Garth Cartwright is an Auckland-born, London-based, oft’ wandering journalist. He contributes to The Sunday Times, Songlines, Record Collector and the BBC World Service. He is author of several books including tomes on Balkan Gypsy musicians, American vernacular music, Miles Davis, rockabilly and Sweet As: Journeys In A New Zealand Summer. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
1 – Kocani Orkestar, L’ Orient Est Rouge: Hailing from Kocani, a small town in Macedonia, Kocani Orkestar cut this seminal slice of Balkan brass in 1997 and it blew minds then and now. This is ancient music, the stuff those we call “Gypsies” were playing as they crossed Persia and the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and one of the featured instruments is the zurna, a primitive ancestor of the oboe. What a great instrument – it sets off these low, howling notes and Kocani Ork’ use it to build great sonic storms. I love Balkan brass and am fascinated by how different the regional orchestras can sound: Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia play tight, tough, funky tunes, Serbia’s Boban Markovic leads a orchestra of remarkable technique and prowess, while Kocani Orkestar keep it primal, dense and dark. Like one of the Mississippi bluesmen Fat Possum dug up, this is heavy music with no desire to modify the sound for a broader audience. It is trance music in the truest sense, music full of stories and character and history. And while dissonant Kocani Orkestar make beautiful music. Oh, the album’s title comes from a Chinese film song that proved popular during Yugoslavia’s heyday. Go figure!
2 – Lucinda Williams, West: I got to see Lucinda rock the Southbank recently and she was in great spirits and voice. Although my favourite Loo album will always be the eponymous one on Rough Trade that first sent me head over heels for her at the recent London concert she only played one tune from that classic (Crescent City). Yet she played four or five tunes from West, my second favourite Loo album. And after hearing her deliver superbly throaty renditions of Come On and Unsuffer Me I’m beginning to think West might be my favourite Loo album. I mean, her voice is just superb – she is, undoubtedly, the finest female blues singer alive (all those years studying Memphis Minnie and Tommy Johnson have paid off) – and on Are You Alright and Where Is My Love she sings acoustic country ballads with that lovely plaintiveness so her trademark. Actually, West’s toughest tunes would fit the Stones circa Sticky Fingers/Exile – seeing her in concert I was reminded of how very much she wants to be One Of The Boys – but Jagger’s band lost the ability to kick it like this decades ago. Beautifully played and produced (it sounds live in the room, nice and warm and raw), West doesn’t seem to get the attention Loo albums like Car Wheels and World Without Tears do. But whenever I play West I renew my love affair with the divine Ms Williams.
3 – Fela Kuit, The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions: I’m not one of those music nuts who swears that Fela is amongst the 20th C’s very greatest musicians/a revolutionary figure etc. I like the dude’s music, well the stuff he was cutting with the magnificent Tony Allen on drums in the ‘70s, but do find those 20-minute workouts get a little, well, plodding. So when I recently dug out this album I had not listened to it for many years and wanted to re-familiarise myself with how Fela sounded when he was absorbing the influence of James Brown, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, Charles Wright and other hot, funky, jazz groove inspired American musicians. The nine tunes here cut in LA in ’69 show Fela’s jazz flavours merging with funk and a sense of his African roots. The band play beautifully, that loose, sweet and sour horn sound so typical of Fela taking shape, music full of colour and character and with a real sense of destiny. Exciting sounds and still striking today. These tunes were released as a series of 45s when Fela returned to Nigeria and established his rep’ as West Africa’s brightest star. The album opens with six tunes Fela cut in Nigeria between ’64-’68. Here he’s still very influenced by the Latin jazz he embraced while living in London. The tunes feel a little dated but still bright and full of promise.
4 – Miles Davis, On The Corner: My latest book – out this November! – is Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History (Voyageur) where I write the biographical chapters on MD alongside essays by Ashley Khan, Greg Tate, Herbie Hancock etc. Which means this year I have listened to a helluva lot of Miles. Recently I got to interview Lonnie Liston Smith, the great jazz funk keyboardist who played in Miles’ bands in the early ‘70s. He’s on On The Corner and I asked about those sessions that produced this dense, furious urban groove. Lonnie recalled Miles refusing to give instructions, telling him the one time he asked what to play “and here I was thinking I hired a keyboardist…”. I’m not sure how much I like On The Corner. I am fascinated by it. It certainly predates a lot of electronic music made twenty years later. I hear urban decay and hard drug abuse and everything from blaxploitation movies to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in its sense of fracture and dissonance. It is not easy music. But On The Corner sure is compelling. Music to struggle and argue with. Which, I’m guessing, is what Miles aimed for.
5 – Hot 8 Brass Band, The Life & Times Of: The Hot 8 Brass Band have every right to sing the blues – forced to flee New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, this youthful ensemble have seen four members die before their time (three to the epidemic of violence that is a cancer on the Big Easy’s black community; one to hypertension – another ghetto disease) while trumpeter Terrell Batiste lost his legs in an automobile accident. Yet nothing in The Hot 8’s music suggests despair. Instead, the finest of the Big Easy’s young street brass bands make music that bursts with exuberance and joy. Their debut album Rock With The Hot 8 was released on Tru Thoughts in 2007 and is superb, each tune cooking up that hot New Orleans street funk. Five years on and Hot 8 are back and sounding fabulously loose and greasy. Hot 8’s members grew up as part of the rap generation and their sound has the un-mistakable swagger of hip-hop. The clatter of bass drum and snare drum mixed with horns that play beautifully sweet and sour patterns creates a big sound, sometimes instrumental, other times with an MC leading the band in a call and response manner. Tunes such as New Orleans (After The City) and Let Me Do My Thing brim with a raucous, sexy exuberance. The influence of touring Britain is also evident– Hot 8 cover Basement Jaxx’s Bingo Bango and The Specials’ Ghost Town. The latter is especially appropriate for New Orleans yet Hot 8 don’t attempt to emulate Jerry Dammers’ moody waltz tempo. Instead, they turn Ghost Town into a big brass roar. Superbly recorded so to keep all the excitement of a street performance and beautifully packaged with images Banksy left on the walls of New Orleans post-Katrina, The Life & Times Of was my favourite album of 2012.