by Michael Popke
I’ve never been good with remembering birthdays, so it should come as no surprise that I’m wishing a belated happy birthday to a progressive-rock record label that recently came into my life. In June, New York’s Moonjune Records — which takes its name from the 1970 Soft Machine epic “The Moon in June” — celebrated a decade of releasing challenging “non-overproduced music,” according to its website, “that transcends stylistic pigeon-holing.” With an emphasis on jazz and fusion, Moonjune is run by producer, tour manager and promoter Leonardo Pavkovic, who recently turned me on to several of the label’s far-ranging titles.
Marbin: Breaking the Cycle
My favorite release of the bunch is also one of Moonjune’s most recent titles. Marbin’s core consists of guitarist Dani Rabin and sax man Danny Markovitch. That’s right — a guitar-and-sax duo. Two equally skilled musicians, creating a flurry of prog, fusion and jazz music while blowing minds and taking away breaths. On their second album, Breaking the Cycle, they receive assistance from the Pat Metheny Group’s rhythm section (drummer Paul Wertico and bassist Steve Rodby), plus a handful of lesser-known guests who lend Marbin a band vibe. Opener “Loopy” takes listeners on a wild ride of blazing guitar and sax, punctuated by an explosive drumming performance from Wertico. “Mom’s Song” is mournful yet reassuring, while “Bar Stomp” sounds just like you’d expect it to sound: raucous and whiskey-fueled. “Burning Match” ignites simmering Southern rock, and “Snufkin” shows off Markovitch’s fluid style. The biggest surprise comes at the end, though, as the peaceful “Winds of Grace” (featuring the dusty vocals of yet another Dan, Daniel White) ring out against a subtle acoustic arrangement that recalls Proto-Kaw. At the midway point of 2011, Breaking the Cycle ranks as one of my favorite albums of the year.
Moraine: Manifest DeNsity
This adventurous Seattle instrumental ensemble fronted by guitarist Dennis Rea has found fans among prog listeners, as well as jazz aficionados and metalheads — and it’s easy to hear why on Manifest DeNsity, Moraine’s cleverly titled 2009 debut. Exuberantly blurring Chinese folk music, electric jazz and math rock, this quintet (whose lineup has changed since the album’s release) borrows from King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Univers Zero and traditional East Asian music. Cello and violin tastefully complement the traditional power trio of guitar, bass and drums. From the playfully anxious (“Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) to the downright beautiful (“Disillusioned Avatar”) to the downright noisy and, if I’m honest, irritating (“Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”), this is wholly contemporary music that fails to slot nicely into any one category — or ten. Plus, how can you not appreciate a band that dares to give its songs titles like “Revenge Grandmother” and “Nacho Sunset”?
Dennis Rea: Views from Chicheng Precipice
Want to hear more of Rea’s guitar work? He also was a pioneer in introducing modern jazz, adventurous rock, and experimental music to Chinese audiences, as detailed in his book, Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan. Views from Chicheng Precipice — a warm and relaxing solo album with ample assistance from a dozen other musicians, including members of Moraine — is Rea’s homage to the music of East Asia. His personal interpretations of traditional pieces and original Asian-inspired works make for compelling listening. Detailed notes about each song enhance the experience, and creative instrumentation and arrangements prove Dennis Rea is the real deal. Examples? “Tangabata,” an interpretation of an unusual melody dating back to the Tang Dynasty, culminates in explosive free-jazz drumming from Greg Campbell; “Kan Hai De Re Zi” adds violin and cello to create chamber-jazz harmonies in this adaptation of a contemporary Taiwanese tune, and “Aviariations on ‘A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix’ ” showcases suona (a Chinese oboe) and uses a female voice to mimic bird songs. On his website, Rea states that this “project is my ‘love letter’ to a part of the world that has enriched my life immeasurably, musically and otherwise.”
