Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Fantasy Records Hi-Fi Sampler

This is not a fantasy: Earl Hines' hands scan piano in vast swaths, Ferlinghetti reads beat poetry in The Cellar, Lucy Reed intones on translucent red, Gerry Mulligan stakes out new turf with trumpeter Chet Baker, Cal Tjader hammers mallets in hot mambo rhythm, Desmond and Dave play like crazy, and Greek Dance enhances the whole.

All for one ninety-eight!  Fantasy Records Hi-Fi Sampler is a disc-shaped time-capsule from 1957.  Caught just before records went stereophonic, the back of the album boasts Stereophonic Recorded Tapes available.  Stereo cartridges and records began to be sold in large numbers in 1958.  I'm betting lots of folks forgot this monaural release in all the excitement.  But from the time I heard Uncle John Rockne's copy, I never forgot it.  It's not just the translucent red plastic vinyl--though that was exotic to me--it was the chance to hear Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan in their formative stages, to hear Earl Hines pounding out an elaborate boogie-woogie piano solo, to be introduced to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, without whom Allen Ginsberg and the Beats might have fizzled out.  There were things that struck me as bizarre, particularly the Baldwin Organ rendition of "Moonlight In Vermont," by Les Strand. 

Yet, for all the solid recordings from these major talents, the prime reason I remember this disc is Lucy Reed's definitive version of "It's a Lazy Afternoon."  What can I say about her voice?  Think of a light charcoal-gray velour.  Now imagine sliding your fingers across the fabric.  This chanteuse, this "Singing Reed," is beckoning to me from a "place that's quiet, 'cept for daisies running riot, and there's no one passing by it to see.  Come spend this lazy afternoon with me."  My thirteen-year-old limbic brain ran wild with the possibilities.  Perhaps it's fitting that Lucy Reed embodied my mythical Siren's voice:  It turns out that "It's A Lazy Afternoon" is from a Broadway musical about the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.

But, wait.  There's more.  It seems some wonderful studio sound technician managed to enhance Lucy Reed's voice by completely acoustic means.  At least that's my guess. Perhaps a secondary microphone captured early reflection from a nearby wood surface, or a small cabinet close to her voice was utilized.  Even if it was accidental, the result is at once subtle and intimate.  She could be singing to you in your own room.

Finally, the kicker:  All these years I had admired the restraint and finesse of the jazz musicians accompanying Reed, particularly the pianist.  In researching this blog entry, I was stunned to learn the pianist is none other than the great Bill Evans, one of the most influential and admired players of modern jazz.  He was virtually unknown at the time of this recording.  Reed went out of her way to make sure the young pianist was included on the date.  In this way, Lucy Reed, who sadly never achieved much fame outside of Chicago, contributed to Evans' career, and sweetly enhanced jazz history.

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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the week: Music in Catalonia until the 14th Century

Imagine traversing Spanish landscapes, toward the Northeastern region known as Catalonia, and, admiring the "Serrated Mountains" of Montserrat, stumbling upon a monastery hewn next to rough rock.  From the outside you hear the barest outline of haunting chant.  You enter a large cathedral and the full reverberation within the voluminous rock interior turns mere chant into woven sound patterns of geometric transcendence.  Boys' voices propel like Roman Candles, hang in mid-air, and fade as mens' voices respond and darkly blend against vaulted ceilings, all in honor of the Black Madonna of Monserrat, a statue said to issue miracles.

You have entered into the world of our Album of the Week.  Music in Catalonia until the 14th Century (or XIV Century, if you please) was released by Hispavox in Spain four decades ago and performed by La Capilla Musical y Escolania de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos and Atrium Musicae.  My original copy was purchased in Madrid.  The photograph shows my American release thanks to the Musical Heritage Society.

This thin slab of black plastic held a spell over me.  I had absorbed many releases of medieval and renaissance music, some of it ham-handed and clueless, most of it distinctly charming, but the intensity and care of this recording found me unprepared.  Not limited to chant alone, this celebration of 10th Century to 14th Century Catalonian tropes, sequences, and polyphony boasts rich variety and regional uniqueness.  Some lay the reason for this at the feet of historical precedents of the area.  Could this be remnant of Visigoth culture?  The Greek Colony of Sant Martí d'Empúries?  There are prehistoric dances shown in the cave paintings of Cogull (Lérida).  Oddly, Catalonia's priests encouraged dance within the sacred confines of the temple as the 14th Century "Red Book of Montserrat" (Llibre Vermell de Montserrat) provided the rhythmic music accompaniment. 

The Spanish label Hispavox recorded the pieces Angel used in the monster hit Chant, the album of Gregorian Chant which went triple platinum, inspired parodies, and introduced millions to the relaxation inherent in ancient monophony.  Although the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos are from Burgos, Spain, which is somewhat West from Catalonia, what that album and our album have in common is the natural reverberation of cathedral space.  Digital equipment can approximate it, but can never match it precisely.  Take a listen, here, to Capilla Musical y Escolania de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos and Atrium Musicae.  Let yourself rise and fall to these timeless natural echoes.

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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: School Days

For all the tribute bands and endless deconstruction exercises revolving around Thelonious Monk's corpus, none of it seems as lasting and significant as Monk's own recordings.  The exception is this little-known gem from Emanem Records.  In the fifties and sixties, Steve Lacy, the late soprano saxophonist, took it upon himself to study Monk's compositions in detail, playing them with an exhaustive adherence to the originals.  Sensing a consistency to the work, Lacy wanted to understand its architecture through and through.  In meeting trombonist Roswell Rudd, Lacy met a fellow traveler whose passions matched his own, and The Steve Lacy Quartet was born.

When Emanem released School Days in 1975, no document of this important band had yet been released.  Labels sat on their recordings of them.  Luckily, Vashkar Nandi and Paul Haines took it upon themselves to record this live performance at the Phase Two Coffee House in 1963.  Despite the fact it is a single microphone recording, the balance is surprisingly good.

Caught in the middle of its life, the band catches the perfect balance between freedom and fidelity to Monk's music.  Bassist Henry Grimes arrived late to the gig, so "Bye-Ya" and the surviving half of "Pannonica" are fleshed out all the more charmingly by just sax, 'bone, and drum.  The lack of a pianist--in a group playing a pianist's compositions--works better than expected.  I believe that's because the paucity of a chording instrument forces the group to extend themselves--New Orleans jazz style--to fill in what would be piano chords.

The videos I found on Youtube of Lacy and Rudd together lack the crisp recording quality of the record.  In the meantime, here's Steve Lacy playing Monk's tune, "Shuffle Boil."

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