Arvo Pärt and an ambient breakup album: September’s 10 must-hear reissues and retrospectives
Thanks to the graft of reissue labels and canny collectors, there’s an embarrassment of neglected, forgotten or misunderstood material being unearthed week by week.
The volume of new-old music doesn’t outpace new-new music, of course, but it’s not too far behind either. With so many more archival releases turning up on shelves, we’ve worked though the stacks to pick our favorite reissues and retrospectives of the last month.
Mikey IQ Jones thumbs through a selection of rediscovered gems ranging from Japanese underground rock and new wave to Italian psychedelic pop.
10. Piero Umiliani
La Ragazza Fuoristrada
Amidst the recent deluge of vintage and contemporary film soundtrack reissues are a number of LPs by Italian composer Piero Umiliani. A lesser-known figure than his contemporaries Ennio Morricone or Riz Ortolani, Umiliani is among my favorites of the genre. He’s known in the world for his trademark nugget of pop inanity ‘Mah Nà Mah Nà’, but many of his scores were lush, dizzying fusions of swinging jazz rhythms, sensuous electronic flourishes, and swooning orchestral melodies, often peppered with a bit of pop psychedelia.
Among his best scores is 1973’s incredible La Ragazza Fuoristrada, newly reissued via Italian producer Nicola Conte’s excellent Schema label. The evocative soundtrack is a sweeping slow-motion sigh of regal, evocative sunset atmospheres and gurgling acid-fried fuzz, hinting at the future of acid jazz by taking then-contemporaneous American jazz fusion and electro-funk innovations and recasting them in a European continental saudade, slowing things down and letting them roll out like beach waves.
Much of the album’s vibe matches the slow-rolling majestic funk of classics like Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson while also foreshadowing the zero-gravity ambience of Air’s Premiers Symptômes. An underrated classic is finally back on the shelves, and deserves as many late-night rotations as you can manage.
9. Arvo Pärt
Manfred Eicher, producer and founder of the esteemed ECM record label, first discovered the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 1980 whilst driving from Stuttgart to Zürich. He was so struck by what he’d heard on the radio that he pulled off the Autobahn so that he could get better reception and give this “angel music” his undivided attention.
In 1984 Eicher released the Tabula Rasa album by Pärt, and while it was not the composer’s first recorded release, it was in essence the first to be heard by the world at large, and the record which effectively launched his career; Pärt was quickly regarded as one of the most brilliant classical composers of the modern era.
In celebration of Pärt’s 80th birthday, Eicher has released the double album collection Musica Selecta, perhaps the most concise and heartfelt introduction to Pärt’s music a listener could find. It also stands as a touching tribute to the incredible working relationship that the two men have established over the last 30 years. While others have recorded and released the composer’s music, it is arguable that the symbiotic relationship shared by Eicher and Pärt places the ECM releases above all others, crafting pure yet richly atmospheric environments which enrich the composer’s trademark ‘tintinnabuli’; fusing Gregorian chant, simple harmonies and triads, and long stretches of calm tempo into what is often regarded as “holy minimalism”.
Musica Selecta offers up a varied selection of Pärt’s key ECM works in smaller, more easily digestible portions, displaying the sonic variety yet thematic consistency of the composer’s work for the label.
8. Milan Knížák
In 1979, Czech performance artist and sound designer Milan Knížák released Broken Music, a private edition LP that fell mostly on deaf ears. A startling and brutal re-contextualization of literal fragments of prerecorded musics, the album was constructed on Frankensteined platters of faulty vinyl. Taking broken fragments of different albums and assembling them haphazardly, he’d create new locked grooves, punch holes into the wax, and even paint on his albums until new sounds were created.
These experiments form the basis of Broken Music, an aggressive yet hypnotic fever dream of proto-sampling techniques which predate similar experiments by noted figures like Philip Jeck and Christian Marclay, creating unintentional spirals of broken vocal chatter, will-o’-the-wisp flitters of discordant harmony, and improbable chord changes.
There’s a heavy physicality to the bulk of these pieces, at times creating unintentional grooves and soundscapes that sound shockingly modern even today. This is sampling at its most raw and extreme, and for such a primitive and early document of the practice, Broken Music’s energy ensures it remains a vital and essential platter, reissued on vinyl for the first time since 1979.
7. Pat Patrick & The Baritone Saxophone Retinue
Composer and saxophonist Pat Patrick was best known as a key member of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and while the bulk of his discography is comprised of Ra sessions and work for Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, his baritone work is thrust into the spotlight on Sound Advice, a deep (both tonally and spiritually) and swinging LP featuring Patrick’s only recorded appearance as a bandleader, heading up a band of eight baritone saxes, piano, drums, bass, and congas.
