Composers, drummers and ad men on the edge
Depending on your vantage point, it was either inevitable or a complete surprise that electronic music — formerly considered the province of nerd engineers and nerd-like composers — would become sexy. The unlikely mix of hip-hoppers, electronica dweebs, free-thinking rockers, avant-jazzers and even easy listening buffs on the prowl for campy Moog LPs have sought out classic electronic recordings so eagerly that we're now experiencing a small flood of reissues. Despite a few earlier stabs at an overview, Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music: 1948-1980 (Ellipsis Arts) is easily a landmark. Compiled by Jason Gross of the Perfect Sound Forever website and Thomas Ziegler, Ohm takes a generous three CDs to cover the ground adequately while remaining listener-friendly. Most everything is here: electronic instruments such as the theremin and Moog synthesizer; sound collage and tape editing work; feedback and sine-wave pieces; mixes of electronics with more conventional instruments; all taken from the classical world (for lack of a better term) rather than from pop and dance music.
While that might seem scary or at least tedious, in the actual hearing Ohm doesn't sound like either a history lesson or a physics experiment, at least not entirely. It certainly helps that bleep-and-swoop pieces are stuck up against more melodic ones, jittery musique concrete next to drones, with the whole set gaining from context. In fact, Ohm rarely sounds quaint or outdated, aside from, perhaps, the opening theremin-ized Tchaikovsky piece. Pierre Schaeffer used train sounds for his "Etude aux Chemins de Fer" and it isn't much more tame now than it must have in 1948. Joji Yuasa's 1964 piece for white noise could have been a blueprint for scores of industrial musicians that followed years later — the same with Bernard Parmegiani and techno.
Ohm comes with a thick booklet presenting brief essays on aspects of electronic music and notes on each track, often from other composers and critics. It's more enlightening than the usual point-to-point liner notes, though more nuts-and-bolts info would have been nice. Alas, the connections between wartime technology, the shift of Romanticism into Modernism and electronic music are probably best left for another day. Instead of a graveyard tour, Ohm presents a lively family reunion that nobody with an interest in electronics will want to skip. — Lang Thompson
Raymond Scott was a musically frisky and sonically outre bandleader whose 1930s Quintette invented fake jazz decades before John Lurie or Squarepusher came along, a protean gizmo-tinkerer who was screwing with rhythm machines and bassline generators when Kraftwerk were mere gleams in a test tube's eye. He was a prominent progenitor of modern ambient. And based on Columbia/ Legacy's 1993 Quintette collection, Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights, 1964's three-volume Soothing Sounds for Baby and, now, Manhattan Research, Inc. (Basta), a wondrously packaged double-CD collection of radio jingles, sound-snippets and pops, clicks, wows and flutters, he could also be said to be the greatest children's-music composer in American history. Not that this was necessarily Scott's aim, since most of Manhattan Research is aimed either at adult consumers (advertisements for Sprite, Twinkies, Vicks cough drops, Ford, GM, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, Ohio Bell and the Pygmy Taxi Corporation are included) or no one at all (much of the material is previously unreleased). But nearly everything here is so sparkly-bright, infectiously frisky and sci-fi-futurismo it's hard not to hear it as kids' music. This is in large part because hundreds of Saturday mornings' worth of Scott's ingenious co-optation by Carl Stalling and Jack Warner have made daffy sounds, oddball orchestration and willful rhythm shifts sound like, well, children's music. Still, Manhattan Research's peaks need no qualification at all. "Limbo: The Organized Mind" has Jim Henson giving the listener a guided tour around his capacious cranium. And the five-minute IBM mersh "The Paperwork Explosion" ("Machines should work — people should think") is genius, both as sound-sculpture and advertising. — Michaelangelo Matos
Detroit native Elvin Jones burst onto the New York scene in the late 1950s, quickly garnering a reputation as a drummer with a unique, energetic approach. His contributions to John Coltrane's famous 1960s quartet have proven indelible, but his subsequent bandleader endeavors — although perhaps less familiar — have resulted in several of jazz's most aggressive, cutting-edge ensembles. The well-annotated, carefully re-mastered, 8-CD boxed set The Complete Blue Note Elvin Sessions (Mosaic) documents Jones' greatest bands — from trio to tentet — recorded for Blue Note from 1968-73. The set's first recordings are trios with multi-reedman Joe Farrell and Coltrane sideman Jimmy Garrison. Considering the immediacy of Coltrane's death only one year prior, no situation has more closely resembled a saxophonist "substituting" for Coltrane, and Farrell fit the bill admirably. This 1968 material, along with the last two discs contained herein (from 1972) can safely be termed classic.
The years in between found Jones experimenting with various, less effective formats, including the use of multiple percussionists, mini-Moog synthesizer, quasi-rock beats and electric guitar. In retrospect, his most effective combinations were those with no chordal instrument — simply bass, drums and horns. Jones' imaginatively colorful, "surround sound" drumming was so complete as to suffice.
The box's final two discs — recorded live at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1972 — are now legendary, particularly among saxophonists. Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman were leaders of a pack of young, high-energy saxophonists very much influenced by Coltrane. Here, in quartet with Gene Perla on bass, the two extroverts unleash cascades of exciting, harmonically advanced improvisations. Their techniques are mind-boggling, but it is always Jones' superb, nonverbal leadership from behind his traps that prompts an amazingly cohesive, state-of-the-art ensemble. (Available solely through Mosaic Records; 203-327-7111; www.mosaicrecords.com)