Procol Harum – Grand Hotel

Procol Harum was a band that could combine classical and rock music better than most any other band. “Grand Hotel” was Procol Harum’s first studio album without guitar virtuoso Robin Trower who left to pursue a solo career in 1972. Fortunately, Trower’s departure didn’t affect the band’s sound very much. Like their previous albums, “Grand Hotel” was an avant-garde blending of baroque era classical music with blues and rock.

Because of its unique combination of styles “Grand Hotel” is an album I can listen to almost any time, although I prefer it to be at times I can really focus on the interplay of all the musical elements and shifting rhythms and time signatures. Although not a concept album by definition, “Grand Hotel” is an album that should be listed to as a whole. As with most Procol Harum records, it is obvious that the goal when recording it was not so much to have a hit single as it was to album that is an intriguing listening experience.

The Nice – Nice

“Won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group from England: The Nice.”

And so begins side 2 of the third album by the band where Keith Emerson earned his reputation as one of the greatest keyboardists in rock and roll. At this early stage in his career, Emerson had yet to begin his pioneering work using the Moog synthesizer. That would come a couple of years later in the supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. So here, his talents are limited to just organ and piano. That is, if you could ever refer to Emerson’s playing as limited. Listening to “Nice” you can’t help but feel that it’s the instruments themselves that are limited in Emerson’s hands.

It’s easy to tell here how influential Keith Emerson was to ELP – and not just because both The Nice and ELP had keyboards as the main lead instrument. Like ELP, the songs on “Nice” integrate rock and roll with heavier doses of classical and jazz than do the psychedelic musings of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the dark, moody prog of King Crimson, Carl Palmer’s and Greg Lake’s respective bands prior to ELP.  Then there’s the many pieces of Nice songs that were incorporated into later ELP tracks.

The standout track however, at least to me, is the live track  “Rondo ’69”, which was based on the polyrhythmic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by jazz master Dave Brubeck, from his 1959 classic “Time Out“. “Rondo” became a keyboard showcase at Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts in the years to come.

I hate to admit it, but until the 1980s, when I started to expand my musical appreciations, I thought Rondo was an ELP original. Yeah, not even close. It’s pure Brubeck; the song is merely reinterpreted by Keith Emerson and the other members of The Nice. But I give them credit for the improvisational midsection. It was very…Nice.

Electric Light Orchestra II

In 1973, Electric Light Orchestra had a very different sound from Jeff Lynn’s highly polished production of their late ’70s and ’80s albums. Perhaps the most significant difference was that they hadn’t yet started to use an actual backing orchestra (probably because they couldn’t afford to hire one). Instead, the band used overdubs of the band members playing cellos and violins to create a bigger sound. On some songs, even the overdubbing was skipped, creating a more rock band / string quartet styled sound.

ELO’s early songwriting also took a different approach than their later albums. Even though Roy Wood left ELO before this album was released, his influence is still significantly felt here. Electric Light Orchestra II has a more experimental, progressive rock sound and the production is noticeably less slick than the direction Jeff Lynn took the group in their later years.

I love ELO’s later stuff but once I discovered their early works, I remember wishing they had done more albums like this. A standout track on this record is ELO’s take of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. With the integration of violins and cellos, the version on this album will always be the definitive one to me. Sorry Chuck.

Rick Wakeman – The Six Wives Of Henry VIII

Self indulgent and virtuosic, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” is Rick Wakeman’s first solo record. As the title implies, the album is a collection of six songs, each representing the lives and characteristics of the 16th century’s King of England’s wives.

Wakeman wrote and arranged most of the music for this album while reading a book about Henry VIII while on tour with the bad Yes. Members of Yes are some of the backing musicians performing with Wakeman on this album. Members from Wakeman’s first band, The Strawbs, also make appearances.

Henry VIII is most remembered for the six wives he had during his reign and the annulment of his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope, refusing to recognize the annulment prompted the start of the English Reformation when Henry VIII created the Church of England, breaking away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Even without the meaning behind each of the songs, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” is a joy to listen to just for Wakeman’s keyboard wizardry and the strength of his compositions that combine classical European with rock and roll. The underlying historic theme of the album just adds another layer to an already incredible solo record by Rick Wakeman.

The Rage of 1710 – Pachelbel: His Celebrated Canon And Other Baroque Hits

I am not ashamed to admit that I know very little about classical music. All I know is I like classical music from the baroque era the best. I love its ornate complexities and its dramatic and emotional presentation.

I know that baroque was a turning point in classical music. It was an era where emotion and expression started to take more precedence than just form and structure. It was kind of like the rock and roll era of classical music. Maybe that’s why I like it.

Bach became the biggest ‘rock star’ (for lack of a better term) in baroque music; his music took on so many different moods but was always immediately recognizable. Vivaldi, Handel, and Pachelbel also gained significant fame and recognition throughout Europe in the 18th century. My son, who knows music theory much better than I ever will, tells me that the chord structure in Pachelbel’s Canon is used in many rock songs today. I had never thought of there being any connection between baroque and rock and roll before then. I just knew I liked both

A few decades after the baroque era, Mozart and Beethoven would also become ‘stars’ throughout Europe, ringing in what is known as the romantic era of classical music. I don’t know what musically differentiates the romantic era from the baroque; until recently I always considered Mozart and Beethoven to be baroque – but I guess they’re not. Then as gain, what do I know?

