Yes, I’m the Guy Who Likes Tales from Topographic Oceans

Tales_From_Topographic_OceansI didn’t realize Chris Squire had been diagnosed with cancer, so his death this week took me completely by surprise. He really was my favorite member of Yes. His thundering, mile-a-minute bass lines, sometimes indistinguishable from a guitar, were a hallmark of the band’s sound. As has been noted elsewhere, he’ll be missed.

Jason Crane — who’s interviewed literally hundreds of musicians for his podcast, The Jazz Session — decided to celebrate Squire’s life by listening to Yes’ entire studio catalogue. Brave man; Tormato is in there, after all. He tweeted the whole experience, which apparently clocked in at something like 17 hours.

But that got me to thinking about what I ought to listen to, because I suddenly realized it’s been years since I really listened to any Yes. Fragile and The Yes Album are obvious touchstones, but I’ve got a soft spot for Going for the One (which included “Parallels,” which I think was the first Yes song credited solely to Squire) and even Relayer (maybe just because it seems so obscure an album).

I settled for a YouTube spin of “Close to the Edge,” live from 1977. Difficult to hear Squire’s bass parts, but it was good to hear after all these years.

Then I remembered Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Even though Tormato, like, exists, I get the feeling Topographic Oceans is the band’s most reviled album. It’s a double album with four tracks — one song per side — and it’s a concept album, where the concept comes from a footnote in an eastern-religion book Jon Anderson was reading. Granted, it’s a “lengthy” footnote about shastric scriptures that cover vast expanses of life: religion, art, music, architecture, social living. It’s probably pages long.

The pretentiousness of it all is what turns people off, I think. But to me, this album sings. “The Revealing Science of God” (a.k.a. Side One) stands up to any of the band’s other side-long pieces. It’s got a dramatic intro buildup that really works, and it’s even got a catchy riff to hang onto. Side Three, “The Ancient,” is where things get a little weird, with a chaotic rustle of a jam interrupted by Anderson speak-singing what appear to be various ancient names for the sun. But even that part works for me.

I’ll admit to some outside influence. Topographic Oceans is best enjoyed on vinyl, because of that gorgeous Roger Dean cover art and the gatefold packaging with all the lyrics splayed out. It’s a beautiful album.

Then there’s the way that old songs unlock memories. I bought Topographic Oceans during a particuarly good summer at home during my college years, when our high school clique was spending a lot of time together. The hot weather made it hard to sleep, so I’d open the bedroom window and listen to records in the moonlight.

So… yeah. I’m going to give that one a spin.

squire-fishoutOf course, the more direct way to fete Squire is to play Fish out of Water, his excellent 1975 solo album. It stands up well against Yes’ own catalogue; if you’re a fan, you owe it to yourself to hear this one for its mix of songwriting and instrumental rigor. “Hold Out Your Hand” is a solid, tough-handed song with prog shadings, and “Lucky Seven” is a catchy, low-key 7/8 jam (try not to think of The Who’s “Eminence Front”). And I really enjoy the proggy jam on “Silently Falling.”

Squire would probably prefer that people remember some of his more recent work, too, but I didn’t keep up with any of it, other than hearing bits of Squackett, his band with Steve Hackett. As you might expect, it’s got an AOR sheen rather than any prog magic.

So, those would be my picks. Squire deserves a more thorough tribute than just spinning “The Fish” again. And if you must investigate Tormato, I’ll admit that I like “Release Release,” and Squire’s own “Onward” is a pretty little lullabye of a song.

Wisdom, Balance, Purity, Peace: A Choral Harmony in Biggi Vinkeloe’s Jade

Biggi Vinkeloe New Spiritual Music (Futura, 2015)

Biggi Vinkeloe -- Jade (Futura, 2015)Jade is an ambitious blend of jazz, abstract improvisation, and classical sacred music. Recorded at the Organ Studio at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, the album features sax and trombone echoing regally against a backdrop of honest-to-goodness choral hymns, performed by a church organ and the 10-woman Volcanic Choir, led by mezzo-soprano Maria Forsström.

In slow movements, as if to cherish the sounds and moods being created, the album blends its influences beautifully, conveying the “wisdom, balance, purity, and peace” that the jade gemstone stands for, as described in Biggi Vinkeloe‘s liner notes.

