Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery

Most people who know classic rock know of Emerson Lake and Palmer. Most people who know of Emerson Lake and Palmer, know the song “Karn Evil 9”, if not by name at least by its opening line “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends”. It is after all, their most often played song on the radio. But that song you hear on the radio is actually only a five minute excerpt from an epic song that is over thirty minutes long. It is the central piece of music on their fourth album “Brain Salad Surgery”.

ELP’ s music was always heavily influenced by Euoropean classical music. So it should come as no big surprise that the entire song “Karn Evil 9” is structured much like a classical composition, performed in 3 movements. The 1st movement is split into two sections. Part one takes up the second half of the first side of the “Brain Salad Surgery” and part two starts off side 2 of the album. The 2nd and 3rd movements of “Karn Evil 9” close out side 2. The part of the song that is most often played on the radio is actually “Karn Evil 9, 1st movement, part 2”.

The album “Brain Salad Surgery” is a masterpiece of creativity. The album starts out with a modern take of “Jerusalem”, a hymn commonly heavily ingrained in British culture and with the Church of England. It’s followed by an adaptation of “Toccata”, a rock adaptation of a piano concerto written by 20th century classical composer Alberto Ginastera, Carl Palmer adds a percussion movement to. It starts out on tympani drums and wraps up with a wild solo played on a synthesized drum set. “Benny the Bouncer” is a just for fun song featuring a Keith Emerson playing honky-tonk piano and Carl Palmer’s super-fast jazz style drumming using brushes instead of sticks – something almost unheard of by rock bands. “Still, You Turn Me On” is slow and beautiful piece and the final song before “Karn Evil 9” takes over the rest of the record.

If you think this all sound a bit self-indulgent and pretentious, well…It is. All three members of ELP were exceptional musicians and they aimed to flaunt it on their early albums. They were the epitome of self-indulgent, pretentios rock. I mean that in the best way possible.

Emerson Lake, and Palmer practically defined what becamee known as “progressive rock”. Keith Emerson was a classically trained pianist. He worked closely with Roger Moog, who creator of the Moog synthesizer. Emerson became a pioneer of the synthesizer, demonstrating its versatility and making a significant instrument in rock music. Carl Palmer, was far more than just a drummer. He is considered to be one of the best percussionist ever and could augment any style music. Greg Lake was a solid bassist who had one of the most distinct, immediately recognizable voices in modern music. Only musicians of their caliber could have pulled off album like this.

Liberace – The Best of Liberace

Many people today have heard of Liberace. Most who have, know of the flamboyance of his appearance and performances. But most have never listened to his music. If you have never listened to Liberace, you owe it to your ears to do so. He was one of the most incredible pianists you will ever hear.

Liberace came into popularity in the 1950’s, when rock and roll was just forming. Rock and roll at that time was stripped down and fairly basic, built upon the foundation of black Southern blues performers. But Liberace was not rock and roll, nor did he ever try to be. I don’t think he ever tried to be anything other than what he was best at being – a vurtuoso and an entertainer.

Pop, classical, and even jazz and latin, Liberace could play it better than anyone. But that style of playing didn’t fit in with rock and roll. At least not until the emergence of progressive rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Had he been born two decades later, Liberace would have been as highly regarded in the world of rock as that genre’s most notorious keyboardists. He would have been another Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Instead, his virtuosity is resigned to the memories of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Then again, I suppose the same fate will be bestowed upon the keyboard wizards of my era. Many younger people today have only heard the names Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson – legends in the original age of vinyl.

But I know there will always be a few who will dig into the past for the music from before their time. The music that influenced their musical heroes, and their heroes. I know that if they keep digging, they will eventually discover Liberace, and when they do, I know they will be compelled to listen to it undistracted. And when the music stops and silence befalls their ears, they will utter only one word: “Wow” – because it is at that moment that they will discover and know the virtuoso that was Liberace.

Linda Ronstadt – Simple Dreams

Linda Ronstadt is probably my favorite female singer of all time. Simple dreams probably my favorite album by her. She had the ability to phrase the lyrics of a song perfectly to the emotion in it. She had one of the most beautiful voices and knew how to adapt it for country, rock, or pop. On “Simple Dreams” she used it for all three.

One of the things I really liked about Linda Ronstadt is that she never placed a lot of Focus on her image. She focused on the music. She had the unique ability to take anything she chose to sing and make it her own. Even if it was a song that was a big hit by another artist, her version never sounded like a carbon copy and it was always exceptional.

Simple dreams Linda Ronstadt’s most successful album ever. It’s sold more than three and a half million copies in its first year, surpassing Carole King’s “Tapestry” as the most successful album by female recording artist and was nominated for several Grammy awards.

Jean-Luc Ponty – Upon The Wings Of Music

Chilling and jamming to some jazz fusion courtesy of the violin musings from Jean-Luc Ponty’s true solo debut album.

Although he did come out with an album about five years prior, that album containted songs written primarily by  Frank Zappa. “Upon The Wings Of Music” is a collection of songs that were also written by the French violinist.

Up to this point in his musical career, Jean-Luc Ponty was known primarily as a very in-demand session musician and was a former member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, another very influential jazz fusion group (this is where I first discoversed him). In an interview, Ponty said that he felt restricted not being able to perform his own music. Because of the recognition he had achieved while playing with others, Atlantic Records signed him almost immediately when he announced is solo intentions. 

