Tómas Jónsson – “3” (2020)

I have a copy of Tómas Jónsson’s 2016 self-titled debut, but for whatever reason it never made it onto the blog. That has me curious enough to want to go back and give it another listen. But for now I’m sitting down on a dark, rainy Friday morning and spinning his latest release, 3.

For some reason I was expecting this to be a jazz album, and while at times jazz-like elements such as brush drumming and slow piano passages come to the surface, the description isn’t quite right. It’s a blend of jazz and electronic and ambient, yet none of those things at the same time. It’s definitely chill out music and perfect for rainy mornings and coffee and an intentionally slow pace. There’s a soothing quality that takes the edge off the frustrations of work and COVID and whatever else burdens you, the slow lifting of that weight off your shoulders. The B side cuts loose a bit more, upping the tempo at times, but still retains an overall relaxed feel (OK… “Sálmurinn Um Gaukinn” will likely get your blood pressure up as it approaches crescendo…)

My good friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records put this out on their label, so while that may make me biased I’m still digging this album and recommend you check it out.

Freddie Hubbard – “Skagly” (1980)

It’s all blurring together, day following day, week following week, and even the weekends not offering much respite because most things are still closed and if you’re following the state’s recommendations you’re not meeting your friends and family face-to-face. The best you get is sharing a nod with another person when making one of your essential purchases, both of you anonymized by your masks, only the eyes showing any emotion. And that emotion is, as often as not, a sort of resignation, all of us just wanting this to be over.

It’s May, which in Seattle means a few beautiful days of sun and perfect temperatures, followed by a few rainy ones that are surprisingly cold after finally seeing the sun for the first time in six months. You want to be out and a about, and sure, you can go for a walk, but you can’t really go somewhere. I crave walking through West Seattle or Georgetown to get brunch and buy records and maybe stop at a market to pick up something to grill later, or some cupcakes for desert. I want to be out there with a bit of a bounce in my step again.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with Skagly, well, that feeling, that craving is completely and perfectly expressed by Hubbard’s horn on “Happiness Is Now”. Sometimes the horn walks, others it has a slight strut to it, and sometimes it breaks out into a quick dance, the kind of sidewalk soft-shoe you might do when out enjoying time with your friends, perhaps after imbibing in a glass of wine or two. Hearing it on a quiet, rainy Saturday morning, one with the slightest promise of clearing up later peeking around its edges, made me both happy and wistful, longing and hopeful. I’m not sure what the new normal will look like, or how we’ll reflect on this period five or ten years down the road. Hell, maybe this will be just the start and things will get worse. As for me, though, I’m staying hopeful. Hopefully that I can toe-tap down the sidewalks again sometime this summer.

The Last Poets – “The Last Poets” (1970)

I’ve had this album in my hands a few times over the years but never bought it. What I’d read about it made it seem unusual enough to be interesting, but perhaps a little too far out there to warrant a purchase. So I was pretty happy to come across it in a big batch of free records I got a while back – now I’d have the chance to explore The Last Poets.

The Last Poets is an album that defies genre categorization. Jazz? There are jazz elements, but this isn’t a jazz record. Most of the music is percussion, and more in the use of bongo and other percussion generators that you wouldn’t find in the typical drum kit. Spoken Word? Well, the lyrics are essential to The Last Poets, but there’s still music here, and a cadence that at times follows the percussion, so it’s not entirely that either. Poetry? It’s certainly that, but it’s also much more. Rap? Hip Hop? Hell, those things didn’t technically exist in 1970, but if you can’t hear the roots of what would become hip hop here it’s because you’re not trying.

