For the musical Indiana Joneses amongst us, 2012 has already yielded a number of artifacts for the ages — and we’re but half way done.
There were rare live recordings unearthed from the likes of jazz giant Bill Evans, and the hitmaking Philadelphia International Records stable of the O’Jays, MFSB, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Billy Paul — together for the first and only time on one stage. Timely reissues reminded us of Tab Benoit’s ruggedly optimistic approach to the blues, and Stevie Wonder’s blunt honesty about how society sometimes fails us.
Meanwhile, Steve Smith took a look back at an interesting moment in time for Vital Information, as the jazz-fusion band celebrated three decades together. Reissues focusing on early-1970s solo recordings by Paul McCartney and George Harrison gave us new insights into a period when both had only recently been minted as “ex-Beatles.”
A 1975 live date from Todd Rundgren caught his group Utopia as it was coming into its own, while a concert document from Return to Forever showed how they could explore their own towering fusion legacy in a new way with the addition of violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. And then there was Paul Simon’s Graceland, which only seemed to grow in stature as it was dusted off for a gala 25th anniversary reissue treatment.
Here’s a look back at my Top 10 Live and Reissue projects so far in 2012. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
VARIOUS ARTISTS – GOLDEN GATE GROOVE: THE SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA, LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO 1973 (LIVE, R&B): Until now, we’ve never heard all of these artists — the O’Jays, the Third Degrees, MFSB, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Billy Paul — gathered together on one stage. Golden Gate Groove, recorded on June 27, 1973 and finally released earlier this year by Legacy Recordings, takes us back to the first, and only, time that the stars of Philadelphia International Records — the 1970s’ most influential black music firm — performed in concert with the label’s legendary house band, known as MFSB. CBS Records, PIR’s parent company, even secured the services of emcee Don Cornelius, host of the popular television dance show “Soul Train.” It’s as good as it sounds — with big names and bigger hits, forgotten favorites and some seriously fonky-cool attitude.
STEVE SMITH AND VITAL INFORMATION – LIVE: ONE GREAT NIGHT (LIVE, JAZZ): Even while he was still a member of the platinum-era edition of Journey, Steve Smith began making his way back to jazz. Now, 30 years later, Smith’s celebrating that bold return to his childhood musical passion with the band Vital Information — releasing a trio of commemorative Vital Information recordings, beginning with Live! One Great Night. It’s an unreleased archival concert from five years ago featuring then-new guitarist Vinny Valentino, along with long-time members Tom Coster and Baron Browne performing tracks from the studio albums Come On In and Vitalization. “If you compare the performances on this release to the original recordings,” Smith told us, “you’ll hear significant musical growth – both individually and collectively.”
TAB BENOIT – LEGACY: BEST OF TAB BENOIT (REISSUE, BLUES): By the time this set rumbles through 14 tracks from 13 years of recording for Telarc Records, comparisons become almost impossible. Like the strange cultural mix of peoples and cultures in Louisiana, Benoit’s one of a kind. In the way that he plays, in the focus of his songs, in the way he mixes and matches textures and influences, he seems to be holding a mirror up to Louisiana’s difficulties with its own history, with its own dwindling resources, with its battles against the natural forces of water, of wind, of erosion. Yet, Benoit never gets bogged down, never lets himself become prisoner to empty slogans, or to the overworked blues cliche. And he never, ever lets it get him down.
TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA – LIVE AT HAMMERSMITH ODEON ’75 (LIVE, POP/ROCK): The line up was still in flux, and there would be at least one more major move (as Kasim Sulton replaced John Siegler), but this October 9, 1975 concert finds Utopia beginning finally to establish its own sound apart from its early long-form Yes-style pretensions — and its own presence apart from Rundgren’s already wildly celebrated solo career. Utopia had a sleeker, fresher, song-focused sound by the time it reach the London for this, its first-ever UK show. Of course, Rundgren’s most rabid fans (ahem!) have had a tattered copy of this concert recording — the old vinyl was confusingly titled Nimbus Thitherward — for years. Now, we finally get a cleaned up, sonically stunning version of the tapes recorded by the BBC for its old Rock Hour radio program.
