The Police – Synchronicity

When I first heard what would be the final album by The Police I thought it was yet another new direction added to their already distinctive sound. Little did I know it was more of a return to their origins.

Before adopting the punk and new wave style that got them signed to a record deal in the late ’70s, the Police were a band that played jazz/rock fusion. With “Synchronicity”, The Police incorporated all of that along with avant-garde experimentalism into what became one of the greatest masterpieces from the ’80s.

This is an album I will never tire of.

Ray Charles – Genius Live In Concert

I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Ray Charles perform live in 1986. Even though this album was recorded 22 years prior, it perfectly captures the magic I will always remember experiencing that night.

I remember watching Ray dancing in his seat, swaying and stomping his feet as the music he was playing and singing took him over, and as he took over the entire audience. I remember Ray being so taken over at one point, he jumped out of his seat, dancing on the stage to his band’s music. Nobody worried that he was blind; this was too sublime a moment for God to allow anything to go wrong. I remember Ray’s quick wit shutting down a close to the front row heckler with just a few words. No more was to be said; that evening belonged to Ray Charles.

I remember that night, experiencing a “Genius Live in Concert”. There is no other way to describe Ray Charles perform. A “Genius Live in Concert” is exactly what this album captures.

Emerson Lake & Palmer Works Volume One

Emerson Lake & Palmer were known for being self-indulgent and often accused of being pretentious. Self indulgent? Sure. Pretentious? No way. That would imply that they presented themselves as being more talented than they actually were. ELP individually and collectively always tried to push themselves to their musical limits. They never failed to cut the muster, especially on “Works Volume One”.

For their fifth studio album, ELP decided to double it up; two records, four sides. The first three sides focused on the individual writing and arrangement talents of Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (guitar and bass) and Carl Palmer (percussion). Side four focused on the collective creativity of all three members.

The album starts off with what is my favorite track (and side) on the double album: Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1”. This is most often where the accusations of pretentiousness come in for “Works Volume One”. I mean, how dare a rock and roller write and classical music! What could they possibly know about treal music? And then to perform it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra! That’s blasphemy! Well, at least it was to most traditionalists. But true to any composer of any era, Emerson incorporated influences past and present. He pushed the boundaries of classical music, incorporating jazz chords and structures into the fold. I’m convinced it’s nothing Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or any other classical master wouldn’t have attempted had they been exposed to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other jazz greats.

Greg Lake’s side is fairly straight forward acoustic singer/songwriter material. Although there are a few moments that ventures outside that territory. “C’est La Vie”, with its french bistro middle section is one of the more notable.

As one would expect, Carl Palmer’s side consists mainly of compositions with rhythmic complexities. Not surprising for a percussionist. His selections lean heavily on polyrhythms, leaning more into modern jazz territory than that of rock.

Side four highlights all these elements coming together cohesively in two
extended progressive rock performances. “Fanfare for the Common Man” is a piece written by the 20th century “Dean of American Composers”, Aaron Copeland. Arranged by ELP, the epic takes on an urgency that transposes classical and rock music. Pirates is an equally esoteric piece that closes out the album. A record that not only highlights the musical passions of each member of ELP, but equally showcases the collective synergy they exhume together.

Billie Holiday – Billie’s Blues

When you look up the word “singer” in any dictionary, if it said nothing else, it should say “Billie Holiday”.

Billie Holiday defined what every singer should aspire to achieve: to take any song they are given and make it their own. Billie Holiday knew no other way to sing. She never received any musical training, she had absolutely no singing experience the day she walked into a nightclub asking for a job, any job, just so she could eat. They asked her if she could dance. She tried, but failed miserably. They asked if she could sing. She gave that a shot. A legend was discovered.

Life was not kind to Billie Holiday. Music made it easier for her, and while it did lift some of the burden for a time, it never made her life easy. In her singing, along with the pain, Billie Holiday’s voice always carried a note of strength and fortitude. “Lady Day”, as her friend and long time collaborator Lester Young referred her, would go on to influence countless artists in the decades that followed her.

Sadly, the same night Billie Holiday sang her first song, at that same nightclub, she also had her first drink. Alcohol would prove to be Billie Holiday’s nemesis. She died in 1955 at the age of 44 from cirrhosis of the liver, ending the 20 year career of a jazz legend.

Gentle Giant – Three Friends

The story of three childhood friends and the very different paths their lives take after going their separate ways; falling out of touch with each other in adulthood. That’s the concept behind Gentle Giants eclectic 1972 progressive rock showcase.

One becomes part of the blue-collar working class. He feels trapped in a dead-end job living paycheck to paycheck. Another becomes a starving artist. Answering to no one but himself and expressing the good and hidden evil he sees in the world through his paintbrush. The third becomes a successful businessman. With his trophy wife and materialistic lifestyle he looks uses people to his own ends and looks down on the on the lazy working class and unambitious artists.

It’s not a deep concept, but it’s one that can be easily combined with different musical themes that make for a diverse combination of intricately complex arrangements which is what Gentle Giant’s music is all about.

