The Heart of Things
There are very few musicians who can survive on the cutting edge of music for decades, admired anew with every album release for their creative freshness, never falling into the golden oldies has-been category. One that makes the grade is guitarist John McLaughlin, who emerged in the 1960s playing a-melodic wild jazz with Miles Davis, then single-handledly created "fusion" music in the early 1970s .... and did lots of other things besides.
McLaughlin has a new album out called The Heart of Things, and it is superb. He has the most proficient of today's jazz musicians playing with him -- the sublime Gary Thomas on sax, the extraordinary Dennis Chambers on drums and the ubiquitous Jim Beard on keyboards.
The material is all McLaughlin originals and the feel is absolutely late 1990s -- these guys are operating in the same stratospheric space occupied by such perfectionists as Jack de Johnette and Charlie Haden.
It is not easy listening, but it is melodic -- intelligently melodic. It doesn't challenge you, but rather encourages you to think about what they are doing.
My favorite track -- difficult choice as always with an album as good as this one. But I'll go with a wonderfully moody slow number called Fallen Angels. You know a musician is good when he can play like an angel on speed at three thousand miles (4,800 km) an hour but chooses to play slow and sparse instead.
McLaughlin has wonderfully statemanlike grey hair now, but his guitar style, which you can spot after just a few notes, is just as "now" as it was "then". God knows how he does it. Maybe it's the yoga meditation or something.
Five juicy bites of the Anton Graham onion cake for this one. Yummy!
Sounds of Wood and Steel
This is a compendium of instrumental acoustic guitar tracks, all recorded on Taylor guitars (Taylor appears to be the axe of choice for quality acoustic guitars in the late 1990s -- sort of where Martin guitars and Ovations used to be in the 1970s and 1980s respectively).
It's issued by the Windham Hill record label, which immediately places it as easy-listening, well-recorded and acoustic.
"Sounds of Wood & Steel" is lovely. Rich and textured, a pleasure to play. You could criticise it as being too middle-of-the-road, but I won't. There are occasions for pyrotechnics and times when laid-back works better. This is laid-back. In fact, there's a sort of golden glow covering the entire CD, a reflection perhaps of the quality of the guitars used to create it. Each track features a different player, but the whole fits together well.
There are some big names here, big for the acoustic guitar world, anyway -- Michael Hedges, Will Ackerman and Leo Kottke amongst many others. Top track -- a difficult choice, it must be said -- Who Lives up There by Snuffy Walden. No, I've never heard of him either, but he plays like an angel.
Presumably the whole thing was financed by Taylor guitars, for which it is a superb promotional vehicle. But it's probably making money anyway.
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The cover is not promising, a sort of wet T-shirt concept like Vanessa Mae, which usually indicates a need to cover up a problem in the content or talent. And the first 15 seconds of the first song sounds like a million other slow Mandarin ballads. But don't be deceived -- this girl has a great voice and the songs are mostly very solid pop fare.
For my money, she's the best female singer currently operating in the Chinese pop arena (after my favorite Asian Diva Wang Fei, OF COURSE).
The first song with the unpromising beginning (I Can't Cry) breaks quickly into interesting territory and stays there for the rest of the song. The second number is a good bouncy pop number called When I Think of You, which has been a staple on Channel V and radio stations in Taiwan for months ... lots of other goods further down the list in a variety of styles in the general Mandarin pop area, which is lovely when it's done properly, as it is here.
The cover booklet includes some puzzling lines in amongst the wearyingly standard shots of Ms Zhang (a native of Taitung in Taiwan) cavorting in a black wet-clingy dress. Here's a sample: "She's the kind of singer who walks out of the wilderness and onto Broadway." Absolutely!! I couldn't have put it better myself!!!
Mandarin pop music is still struggling to find a way out of the creatively dead Karaoke-laden mid-1990s and has a way to go yet before it makes it. But Zhang Huimei is clearly a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Is that praise? Definitely.
Coldcut - Let us Play
Coldcut is one of the most interesting and accessible dance / sampling outfits in modern music. They are sonic guerrillas, stealing and raiding snatches and bites of sound from all over. They produce some of the best sound sampling collections around, from which the music constructioneers of the late 90s cook up dance hits. And they also produce albums themselves. Let Us Play is the latest, and it's great.
It's difficult to place and categorise this stuff, but let's try: "Advanced dance for the thinking bootee-shaker". It's so easy to throw together a basic dance track and stick lots of stuff on top. Given the ease of define-and-copy techniques in this digital age, it's hard for dance music producers to resist the temptation of going with hypnotic repetition. But Coldcut manages to do so. The music is interesting and varied. It makes you tap your toe, and think a bit as well. It works in a club and on the radio too. It's not instrumental music in the traditional sense, but there are no singers. It's not a vocal album, but there's human voices plastered all over.
The first tune is a good example of what Coldcut (composed of London-based DJ's MATT BLACK and JONATHON MORE, by the way) is all about. It's called Return to Margin and starts with a voiced instruction from the dawn of the personal computer age followed by a repeated guitar riff that sounds plain weird. Then a reggae rhythm starts in which sounds as if it totally clashes with the looping guitar riff. But after 30 seconds or so, you realise -- it fits! And sounds great, too. These are smart guys.
The temptation for people like this who are such masters of digital technology is to allow simple things like melody to get lost in the machinery. Coldcut is a cut above the rest because they never lose sight of the fact that all the samples and computers are simply means to an end, which is music.