STEVE WONDER – INNERVISIONS (REISSUE, R&B): This album arrived amidst an almost-unfathomable run of important recordings from Wonder, but it may well be his best — if only because it delves so deeply into the failure of the 1960s, even while constructing a path out of that crushing disappointment. That decade’s promise of peace, its promise of prosperity, its promise of racial justice must have seemed very far away to Wonder in 1973, yet he was steadfast in his faith, unwavering in his thrilling creative experimentation, and unflinching in his willingness to lay bear the challenges and remaining opportunities. Innervision didn’t just portray Wonder as visionary on its cover (in a striking painting by Efram Wolff), it proved that he, in fact, was — with all of the attendant sense of revelatory mystery that comes with that. All of it sounds brand new again, and the steadfast message still resonates.
GEORGE HARRISON – EARLY TAKES VOLUME 1 (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): You could argue that Phil Spector’s billowing vision of Orchestra As Rock Band saw its fullest flowering on George Harrison’s stunning 1970 debut All Things Must Pass. You could also argue that he almost ruined it with a wet-sock Wall of Sound that all but obscures some tracks. This new album of outtakes, a companion disc of 1970-era demos from Hip-O that pairs with the DVD release of Martin Scorcese’s recent Harrison biopic, looks to make the latter case. As Harrison’s begins his solo journey, you hear the joy, the reverence, and the newfound freedom in his voice. Free then of the entanglement of the Beatles, he’s now free of Spector’s gauzy bluster, too.
BILL EVANS – LIVE AT ART D’LUGOFF’S TOP OF THE GATE (LIVE, JAZZ): There aren’t enough originals from Evans, and bassist Eddie Gomez was a touch too active on this October night in 1968. But as our S. Victor Aaron so rightly pointed out in his review “1. It’s Bill Evans, dammit. 2. It’s previously unreleased, little heard Bill Evans.” That’s more than enough to make this an event for fans of Evans — heck, for fans of jazz. Top of the Gate, infact, was previously heard by the public just once: when then-22 year old George Klabin played the tape on his radio show on the Columbia University radio station. Four decades later, the rest of us finally got to dive in.
PAUL AND LINDA McCARTNEY – RAM (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): This album was initially criticized for everything that makes it sound unexpectedly bold, fascinatingly unedited and utterly misjudged today. Skip to “The Back Seat of My Car,” its soaringly constructed, yet desperately sad closing track, and you’ll see why. Of course, like the rest of Ram, the song is a little unfocused — too overstuffed with ideas, too reliant on multi-tracked McCartneys, not as rustic as his solo debut and somehow tossed-off sounding anyway, simply too long — yet it remains a homespun, wildly inventive gem: Gutsy and unprecious at one point and then a testament to Paul’s enduring pop sensibilities at others. There is a sense of limitless possibility. Sure, Ram would have benefited from having someone else to bounce ideas off of, but its essential pop magnetism — its compulsively listenability — simply can’t be denied.
RETURN TO FOREVER – THE MOTHERSHIP RETURNS (LIVE, JAZZ): There was always more to Return to Forever than something so bulky and specific as “jazz rock,” from co-founding leader Chick Corea’s intelligent comingling of Latin and classical styles at the piano, to the fonky thump favored by bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White. That core group remains as effortlessly imaginative as ever, from the crystalline and then dancingly rhythmic performances by Corea, the thundering slap-bass showmanship of Clarke (in particular on the ageless “School Days”), and the soul-deep cool of White. Here, too, we have Frank Gambale, a veteran of bands led by Corea, Billy Cobham and Steve Smith, replacing longtime RTF member Al Di Meola. He adds splashes of color and intrigue throughout. But I kept coming back to fellow new member Jean-Luc Ponty, whose lithe violin contributions very nearly steal the show.
PAUL SIMON – GRACELAND (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): Even now, these are songs — to paraphrase Paul Simon from the Creole-stomping opening track on Graceland — of miracle and wonder. There’s still more here, in the listening, 25 years later — a sense of discovery writ large by a sprawling new 2012 four-disc anniversary box set from Legacy Recordings. Justly credited as a masterpiece in its time, Graceland has matured into one for the ages. The album’s most lasting contribution, and this box set’s raison d’être, is the common ground Simon found in the beats. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, in the accompanying documentary, asserts that “almost all pop music in the world is African music,” and Graceland is the cultural moment in which that connection was definitively made. “The roots of rhythm,” Simon sings, and it’s so very true, “remain.”