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Arts & Entertainment Preview - December 1997

Popular Music and Jazz
B Y   B O B   B L U M E N T H A L   &   C H A R L E S   M.   Y O U N G

Made in the Mapleshade

There can be no more unlikely setting for great jazz than the former tobacco plantation in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, where Pierre Sprey operates the Mapleshade label. Sprey, who possesses a highly refined idea of how recorded music should sound, works with a reel-to-reel recorder and avoids mixing boards, noise reduction, reverb, equalization, and overdubbing. He has produced more than fifty albums in the past decade--some of the best-sounding jazz and blues heard anywhere.

Mapleshade's motto, "music without compromise," has encompassed solo pianists, gospel choirs, big bands, and brass quintets, along with three diverse new releases. Go-Go and Gumbo, Satchmo 'N Soul, on the subsidiary label Wildchild, features A la Carte Brass & Percussion, a band whose sophisticated combination of New Orleans strut and Afro-Cuban clave assimilates jazz, funk, and spirituals. Mark Taylor's QuietLand could pass for a chamber recital. Taylor plays French horn boldly and lyrically; his uncommon jazz instrument gets support from stellar accompanists, including the pianist Myra Melford and the bassist Fred Hopkins. Even the classical vocalist Karen Bourque-Simmons successfully ventures into improvisation.

Sprey relies heavily on musicians in charting Mapleshade's eclectic course. The World Saxophone Quartet's baritone-saxophone mainstay Hamiet Bluiett produces his own subseries spotlighting neglected veterans, and features himself on Makin' Whoopee. Bluiett's brawny horn stands in for piano and vocals in a tribute to the King Cole Trio. The results are as mellow as they are unlikely, and could have been realized only by Mapleshade's Maryland maverick. --B.B.

Saws or Synthesizers

"Rapier-like wit" is the accolade to which the parodist has traditionally aspired. That cliché may have to be amended with the debut of the Texas Chainsaw Orchestra, which doesn't so much poke fun at popular music as carve its limbs off, spraying blood and gristle and internal organs on the audience in the manner of the cult movie classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Chainsaws and Ye Olde Space Bande

The four anonymous band members wear the de rigueur hockey masks and appear to be playing chainsaws only (favoring Stihl and McColloch models with 16" blades) in the cover art. The careful listener, however, will detect a wide variety of power tools. Not art noise à la Einstürzende Neubauten, not industrial à la Ministry, the orchestra seeks only to hack up the classics. Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," a warhorse in both classical music and progressive rock, gets an especially inspired disembowelment. Mostly, though, the orchestra eviscerates familiar tunes that have a tone of self-involved solemnity, like "American Woman" and "I Will Always Love You," so the listener can nod his head and think, "Yes, this song deserves it."

For even more vengeance on popular music, you might want to check out The Moog Cookbook Plays the Classic Rock Hits (Restless), by Ye Olde Space Bande, a duo that uses ancient synthesizers (the sort of stuff that stacks up in used-equipment stores and can't be given away) to send up classic-rock standards like "Whole Lotta Love" and "More Than a Feeling." Remember when Switched on Bach looked like the future? Well, this is that future, and it's both hilarious and oddly listenable. --C.M.Y.

Self-titled, The Texas Chainsaw Orchestra, Copyright 1997 Rhino Entertainment Company

"Sabre Dance," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"American Woman," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"You Oughta Know," AU, Real Audio 28.8

The Moog Cookbook Plays The Classic Rock Hits, "Ye Olde Space Bande," 1997 Restless Records

"Born To Be Wild," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"More Than a Feeling," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"Whole Lotta Love," AU, Real Audio 28.8

A Perfect Mixture of Poetry and Politics

A pillar of Los Angeles rock since the early seventies, Jackson Browne started his career as almost the definition of the Baby Boom singer-songwriter. Handsome, a little frail, he developed a following primarily among educated females, who responded to his finely honed observations on romantic relationships.
Jackson Browne

Introversion and a pensive (not cathartic) sadness informed his songs, which contrasted sharply with the severe judgments and not-so-veiled misogyny of some of his peers. Critics sometimes applied the dread adjective "mellow," but it didn't really apply.

Under his soothing voice he was asking you to think deeply about your life. In the late seventies he became more and more interested in radical politics, which has since come to inform his best songs -- a rare and difficult transition. The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne chronicles this career in a single CD, which is too short for his remarkable body of work (when do we get the boxed set?), but it does make a powerful argument for Browne's continuing moral and artistic influence, not to mention his presence in your stereo. How many times has a great song been written about the evils of imperialism? Most rock stars don't even know what imperialism is, and those who do know tend to get unbearably earnest and didactic. Browne has pulled off this difficult feat several times, most notably with "Lives in the Balance," which simultaneously reminds us of terrible crimes and makes us want to sing along. --C.M.Y.

The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne, Jackson Browne, 1997 Elektra Entertainment

"Running on Empty," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"Lives in the Balance," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"The Next Voice You Hear," AU, Real Audio 28.8

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.

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