Tuesday, June 19, 2018

44/876 (2018), by Sting and Shaggy

This is more like it! This is the Sting we all know and love!

The 2016 back-to-basics guitar rocker 57th & 9th was a decent comeback for the veteran pop star, but where that album is merely good, the new release is great! 57th & 9th is fine, but 44/876 is fantastic!

In an unlikely but very agreeable collaboration that turns out to be his most enjoyable to date, the Englishman in New York (among other places) teams up with Jamaican superstar singer Shaggy for a collection of reggae-infused pop gems that are infectious, invigorating, and irresistible.

44/876 has been likened to Sting's experiments with reggae in The Police (“One World (Not Three)” comes to my mind), but overall the album is more similar to Sting's solo reggae excursions, most notably classic songs like “Love Is the Seventh Wave” and “History Will Teach Us Nothing.”

The album has also been described as a party record. Yes, the tone is definitely upbeat. But make no mistake – in many cases, the buoyant nature of the music belies the brooding ruminations of the lyrics. Sting is the King of Pain, after all – especially of wrapping pain up in sweet little pop packages.

Standout songs such as “Just One Lifetime,” “Dreaming of the U.S.A.,” and “If You Can't Find Love” prove that, at 66 years of age, Sting is back in top form and at his classic best.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Allan Holdsworth Playlists

Sunday, April 15, 2018, marks one year since the world lost pioneering fusion guitar legend Allan Holdsworth. He was 70 years old. In honor of the late great musician, I share my personal playlists culled from his immense works and arranged by theme.

Endomorph (Songs Featuring Various Singers)

The Things You See * White Line * Was There? * Material Real * Metal Fatigue * Panic Station * In the Mystery * Secrets * Endomorph * Against the Clock

Mr. Berwell in the Mystery (Best Overall Including Instrumentals and Vocal Songs)

Three Sheets to the Wind * Metal Fatigue * Panic Station * In the Mystery * The Dominant Plague * Atavachron * Looking Glass * Mr. Berwell * Endomorph * Prelude

No Zones (Then! Live Album without “Zones” Improvisations)

Proto-Cosmos * White Line * Atavachron * Pud Wud * House of Mirrors * Non-Brewed Condiment * Funnels

The Un-Merry Go Round (New Age)

The Un-Merry Go Round * Distance vs. Desire * The Un-Merry Go Round (Part 4) * The Un-Merry Go Round (Part 5) * Prelude * Above and Below * Above and Below (Reprise) * Material Unreal * Curves * Don’t You Know

Tokyo Dream I (Hard Fusion)

Three Sheets to the Wind * Tokyo Dream * Non-Brewed Condiment * The Dominant Plague * Atavachron * Looking Glass * Mr. Berwell * City Nights * Peril Premonition * Hard Hat Area

Tokyo Dream II (Soft Fusion)

Home * Funnels * Joshua * Sphere of Innocence * Zarabeth * Questions * Tokyo Dream * The Un-Merry Go Round (Part 4) * The Un-Merry Go Round (Part 5) * Prelude

--Raj Manoharan

Heavy Machinery (1997), by Anders Johansson, Jens Johansson, and Allan Holdsworth

While this is not an official Allan Holdsworth “solo” album and Holdsworth receives third billing on the cover, this is simply and absolutely one of Holdsworth’s best records, period.

The primary producers and composers are drummer Anders Johansson and keyboardist Jens Johansson, but Holdsworth features throughout in all his pure, unadulterated electric guitar glory.

The Johanssons lay down some hip grooves and rhythms, setting Holdsworth up to do his thing as only he can, with the Johanssons keeping pace with him every step of the way.

Holdsworth is especially inspired, working with two of the best musicians he has ever worked with. The result is an exciting thrill ride for the ears.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, March 31, 2018

RajMan Recommended Playlist: Summers Singers, by Andy Summers

This playlist features my favorite collaborations between Andy Summers and various singers, including Najma Akhtar, Sting, Deborah Harry, Q-Tip, Fernanda Takai, and Rob Giles. The tracks are taken from the following albums: The Golden Wire (1989), Green Chimneys (1999), Peggy’s Blue Skylight (2000), Fundamental (2012), and Circus Hero by Circa Zero (2014).

Piya Tose * Round Midnight * Weird Nightmare * Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Where Can a Man Find Peace? * No Mesmo Lugar (Here I Am Again) * You Light My Dark * Smile and Blue Sky Me * Underground * Gamma Ray * Whenever You Hear the Rain

--Raj Manoharan

RajMan Recommended Playlist: Metal Luminescence, by Andy Summers

This playlist combines my top five picks from each of Andy Summers’ last two albums, Metal Dog (2015) and Triboluminescence (2017), for an intriguing exploration of dark, eclectic fusion.

