Don't want to discuss it/I think it's time for a change...
Van Morrison's 1967 debut album for Bert Berns' Bang Records, Blowin' Your Mind, came close to living up to its title with the lovably breezy "Brown-Eyed Girl" nestled alongside more challenging fare such as "T.B. Sheets," and everything in between: pop, folk, Latin, rock-and-roll, blues. But the Northern Irish singer-songwriter truly came into his own with a move to Warner Bros. the following year. The mystical, hypnotically free-flowing Astral Weeks was an album unlike any other: a steadfastly non-commercial, intense song cycle that turned its back on conventionality and embraced abstraction. 1970's Moondance returned Morrison to a more commercial milieu, a fizzy nightcap of slinky soul-jazz with horns. For his third WB album, released later that year, the artist delivered a wide-ranging valentine to the spectrum of rhythm and blues. As freewheeling as Moondance was polished, His Band and the Street Choir was a potpourri of loose and brassy R&B sounds. The album premiered several compositions that had first been mooted for both Astral Weeks and Moondance but wouldn't have fit snugly onto either album. (This may have been a result of the WB brass urging him to quickly record a follow-up to Moondance.) It's returned from Rhino as part of the label's new Hi-Fi series (RHF 1 884), and as remastered by Kevin Gray on quiet 180-gram black vinyl and pressed at Optimal Media, it's never sounded better.
The rollicking, exuberant "Domino" - a top ten U.S. hit - set the tone. A loose salute to the New Orleans great Fats as only Morrison could do, the song coasts on its infectious, swaggering melody and horn section led by Jack Schroer on sax. The lyrics are secondary to the feel created by the titular Band: Morrison, Schroer, Alan Hand (piano/organ/celeste), Keith Johnson (trumpet), John Klingberg (bass), John Platania (guitars), and Dahaud Shaar a.k.a. David Shaw (drums/percussion/clarinet). The crack unit plays with relish throughout the LP, whether on the offbeat "Crazy Face," jazz-funk mélange "I've Been Working," boogieing "Give Me a Kiss (Just One Sweet Kiss)," or tender, acoustic "I'll Be Your Lover, Too." The happy, gospel-tinged "Call Me Up in Dreamland" is an impressionistic Morrison riff on the touring life.
A lightness of spirit is evident on the humorous "Blue Money" and the eclectic "Virgo Clowns," which melds a sweet lyric ("You gotta sit down, funny face/Let your laughter fill the room/Light up your golden smile/Take away all my misery and gloom/Let your laughter fill the room...") to a raucous tune that incorporates Irish folk, Band-esque Americana, swingin' N'awlins soul, and a dash of Latin style. "Gypsy Queen," sung by Morrison in his fragile falsetto with Alan Hand on celeste, pays homage to The Impressions' "Gypsy Woman." There's a romantic and blissful thread throughout Band and the Street Choir, with the twelve-bar blues "Sweet Jannie" likely celebrating his then-relationship with Janet Planet (who sings as part of the Street Choir). "If I Ever Needed Someone," with Cissy Houston, Judy Clay, and Jackie Verdell on backgrounds, is as straightforward as Morrison ever got: a heartfelt paean to a partner who's "someone to walk with, someone to hold my hand, someone to talk with, someone to understand." It's beautifully simple and affecting. (Morrison would continue in this blissed-out vein on his next album, the country-flecked Tupelo Honey.) The album concludes with the wish "Street Choir, sing me the song for the new day...," closing this affably ragged collection on an upbeat, soulful note.
Rhino's Hi-Fi presentation is top-notch as handsomely designed by Greg Allen. One pocket of the glossy, sturdy gatefold jacket with OBI houses two inserts (one a replica with lyrics, another with Cory Frye's excellent interview with original engineer and audiophile legend Elliot Scheiner, then an apprentice to Phil Ramone) and the other has the LP in a protective sleeve. Note that the label is a custom one to the Hi-Fi series rather than a replica of the original Warner Bros. one (which itself would have had to be altered to accommodate the current Warner Records logo). Kevin Gray's subtle new remaster from the original tapes brings out the abundant detail in the recording which remains a testament to Scheiner's skill - even at such a young age - and to the sound of Ramone's famed A&R Studios in New York City.
Word of Mouth, the second solo album from bassist Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987), was recorded while he was still a part of pioneering fusion jazz unit Weather Report. The album was named after the band Pastorius had assembled for touring between 1981 and 1983, and showcased his skills as composer and arranger for a large unit. The LP is now another release from Rhino Hi-Fi (RHF 1 3535) as strikingly remastered by Kevin Gray and packaged to the same high standards as the Van Morrison release.
Pastorius assembled a "Who's Who" of musicians to appear on various cuts, including Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Hubert Laws, and Tom Scott on reeds/winds, Herbie Hancock on keyboards, Chuck Findley on trumpet, John Clark on French horn, Howard Johnson on tuba, Toots Thielemans on harmonica, Peter Erskine and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Don Alias on percussion, and Myrna Matthews and Jim Gilstrap on vocals. Jaco's own compositions were front and center, reflecting the composer-bassist's many musical sides. The opening bolt of energy "Crisis" - a clattering, jagged, and chaotic jam played with immediacy - is followed by the more relaxed but still dynamic "Three Views of a Secret" in which Pastorius lets Thielemans' familiar harmonica soar over an ethereal bed of voices and jazz orchestra. (Ricky Shultz's liner notes, excerpted from 2003's Punk Jazz: The Jaco Pastorius Anthology reveal that the artist insisted on opening with "Crisis," despite it being the least accessible piece on the album.) A generous bandleader, Jaco let the horns shine on the bright, swinging, and happily light-hearted "Liberty City." The longest track on the LP, the big-band cut also prominently features Herbie Hancock's nimble, graceful piano out front. Both "Three Views" and "Liberty City" draw the listener in with vitality and melodic invention.
The second side of the album echoes the first, opening with its most challenging piece: a cover of Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy." (Shultz recalls Jaco's excitement: "I'm gonna have Toots Thielemans playing Bach!") Pastorius' solo opening emphasizes his virtuosity before he translates the 1717-1723-era composition written for harpsichord and usually played on piano into an exercise in percussion and rhythm. It segues into the album's only other cover, The Beatles' "Blackbird," with Thielemans stating and dissecting the melody on his harp over the urgent, percussive jazz noise. The suite continues in a burst of feedback with the edgy title track where Pastorius deploys his electric bass as a rock instrument, duetting with the aggressive drums. It's another track where the artist melds disparate styles into one, with soft steel pans and percussion lending a tropical air that turns more raucous and lively as the composition progresses and further instrumentation is introduced. Before its string crescendo, "John and Mary" takes further stylistic turns, from pensive to joyful, as it builds to an all-join-in, world music-esque chant. Word of Mouth offered a little bit of everything. Pastorius' second and final Warner Bros. album, the live Invitation, would arrive in 1982; sadly, it would prove the final solo album of his too-short lifetime.
Like the Morrison LP, Word of Mouth is attractively packaged in a tip-on gatefold jacket; the liner notes insert elegantly designed by Greg Allen is adorned with images of the master tape boxes. The 180-gram black vinyl pressing is quiet, with Gray's master bringing out the subtleties in the original mix and its well-defined stereo soundstage.
Both of these releases, available exclusively via Rhino.com, augur well for the future of Rhino Hi-Fi as the series features audiophile-quality sound with the hallmarks of annotation and packaging for which the label has long been well-known. One hopes the series will continue with both classics and hidden gems alike from Rhino's vast catalogue.