again that rock and jazz need not fear each other in the 2000s. Moon June's prevailing artists center around Soft Machine's legacy, including works by the band named just that: Soft Machine Legacy, along with an actual Soft Machine album - Floating World Live - and solo works by Elton Dean & Hugh Hopper. They've also released work by fellow Canterbury guitarist Phil Miller, by the Italian bands Arti & Mestieri, and D.F.A., and the Indonesian band Simak Dialog.
Label boss Leonardo Pavkovik has a great ear for prog influenced improvisational rock, which he comes by from his extensive travels through the world booking and managing artists, including Allan Holdsworth, Soft Machine Legacy, Hugh Hopper, Hatfield & The North. PFM, New Trolls, Colosseum, Jan Akkerman, Gary Boyle, Alex Machacek and Gregg Bendian, &c. &c.
What follows is a brief description of each of Moon June's most recent releases. By this writer's ears there isn't a weak release in the set, and some surprisingly great new music from lesser known artists Jason Smith, Simak Dialog and Arti & Mestieri.
Saxophonist Elton Dean passed away in 2006, leaving a legacy that stretched from his work in the early jazz/rock version of Soft Machine to his long involvement in the British Free Jazz scene. This put him shoulder to shoulder with those few who were able to bridge the worlds of rock and serious improvisation, sharing that stage with the likes of Lol Coxhill, Carla Bley or Steve Beresford. In fact Dean started with his foot in the jazz world, but will probably be best known for those few Soft Machine records that he participated in; he continued to collaborate with former Softees throughout his career, including work with Soft Heap, Hugh Hopper and Soft Machine Legacy. An excellent player and composer, he also worked with the London Jazz Orchestra, Roswell Rudd, and Keith Tippett. This Elton Dean & The Wrong Object album showcases both Dean and Wrong Object's guitarist Michell Delville's compositions. "The Wrong Object" is a Zappa reference, and they're known for, though hardly limited to, their interpretations of Zappa's works. Here Elton Dean replaces Fred Delplancq on sax in a live recording at Glaz'art in Paris. It was his first time playing with the group, and due to a series of technical problems, the band was unable to rehearse before the show. You'd never know it based on the performances. The music is remarkably melodic and technical without bogging down in either; there's a bright and fluid quality that's never glib, but refreshingly detailed and complex without sounding like either. Sadly Dean passed away four months later, and plans for continued recording with Wrong Object were cut short there. Thankfully this album exists to document their pontential, making it my pick of the latest Moon June releases.
Steam is probably the most focused upon release in this set of Moon Junes, and for good reason. Hugh Hopper, John Etheridge, Theo Travis and John Marshall have created a masterful record that presents both the dark and light sides of improvised rock with a fusion feeling, but hardly what most would call a fusion record. The album is a journey and then some, over strong pieces that never come off as facile or effusive. Theo Travis' thick sax tone adds a dark quality to the soloing, countered with his fluid flute playing and beautiful soprano lines, while drummer John Marshall prefers the lower end of his drum kit, moving at times into heavy African influenced rhythms. Hugh Hopper provides a solid bottom, using bass loops and 'fuzztonics'. Etheridge's solos are outstanding, well defined expressions that balance technique and melodic development in impressive ways. Compositions come from all four players, alone or in combination, and cover various forms that will appeal to both fans of the 70's Soft Machine and modern jazz listeners. Not suprising given the legacy of each player, and that the band is a serious force live with a busy performance schedule. An edgy and excellent set of tunes from a band descended from one of improvising jazz-rock's finest.
Miller first came to note in Robert Wyatt's post Soft-Machine band, Matching Mole. Since then he's built a great catalog of tunes, particularly with his "In Cahoots" band, which has released 8 albums since 1985. "Conspiracy Theories" is extremely melodic, gentle music without being muzak-y in the slightest way. The Canterbury sound always embraced melody, and this album is the result of decades of playing, listening and composing. No doubt this is a fusion release, but in the best sense, and if all fusion had followed such magnificent form the genre would be less panned by many a listener an critic. The pieces on this CD show some incredibly tasteful, lovely playing over thoughtful and unhurried music from musicians who know how to lay back and say what's on their mind at their own pace. Recommended.