Sonically, their jazz falls somewhere between the swing of early Delmark-era Sun Ra sides and a bit of the late 70s Philly jazz period that birthed ethereal groovers like Lanquidity. Sound Advice was originally released as a super-limited pressing on Saturn Records in 1977, and sells for four-figure sums on the collector market, so we must give credit to the mighty Art Yard label for its remastered edition with new liner notes and silk-screened covers (keeping with that old DIY Saturn vibe!). It’s one of the most unique yet sonically accessible jazz reissues not just this month, but this year.
Sound Advice is a vital addition to the collection of any Ra fan (though his playing is not featured on the album, it should be noted). It transcends that vibe into something both ancient and modern, fusing the Arkestra’s cosmic tones with the Ellingtonian strut and stride of Patrick’s roots. Deep, deep swing is king here, and Patrick’s album rules supreme.
6. Gigi Masin
(Bear On The Moon)
Italian composer and synthesist Gigi Masin had a long-deserved renaissance last year thanks to Music From Memory’s stunning Talk To The Sea compilation and recent Gaussian Curve (a collaboration between Masin, Young Marco and Jonny Nash) album. Included among the former’s tracklisting were excerpts from the 1986 classic Wind, which has just been newly remastered and given a fresh repress by Masin himself, resurrecting his own Bear On The Moon label to help new audiences get their hands on a copy without spending a small fortune.
The album is a total stunner, constructed with quietly throbbing synth arpeggiations, pensive piano mediations, flourishes of melancholic brass, and the occasional vocal lamentation. According to Masin, the album was inspired by “a holiday in Sardinia, after a love came to an end. The sadness in my heart and the beauty of the nature gave me the key to realize Wind.”
It remains a high-water mark in the ambient genre, at times sharing aesthetic company with the likes of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, but offering up a perspective that’s less melodramatic and instead bleeds pure heartbreak, like Chet Baker recording an album for Eno’s Ambient series with Tim Friese-Green of Talk Talk. Consider this one of the greatest ambient breakup albums ever recorded, perfect for the incoming autumnal chill.
Seattle-based ambient dilettante Kerry Leimer’s sonic environments first saw retrospective recognition via the RVNG label’s excellent A Period Of Review compilation, focusing on his various solo recordings and self-releases from the mid 1970s to early 80s. RVNG’s newest dispatch is focused on shining a light on another side of Leimer’s work via his Savant project. Artificial Dance compiles the complete discography (one LP, one 12″ single, and a handful of compilation exclusives) released by Leimer under the Savant guise in the early 1980s, and it proves a startling contrast to A Period Of Review.
Constructed by Leimer in the studio by disparate recorded contributions sent to him by friends and colleagues rooted in rock music, he treats the guitars, bass bumps and drum patterns just as he does his synth and sequencer-based pieces, eschewing a “live band” vibe in favor of plunderphonic loop-based compositions, where he creates the illusion of a band rather than actually forming one. The results are aesthetic relatives to David Cunningham’s brilliant rock concrète constructions with both This Heat’s discography and The Flying Lizards’ sophomore LP Fourth Wall, not to mention Eno & Byrne’s epochal My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. This one is absolutely essential listening for anyone interested in the application of experimental and avant-garde techniques in rock-oriented structures.
4. Maki Asakawa
Maki Asakawa is a true cult icon, a singer who was one of the first in Japan to take the jazz and blues sounds of Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson and reconfigure them for a Japanese audience, staining them with nicotine chain-smoked behind her thick black fringe. Maki’s look and vibe basically foreshadows that of Japanese rock and blues annihilist Keiji Haino by a good 10 years while throwing shade and fire at Nico’s drug-addled ice queen persona. Her music, on the other hand, is raw, groovy, and simply bleeds undiluted passion and soul.
Maki has been a key influence in the Japanese rock scene for decades, but she’s seen practically no love in the west outside of diehard cognoscenti. Honest Jon’s has just remedied that problem with Maki Asakawa, an excellent 2xLP introduction to her large and somewhat intimidating catalogue, featuring liner notes by the authoritative Alan Cummings and iconic photography by Hitoshi Jin Tamura.
The eponymous collection focuses on her 1970s heyday in which she tackles spiritual jazz, sitar-led freakbeat, enka balladry, and folk/blues deconstructions of tunes by the likes of Bessie Smith and Oscar Brown Jr. There’s never been another voice quite like Maki’s, and this collection does an outstanding job displaying the diversity of her talents while connecting the dots across her stylistic palette. It stands tall as one of Honest Jon’s most essential releases in recent memory.
