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Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, Lee Morgan & the Beach Boys: A Recent Release Round-up
Plus thoughts on six months of 'Listening Sessions' and learning to enjoy my music collection
Today’s post marks six months since I started ‘Listening Sessions.’ Writing about music has long been a dream of mine, putting into words what I feel when I listen to music that truly moves me. So far, I have put together just over 20 posts on everything from a quick take on Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ wonderful ‘Free for All’ to my longest piece, celebrating the music that Elvis recorded in Nashville in the early-sixties. I look forward to sharing more in the coming months, including some posts on the music of the season as the holidays draw nearer. But before that, I want to express my deep thanks to everyone who has subscribed to my Substack, shared any of my posts or left a comment. Your support and encouragement has been profoundly validating and motivating, and keeps me pushing forward with this work. Thank you all!
I collect music because I love it. It has been my primary interest ever since I can remember. Even after 40-or-so years, there remains new sounds to discover and new opportunities to keep my ears as wide open as possible. While I do stream a lot of music, for me, the only way to really dig into something is to have a copy of it in my hands and put it on the stereo. While the desire to hear something new has no bounds, the space to store it does. And when that space is limited or, in my case these days, virtually non-existent, you got yourself a dilemma. Some take stock and thin out the collection; others, myself included, do not dare contemplate such a thing. Part of the joy of having a music library is the opportunity to dig something out of the stacks that hasn’t been listened to in ages and re-discover it or, as is the happy case many times, truly discover it for the first time. So, for the past little while, I have done what I used to think was unthinkable: save for one or two items, I have not bought anything or even visited a record store. To my surprise, I’ve been fine—in fact, more than fine. I’ve been loving the chance to explore my collection as well as to dig into new purchases that have been piling up since the spring. Here are a few thoughts on some of the more notable releases I’ve had a chance to get into recently.
The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) / Joni Mitchell
Picking this up was a pure indulgence—save for Clouds, I have all of Joni’s Reprise albums on vinyl, but couldn’t resist. Needless to say, this is essential listening, either to savour each individual album or to treat the entire collection as a journey towards the transcendent Blue. My favourite of her four Reprise LPs is her debut, Song to a Seagull, a haunting, sparse and trippy ode to the everyday dreams and dramas of the city as well as the granola tranquility of country life. Featured in a brand-new mix which eliminates most of the echo and reverb David Crosby, who produced the album, laced the original release with (opinions are mixed on Crosby’s sound design but I love it), it takes some getting used to, but once you hit ‘The Dawntreader’ and the title track, the opportunity to experience this classic in a whole new way is deeply appreciated as well as satisfying.
All Things Must Pass: 50th Anniversary / George Harrison
In the notes that accompany this new release of Harrison’s magnum opus, he is quoted as saying, “Even before I started, I knew I was gonna make a good album because I had so many songs and I had so much energy. For me to do my own album after all that—it was joyous. Dream of dreams.”
That it was almost predestined that Harrison’s first true solo album was going to be one for the ages is abundantly clear when hearing All Things Must Pass once again. The Apple Jams notwithstanding, there’s no filler here—not even close. The new mix prepared by son Dhani and Paul Hicks completes a job that Harrison himself started with the 30th anniversary reissue of the album: significantly narrowing the immense soundscapes of the original mix, removing most of its echo and reverb in favour of clarity and intimacy. It’s long been assumed that this work is de-Spectorizing (as in Phil) the sound but this Twitter thread suggests a far more nuanced answer. It’s worth checking out.
While songs like ‘Awaiting on You All’ (my personal favourite) need to be heard with as large a sound as possible, tracks like the first ‘Isn’t It a Pity,’ ‘Run of the Mill,’ ‘Lay It Down,’ and ‘Let It Roll (Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp)’ sound almost brand new. For one example, the eerie vocal in the background of much of ‘Let It Roll’ repeating “Sir Frankie Crisp” is far clearer and audible than it’s ever been—one of many discoveries to be found here. Indeed, while many may find this 50th anniversary reissue superfluous and the new mix a travesty, for me, it has been a chance to find even more reasons to love and cherish All Things Must Pass.
Complete Live at the Lighthouse / Lee Morgan
There’s something about being able to travel back in time to be a fly on the wall at a jazz club, grabbing a seat, nursing a drink and taking in a set or two or three. The release this summer of the three nights of music Blue Note Records recorded of Lee Morgan’s Quintet at the Lighthouse in July 1970 approximates that feeling as closely as can be. Four tracks were released in 1971 on a double album, a further nine in the late-90s on a 3-CD set, the remaining four-and-a-half hours of music put on tape is now available on a massive eight-CD or 12-LP boxset that hit stores this summer. The chance to hear Morgan and his band—Bennie Maupin on tenor saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, Harold Mabern, Jr. on piano, Jymie Merritt on acoustic and electric bass, and Mickey Roker on drums—explore a series of compositions in expansive and lengthy performances is a joy. There’s the blistering ‘The Beehive,’ the extremely hip ‘Peyote,’ the trippy ‘Neophilia’ and the stormy ‘Absolutions’ for starters and much, much more. The priority for all three nights was recording new tunes for potential inclusion on the album Blue Note was preparing but there's good news: a priceless run-through of ‘The Sidewinder’ was recorded as well as a full version of Morgan’s set-closer ‘Speedball’ with Jack DeJohnette sitting in on drums that walks the tightrope between straight jazz and the avant-garde. It’s an exhilarating ride. With this release plus the new Coltrane performance of ‘A Love Supreme’ and previously unissued Art Blakey from Tokyo in 1961, we are truly living in a golden age for archival jazz. It's a reason to rejoice.
“Feel Flows”: The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions (1969-1971) / The Beach Boys
For the longest time, it looked like this set would never see the light of day but by the end of August, it finally hit record stores. The music that the Beach Boys recorded at the end of the sixties and the early-seventies remains some of their most important and interesting work: Sunflower is bright and sunny with each member of the group equal contributors to its success while Surf’s Up is far murkier and eccentric. Feel Flows makes clear that the songs that made it to both albums were but a fraction of what was being recorded both in the studio and at Brian Wilson’s house. Some of it was overly conventional, some of it trite, some of it deeply wondrous (including quite a few Dennis Wilson compositions—one or two which should have been earmarked for Surf’s Up) and some beyond category (especially the deeply eccentric ‘My Solution’). Backing tracks, vocals-only mixes as well as assorted live performances, including an astounding 1973 live version of ‘Surf’s Up’ round out a set that truly honours the legacy of two of the most remarkable albums the Beach Boys made. Here’s hoping it brings more people to this music.