Metal Dog * Animal Chatter * Ishango Bone * Vortex Street * Harmonograph * If Anything * Elephant Bird * Gigantopithecus * Ricochet * Help from Jupiter

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Blues for Tony (2010), by Allan Holdsworth, Alan Pasqua, Jimmy Haslip, and Chad Wackerman

The last album released during Allan Holdsworth’s lifetime with his name on the cover documents the fusion guitar master and his frequent collaborator, keyboardist Alan Pasqua, in a live 2007 tribute to their 1970s bandleader, the late, legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams.

The dueling tones of Holdsworth’s six strings and Pasqua’s 88 keys are sometimes nearly indistinguishable as they take alternately fiery and facile turns, with Yellow Jackets bass player Jimmy Haslip and drummer Chad Wackerman keeping the rhythms and beats grooving along while also showing off their musical might.

The last three tracks of the two-CD set – “San Michele,” “Protocosmos,” and “Red Alert” – propel the album towards a powerful, impactful conclusion.

And so, with the final official recording of his life, Holdsworth ends on a high note.

--Raj Manoharan

The Things You See (1980, 2007), by Allan Holdsworth and Gordon Beck

Unlike their luminescent and timeless sequel eight years later, Allan Holdsworth and Gordon Beck’s first collaborative album finds them more down to earth and at odds with each other.

Holdsworth, in his pre-synthaxe period, sticks to acoustic and electric guitars, violin, and, for the first time since his ‘Igginbottom days, vocals (on one track), and Beck handles the keys on acoustic and electric pianos.

Whereas on the follow-up the duo is very much in harmonious sync, this debut outing has them trading off passages in counterpoint to each other, almost like a cat-and-mouse game of musical oneupmanship, an artistic conversation of which we are mere observers rather than partakers.

From that intellectual vantage point, this album provides fascinating insight into each musician’s mastery of his instrument, but the real harvest of their creative partnership would come into full bloom nearly a decade later.

--Raj Manoharan

Propensity (2009), by Danny Thompson, Allan Holdsworth, and John Stevens

They say good things come to those who wait. In this case, with the album produced in 1978, mixed in 1997, and made commercially available in 2009, the total wait was 31 years from recording to release.

Was the wait worth it? Even if you’re an Allan Holdsworth fan, it’s a 50/50 proposition.

Technically, the performances and recording quality are top-notch and superb. The musicians (Danny Thompson on bass, Allan Holdsworth on acoustic 12-string guitar and electric guitar, and John Stevens on drums) are at the top of their game, and the album sounds like it was recorded today.

Musically, it’s a challenging listen. This is really out-there, pure improvisational jazz, almost like stream of consciousness on the part of the players. There are no concise compositions or structures or hooks or riffs, but rather quite a bit of dissonance and atonality.

As sonic art, it soars. The work required to engage with it is its own reward.

--Raj Manoharan

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Black Panther Original Score (2018), by Ludwig Goransson

Black Panther is one of the absolute best Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and certainly the most unique, and its corresponding soundtrack is definitely the best of the bunch.

Ludwig Goransson has created music that is every bit as remarkable as the movie it underscores, especially in its visceral, life-affirming revelry of African sounds and rhythms.

Based on his personal, firsthand research into and study of African musical traditions, Goransson structured his compositions around indigenous vocals, tribal chants, and exotic ethnic instruments, especially drums and percussion (Police drummer Stewart Copeland employed a similar process for his groundbreaking 1985 Afro-pop/rock album The Rhythmatist).

The result is an incredible, epic work of Afrocentric world music fused with hip techno and electronica and rousing, soaring symphony orchestra.

"Wakanda," "Warrior Falls," and the last four tracks of the album are excellent, perfectly capturing the film’s interwoven themes of family, honor, and heroism.

The Black Panther score is not only the cream of the crop of Marvel and superhero movie soundtracks, but it also ranks among the most memorable film music of all time.

--Raj Manoharan

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

With a Heart in My Song (1988), by Allan Holdsworth and Gordon Beck

Allan Holdsworth’s synthaxe and guitar + Gordon Beck’s keyboards and synthesizers = Pure, joyous, electronic bliss, full of rhythm, new age, and all that jazz.

Brilliant, beautiful, and bewitching, it is one of the best albums of all time.

Bravo!