Rids The World Of The Curse Of The Evil Vampires
One of the best and most essential dub reggae albums, long out of print, is now rightfully back on shelves. As argued by David Katz in his comprehensive Beginner’s Guide, Scientist is one of the most important figures in reggae music, effectively bridging the old guard of roots/rockers mixers like King Tubby and Lee Perry with the dancehall sounds of Junjo Lawes and Roots Radics band.
Originally released on Greensleeves in 1981, Scientist Rids The World Of The Curse Of The Evil Vampires remains, after 34 years, one of the most hard-knocking and deeply-swinging dub albums ever to get caressed by a Space Echo. The mixing maestro heavily reworks classic tunes by Michael Prophet, Wayne Jarrett, and the Wailing Souls, letting their grooves steer the course but augmenting them with deft additions and subtractions, adding pinging computer blips, creaking organs, ghostly horn parps, and pretzel twists of disjointed guitar, while (in)human voices groan, growl, and bellow in the ether. While Scientist has made a great number of fantastic albums, if you’re only ever gonna grip one, this is the one to reach toward.
2. Aksak Maboul
Onze Dances Pour Combattre La Migraine
Marc Hollander’s Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine was first released in 1977 on Marc Moulin’s small Kamikaze label, and later reissued in 1981 after Hollander started the highly influential Crammed Discs label. The album, while initially released solely under his name, was essentially the beginning of his Aksak Maboul project with musician and producer Vincent Kenis (perhaps best known today as the man who brought Konono No 1 and the “Congotronics” sound to the world).
Onze Dances… remains one of the most beguiling albums released during the post-punk era, but while it shares the genre’s DIY, anything-goes mindset, in truth it owes more to Marc Moulin’s pre-Telex work as a jazz composer and a solo artist. Hollander and Kenis explore quiet and stately classical études, Mediterranean and Balearic folk musics, primitive drum machine skitter and snap, electronic organ and synth experiments, and a bit of post-Zappa jazz rock orchestration shrunk down into bedroom-sized confines.
It’s that rare type of album that takes its influences – somewhat easily identifiable – and fuses them into new hybrid forms that move beyond pastiche and toward wholly new styles and structures. Crammed Discs – long one of the most successful and eclectic independent labels operating in Europe – has reissued this cult album for a fresh generation of collectors, and it’s easy now to see just how relevant Aksak Maboul remain in the landscape of the era; it’s an album that is somehow both very much of its time, and bafflingly timeless.
うたかたの日々 [Utakata No Hibi]
Mariah have long been one of the most revered cult bands of the Japanese underground rock and new wave scene, having released five albums at the dawn of the 1980s which brought hefty jazz chops, rock muscle, and atmospheric synthetic textures together in ways that very few of their peers managed with such consistency. While each of their albums is highly enjoyable and of its own merit, the one that has held an absurdly mythical position as a holy grail is their 1983 swansong, うたかたの日々 (Utakata No Hibi).
A 45rpm double 12″ release, it’s a mostly slow-rolling yet celebratory album that gives way to kinetic polyrhythms and fourth world dreamscapes which take traditional matsuri (or shrine festival) song structures and fuse the ancient with the modern to dazzling effect. Bandleader, producer, composer, and saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu really shines here, as do drummer Hideo Yamaki and keyboardist Masanori Sasaji – the former provides the anchor (along with bassist Morio Watanabe), while the latter ably and impressively creates color, shading, and a weightless atmosphere throughout.
Utakata No Hibi has been a secret weapon among DJs and producers like Lexx, Prins Thomas, and Chee Shimizu of Crue-L Records’ Balearic supergroup Discosession. It was originally released on Better Days, an incredible Japanese label which specialized in leftfield collusions of jazz, soul, and new wave (it also released a new wave dub album by Pecker that featured in a previous column). After a lengthy and complicated attempt, fledgling NYC label Palto Flats has managed to license this truly special album for the first time on vinyl in a lovely repro edition.
While the sheer rarity of the album has certainly elevated its status among collectors in both Japan and the west, this thankfully isn’t a case where its rarity eclipses its quality. It’s a remarkable record and a perfect introduction to the discographies of all players involved, easily appealing to fans of leftfield new age, worldly experimental rock and ambient music, and even those who rotate on a heavy axis of Hayao Miyazaki’s quiet bucolic spectral dreamworlds.