The lyrics are politically and socially charged. It’s easy for me as a middle aged white guy in 2020 to write something about how these poems and rhymes reflected the urban African American experience of 50 years ago, but c’mon, what the hell do I even remotely know about that experience? Nothing from anything resembling first hand experience, that’s for sure. The words are raw, direct, accusing, cutting, and depreciating, delivered with passion and conviction. And I have to admit, I enjoyed this record a lot more than I thought I would. The earnestness alone makes it refreshing to listen to, the honesty and matter-of-fact descriptions of reality and expressions of hope for the future. Of course, there are some problematic aspects half a century later, particularly in how homosexuals and Jews are labelled and described. It’s easy to shrug that off and say “that was a different time”, but it still needs to be called out. I wonder how the Poets reflect on the words they used, looking back on them half a century later? Regardless, that’s what’s on the record, and it’s still a strong piece of work.

Pharoah Sanders

Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders is a bit of an enigma, a supremely talented musician who has been recording professionally since the 1960s and who collaborated with John Coltrane during the last few years of his life, but who rarely gives interviews or talks about himself. The New Yorker convinced him to do an interview this year which is informative, though still light on details as Sanders’ answers are brief. Perhaps the most intriguing revelations are that he’s rarely if ever satisfied with his own playing, and that generally he doesn’t listen to music but instead to the sounds around him, be they the sounds of nature or the sounds of the city.

I’m not sure I ever would have made it to Sanders on my own – I’m hardly a jazz aficionado, and I tend to shy away from the more avant-garde and free forms of the genre. But some of his records came my way, and I’m always open to a new experience or three.

Jewels of Thought (1969)

I didn’t get what I expected on a few different levels. “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum Allah” surprised me both with its occasional vocals as well as its fairly solid structure. Certainly at one point Sanders’ saxophone breaks free of the band and rockets off in its own direction, a rogue, brightly-burning firework that shoots off from the pack, corkscrews around and around, screeching and running hot until it ultimately explodes.

The two-part “Sun In Aquarius”, however, is very much what I expected, more of a free jazz vibe with Sanders’ sax solos sounding tormented, like an animal caught in a trap. That’s not to say it’s entirely devoid of foundation, at times the players coming back into focus and following a more sonically recognizable pattern. When it breaks loose though, baby it breaks loose.

Pharoah (1977)

Every collector dreams of the “score”. For many of us it’s about finding that item you’ve coveted for so long that the wanting has almost become a companion. Usually if you do come across it, the person who owns it knows the value and you end up paying dearly for it. The other kind of score is getting your hands on a valuable piece of wax for a song. I experienced the former last year by getting a copy of Þeyr’s Þagað Í Hel. I experienced the latter a few months back when a collection that came to me included this hidden gem, Pharoah. It’s the kind of thing bound to drive Pharoah fans crazy, since if I’m being honest I didn’t even know who Sanders was before I started working through these boxes of records. There hasn’t been an official, non-bootleg release on vinyl since 1978, and even the 1996 CD reissues go for a pretty penny.

Pharoah is more subdued than Jewels of Thought, quieter and more chill. “Harvest Time” is the track that gets the most attention, and understandably so. Taking up the entire A side it actually feels like two distinct songs, both dreamy as they wander through a cloud of incense smoke, every now and again being brought above the surface by Pharoah’s sax – so beautiful.

“Love Will Find A Way” immediately introduces vocals, which had been completely absent from “Harvest Time”, though they only hang around for a bit before giving way to the music. I read a blurb today that indicated this record wasn’t well regarded when it came out and in fact was compared to the work of Carlos Santana – and I believe “Love Will Find A Way” is the reason for that comparison, because the middle portion could easily fit onto a Santana album and no one would think twice.

Love Will Find a Way (1978)

It’s hard to believe that this came out only a year after Pharoah. Love Will Find A Way follows the subtlety and dreamy grooves of Pharoah with, frankly, a much more straight-forward smooth jazz sound. Of course there are Pharoah flourishes found throughout, but the record remains much more approachable than Jewels Of Thought.