Vinkeloe (sax/flute) instigated the project, enlisting organist Karin Nelson and trombonist Francois Lemonier as the other two instrumentalists. You get a taste of the project’s “jazz” side right away as Vinkeloe and Lemonnier play a straight duet of Mingus’ “Ecclusiastics.”

The overall mood of Jade is better represented by the title track, though. It’s a slow, comforting tune — gentle clouds in a blue sky. Nelson sets the foundation with some gentle chords as backdrop to solos that include some particularly soaring passages by Vinkeloe.

That piece provides a modern foil to the choral songs such as “Adoro Te,” an anonymously penned composition from the 17th century, drawn from text by Thomas Aquinas. As on most of the tracks drawn from antiquity, the choir does its angelic work, then steps aside while Vinkeloe and Lemonnier improvise against the church organ chords. It’s the same song structure as a jazz tune. The effect is particularly nice on “Vidi Aquam,” another anonymous piece, where the soloing remains reverently slow but strikes up a strong sense of interplay and swing.

From “Vidi Aquam,” here’s an idea of how the choir and sax co-exist:

Until now, I’ve only heard Vinkeloe in improv settings. Bits of that world do appear — in the squirrely flute-trombone-organ improv of “Iuxta,” for instance. One of the major pieces is the 9-minute “Slowlyness,” where the choir joins the freely improvised set for some ghostly whooshing. It’s playful at first but, as scripted by Vinkeloe, builds to a dramatic and outright scary climax, dark and gothic.

I worry about bringing up the choir and the early-music references, because some free-jazz listeners might pre-judge the album to be dull. And you do have to absorb the music on its own reflective terms.

But there’s also a sense of play, in the jazz/blues shades that permeate the album and occasionally get to take over.

Lemonnier’s “Escargoiseau Blues” is indeed a blues, with the church organ playing the chords in long tones, as if elevating the blues themselves to sacred status. It’s a fine soloing platform for the two horns. Another Lemonnier song, “Heavenly Blues,” puts a jazzy spin on the choir, with an intro of bell-ringing vocals spinning little seventh-chord arpeggios. The singers then go all Andrews Sisters to back up some straight jazz soloing. It’s fun.

Then there are the bigger, heavier choral pieces, which end each of Jade‘s two CDs. “Hemlig stod jag en morgon,” a Swedish folk song by Pers Karin Andersdotter (1834-1912), becomes a solemn call-and-response between mezzo-soprano Forsström and The Volcanic Choir. It carries a regal air with that sound of medieval cathedrals. “Den Iyssnande Maria” is a heavy song by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, lent a touch of peaceful melodicism by Lemonnier’s trombone at the end.

Jade is a revelation. It’s given me a new perspective on the beauty of sacred music, showing me that those sounds aren’t necessarily so far away from the modern world.

RIP Ornette

Ornette_ColemanWKCR is playing one full week of Ornette Coleman music, right now. It ends Wednesday, June 17, at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time.

The Columbia radio station is known for playing day-long tributes to artists on their birthdays — and for this kind of massive marathon when one of the greats leaves us.

So, now’s the time to tune in WKCR, and listen, and remember (or learn). They’re playing things from all over Ornette’s career. A few minutes, it was the familiar crooked-line non-bop partying of Ornette’s familiar alto sax. Right now, there are some dense, symphonic strings that might be part of Skies of America.

Here’s a snippet of the station’s blog entry about the marathon:

Join us as we honor the life, the genius, and the work of Ornette Coleman, who passed away Thursday, June 11th at the age of 85 in Manhattan. Born on March 9th 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman would become an important voice and major innovator in the avant-garde jazz movement, with a career that spanned over 55 years. It is with a heavy heart that we announce the Ornette Coleman Memorial Broadcast. The Broadcast will be continuous from Thursday, June 11th until Wednesday, June 17th at 9:30 AM. All regular programming will be preempted during this time.

Coleman shaped the future of jazz. He questioned preconceived notions of what jazz was and what it could be. It is important not only to recognize Coleman for his music, but to acknowledge the abstract and theoretical of the philosopher and avant-gardist that was Ornette Coleman. He is a beacon of light in history symbolizing pure originality. 

… Ornette Coleman, the pioneering alto saxophonist and composer, will forever be remembered and the waves he made will never cease to ripple.

The photo, by the way, comes from the web site of musician Sam Newsome, where he’s posted a 1997 interview of Ornette conducted by Jacques Derrida.