Soft Machine Legacy: Live Adventures
In recent years, drummer John Marshall has overseen the Soft Machine offshoot, Soft Machine Legacy. On Live Adventures, recorded in Europe during October 2009, Marshall, guitarist John Etheridge, one-time Soft Machine bassist Roy Babbington and tenor sax and flute player Theo Travis (from Gong and The Tangent) recreate such vintage Soft Machine songs as “Facelift” and “The Nodder.” In fact, Pavkovic says the quartet delves deeper into the original repertoire than on any previous Soft Machine Legacy release. This nine-song, 58-minute set will knock over fusion fans with its searing guitars and wonderful woodwinds. In a touching gesture, Soft Machine Legacy dedicates Live Adventures to departed Soft Machine members Hugh Hopper (who passed away in 2009) and Elton Dean (who died in 2006).
Tohpati Ethnomission: Save the Planet
Indonesia’s invigorating collective Tohpati Ethnomission blurs traditional cultural music with contemporary prog overtones, resulting in some crazy guitar shredding that will please both headbangers and blues aficionados (“Ethno Funk”). There’s also something for laid-back jazz fans (“Gateway of Life”) and country twangers (“Festive People”). And don’t forget Santana fans (“New Inspiration”). Led by the inventive, singularly named guitarist Tohpati, whose work has referenced Robert Fripp, John McLaughlin and John Scofield, the quintet serves up zesty international flavors that seek to meld the earth and is inhabitants, hence the Save the Planet album title and songs with such English subtitles as “Rain Forest,” “Let the Birds Sing” and “Battle Between Good & Beast.” Opener “Selamatkan Bumi (Save the Planet”) is an exercise in tribal fusion — complete with flute! — while the sole vocal track “Bedhaya Ketawang (Sacred Dance)” showcases the startling voice of another artist with one name, Lestari. Tohpati Ethnomission rocks, and Save the Planet should appeal to a wide range of listeners.
Barry Cleveland: Hologramatron
Easily the most bizarre and intoxicating release of the seven Moonjune titles I’m reviewing here, Hologramatron was nominated for a Grammy in the category of “best alternative rock album” for 2010. This exhausting (and exhaustive) release, hailed by the label as a reinvention of the protest album, culls from prog, psych, metal, ambient, world, trance and funk to create “a musical response to contemporary social, political and even spiritual realities.” Heavy on the lyrics and enhanced by cutting-edge electronics and unorthodox playing techniques, Hologramatron also features virtuoso bass innovator Michael Manring, drummer and percussionist Celso Alberti (Steve Winwood), and pedal-steel guitarist Robert Powell (Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne), along with “avant-cabaret” vocalist Amy X. Neuburg – who adds a wicked sexiness to songs about Jesus and money. In addition to playing acoustic and electric 6- and 12-string guitars on Hologramatron, Barry Cleveland utilizes a prototype of the revolutionary Moog Guitar and both acoustic and electric GuitarViols – hybrid bowed instruments tuned like a guitar – and he sings like latter-day Peter Gabriel. The album also contains two early-60s pop covers (Malvina Reynolds’ anti-nukes anthem “What Have They Done to the Rain” and Joe Meek’s “Telstar”). A trio of bonus tracks gives the remix treatment to some of Cleveland’s ambient work.
Allan Holdsworth/Alan Pasqua/Jimmy Haslip/Chad Wackerman: Blues for Tony
Although this double-CD was my least favorite of the batch, it’s easy to appreciate the sheer musicality of this tribute to the Tony Williams Lifetime – a late-Sixties/early-Seventies jazz-fusion outfit named after the drummer. Guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboardist Alan Pasqua were once members of that group and reunited in 2006 to pay tribute to the original band. They recruited bassist Jimmy Haslip from the Yellowjackets and drummer Chad Wackerman (who played with Frank Zappa), and took the show on the road. Blues For Tony was culled from a series of shows performed in 2007. Impeccable sound and musicianship make this a no-brainer for Holdsworth fans – and anyone who adores pure fusion.
Moonjune enters its second decade with high expectations, as new albums from Marbin and Tohpati – plus a live Moraine disc – are expected to drop. On a sadder note, Pavkovic and the entire prog community are mourning the loss of Alberto Bonomi, keyboardist for the legendary Italian prog band (and Moonjune artist) D.F.A. Bonomi died in a car accident in his home town of Verona, Italy, on June 26th. He was 48 years old. Goldmine sends its condolences to Bonomi’s family and friends.