The Ghost Choir – “The Ghost Choir” (2020)

It seems like coronavirus has been in our lives forever, but if you’re in the US like I am, it’s been more like a couple of months. The first reported case here was reported on January 21 in Snohomish County, Washington, which is fairly close by – it’s the county just north of where I live. And then on Saturday, February 29 the news broke of a suspected 50+ cases of the virus in a nursing home in Kirkland… which is less than two miles from my house. All of a sudden we went from feeling like the virus was something “over there”, impacting only Asia and Europe, only to find out it wasn’t just in our country or our state or our county… but within walking distance of where we live and shop and generally make our lives. Since that date I have only gone into the office to work one time, and as the government restrictions became tighter and tighter there have been multi-day periods during which I haven’t even walked outside of my house.

I’m not seeking anyone’s sympathy here. Our situation is not remotely as dire as it is in Italy and Spain and New York City. Not by a long shot. Holly and I both have jobs that allow for virtual work, and both of our employers were at the forefront in getting all their employees the equipment and technology needed to work from home in short order. We’re not sick and we’re still getting paychecks, which is way more than a lot of people can say. That being said, the situation is making things a bit weird as we all try to adjust to the new normal of quasi-isolation and social distancing, of meetings by Zoom and having “happy hours” with your friends in which you Face Time each other and drink.

Without an hour commute each morning, I’m starting work when it’s still dark out, despite the days getting longer. And the best listening for those quiet, dark mornings with a hot cup of coffee and the only light coming from a pair of computer monitors is chill musical fare along the lines of Brian Eno and Kiasmos. But my current go-to is the brand new release from the Icelandic ensemble The Ghost Choir. It’s been on constant rotation and I’ve recommended it to a number of folks since it’s available on Spotify. So far everyone is giving it rave reviews.

The Ghost Choir is comprised of an impressive group of musicians. Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason has been part of the scene for years through his uniquely flavored hip hip project Epic Rain and most recently as part of Hvörf, and in The Ghost Choir he joins Hannes Helgason on the various keyboards. Guitarist Pétur Hallgrímsson was part of Cosa Nostra back in the 1980s and has been involved in projects with the likes of Páll Óskar, Bubbi Morthens, Quarashi, and John Grant. Magnús Trygvason Eliassen’s percussion stylings have contributed to ADHD, Tibury, and Kippi Kaninus, just to name a few. Bassist Hálfdan Árnason is part of Pain of Salvation and Horrible Youth. Those are some impressive resumes.

I feel Pálmason’s influences immediately, right from the opening bass of “Vanishing Hitchhiker”, its cinematic darkness harkening to an earlier time when the macabre was less about overt gore and violence and more about setting a mood, generating tension, and creating a sense that something is going to happen very soon and it will probably be bad for someone. With instrumental tracks you only have the music and the titles to go by, and the name “Vanishing Hitchhiker” gives the listener an almost unconscious frame of reference for the David Lynch-esque music that follows. The Ghost Choir’s eight instrumental tracks all have similarly themed titles, names that set a scene – “Man In Grey”, “The Watcher”, “The Murdered Peddler”, and even “William Mumbler”, which conveys an image of the kind of guy you probably don’t want to encounter on a cold, rain-soaked night.

There’s a smoothness here as well, perhaps nowhere as more perfectly realized than on “The Watcher” with its light-touch jazz drumming, slowly walking bass, pretty guitar, and subtle organ. The western guitar opening of “The Murdered Peddler” is sublime, the drums hit a bit more stiffly and the bass acting like the slow voice of an old man telling a story he’s told hundreds of times before, but you still ask him to tell you again. Every song has its own character, both sonically and in terms of the person you envision while listening. It’s a mood. It’s the people who live on the fringes of society, those who are more comfortable in the late night hours than in the bright light of the day. It’s the sense that most nights nothing untoward will happen. But every now and again… something unexpected, and probably unfortunate.

The Ghost Choir is pressed on beautiful white vinyl and released by our good friends over at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records. I’m not sure how many were pressed, but my guess is it’s pretty limited. You can give it a listen on Spotify, then when you fall in love with it you can order a copy from Lucky HERE.