“Upon The Wings Of Music” was very successful on the Jazz charts and also had some crossover success, holding a place on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart for several weeks.

Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill

Contrary to what some may think, Steely Dan is not a person. Steely Dan is a band formed in 1972 by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They named the band after a steam powered strap-on dildo mentioned in the William S. Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch”.

Steely Dan is a very deceptive band. Their music is most often classified as soft rock, but when you really listen to it, there is some seriously hard Jam going on. This was due largely to the strong jazz influence Donald Fagen and Walter Becker put into their music. It also didn’t hurt that they would bring in top-notch session musicians to play with them and that they were absolute perfectionists in the recording studio.

“Can’t Buy a Thrill” is Steely Dan’s debut album. It was released in 1972 and sold over a million copies within the first year of its release.

Traffic – The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

“The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” is the album I choose when I can’t decide if I need just kick back and chill out or if I want to totally jam out, because it offers the best of both. The songs on it are combinations of bohemian folk, jazz, blues, avant-garde experimentalism, and of course rock. As such, the album offers itself up to a hugely diverse sound that is as ambitious as it is creative.

The title track is probably the most well-known song off the album and which, to a degree, encapsulates what traffic’s music was all about. The name of the song and album are an obscure reference to rebellion against the establishment and adherence to personal originality. Or, in laymen’s terms, not running with the pack and just being yourself. 

A creed I have always, and will forever live by.

King Crimson – In The Court Of The Crimson King

This is yet another phenomenal debut album by a band. Then again, Robert Fripp changed the membership and sound of King Crimson so many times through the years, it seems like almost every album by them was their debut. “In The Court Of The Crimson King” will always be one of my favorite albums by them.

The members that came and went from the various lineups of King Crimson almost always went on to have notable musical careers. From this lineup, Ian MacDonald would eventually become a founding member of Foreigner and Greg Lake became the bassist and lead vocalist for supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. Michael Giles became a highly sought session musician who has played with numerous bands. He had a jazzy intricate style of playing that was a perfect fit for this version of King Crimson.

“In The Court Of The Crimson King” was a hugely successful album for King Crimson. It became one of the founding and defining albums of progressive rock.

Toto IV (half speed master)

For the most part, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of 80s pop music. I was more into alternative music back then. However, in the case of Toto’s fourth album I make a huge exception. This is an album that is great from start to finish. But then again, considering the musicians on it that’s not too surprising. If you read liner notes and credits on albums the way I do, even before Toto released their first album, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, and Steve Lukather would have been more than familiar names. Playing as session musicians, they performed on more albums, with more artists, than I have time to mention here. Even after Toto formed, its members continued to make individual appearances on albums by other bands.

It’s not surprising that so many artist would want them to lend their talents. The key members of Toto are perhaps some of the most versatile musicians to ever perform in rock and popular music. That versatility is what really shines on Toto IV. There is nearly something for everyone on this album. Rock, Soul, Funk, progressive rock, Hard Rock, jazz R&B, they’re all present in one manner or the other. It’s that combination that places Toto IV so far beyond nearly any other pop album from the eighties.

Most people probably think that Toto derived the name of the band from the dog in The Wizard of Oz. But according to an early interview with the band members, they actually got their name from the Latin phrase and “in toto”, which means “all encompassing”. The band felt that phrase accurately described the diversity and Incorporation of so many different musical styles in their music.

Jean-Luc Ponty & Stephane Grappelli – Violin Summit

I don’t know much about Stephane Grappelli, but I do know who Jean-Luc Ponty is, and if he looked up to Stephane grappelli for his violin playing…well, that’s good enough for me.

Jean-Luc Ponty is a highly regarded classically trained violinist who found his calling to be not in classical music but in jazz. This I knew. What I didn’t know until reading the liner notes on this album was that Stephane Grappelli influenced Jean-Luc Ponty to throw himself into jazz music.

I knew early on in his career, Jean-Luc Ponty played and toured with Frank Zappa. What I didn’t know was that right after he finished touring with Zappa, he recorded this album with Stephane Grappelli, who was a jazz legend in Jean-Luc Ponty’s native France.

I knew I liked to go to garage sales to look for old vinyl records people were getting rid of for pennies on the dollar. What I didn’t know a couple of weeks ago when I stopped at that garage sale, was that I would end up finding an album that I had no idea existed, by an artist I revered, playing with an artist who he highly regarded. An album that will from that day forward remain one of the hidden treasures in my record collection. 

An album that almost nobody knows.

Jeff Beck and The Jan Hammer Group – Live

Jazz fusion. A culmination of jazz blues and Rock. Music that is best performed live. Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer had to have known this when they collaborated two record this album in 1977. The interplay between the keyboards and guitar is exquisite. Then again, all the musicianship on this record is.

The album opens with Freeway Jam and closes with blue wind. Two of my favorite Jeff Beck songs, both of which are perfect for live improvisation. Old songs feature solos that are extended out from the studio versions.

As the album title implies this is an album that focuses on two artists, both masters of their craft. The performances are mostly instrumental, with only a couple songs on side one having vocals. I kind of wish they would have made the album entirely instrumental. In my opinion, the singing somewhat detracts from the quality of the rest of the album. Listening to the audience response to the songs, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Still, this is a great live album.