Category Archives: music

Bringing It All Back Home – The Complete Basement Tapes

Guffaws spill from the speakers when Bob Dylan rolls through a boogie-slanted spin on Bo Diddley’s “Bring It To Jerome,” one of the last tracks on The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol 11 (Columbia/Legacy). As on the two takes of “The Spanish Song” that follow (which bring a cartoonish Mexican vibe and a big dash of silliness to a performance that poaches the melody of Dylan’s 1964 “To Ramona” while foreshadowing his vocals on 1976’s “Romance In Durango”) informality not only reigns, it defines every last howl, caw and wheeze of this magical music.

Released as a comprehensive six-disc box set, these mythologized 1967 sessions are all about spontaneity and experimentation. And guess what? In some ways that gives them a jazz demeanor. By putting a personal spin on a slew of traditional country, folk and blues ditties as well as some of the singer’s most striking originals ever, he and his sidekicks (you know them now as The Band) bring an improvised feel to their work – although the use of that last word is off a bit, because the most vivid of these 140 songs sound a lot like play.

A blast of background: Dylan spent a chunk of ’66 galloping through a raucous series of live dates with his backup band, once known as the Hawks and comprised of guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm and organist Garth Hudson. Their approach had a manic tilt, and when it ended, a major exhale was needed. The beleaguered pop star left his Manhattan digs for a Catskills artist burgh two hours above town with privacy and composure on his mind.

Mending after a motorcycle crash on the windy roads of Woodstock, the singer’s creative itch exploded anew. The band was summoned north, and afternoon gatherings commenced. Recording at chez Dylan as well as a pair of rental houses (including the now-famous “Big Pink”), the mania was replaced by a more measured approach that perhaps reflected the group’s leafy surroundings.

Messing around with ancient numbers from far-flung points of the American canon, they rolled-tape on everything from Ian Tyson jewels to “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw” to nuggets by the two Hanks (Williams and Snow) to Curtis Mayfield’s gospel pop and even “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” As the group got its footing, schmaltz by the Fleetwoods found a nesting place near Brendan Behan’s poesy. The trajectory was scattershot, but the run-throughs accumulated – including a bounty of self-penned items such as “Nothing Was Delivered” and “Million Dollar Bash” that were by turns plaintive and droll. Ultimately their willful nonchalance forged a bounty of profound performances.

After years of incomplete bootlegs and a 1975 Columbia compilation foreshadowing the music’s ad-hoc eloquence, hearing this trove of demos and remnants united not only bolsters the notion of sessions’ importance but enhances its entertainment value. Its arrival in full bloom is like Dorothy throwing back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; everything becomes a bit clearer. Dotted lines can be sniffed out between the lingo of “The Auld Triangle” or “Bonnie Ship the Diamond” and Dylan’s surreal “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” The giddy esprit that is the essence of “Kicking My Dog Around” bleeds into rock ‘n’ roll frolic of “Odds and Ends.” Those aren’t the only examples; as the tracks unpack themselves and their breadth bubbles up, formal disparities start demonstrating kinship.

Dylan zealots have already been tickled by “Please, Mrs. Henry,” “Open The Door, Homer” and other songs long associated with The Basement Tapes. On Complete – which is sonically refined and chronologically ordered – a whopping 33 previously unissued tracks buoy the narrative, contextualizing the arcs that swoop through the set. As each song dusts itself off, it’s hard not to recall a Robertson quote citing weed as a key ingredient – created during carefree afternoons, fueled by insouciance and seasoned by tomfoolery. Always meant to be heard by industry ears only (the originals first saw life as fodder for Dylan’s publishing coffers), most of the tracks boast a candor that upends the conventions usually in place when a star of this rank makes a public presentation. Their charm comes from an utter lack of artifice; the clubhouse door has been left open and yeah, it’s okay to peek in. Somewhere along the line, near the middle of “Hallelujah, I’ve Just Been Moved” perhaps, or during the last gasp of “Wild Wolf,” it becomes clear: Big Pink was coolest the man cave ever.


