Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation Orchestra
In his waning years, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie fronted one of the finest big bands of his career, the United Nation Orchestra, a 15-member, multiethnic jazz contraption which featured a panoply of renowned musicians such as saxophonists James Moody and Paquito D'Rivera, trombonists Steve Turre and Slide Hampton, trumpeters Claudio Roditi and Arturo Sandoval, percussionists Ignacio Berroa and Airto Moreira, pianist Danilo Perez, and vocalist Flora Purim. Quite obviously, with this ensemble the maestro of bebop could sit back and dig the music while reserving his 72-year-old lungs for bursts of masterful trumpeting. The Royal Festival Hall concert captured here took place in 1989, some four years before Gillespie's death, and though he may not have been able to endure the sustained blowing of his youth these tunes prove that the Diz still had it in him to make brilliant and beautiful music: 18 minutes of "A Night In Tunisia," one of Gillespie's most celebrated and joyful compositions, are evidence enough.
One of the originators of the wild (for its time) bebop style, from which most modern jazz is derived, Gillespie was also one of the first to introduce the polyrhythmic approach of the Afro-Cuban (or Latin) sound into his already complex jazz arrangements by bringing conga master Chano Pozo into his orchestra in 1947. With such a dominant contingent of South American players in the United Nation Orchestra, it seems that Gillespie was still exploring the jazz possibilities that lay embryonic within the music of his band members' respective cultures. It seems curiously fitting that as a superb young innovator in Cab Calloway's band of the late 1930s, Gillespie was chided for his improvisational explorations into what Calloway called "Chinese music."
Though few are probably aware of it, in the mid-1940s Gillespie was the preeminent figure in jazz culture, even spawning the image of the prototypical beatnik with his black sunglasses, goatee, and beret. The vacillation of American musical tastes may have faded his memory somewhat over the years, but Gillespie's constant innovation and work within the field, even until shortly before his death, are fairly unequaled. Live at the Royal Festival Hall, London makes well the argument that over 40 years after his moment atop the mountain, Dizzy was still a vital, powerful artist. -- Jeremy Spencer
These German noisemeisters have been breaking glass in barrels and banging on pieces of rebar for over 20 years now. This two-disc compilation of previously unreleased and alternate versions of songs (yeah, a lot of them sound like songs) from the last 10 years features a somewhat more restrained side of this Berlin-based experimental sound aggregation. Yes, there is still plenty of ambient noise made on found, nonmusical objects here, but many of these pieces are recognizable as almost traditional rock tunes with industrial overtones. Whether that is viewed as a sellout of Einsturzende Neubauten's previous noise ethic depends on whether you prefer the sound of cement mixers over electric guitars (not that there is much difference between the two on a lot of major-label releases these days). Apparently, the group now sees no conflict in combining random sound and structured rock-band instrumentation.
Einsturzende Neubauten have often seemed like a Teutonic cliché, a blending of tortured, grinding noise and harsh, Germanic chanting. Definitely European in their arty, experimental approach, they have learned to leaven their pretentious, overblown tendencies with self-deflating humor. They are even singing (?) lyrics in several languages now; not all the shouting is exclusively in German. Even a lot of the metal objects the group pounds on relentlessly are played like standard rock percussion. If you bang on a metal pipe on beats 2 and 4 in the context of a somewhat standard-sounding rock song, that banging will begin to sound like a slightly unconventional snare drum but a snare drum all the same. Excuse the lame musicology, but on this collection Einsturzende Neubauten prove the old adage that it doesn't matter what you play on. What matters is what you play, how you organize sound into music. And that's what these musicians have been doing, judging from this document of their last decade. In that regard they have followed a familiar path: avant art collective starts out making aggravating, unlistenable noise and in later years turns to making something close to music, a brand of music that's informed as much by silence as it previously was by noise. -- Ross Johnson
Call it Sydney Rock City: While the kids in America tapped their feet to the Ramones and the kids in England shook their fists at the Sex Pistols, Aussie punks flocked to the Oxford Tavern to see Radio Birdman tear through set after set. The band considered themselves punk, and, apparently, so did their fans. Sub Pop Records, which has released the impressive Essential Radio Birdman, 1974-1978, and Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, who wrote the ho-hum liner notes, both seem to agree. But calling Birdman punk is too reductive: They were a rock band with a strong foundation in American punk, but they also hammered chugging surf rhythms, outrageous glam theatrics, pop hooks, and a downtrodden blues atmosphere into their sound, making them a versatile and completely distinctive musical force.
Such diversity is likely mathematical in nature: Radio Birdman had six members divided into two power trios. The first is the rhythm section -- Ron Keeley's ultraprecise drums, Warwick Gilbert's bass, and, surprisingly, Chris Masuak's rhythm guitar. They add propulsive surf action to "Aloha Steve and Danno" and the signature "Descent Into the Maelstrom" and give other songs their hostile momentum. Making up the other power trio are Pip Hoyle's barroom piano, Deniz Tek's accomplished fretwork, and Rob Younger's Valhalla howl. Hoyle adds boogie to songs like "Burn My Eye" and the jangly "Snake," while Tek and Younger inject every note and every word with punk's sonic ferocity.
If Essential highlights Radio Birdman's sense of adventure, it also reveals the band as emotionally direct and intensely aggressive, their lyrics full of disaffection and hard living. They were jaded with island life, but they weren't any happier jetsetting around the globe as rock stars. When Younger sings, "You're never alone with a Smith & Wesson, baby" on "Smith & Wesson Blues," he's not glorifying a punk lifestyle, he's writing a suicide letter.
Perhaps then it's best the band imploded when it did. Their songs suggest they came scarily close to burning out but, instead, simply faded away. Essential is ultimately a testament not only to the far-reaching influence of rock-and-roll but a document as well of one of the great unsung groups in rock history. --Stephen Deusner
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.