Walter Carlos – Switched On Bach

What do you get when you take the compositions of Baroque Era composer Johann Sebastian Bach and interpret them on the Moog synthesizer? That’s the question Walter (Wendy) Carlos was inspired to answer in 1968, shortly after the birth of the Moog synthesizer.

This album is one of my all-time favorites and, when I regrettably and ignorantly thinned down my record collection decades ago and started “upgrading” to CDs, this was one of those albums I never thought I would be released on CD, so I held on to it.

I love classical music. And although I tend to be more of a fan of the faster solo oriented material from composers like Mozart, I still really love the heavier density of Bach’s compositions. In today’s heavy metal music, Bach would have been your AC/DC or Black Sabbath, while Mozart would have been more in the realm of solo shredders like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai.

Switched-on Bach is one of my all-time favorite albums because it took age-old classical compositions, songs that were familiar to so many, and explored them in ways that, up to that point, could never have been done. The performances of these songs are not a recomposition of what Bach had written. They are interpretations of his compositions as they were written, performed on a modern instrument that did not exist in his lifetime. I have no doubt that had the Moog synthesizer existed in Bach’s lifetime, he would have composed quite a bit of his music on it. It was a perfect fit. It took the genius and insight of Walter (Wendy) Carlos to first recognize this and bring the reality to fruition.

So you may be asking “why do I keep referring to the artist performing this music as Walter (Wendy)?” You see, to my surprise, this album was eventually released on CD, and I did eventually buy it. What I couldn’t help noticing, was that the album I had owned for many years was credited to Walter Carlos, while the CD was designated to the artist Wendy Carlos.

I have to admit, I didn’t really do my homework here to verify, but I’d lay odds on an operation being involved somewhere that resulted in this name discrepancy.

But that’s just a hunch.

Strawbs – From The Witchwood

Sometimes, when I really like a band, I like to go back and check-out their origins. What bands and kind of music did their members make before they were in the band that made them famous. Today, the band is Yes and the musician is Rick Wakeman. 

Strawbs started out in 1964 as a bluegrass band. But no Rick Wakeman did not play in a bluegrass band. In 1967 they shortened their name to Strawbs and signed a deal with A&M records. They released their first album in 1968. By that time their sound had evolved into more of a folk rock sound. By the time Rick Wakeman joined them in 1970, they were starting to incorporate elements of progressive rock into their repertoire and Wakeman’s impressive work on keyboards was an obvious asset for their developing style. Rick Wakeman would only stay with Strawbs for two albums. “From the Witchwood” was the last record he would play on with them before leaving to join Yes.

“From the Witchwood” is a combination of many different styles. At times having a strong European classical influence, combined with folk music, some songss feel like they would be right at home being played at a Renaissance Festival. This is most evident on the album’s opener, “A Glimpse of Heaven”. Other songs have a more aggressive sound to them. 

Although Rick Wakeman has a few short keyboard flourishes on side one, “Sheep”, which starts off side two, seems to be written around his organ and Moog synthesizer work. If Wakeman had joined Genesis instead of yes, their music would have probably sounded something like this.

“From the Witchwood” is definitely a good album when you want to listen to music that mixes many different styles with an array of different instruments like clarinets, sitars, harpsichords, and recorder, along with traditional Rock instruments like the Mellotron, organ, guitar, bass, and drums. However, except for a few passages, it is not an album you would immediately associate with Rick Wakeman. It’s easy to see why he would have left to play on the more progressive rock songs by Yes.

Boston (Half Speed Master)

Boston’s debut album was both a blessing and a curse for the band. At the time of its release it became the most successful debut album by any band and went on the sell over 17 million copies in the United States and 25 million worldwide. So how can you follow-up with success like that? Well, the short answer is you can’t. 

Although Boston’s next two albums, “Don’t Look Back” and “Third Stage” we’re solid albums and would be considered extremely successful by any other band, they just couldn’t come near the success Boston’s eponymous debut. The fact that there was an 8-year gap in between the second and third album (caused by the master tapes being damaged in a flood) didn’t help either. Still, all three albums stand as a testament to an exceptionally talented band.

All three albums were recorded in the basement studio of Tom Scholz, chief songwriter and guitarist for the band. Scholz was actually a classically trained pianist, which helped shape Boston’s sound; classical elements mixed with hard rock, interweaving with instrumental melodies and harmonies exhibited by no other bands at the time. Their sound was imitated by, and garnered success for, many other bands that followed them – a sound that was unfairly coined as “corporate rock”. In reality, it was just plain and simply a sound that offered enough complexity to appeal to people who wanted to intimately listen to their music, yet at the same time, have a simplicity in its hooks and song structures that appealed to the passive listener as well. 

If you listen to classic rock radio today, there is not one song on this album that is not regularly played. Quite an amazing accomplishment for a first outing. Then again, this was an amazing debut album.

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.