--Raj Manoharan

‘Igginbottom’s Wrench (1969, 2000), by Allan Holdsworth and Friends

Originally released under the group name ‘Igginbottom, this rarity was reissued under the name Allan Holdsworth and Friends after Holdsworth rose to prominence as a fusion guitarist in the ensuing decades.

While it may not be of interest to most, the album is noteworthy for two main reasons – it is the recording debut of Holdsworth, and it is the only release to feature Holdsworth singing, certainly at least for the entire length of the LP.

Beyond that, the music sounds like what you would expect from an English jazz/pop/rock quartet from the period – groovy rhythms, lofty lyrics, hypnotic vocals, and transcendental musicianship.

However, while Holdsworth’s songwriting is nowhere near as complex as the songs he wrote and recorded in the 1980s and sung by others, the intensity of his playing is there from the beginning, even in his early 20s.

Holdsworth’s demonically speedy jazz chops definitely set him and his superbly talented Friends (guitarist and vocalist Steven Robinson, bassist Mick Skelly, and drummer Dave Freeman) apart from others of their ilk and time.

A highlight of the album is “Golden Lakes,” which is basically a template for the title track of Holdsworth’s unofficial solo debut seven years later, Velvet Darkness – but with vocals!

This is definitely a must-have for die-hard Allan Holdsworth purists, as well as those with a fondness for avant-garde music of the era.

--Raj Manoharan

All Night Wrong (2002), by Allan Holdsworth

Of Allan Holdsworth’s two live albums, this one for some reason didn’t make it into the 2017 12-CD Allan Holdsworth box set, but that doesn’t make this entry any less worthy (Holdsworthy?) of the attention of Holdsworth and jazz/rock fusion guitar fans.

Although this is Holdsworth’s first live album, the performance on it actually comes 12 years after the 1990 gig documented on the 2003 release, Then! So, taken together, both albums provide a good comparison of two Holdsworth shows in Tokyo, Japan, over a decade apart – first when Holdsworth was 44 and then when he was 56.

In contrast to the fiery, energetic, and hard-rocking 1990 concert, the 2002 set is laid back, relaxed, and softer sounding. However, the more mellow nature by no means means that Holdsworth is resting on his laurels. While the music is more jazz-oriented, Holdsworth’s hands and fingers (and highly advanced intellect, no doubt) are as busy as ever, working those frets frenetically and frantically like nobody’s business but nevertheless making it seem effortless and easy breezy.

Ably assisting the maestro onstage are bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Andy Summers), each of whom holds his own while at the same time laying down dope rhythms and beats and giving Holdsworth a solid foundation over which to thread his six-string savvy. There is one bandleader and three stars here.

This recording deserves as much of a spot in one’s collection as any of the other discs in the box set and the two-CD retrospective, and Holdsworth fans and fusion guitar enthusiasts will be sweetly rewarded for making it so.

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, January 22, 2018

Velvet Darkness (1976, 2017), by Allan Holdsworth

Allan Holdsworth’s unofficial first solo album is far, far better than the legendary master guitarist ever gave it credit for being, proving that the artist certainly was his own worst critic.

Recorded in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, in 1976 when Holdsworth was 29 going on 30 (and I was a 3-year-old toddler driving my parents insane across the river in Washington Heights, Manhattan), this historically important rarity provides a window into the past for a unique look at a genius in the making (at least in terms of being a solo artist).

Even at this early, nascent stage, Holdsworth delivers dazzling displays of virtuosity on electric and acoustic guitars and violin, backed by a spry musical ensemble including Alan Pasqua on keyboards, Alphonso Johnson on bass, and Narada Michael Walden on drums.

While the album doesn’t have the glossy, high-tech sheen of Holdsworth’s forward-looking work from the 1980s and beyond, it stands as a masterpiece of punk funk fusion (assuming anything else at the time qualifies as such).

--Raj Manoharan

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Collage (2017), by Eric Johnson

The veteran Texan guitarist's first solo electric guitar studio album since 2010's fiery Up Close marks a fine return to form and the classic Eric Johnson sound.

This is a more laid back and relaxed affair, with a nice mix of instrumentals and vocals and covers and originals, blending jazz and rock with hints of new age.

But don't let the mellow atmosphere fool you – Johnson's playing is as nimble and seamless as ever, with clean, crisp tones and lightning-fast lead lines.

And Johnson's eternally youthful vocals are still so smooth and silky even at 63 years of age.

Standout tracks include Stevie Wonder's "Up Tight (Everything's Alright)," The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," and The Ventures' "Pipeline," and Johnson's "Morning Sun," "The Fade," and "To Whom It May Concern."

Collage is proof positive that after forty-plus years in the music business, Eric Johnson's still got it.

--Raj Manoharan