The Basement Tapes at Legacy Recordings

Greil on the Grail

History, Memory and Home Cooking

Branford Marsalis ‘In My Solitude: Live at the Grace Cathedral’ (OKeh)


There’s something wildly simple about Branford Marsalis’ first solo album, and it’s fetching. Instead of turning this San Francisco performance into a placard for virtuosity, the esteemed reed player spends the bulk of his presentation yielding to facility. Most everything here, from extended improvs concocted on the spot to rudimentary blues motifs essayed with eloquence, sounds like it’s coming from his horn unencumbered – thoughts made into sound, spilling forward as if they know their destination.

As a conversationalist, Branford is loquacious. Dude can spout all afternoon, and be quite captivating doing so. You get a parallel of that with his quartet work – squalls of ideas explode into a four-man fray. Here we see another side. With an array of saxophones at the ready and majestic venue that brings an aural bounce-back to each utterance (the cathedral’s natural echo is essential to the album’s sound), he’s more considerate, choosing to spotlight long tones and circumspect filigree. It’s a seductive approach, learned at the hand of his numerous classical music dates and plotted from the notion that melody – even curt cascades of song-like motifs – is central to the music experience.

The catholic interests we’ve grown accustomed to in Marsalis’ previous work mark this program. Perhaps the two bookends are Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” essayed in deeply lyrical mode that recalls Lester Young, and “MAI, Op.7,” a through-composed piece by Ryo Noda that brings aggressive textural gambits and extended pronouncements to the fore in an effort to conjure the spirit of the Japanese shakuhachi. They couldn’t be further apart esthetically, but find value by giving this show an ambitious breadth.

Perhaps most impressive are the four improvs Marsalis creates. Each is reflective, casual, and full of candor. Like some unholy middle ground between Sonny Rollins’ The Solo Album and John Klemmer’s Solo Saxophone II, Branford has dropped a soliloquy that speaks in tongues.

From the new DownBeat

Chickie Baby

NPR Previews The Basement Tapes – First Listen

If you want to get a taste of the Dylan box, NPR has you covered. Kinda lovin’ “Johnny Todd” and the Hank Snow cover.

That NPR preview est mort. Here’s the Spotify teaser.

Legacy explains the whole thing.

Bob talks Basement

If There’s Something About My My Kissing That Don’t Please You, Just Tell Me And I’ll Change That Too

Bill Frisell Guitar In The Space Age! (Okeh)

A few years ago, in a DownBeat interview with Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, I asked the esteemed guitarists about their first inspirations. Their eyes lit up when the Ventures popped into the conversation – each marveled over absorbing the iconic instrumental band as teens. Both are baby boomers, as is their contemporary, Bill Frisell, whose Guitar In The Space Age! opens with “Pipeline” and closes with “Telstar,” two of the Ventures’ most famous tracks. Seems the music we all grew up with is always rolling around in our brains somewhere, often with a big dose of affection attached.

Guitar In The Space Age! milks that sensibility. Frisell, who was 12 in 1963 and did a good job recasting John Lennon’s music a couple years ago, rolls through ‘60s jewels on this one. Call it New Frontier music as played by a graying progressive as unencumbered by sentiment as he is unafraid of experimentation. From Duane Eddy to the Beach Boys to Link Wray, these gems are laced with shimmer and spark. Team Frisell includes bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wolleson, and guitarist Greg Leisz. Together they circle ‘round the melodies while offering a bit of expansion in the groove department. No flipping the apple cart here – the boss’s longstanding genuflection to melody wins on each track, and rightly so. The essence of the originals needs to be sustained for this squad to work its magic.

Politeness dominates. Even performances that could turn aggro – “Rumble” and “Messing With the Kid,” say – stay calm. And ballads such as “Surfer Girl” and “Tired Of Waiting” glide on a sheen that finds Leisz and the leader melding their strings as if consonance was nirvana. The country tracks that bubble up swing with a bar band’s nonchalance. “Cannonball Rag” and “Bryant’s Bounce” are snuck into the program to remind the kind of brilliance that was lurking in twangville during that time. Song-wise, Frisell is always on a treasure hunt (see his update of Madonna’s “Live To Tell” from ’93) and these nuggets from the “duck and cover” era gather steam when corralled together. Heard as a suite, it’s a portrait of a long-ago time painted by a guy who always has an eye on the future, whether it includes a jet pack or not.