An unexpected release in this set, Numero D'Vol puts Hugh Hopper together with This Heat/Camberwell Now's legendary drummer Charles Hayward, with a front line from European saxophonist Simon Picard, who has worked with Barry Guy and Trevor Watts, and keyboardist Steve Franklin. With a rhythm section like Hayward and Hopper under the production of Hopper himself you might expect something dark and mysterious, and this album delivers. The music unfolds unhurriedly, with Picard's sax leading the way over Franklin's long string tones, over which he also plays piano. Hayward's concentrated drumming is powerful and sparsely ornamented yet always on point, a strong sound over which Hoppers dark and rock-solid bass or fuzz-bass lifts or lowers the music. Picard creates a dense conversational voice, which is offset by the alternately brooding and cheerful playing of Franklin; in fact, the latter's voice keeps the results from the portending darkness that the other three tend towards. A great album of heavy rhythmic music.
Arti & Mestieri make modern prog fusion that somehow crosses the line between early Genesis and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Technical and melodic, this is a band that makes a joyful and complex sound. Excellent drumming, great sax playing, not the most challenging music but a continuation of that great 70's fusion material done not with respect but with real involvement and passion. In fact, if I had to choose between this and the recent Mahavishnu Project (and I'm glad that I don't have to choose!) I'd go with this, because it's less homage and more down-to-earth heart-felt playing from people who clearly enjoy the genre and want to extend it and keep it modern. All the more impressive because this band stretches back to 1974, with the release of their Tilt LP. First Live in Japan is their twelth release, and documents a live performance at the Club Cittá Kawasaki in Tokyo. Worth the price of admission just to follow the amazing drumming of Furio Chirico.
Jason Smith's trio with Gary Husband and Dave Carpenter may be the lesser known of the recent releases, but comes with excellent biographical references. Smith is mostly a West Coast player, who has worked with an extensive set of players in pop and jazz, but is probably best known from his work with Frank Zappa's last "stunt guitarist," Mike Keneally. Gary Husband has played on many of guitarist Allan Holdsworth's best albums, and for good reason: he's a beautiful player with a Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans sensibility, playing melodically on relaxed yet wonderfully ornamented runs. His approach is understated yet graceful and surprisingly complex. Bassist Dave Carpenter has worked with Allan Holdsworth, and also with pianist Alan Pasqua and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. From all this talent comes a wonderful set of unusual covers of compositions by John McLaughlin, Keith Jarett, Kenny Wheeler, along with one original number from Gary Husband. It's a pretty straight affair, with solid trio work that makes for a remarkably enjoyable record.
Italian progressive rock revivalists DFA have released several albums since their inception in the 90's, and this double CD reissues their 1996 release "Lavori In Corso" and the 1999 "Duty Free Area," which is digitally remastered with two bonus tracks. The band wear their progressive roots proudly on their sleeve, and the muscular mellotron fueled music and powerful chops of their players recalls Crimson, Gentle Giant, Genesis, etc. Which is not to say that the music sounds derivative; in fact, their compositional skills are impressive, making modern prog that uses the tools of modern rock to their advantage. This is not technique for technique's sense, nor does it pander with theatrical histrionics, but it does use time-twisting changes and impressively skillful interaction. With vocals in Italian and great lead playing the band sounds like it has one foot in the PFM pool and another in a more Hidria Spacefolk vein. A much-need reissue for this band keeping the genuine spirit of the progressive rock movement alive.
Simak Dialog is an 'electro-acoustic progressive jazz-fusion' group playing live on five extended compositions. No doubt Moon June's leader Leonardo Pavkovik learned of this band in his many travels in the region, and his discovery is our reward. In existence for over 14 years, the band has an ECM fusion feel to it, particularly in the Lyle Mays influenced keyboard work of Riza Arshad, who composes all of the pieces on this album, and in the acoustic and electric guitar work of Tohpati Ario Hutomo. The rhythm is played primarily on the kendang, a Indonesian drum which sounds like an Indian tabla, and fretless bass, with occassional strains of sitar adding to the oriental flavor of the music. The pace is relaxed and melodicaly warm, with some chanting and wordless vocal work on two of the pieces, along with a poetry reading. 'Patahan' translates to 'faults,' and the band quotes Miana Tiara that "it occurs only to protect and to maintain the balance of nature and it is truly an undeniably natural process in order to keep the harmony of the Earth according to his plans." It's hard to find fault with this lovely and accesible record, which balances the sound of the East and West in a harmonius and thoroughly enjoyable release.
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