Tones From The Underground

An Ongoing Column By Conor Dowling

An Obituary and a Mission Statement:

It’s old news at this point: The music business, as most of us over 30 have known it since childhood, has ceased to exist. The changes to its very foundations have been nothing short of cataclysmic. Illicit downloading and file sharing, combined with the advent of cheap, high quality recording gear for DIYers, has essentially dealt the death blow to the bloated, expense account thrashing business model of old, while captains of The Industry and its minions scramble to erect new structures that can withstand the onslaught of the new technology.

Feelings are mixed. One needn’t look far to find folks either celebrating the protracted death of The Majors, or woefully remembering a “better day”, when fewer acts were signed, many were well-promoted and supported, and bands and artists didn’t lose their deals after a single release.

For better or for worse, this particular death bell can’t be untolled. Call me an optimist, but I think these overarching changes to both the industry’s modes of distribution and the tools of its trade are largely positive. While some decry the lack of “good music” being released today, some of us see instead an embarrassment of riches: In fact, there is more great music being released today than perhaps ever before, as The Great Machine becomes destabilized and decentralized. The problem is finding it amidst the insanely large sea of independent releases that swamp the ‘net.

Fortunately, with a bit of effort, one can locate the signal (the good stuff) amidst the prevalent noise (the mediocre or outright bad). Tones from the Underground aims to draw some deserved attention to some of the indie releases that might evade the music enthusiast in this new digital age. Each column will review one or two new releases that might enjoy widespread success in another time, in a saner and more navigable music industry.

[Editor's Note] - With the fairly rapid changes in the music and recording industry, Conor's column is a welcome addition to the TGP Webzine. I live in the Denver area and began searching for CDs to purchase by reasonably well known jazz musicians like Ronnie Laws and Brian Bromberg. It didn't take long to figure out that, with Tower Records and Virgin Record outlets having shut their doors, I was going to have to go online to make my purchases. The indie record stores and the large book retailers didn't have any copies of the CDs I was interested in......not one! Yes, changes have already happened and indie bands have to find new avenues to get their recordings purchased, much less noticed. This column and our TGP Member CD listings pages are a start.

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Last Stand At The Havemeyer Ranch/ Andy Cotton
July 16th , 2009

last_stand_coverWhen a friend insists you check out his buddy’s new CD, it is rarely a good thing. Inwardly you cringe, while dutifully taking said disk in hand as you head out the door to your car. Imagine your surprise when your buddy’s friend’s CD turns out to be terrific indeed.

From the opening strains of Andy Cotton’s ‘Last Stand’, you know you’re in for a treat. The ironically titled opener, ‘Redux’, kicks off with a Zawinul-like bass groove over a crisp and funky second line drum groove. Then the horns enter, and you know you’re in for a special ride. Like the opening track, much of ‘Last Stand’ combines elements of reggae, dub, funk, and a groove-based jazz influence which seems to owe as much to Fela as it does Ernest Ranglin. (In fact, Ranglin was the first musician to come to mind on listing to Cotton’s new disk, though there is little guitar on ‘Last Stand’). One might also hear a similarity to a Medeski, Martin and Wood approach via a decidedly Jamaican aesthetic. While so many influences look odd in black and white, it all works: the diverse genres are reconciled without the least bit of awkwardness. (A bit like Brooklyn itself, from which Cotton’s band and music hail).

Most of the music is written by Cotton or his core trio, which includes keyboardist Matt Ray and drummer par excellence Yuval Lion. Over this tightly knit backbone certain arrangements open up broadly to include trombone, sax, trumpet, bass clarinet, vocoder, harmonica, melodica, and dub-worthy sound effects and samples.

studio-2The latter are all kept to a tasteful minimum – the sound of this band is decidedly acoustic in origin, adding to the hipness of the juxtaposition of traditional jazz sonorities and Space Echo-drencehed mix moves from the Lee Scratch Perry school of dubology. The record itself is beautifully recorded and mixed. I understand Mr. Cotton is responsible for both, and the result is a wonderfully airy and open sound that still retains the big bottom necessary for the reggae and dub bass and drum grooves. This is a stellar sounding release, and belies its humble budget.

Although the predominant instrumental tunes are perhaps more successful, the jazz-styled delivery of Cotton’s lyrics by guest vocalists on ‘Early In The Morning’ and ‘Don’t Let It Get To You’ are effective and evocative, if slightly at odds with the overall musical gestalt of ‘Last Stand’

As a bassist, Cotton’s upright is well employed in service to the groove. This is trance bass a la Laswell or recent Brad Houser, where the slightest fill is to be judged with suspicion – a decidedly African or Jamaican approach to the instrument’s role. Cotton’s tone, touch, and intonation are all spot-on, and his restraint pays off in holding things down with a wonderful authority (especially tricky on slow dub feels, as on Cotton’s ‘Gunga Din’).

In an era when too many major label releases seem plagued by filler (a hangover from the expanded length offered by the CD format), it’s great to hear a record that eschews such an approach in favor of the elegant concision of yore (remember when LPs under 45 minutes were the rule rather than the exception?). ‘Last Stand At The Havemeyer Ranch’ clocks in at just over 28 minutes. Like a good performer or storyteller, it leaves the listener wanting more.

To listen to this recording and download for free click here

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