Yes – Close To The Edge

Yes is a band that went through many lineup iterations. Although they found success in all variants, few Yes fans will dispute Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe and Squire as being the group’s most creative, most talented, most progressive lineup. 1971’s “Fragile“, the third album from Yes, was the debut from that combination of talent. It’s follow-up, “Close to the Edge”, was released in ’72 and carried on with the embodiment of rhythmic complexity and instrumental virtuosity.

I’ve read that unlike with its predecessor, there were a lot of creative conflicts going on during the recording sessions for “Close to the Edge”, which explains drummer Bill Bruford’s departure after its completion. This is an album that exasperates a multitude of conflicting ideas being brought together. At times, it feels as if it is going to fall apart in a heap of chaotic discords. But the multitude of ideas are somehow tied together with a cohesive beauty that make it one of the most significant records from the classic age of vinyl and one of the staples of progressive rock.

“Close to the Edge” is a landmark album in every sense of the word.

Christmas With Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins was considered to be a country music artists, but he was every bit as much a contemporary jazz guitarist as he was country. Incorporating his fluid finger picking style with a bit of country twang, he helped create what became known as “The Nashville Sound”, bringing a more a more mainstream audience to the genre.

“Christmas With Chet Atkins” is one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums and one of my favorites by “The Country Gentleman’, as Chet was often referred to as. Vocals on the songs are sparse, as it focuses more on his guitar stylings which lean more towards his jazz side; a joyful mix of traditional arrangements interspersed with a mix of improvisational phrasings and flourishes. It is as relaxing as it is enticing to listen to; a perfect hot cocoa and fireplace kind of album.

I almost wish “Christmas With Chet Atkins” wasn’t a Christmas album. I could listen to it year round, but it seems odd listening to Christmas songs outside of the season. So it’s only this time of year that this record makes it onto my turntable. Then again, I guess it gives me something else to look forward to every Christmas season.

Merry Christmas from The Vinyl Jungle.

Lucifer’s Friend – Banquet

I can’t believe the difference in sound between Lucifer’s Friend’s 1970 eponymous debut and their fourth album, 1974’s “Banquet”. It’s hard to realize it’s actually the same band. Gone is the metal crunch of the overdriven guitars and Hammond B3 organ that put them in league with Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Black Sabbath. Those sounds are replaced here with more rounded guitar tones and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Oh, and don’t forget the full horn section. All that, along with the free-flowing extended solos, leaves “Banquet” having much more in common with the progressive, jazz-rock fusion sounds of Traffic, early Chicago, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and ELP than it does with any metal band. About the only things consistent between this and Lucifer’s Friend’s debut album is the incredible musicianship and John Lawton’s amazing voice.

Then again Lucifer’s Friend was a band that seemed to strive to sound different on every new album. I think the diversity in their sound from one album to the next is a big reason they had a hard time gaining popular traction outside of their native Germany. Their fans never knew what to expect from them from one album to the next. The thing was, that’s what I admired about them.

Louis Armstrong – Hello Dolly

I know that when a lot of my friends hear the nickname “Satch” they think of guitar legend Joe Satriani. I do too, but I also think of Jazz legend Louis Armstrong.

His full name was Louis Satchmo Pops Armstrong and he played the trumpet. Man, could he play the trumpet! With his deep gravelly voice – one of the most distinct to ever grace popular music – he was as charismatic on stage as he was skillful on trumpet.

The title song from this album earned Louis Armstrong the only Grammy he received while alive. He was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 1972.

One of my favorite items in my listening room is a statue of Louis Armstrong. Holding his trumpet in one hand and a handkerchief in the other (he would work up a sweat when he played) and donning his distinct smile, it truly conveys the love he had for playing music. But I don’t need that statue to know that, all I need to do is listen to him play.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

If Barry Gordy Jr. had his way back in 1971, Marvin Gaye would have never recorded the album “What’s Going On”.

When the founder of Motown Records in Detroit first heard the title song Marvin Gaye had recorded for his next album, he was confident it would be a failure and refused to release it. Barry Gordy believed in the upbeat tempo and feel of the songs that had been the formula to Motown’s success. That was the record he wanted from Marvin Gaye. What Gaye delivered instead was a mid-tempo, multilayered song that made a sociopolitical statement against war, poverty, and brutality.

Barry Gordy felt “What’s Going On” would never sell and that it would be the ruin of Marvin Gaye’s career if it was ever released. Equal in his passion for the song, Marvin Gaye took a stand, refusing to write or record even one more note for Motown if the song wasn’t released. Barry still refused. It was his record company after all, and he had the final say.

But the song was released anyway.

Circumventing Barry Gordy, the VP of sales at Motown records decided to go behind his back and have the record pressed and released, sending some advance copies out to radio stations. It’s the kind of thing that will get you fired – unless you know you’re right. The song got heavy airplay across the country and when it came out “What’s Going On” became the fastest selling single in Motown’s history. Marvin Gaye was given the green light to make his album and make it his way.

“What’s Going On” didn’t ruin Marvin Gaye’s career, it defined it. It was his masterpiece. Like its title track, the album makes a strong statement. The soulful and beautifully layered songs lament against war, poverty, drug abuse, injustice, hate, and destruction of the environment. In contrast to the music, the lyrics to the songs don’t always paint a pretty picture, but they always make you think. This is an album that begs you to step back and take a look at the world around you; to take a good close look at “What’s Going On”.